Six Sacred Sites of Hawaii

Take a tour of the idyllic sites across the many islands where native Hawaiians have longstanding spiritual connections

Hikiau Heiau
On the western coast of Hawaii there is a large, raised platform of stacked lava rock. The terrace, a sacred temple called Hikiau Heiau, dates to the 18th century, if not earlier. Photo Resource Hawaii / Alamy

Puu Loa Petroglyphs

Puu Loa Petroglyphs
(Photo Resource Hawaii / Alamy)

About 16 miles from the rim of Kilauea, on the southeastern coast of the Big Island, is a trailhead that leads to Puu Loa, Hawaii’s largest field of petroglyphs. The site, within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, contains over 23,000 centuries-old etchings—of dimples, circles, bars, even humans and sailing canoes—in hardened lava formed sometime between the years 1200 and 1450.

William Ellis, an English missionary who traveled to the Hawaiian Islands in the 1820s, was the first to describe the decorated puu, or hill, in writing. “On inquiry, we found that they [the petroglyphs] had been made by former travelers, from a motive similar to that which induces a person to carve his initials on a stone or tree, or a traveler to record his name in an album, to inform his successors that he had been there,” he wrote. “When there were a number of concentric circles with a dot or mark in the center, the dot signified a man, and the number of rings denoted the number in the party who had circumambulated the island.”

In addition to being a travelogue of sorts, the petroglyph field is a sacred site where native Hawaiians have been known to bury the umbilical cords of newborns. “A hole is made in the hard crust, the cord is put in and a stone is placed over it. In the morning the cord has disappeared; there is no trace of it. This insures long life for the child,” wrote anthropologist Martha Beckwith in 1914.

Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park

Puuhonua o Honaunau
(Steve Murray / Alamy)
For centuries, Hawaiian society, stratified into classes of chiefs, priests, skilled laborers and commoners, operated under a system of laws called kapu. The punishment for breaking the kapu, set forth by the gods, was death—unless the criminal fled to a puuhonua, or place of refuge.

One of the best-preserved puuhonua is located on the west coast of Hawaii, about 20 miles south of Kailua-Kona, in Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park. The structure, as it stands now, is a 300-foot-long stone wall, at points 18 feet high and 25 feet wide, which roughly forms a right angle. According to Eric Andersen, chief of interpretation at the park, the puuhonua was most likely built about 1,000 years ago and used until the late 1700s. (The kapu system was officially abolished in 1819.) The number of lawbreakers who lived at any given time in the safe haven, however, surviving on meager rations, is difficult to say.

The prisoners’ offenses ranged from the seemingly innocuous—catching a fish out of season—to the unequivocally serious—murder. “If you made it here and survived, then absolution was a gift when you left,” says Andersen. “Prisoners would meet with kahuna, or priests, and an understanding would be made in order to erase their wrongs.”

On one end of the wall is a thatched structure surrounded by kii, or wooden carvings resembling Hawaiian gods. The mausoleum, called Hale o Keawe, once housed the bones of 23 chiefs. The bones, thought to endow the site with mana, or spiritual power, were removed in the 1800s, but the place is still considered hallowed ground. The National Park Service has managed the site since 1961, and over 400,000 people visit the park annually. “There is a sense that there is something of reverence here,” says Andersen. “People have said that the mana is strong.”

Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site

Puukohola Heiau
(Robert Harding Picture Library Ltd / Alamy)
While attempting to unify the Hawaiian Islands in the late 18th century, Kamehameha the Great sent his aunt to seek advice from a prophet named Kapoukahi. The message relayed from the priest was that if Kamehameha built a heiau, or temple, on the hill called Puukohola in Kawaihae, on the northwest coast of Hawaii, he would gain the power of the gods and overcome his enemies.

In 1790, thousands of men went to work building the temple. As the story goes, the workers formed a line over 20 miles long to hand-pass smooth lava rocks from a valley to the site. Without mortar or cement, the crew stacked the rocks in a neatly prescribed way and completed the structure within a year.

“The fact that it has been standing over two centuries is a testament to their skill,” says Greg Cunningham, a park ranger at Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site, where visitors can see the 224- by 100-foot temple platform still intact.

The heiau was primarily a place to perform human sacrifices. “When a victim was prepared, they would actually cook the body and remove the bones,” says Cunningham. Certain bones were thought to contain mana, and those bones were offered to Kamehameha’s war god Kukailimoku. “That sometimes puts people off,” says Cunningham, who notes that, as far as he knows, Puukohola Heiau is the only human sacrificial temple under the auspices of the National Park Service.

Yet to quite a few native Hawaiians, the site is a symbol of Hawaiian unity. By 1810, Kamehameha had taken control of all the islands, and he ruled the Kingdom of Hawaii for nine years. As one of the last major temples built in Hawaii, Puukohola Heiau represents the end of ancient ways and the ushering in of a new age. “It was where Hawaii’s greatest king, its first king actually, really began to consolidate his power. It was here that centuries of warfare basically came to an end,” says Cunningham. “This is where modern Hawaii really began.”

Hikiau Heiau

Hikiau Heiau
(Photo Resource Hawaii / Alamy)
On the western coast of Hawaii, in Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park, there is a large, raised platform of stacked lava rock. The terrace, a sacred temple called Hikiau Heiau, has been restored several times after surf damage but originally dates to the 18th century, if not earlier.

According to Martha Yent, an archaeologist with Hawaii’s state parks interpretive program, the temple’s purpose and the god it honored probably varied over time. “One chief could have dedicated it to the war god Ku, while another dedicated it to Lono, associated with fertility,” says Yent. When associated with Ku, it likely served as a human sacrificial temple, and in honor of Lono, it would have figured into Makahiki, a festival celebrated to ensure an abundant agricultural season.

It was actually during Makahiki, on January 17, 1779, that British explorer Capt. James Cook arrived at the spot on Kealakekua Bay. It is thought that the timing of his visit and the appearance of his ships’ masts, with sails that resembled an image of Lono made from a pole with bark cloth attached to it, led the local Hawaiians to believe that Captain Cook was Lono. In a ceremony at Hikiau Heiau, they honored the explorer. While docked in the bay, Cook and his crew kept journals documenting their observations of Hawaiian culture. Then, the explorer set sail again on February 4, only to return a week later, after his ship’s mast had broken. Though relations between the Europeans and Hawaiians had been pleasant, on this second visit, tensions flared. When the Hawaiians swiped a rowboat from one of Cook’s ships, Cook, in turn, tried to take Kalaniopuu, the community’s ruling chief, hostage. Cook was killed near the site on February 14, 1779.

Kukaniloko Birthstones

Kukaniloko Birthstones
(Courtesy of Jo-Lin Kalimapau)

From perhaps as early as 1100 to the late 1700s, pregnant women bearing the children of Hawaii’s chiefs came to Kukaniloko to give birth. Often referred to in oral traditions as the piko, or navel, for its location in the center of Oahu, the grouping of 180 boulders is considered to be a spiritual center of the island.

Giving birth at the site was a way to ensure a newborn’s high-ranking status. Thirty-six chiefs would be present to verify the lineage of the parents. “If a chiefess entered and leaned against Kukaniloko and rested on the supports to hold up the thighs in observance of the Liloe kapu [prescribed regulations for birthing], the child born in the presence of chiefs was called an alii, an akua, a wela—a chief, a god, a blaze of heat,” wrote S. M. Kamakau, a 17th-century Hawaiian historian, in one of the most detailed accounts of the ritual. Once born, the child was whisked away to a nearby temple, where ceremonies were held. Sacred drums were beat to announce the birth.

Today, at Kukaniloko Birthstones State Historic Site, visitors can see the original weathered stones scattered under a grove of coconut and eucalyptus trees, as well as two rows of 18 stones each that were brought in to represent the chiefs who attended the birthing ritual. Native Hawaiians often leave leis of fresh flowers or ferns on the stones as gifts to their ancestors.

Keahiakawelo

Keahiakawelo
(Photo Resource Hawaii / Alamy)
Centuries ago, at a prominent hill in Kaa, a traditional land division in the northern portion of the island of Lanai, native Hawaiians would offer prayers to Kane, a god associated with freshwater and life. In 1400, Kawelo, a priest of the region, began to notice that the health of his people and their animals was deteriorating. Kawelo traced their illnesses to a fire that Lanikaula, another priest, was burning across the Kalohi Channel on the island of Molokai. To ward off Lanikaula’s bad prayers, Kawelo made his own fire. He also went a step further. He fetched some of Lanikaula’s feces from Molokai and burned them in his fire in Lanai. According to Kepa Maly, the executive director of the Lanai Culture and Heritage Center, whose kapuna, or elders, taught him the story, the sorcerous act led to the death of Lanikaula and restored health to Lanai.

Today, Keahiakawelo, which literally translates to “fire made by Kawelo,” is a wind-swept, Mars-like landscape of red rock mounds and pinnacles about seven miles, or a 40-minute drive from small Lanai City. There are only 30 miles of paved road on the rugged island, so a four-wheel-drive vehicle is required to get there. From lookouts, visitors can take in awe-inspiring views of the barren, boulder-speckled terrain.

“When we tell people about going out there, we ask them to be respectful of place, not to remove stones or move things,” says Maly. “Sort of that old adage: Take only pictures and leave only footprints behind.”