Temple Visiting #2
Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historic Site
Saturday, March 3
Today was our last day in the Hawaiian Islands. Our flight didn't leave until early evening, so we had plenty of space to fit in one final day-long activity. Continuing on with the cultural theme we had started the day before at the temple of Pu'ukohola Heiau, we decided to visit what is perhaps Hawai'i's biggest and most detailed historic attraction - a place where both Hawaiian royalty lived and where the common people came for a special and complete absolution. It is called Pu'uhonua o Honaunau - The Place of Refuge at Honaunau.
Pu'uhonua o Honaunau
Pu'uhonua o Honaunau is, like Pu'ukohola Hieau, a National Historic Site, and run by the National Park Service. It is a much bigger and culturally richer place than Pu'ukohola - its grounds, historical artifacts, and park infrastructure. Pu'uhonua o Honaunau is situated along the south-western coast of the Big Island of Hawai'i, and is reached by taking a broad, winding side highway that branches off from the main Hawaiian Belt Highway not far south of the main center of Kailua-Kona. The park is situated on low-lying coastal ground, and is dotted with many shady palms trees and other tropical plants.
We were fortunate enough to have arrived just as a park ranger was giving an interpretive talk in the nice, open-air park auditorium. We learned of the significance of Pu'uhonua, and about how its existence revolved around one of old Hawai'i's most significant cultural systems - kapu. Kapu means 'prohibition', or 'restriction', and was a system of very rigid rules that had automatic and often severe penalties if violated. It did not matter if you willingly or knowingly violated a kapu. If you did, you paid the price - often with your life. It didn't really seem like a system of justice as we might know it, for it did not take intent into account at all. It was more like a human-created analog to the laws of nature.
There was one important 'out' to this seemingly unthinking system: Pu'uhonua. As I mentioned earlier, Pu'uhonua means 'Place of Refuge'. It served as a way to get out of the bind you might find yourself in if you were found to have violated a kapu. All you needed to do was physically get yourself onto the grounds of the pu'uhonua, and a temple priest was obliged to forgive your kapu violations - no matter what. It was the unfeeling yang to the unfeeling yin of the kapu penalties. There were several places of refuge in Hawai'i - this particular location was the largest and most important of these.
It was all quite interesting. We then started our tour of the park grounds.
Through the years since the beginning of western influence in the islands (and the end of the kapu system, which happened in 1819), Pu'uhonua o Honaunau gradually was lost to the sands of time - its structures deteriorated and its temples plundered. What we see today is a combination of the remaining artifacts and some very detailed reconstructions and recreations by the park service.
Half-sized temple model
As mentioned above, the park is divided into two sections - the Royal Grounds section, and the Place of Refuge section. We started out on the Royal Grounds section, wandering around under the shady fronds of coconut palms. There were several recreated thatched structures in this area, including a half-scale model of Hale o Keawe - the main temple located over in the refuge section.
Coastline, Pu'uhonua o Honaunau
Next, we wandered over to a small little cove. The sides leading into the back of the cove were lined with dark lava rocks, while the very back of the cove was a short stretch of sandy beach. This was Keone'ele Cove - the royal canoe landing site. Only royalty was allowed to use the cove, and there was likely a kapu against any commoner using it.
The separation between the Royal grounds section and the Pu'uhonua (refuge) section was marked by a massive black wall, ten feet high and seventeen feet thick. Known as The Great Wall, it was built sometime in the 1500s, and is built completely without masonry. About a thousand feet long, it forms a big 'L' shape that encloses the refuge area. It really was built quite superbly - the black lava rocks of various sizes were quite expertly fitted together into a solid, self-supporting mass.
At the north end of the wall, in a small space between its end and the shore of Honaunau Bay, stood the most significant structure of the entire park: Hale-o-Kaewe temple, a particularly important royal mausoleum that contained the remains of a line of powerful leaders. The existance of the remains of these leaders made the area very sacred to the Hawaiians and lent power to the nearby refuge.
The temple and the immediate area around it are full of interesting recreations of Hawaiian artifacts. There are many ki'i, or wooden statues. They served many functions, including acting as guardians to warn away those who were not permitted in the area. A veritable forest of weird and fantastically-shaped ki'i guarded the Hale o Keawe temple. The statues had what I would call a very distinctive 'southern pacific' type feel to them.
The main temple itself was quite interesting, covered in a thick thatching with darker trimmings on the corners, and with a single low door. The entire temple was ringed by a wooden fence with stake-like posts and with many tall, pole-like statues. Because of the fence, it wasn't possible to look inside.
We continued past the temple, in the direction of the sea. We had now entered the Pu'uhonua area - the place of refuge. Under the kapu system, anyone who had violated a kapu could come to this zone and receive a pardon from the resident high priests. The trick, of course, was to get yourself to the place of refuge. Walking through the Royal Grounds was likely off-limits, and stories are told of kapu violators taking a long swim across the waters of the nearby bay in order to reach the refuge.
We wandered around for a while on the refuge side of the wall, noting several more artifacts, and walking out to the the black basalt shoreline. Several shallow tidal pools and channels provided a home to fish and the occasional Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle.
Main temple from shoreline
We walked back through a gap in the Great Wall to the Royal Grounds, and spent the last few minutes of our time at Pu'uhonua examining some modern iterations of the classic Hawaiian outrigger canoe, and watching a park employee - dressed in traditional garb - making various items that would have been used hundreds of years ago here.
Creating historical artifacts
All in all, Pu'uhonua o Honaunau is well worth seeing. It offers a remarkable glimpse into the interesting pre-western cultural history of the Hawaiian peoples. Definitely recommended!
There is an excellent and detailed set of information about Pu'uhonua o Honaunau - better than anything else I've encountered on the internet - here, at A Cultural History of Three Traditional Hawaiian Sites on the West Coast of Hawai'i Island
. If you want detailed nitty-gritty on the place, backed up with references and lots of data, check it out.
Interactive Trackmap with Photo Points - Puuhonua o Honaunau walkaround - double-click map to expand