This serene national park on the Big Island of Hawai’i preserves one of the most sacred sites in the Hawaiian Islands.
Located on a pristine stretch of coastline south of Kona on the Big Island of Hawai’i, Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park is deeply rooted in the ancient traditions of the Hawaiian Islands. Visit the 180-acre park to experience a holy site where the bones of chiefs were once interred and which functioned as a sanctuary for those who had broken the sacred laws of the islands. It continues to be an active religious site for Native Hawaiians, who hold ceremonies here.
A visitor center and self-guided walking tour explain the significance of the two main parts of the park: the Royal Grounds and the Puʻuhonua sanctuary, which stands behind a 12-foot-high Great Wall and includes a reconstruction of the heiau (temple) that was once the resting place of 23 chiefs. The site also includes fishing ponds and a protected cove that could only be used by chiefs.
Polynesians arrived in the Hawaiian archipelago more than 1500 years ago, paddling canoes carrying plants, animals, and supplies. The new residents (who likely came from the Marquesas Islands) believed in an array of gods, goddesses, spirits, and guardian ancestors. They developed a system of laws called kapu, a word meaning forbidden or sacred (the English taboo derives from kapu).
Some of the rules helped preserve the ecological balance of the islands, including restrictions on which fish could be caught in which season. Others enforced strict social hierarchies, such as prohibitions against commoners looking directly upon chiefs or even stepping in their shadows.
Many additional kapu laws governed daily life in matters large and small. Men and women were not allowed to dine together, for example, and women were forbidden to eat bananas, pork, taro, and coconuts because each of these foods was associated with different gods. Breaking one of these rules, even without meaning to, was punishable by death.
Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau had great spiritual power (mana) because it was a royal enclosure, a burial site of chiefs, and a place of refuge for those who had broken the kapu laws. If people reached this spot—which wasn’t easy, because it was sandwiched between a high wall and a shoreline of sharp rocks—they could receive absolution from priests and escape being killed. In times of war, defeated warriors and their families sought sanctuary here as well.
Although the islands had other places of refuge for kapu breakers, Pu‘uhonua o Hōnaunau is the best preserved and has the most dramatic setting. King Kamehameha ended the kapu system in 1819 and the bones of chiefs have been removed, but it’s still a place of beauty and sacredness. Carved wooden figures representing various Hawaiian gods stand on its coastline, their stern expressions warning visitors to treat this sanctuary with respect.
When I visited I was happy to follow their command as I wandered the grounds in brilliant sunshine, hearing the rhythmic pulse of the nearby waves and the singing of birds in the palm trees overhead. This was a place for second chances, I realized—something that any religion worth its salt provides.
I thought, too, of how traces of traditional Hawaiian beliefs had surfaced in my conversations with residents of the island. Their admonitions against taking rocks from the island and warnings to be careful around places of power had more than a hint of kapu about them. Hawai‘i has kept its ties to the elemental forces of its sacred land better than any other place I’ve traveled. Tourists come here for the beaches, sun, and surf, not realizing that these islands have deeper lessons to teach them.
Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park is in the South Kona district of the Big Island of Hawai’i. Its annual cultural festival is held on the weekend before the Fourth of July. It also frequently hosts people demonstrating Native Hawaiian activities, crafts and games.
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of The Soul of the Family Tree, Near the Exit and Holy Rover. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.Share This!