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Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage

Pi'ilanihale Heiau
Hana, Hawaii
 
The terraced walls at Pi'ilanihale Heiau
Photograph by Forest and Kim Starr, Flickr

Pi'ilanihale Heiau (also known as Hale O Pi' Ilani Heiau) is located in Kahanu Garden, a National Tropical Botanical Park near the town of Hana on the Island of Maui. The heiau (place of worship) is the largest one on the Island of Maui and is one of the most important archeological sites in the Hawaiian Islands.

Early Hawaiian shrines were simple and constructed by families and small communities. With population growth and changes in religion, social organizations became more complex and large heiau were constructed for public ceremonies. In general, the ali'i (chiefs) worshiped four major gods in these ceremonies: Lono (peace, agriculture, fertility), Kane (the creator and ancestral deities), Kanaloa (the ocean, healing and general well-being), and Ku (war). Commoners worshiped individual family gods at private family shrines and worshiped the four major gods under the direction of high priests.

Rock wall enclosure in the gardens in front of the heiau
Photograph by WalshTD, Flickr

Ancient Hawaiians had many types of heiau, each with their own distinct function and use by particular segments of society. Heiau ranged in size from single upright stones to massive and complex structures. Larger heiau were built by ali'i (chief), but the largest and most complex, the luakini heiau (sacrificial temple), could only be constructed and dedicated by an aliʻi 'ai moku (paramount chief of an island or chiefdom). Luakini heiau were reserved for rituals involving human or animal sacrifice and were generally dedicated to the war god Ku. Rituals performed at a luakini heiau highlighted the ali'i 'ai moku's spiritual, economic, political, and social control over his lands and his authority over the life and death of his people.

Pi'ilanihale Heiau is the largest heiau in Polynesia and one of the best preserved in the Hawaiian Islands. The massive structure was built in several stages, beginning as early as the 13th century. Situated on a broad ridge and built from basalt rocks carried by hand from as far away as Hana Bay, the heiau measures 341 feet by 415 feet at the top with a high front wall rising 50 feet. The walls facing the sea are made up of multiple stepped terraces. The interior consists of eight lesser walls, three enclosures, five platforms, two upright stones, and 30 pits. Early anthropologists thought that, given its size, Pi'ilanihale Heiau function as a state luakini heiau that served a district or kingdom; however, today some anthropologists theorize that the heiau was used as a residence (Pi'ilanihale means "house of Pi'ilani").

Pi'ilanihale Heiau from the garden
Photograph by jdegenhardt, Flickr

Pi'ilanihale Heiau sat untouched and undisturbed until 1974, when members of the Kahanu/Uaiwa/Matsuda/Kumaewa Family and Hana Ranch deeded 61 acres of land including the heiau to the Pacific Tropical Botanical Garden (today the National Tropical Botanical Garden). In exchange for the land, the Garden agreed to restore and care for the heiau and share it with the public. Garden staff and volunteers began the task of clearing the plants that had completely covered the heiau and stabilizing its walls. In 1998, a major effort to complete the stabilization project was begun under archeologists from the Bishop Museum and the State of Hawaii. Stonemasons from Hana used traditional methods to restack the terrace walls of the heiau, completing the project in 1999.

Today, Pi'ilanihale Heiau sits within the Kahanu Garden, one of the largest, untamed native hala (Pandanus) forests in the Islands. The Garden focuses on plant collections from the Pacific Islands, particularly plants of value to the Hawaiian people as well as to other cultures in the Pacific. There is a walking trail through the garden to the heiau and a large selection of plants with interpretive signs giving their histories and uses. Visitors also have the choice of touring the Garden either with a guide or on their own.

Plan your visit

Pi'ilanihale Heiau, a National Historic Landmark, is located on the island of Maui, at 650 Ulaino Rd. in Kahanu Garden, four miles north of Hana, HI. Click here for the National Historic Landmark file: text and photos. Kahanu Garden, a National Tropical Botanical Garden, is open Monday through Saturday from 9:00am to 2:00pm. The Garden is closed on Sunday. Both self guided and guided tours are available. Guided tours are offered Saturday only at 10:00am and 1:00pm and require a reservation. There is an admission fee for the Garden. Please note, visitors are not allowed to climb the heiau walls. For more information, visit the Kahuna Garden website or call 808-248-8912.

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