Monday, April 27, 2015

Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park - still a place of refuge

We were in Hawai'i for volcanoes, sun and sand. An historic site we'd never heard of was a bit of an afterthought. Wasn't the indigenous stone-age culture, after all, largely pre-historic, even if recent by global standards? What records of the old ways could be left but for a few petroglyphs and the oral tradition? Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park wiped away my preconceptions and was one of the most educational and enjoyable excursions of our Hawai'i vacation.

Located on the southern shore of Honaunau Bay and sprawled over 420 acres, Pu'uhonua o Honaunau is a journey back into Hawaiian antiquity. The site was at once a royal grounds and a place of refuge for losers in war, civilians during wartime and breakers of kapu, or sacred laws (think "taboo"). Breaking kapu was an almost certain death sentence. The perpetrator's only chance was to evade pursuers hot on his heels and make it to the safety of a pu'uhonua (sacred place of refuge) by sea or land. Once there the penitent law-breaker was free to rejoin civil society after a ceremony of absolution performed by the kahuna pule (priest). The visiting Catholic will have a good appreciation of the place.

Just beyond what is surely a fine visitor center (we skipped it) are the royal grounds. These comprise a royal fish pond and thatched-roof, A-frame structures (hale) within a grove of evenly-spaced coconut palms that give the whole area a resort atmosphere. At specified times, cultural demonstrations are held within the hale. The gravelly footpath of a self-guided tour leads the visitor in the footsteps of Hawaiian royalty to the Keone'ele, the royal canoe landing, forbidden to the rank and file. Today's royalty are green sea turtles (honu) who like to bask on the sand above the landing, but typical of the upper crust, they keep to their own timetable. Signage exhorts we plebeians to leave the turtles alone at risk of a fine.

Hale (thatched roof reproductions) on the royal grounds.
Separating the royal compound from the pu'uhonua is a great wall wall up to 10 feet (3 meters) high in places and averaging 17 feet thick. The wall extends for nearly 1000 feet (300 meters) and is constructed from carefully fitted stones. Constructed around A.D. 1550, the wall was stabilized and repaired during the 20th century. I was by chance reminded of a line from the 1933 version of King Kong:

"A wall...built so long ago that the people who live there have slipped back, forgotten the higher civilization that built it. That wall is as strong today as it was centuries ago."
Carl Denham

It's easy to fall into a similar, unblinking initial tendency to generate both positive and negative stereotypes of different cultures simultaneously. A truly open mind and measured critical appraisal require effort and vigilance.

Views of the great wall of Pu'uhonua o Honuanau

Glowering ki'i, wooden images of gods, guard the Hale o Keawe Heiau, a temple on the northern end of the great wall that once housed the bones of 23 ali'i (chiefs and royalty) of Hawai'i Island. The temple was originally built in honor of King Keaweʻīkekahialiʻiokamoku, whose rhythmic surname definitively proves the shared distant ancestors of native Hawaiian's and Germans. The temple and nearby hale of the royal compound are modern reconstructions, but the site is still considered sacred by some indigenous Hawaiians. The last person buried in the Heiau was the son of Kamehameha I the Great in 1818.

Ki'i within the enclosure of the Hale o Keawe Heiau (temple).

However, one square-shaped stone Heiau (temple) within the pu'uhonua, the A-le'ale'a, remains relatively intact, albeit repaired in the 20th century after periods of neglect and the occasional tsunami. An adjacent, older Heiau is long-ago washed away, a clean slate attesting to the enormous power of the tsunamis to toss about rocks as if they were pebbles. According to the park service brochure, traditional Hawaiian masonry is both dry-set and non-dressed; it uses no mortar to bind stones together and the stones are not shaped. Natural stones were meticulously fitted and locked into place utilizing the porous nature and angular aspects of the volcanic rock. The resulting effect of the A-le'ale'a Heiau and surrounding great wall is vaguely reminiscent of the constructions of the Inca. It's ironic that rocks so new geologically comprise something so venerable anthropologically. The A-le'ale'a probably once sported its own ki'i and wooden structures, but these are long gone. Le'ale'a means joy or pleasure in the native Hawaiian, so one suspects this temple wasn't all business.

The A-le'ale'a Heiau

In the surroundings there is an original, flat-topped boulder (papamu) with geometrically-spaced divots used for kōnane, a game played much like checkers. The game is still played today. Kamehameha I was apparently an avid kōnane player, and frequently beat his opponents in only one move, suggesting a competitive prowess akin to that of the current leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un.

On the north side of the Heiau, overlooking Honaunau Bay, is the Keōua Stone. Mark Twain reported in Letters from Hawaii that the stone was the favorite resting place of Keaōua, a former high chief of Kona. Holes at the base of the stone may have supported posts for a leafy canopy that shaded that dignitary, who legend has it was the same height as the stone he lay upon (12.5 feet, or 3.8 meters). If he was anything like one of the obviously-male ki'i guarding the sacred Hale o Keawe Heiau, he struck fear in his enemies and the odd, unfortunate, new wife. The ego of rulers hasn't subsided much since the time of these ancient kings.

Another point of interest is the Ka'ahumanu stone, a large rock where the so-named queen and a favorite of King Kamehameha I hid from her husband with his dog after swimming across the bay. The dog barked and gave her away. Man's best friend.

The park is a great spot for families. Though the self-guided trail through the park can be rough and uneven (and locally unsuitable for the disabled), there is no climbing except the odd scamper up a rock. And, kids will enjoy the tactile experience of watching re-enactments of traditional crafts in the royal grounds' thatched-roof hale at scheduled times. Perhaps most engaging were wildlife encounters in a network of shallow tidal pools winding amongst low-profile lava formations along the rocky shoreline. Each pool had its own surprise, culminating in (for us) a green sea turtle, lazily grazing on algae and utterly unconcerned with our presence.

The Park Service stresses the site is still considered sacred so--amongst other things--nudity, athletic recreation, and beach chairs are forbidden in the pu'uhonua and royal grounds. I assume the Visitor Center is fair game. This is ironic considering the bliss of pre-European Hawai'i was decidedly clothing optional, and a couple of the local ki'i are unashamedly naked. The park's cultural demonstrator himself only barely skirts the ban, following no more than the letter of the law. However, there's no telling if a visitor can claim refuge and absolution at the pu'uhonua for breaking such modern kapu. Trust the Federal Government to ensure ancient truths aren't evenly applied.

Here, it's easy to forget the fate of the many kapu breakers who didn't quite make it to the pu'uhonua, but he swaying of the coconut palms and lapping of waves are a modern-day respite from the constant demands of "civilization." Isn't that why we came to Hawai'i, to find our own pu'uhonua, our own earthly refuge from the cares and worries we put on ourselves.

To get there from Kona, take Highway 11 south for approximately 20 miles. Between mileposts 103 and 104, at the Honaunau Post Office, turn right towards the ocean onto Hwy 160. Travel 3.5 miles and turn left at the Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park sign. The drive takes about 45 minutes. Fees are $5 per vehicle or $3 per person for a 7-day pass.

Spend a day here and learn.