Maui No Ka 'Oi Magazine September-October 2014 - September-October 2014
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The Heiau in the Garden

On Maui's remote eastern shore, a long-hidden archeological treasure recalls the majesty of an ancient kingdom.

Nina Lee

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Twenty years ago, if you’d hiked along the Hana Coast, you might have stumbled upon a mysterious ruin hidden in the dense jungle, an enormous structure cloaked by a wall of greenery. The biggest heiau in the Pacific (and therefore the world, since heiau are uniquely Polynesian), Pi‘ilanihale Heiau today looms black against the distant blue silhouette of Haleakala, its cliff-like walls topped by a cluster of graceful coconut palms.

The heiau is kapu—forbidden, sacred—and visitors are not allowed to climb onto it or disturb its stones. But an easy path through lovely Kahanu Garden allows anyone to stand awestruck before this archaeological treasure, the largest remaining ancient structure in Hawai‘i.

Built in four phases, Pi‘ilanihale Heiau is named for Pi‘ilani, the great sixteenth-century ali‘i who brought about an era of peace and prosperity as the first ruling chief to unite Maui. The oldest parts of this massive structure date back even further—probably to the 1200s. Its thousands and thousands of carefully stacked stones were carried by hand from as far as Hana Bay, seven miles away.

Over the centuries, jungle engulfed the great heiau, and time tumbled its stones. Generations managed the care of this relic by benign neglect, at least partly because of old attitudes that made people shy away from ancient sites. Even today, little is known about the history of the heiau, why it was built, exactly when, or what it was used for.

But with renewed interest in pre-Contact Hawai‘i and its culture, people wanted to see the heiau. In 1999, Hana families who still specialize in old-style construction lashed together their own ladders, found the “tooth stones” set to stand vertically at intervals along the foundations of tumbled walls, and began to rebuild around them.

In only nine months, they had cleared the jungle and restored crumbled edges. Pi‘ilanihale Heiau once more dominated the landscape.

A sacred temple was not exactly what the National Tropical Botanical Garden had in mind when it acquired this property back in 1974. Then a relatively new nonprofit organization, NTBG had been chartered by Congress to discover, save and study the world’s tropical plants and to share what it learned.

But here in Hana, it seems more than right that this ancient religious site should be restored and maintained, overlooking a garden whose mission is to perpetuate the use of the plants that nourished those who carried and stacked its stones.