Holoholoku Heiau

Holoholoku Heiau – A Sacred Temple with a Rich History in East Side Kauai
Local Expert's Rating:
4.5 / 5
The Bottom Line:

If you’d like a glimpse into the ancient history of Kauai, don’t miss the chance to see the Holoholoku Heiau in East Side Kauai. Built in the 1300s, this ancient temple served as a sacred place for human sacrifice to the Gods, including the war god, Ku. While visiting, go over to the Royal Birthstone and Japanese cemetery to see the other ancient relics in your midst.

- The HawaiianIslands.com Local Expert Team

Whether you’re a history buff or simply enjoy soaking in the beauty of sacred landscapes, you’ll definitely want to stop by Holoholoku Heiau. Located right at the entrance to the Wailua River State Park, this little patch of land once served as an important, albeit rather grim, landmark in ancient Hawaii.

As a heiau, it’s not just any land – it’s a Hawaiian temple – and it was likely used as a sacred spot for human sacrifice thousands of years ago. Although it’s not completely clear, it’s thought that the sacrifices were beholden to the war god, Ku. The legends passed down through the generations serve as evidence of that link, as do the cravings of Ku on the huge logs all around the site.

By sacrificing people to Ku, the ancient Hawaiians believed their ceremonies would help them earn favor in war and keep their island safe from invaders. Historians believe that the people sacrificed were mostly prisoners of war and those who committed a forbidden act, which is also known as breaking a kapu. A common sin back then was walking in the shadow of the chief, resulting in the sacrifice of that individuals at the temple.

In addition, the heiau offered refuge for those fleeing after committing a crime, letting people receive amnesty if they landed at the temple before getting caught. For those who weren’t so lucky, they landed at the temple anyway, right before getting sacrificed.

Ancient Hawaiians likely built the temple in the 1300s, making it the oldest heiau on the island. As Christianity swept across the island, however, the heiau became a pen for pigs, destroying its original structure forevermore. The choice to convert it into a pigpen was made by the wife of the last king of Hawaii, King Kaumualii. After that, only the 24-foot by 40-foot rectangular stone foundation of the temple remained standing.  

In an effort to preserve the island’s history, the Bishop Museum of Honolulu restored the temple in 1933. The original foundation was left intact as the museum workers restored as much of the heiau as they could. Since the temple sits in the state park, it’s now well protected from further decimation. Visitors can come to see the structure as much as they want, as long as they don’t move the rocks around. Many people stop by for a few minutes to pay their respects and take photos with the structure.

After spending time at the temple, it’s well worth going over to the Royal Birthstone, or pohaku hoohanau. All of Kauai’s queens had to give birth at these stones or their children would be regarded as commoners. The stones acted as a good source of support while pushing, plus offered a solid surface to rest against in between labor pains.

The nearby umbilical stone, or pohaku piko, served as a sacred place to put the child’s cord stump after it fell off. Wrapped in the queen’s hair, the stump sat in the crevasse of the rock, which resulted in the stone becoming the lifelong guardian of the child.

If you want to see just a bit more history before leaving, walk up the steps from Holoholoku Heiau to visit the Japanese graveyard. The newest graves have death dates in the 1890s, pointing to its establishment in the early 1800s at the latest. You can still read many of the gravestones, giving you a glimpse into the family names found all across the island.

Insider Tips:
-If you’d like to supplement your historic knowledge, visit the Kauai Museum and other local museums after leaving the temple.
-During your visit, consider honoring the history of the site by picking up any trash you find on the grounds.