The Largest Temple Complex in Polynesia

Pi’ilani Heiau / multi-terraced platform

Heiau are Polynesian temples whose size can range from small, slightly elevated platforms to huge, multi-terraced, rectangular structures. Structures that could be built upon the flat platform surface included oracle towers, taboo houses, drum houses, altars and hale (huts) where the king and high priest could live if an important ritual occasion so required. Heiau were ‘specialized’: each was dedicated to one or a few closely related deities, and their specific rituals and ceremonies. The larger the heiau, the more important were its gods and ceremonies.

Hawaiians built heiau without using mortar. Rocks large and small were precisely shaped where necessary and then carefully fitted together. The largest heiau were multi-terraced and often had several small buildings on their flat top surface. On rare occasions, the king and high priest would occupy their heiau for several weeks.

Pi’ilani Heiau within the Kahanu National Botanical Garden
Pi’ilani Heiau, East Maui (Hawaii)Photo: Blumenberg Associates LLC

Luakini heiau were the most spectacular heiau because they were devoted to human sacrifice, a rare ceremony that might be conducted by the king and high priest in preparation for an important war, or to bring an end to famine or a disease epidemic. Luakini heiau were dedicated to the Sun and War God Kuka’ilimoku (Ku). The most powerful gods were nourished by the most mythically important food and offerings. Across time and history, the most potent offerings to the gods were human beings. The operational metaphor is the sacrifice of the worshiper who is the being that completes the god. Each heiau concentrated ritual/sacred energy – mana. Each heiau became a ‘powerful’ locus, a focal point where mythic power could achieve highest density and then be accessed by human beings via the appropriate rituals.

The largest heiau in Hawaii and in all of Polynesia is the Pi’ilani Heiau at the east end of Maui. It is now situated within the 472 acre Kahanu National Botanical Garden on the outskirts of Hana, the largest town in East Maui. Made of lava rock, Pi’ilani Heiau is a huge, multi-terraced platform that is 450′ long and built out from a cliff face. Construction may have begun in the early 13th century, which predates the arrival of Tahitians into the Hawaiian Islands. The grand scale and largest dimensions of the Pi’ilani Heiau are attributed to King Pi’ilani, a West Maui chief who had united the people of Maui around 1570. He built many coastal fishponds and taro terraces in the Hana region.

Early Hawaiian Christian burials at the Pi’ilani Heiau

Later, over the course of many decades, the Pi’ilani heiau fell into disuse, was abandoned and not maintained. When the Japanese archeologist, Yosihiko Sinoto began the restoration, some walls had tumbled down and thick vegetation had overgrown much of the site. Starting in 1974, Sinoto’s extraordinary efforts took 25 years to restore this huge heaiu. He has also identified and catalyzed the restoration of several marae (heiau) in French Polynesia, the Marquesas Islands (homeland of the first Polynesians who chose to permanently settle the Hawaiian Islands) and Easter Island. A pop music tribute to Sinoto titled “Taote Sinoto,” first aired in 1987 and still plays on Tahitian radio.

“Once Upon A Time, Long, Long Ago,” the ‘world’ was a sacred landscape. The Dreamtime was everywhere, the Ancestors walked every land and their lives concentrated sacred power at important times and localities. History has moved forward, but this timeless reality cannot die because it is a mythic truth. Pi’ilani Heaiu, towering above a meadow and beautiful botanical garden reminds us that the gods are not dead and have not disappeared. Perhaps some day we can once again hear them, be able to ‘talk story’ with our deified ancestors and renew the universal mythic center that binds us to the sacred.

Sources –

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. 8

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