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It sounds like a kids’ game today, but in Ancient Hawaii, when kapu (taboos) were the law of the land, it was a desperate race for survival. It was easy then to commit a capital crime. You might have wandered onto land reserved for only chiefs. You might have eaten forbidden fruit or meat. The penalty: Death. Your only hope was to elude your pursuers and make your way to the nearest pu`uhonua, or place of refuge. Once you got there, you would be absolved by a priest and freed to leave. Defeated warriors and non-combatants could also find refuge here during times of battle. The grounds just outside the Great Wall that encloses the pu’uhonua were home to several generations of powerful chiefs.
One such place today is among the ten top visitor attractions (#7) in Hawaii.
Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park – known formerly as City of Refuge National Historical Park — is a National Historical Park on the west coast of the Big Island of Hawaii. It preserves the site where vacationers visit and still feel the spirit of peace and forgiveness that continues to surround and bless this special place.
The 420-acre park includes the puuhonua itself and a complex of archeological sites including temple platforms, royal fishponds, sledding tracks, and some coastal village sites. The Hale o Keawe temple and several thatched structures have been reconstructed.
There are two major sections, the Palace Grounds and the Place of Refuge. The Great Wall separates the two.
There are walking tours of the park or you can go it alone. Either way, you’ll begin at the Palace Grounds, the home of the ruling chief, which is surrounded by a beautiful coconut palm grove overlooking Honaunau Bay. The nearby beach was reserved strictly for the royalty. You’ll see samples of canoes carved from koa wood with lashings of coconut fibers. All of their construction was done with the materials native to the land and tools used in the day. Along the path you’ll also see models of the different types of houses and storage sheds which sat on the palace grounds.
you will come upon an original gamestone (papamu) that was used in the game of Hawaiian checkers (konane). Game pieces were made out of white coral and black lava for the opposing players. The object of the game was not to take all of the other players’ pieces as in the common checkers game, but to be the player who would make the last move. Bowls, carved right into the huge stone, were used to extract salt from seawater. The royal canoe landing area was kapu to all commoners, a law that was announced by a kii (small wooden statue) such as the one you’ll see in the water.
The huge rock Great Wall was built sometime in the 1500s. It’s constructed of dry masonry and fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.
Inside the puuhonua is where, once the fleeing petitioners arrived, the kahuna pule (priest) would be obligated to offer them sanctuary and absolution, under pain of his own death should he refuse to do so. Often the petitioner would be freed within hours to resume a normal life. This was not a place teeming with hardened criminals. This was a sacred place on which life began anew for many ancient Hawaiians.
Your walk will take you past a bunch of carved statues. Two of the ki’i stand together watching over Keoneele Cove. Only royalty were allowed to use the cove. Other carved images stand on the platform of Hale o Keawe. As you work your way back to the Visitor Center you’ll walk past the royal fishpond. Fish that were caught exclusively for the chiefs were placed in this pond.
It’s a really interesting place to visit. Plan to spend a couple of hours, bring your camera and wear comfortable walking shoes.
If you’d like us to help you work Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park into your vacation plans, pick an agent from the Hawaii-Aloha Web site, or call 1-800-843-8771.