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In Hawaii, searching for the secrets of the temple

The author discovers a rich history of Hawaii that few tourists ever get to know.

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By Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 5, 2010; 11:29 AM

Following my great-uncle, with his bowlegged gait, around the heiau, I feel 8 years old again.

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"It was forbidden; nobody could go down here," Uncle Take is saying, recalling his mother's warning that he and his brothers and sisters should stay away from the ancient native temple not far from the town of Hana, on the Hawaiian island of Maui. "It was kapu," he says, using the Hawaiian word for taboo.

From a distance, the heiau ("hey ow") looks like not much more than a black wall about five stories high. But up close, I can see the details of how it was constructed centuries ago, the large, porous lava stones meticulously fitted together without mortar, like a giant 3-D puzzle. Thousands of stones rise high into terraces that appear to crest above my head like the tip of an ocean wave. The temple is intimidating, dark and mysterious, just as I remember it from the day more than 25 years ago when Uncle Take brought us here to see it for the first time.

Then, we walked through a dense jungle of overgrown trees that looked like giant broomsticks, their roots rising high off the ground. Mosquitoes swarmed us on all sides. Rocks had started to fall from one side of the heiau, and the thick jungle made it difficult to take in the structure's full size.

It was on that trip that Uncle Take told me and my sister and brother that we were descended from an important Maui chief who had once held land rights on the island, long before any white people arrived here. That land, which stretched from the top of Maui's famous Haleakala volcano to the rocky shore, included the Pi'ilanihale heiau, named after Pi'ilani, the king who ruled the island in the 16th century.

Today, the heiau, on the grounds of the Kahanu Garden, which is named after my father's family, has been restored by native stonemasons who have studied their ancestors' skills. The thick foliage has been cleared, and the grounds appear almost technicolor: Bright green, manicured grass dotted with coconut and breadfruit trees nearly glows next to the aquamarine waves that crash on the lava rocks below. Neat rows of native Hawaiian plants grow in long plots near the base of the heiau, and local guides offer tours a few days a week. Most important, the heiau is now fully visible in all its imposing grandeur.

But still, the structure's purpose remains a mystery to my family and the handful of archaeologists who have studied it. Standing at the temple's base I try, as you would when standing before the Egyptian pyramids or the Great Wall of China, to create a mental picture of it in context. Who built it and why? What kinds of activities went on here? How did it fit into the daily lives of the people who'd walked these same grounds centuries before me? Unlike great historical structures that you can study in books, the heiau keeps its secrets.

Many locals talk about its "mana," or spiritual power. Visitors who cut off the well-beaten tourist path of the Hana Highway come here and leave offerings of leis, prayers and dollar bills at the heiau's base, despite any marker or explanation of its relationship to any modern religion. You just feel it, says a cousin who lives in Maui.

I've been to the site many times since that first visit, but I never tire of hearing Uncle Take "talk story" about our family's ties to this rugged Hawaiian land, reaching back to a time when the islands weren't part of the United States, but their own kingdom.

Now, on this visit, I hope to more conclusively understand the truth of my family's stories, and to find out what the heiau might finally reveal. What I discover is a rich history of Hawaii that few tourists ever get to know - and my family's surprising role in a small part of it.

My father's mother and her people come from one of the most remote towns in Hawaii. Hana, known for its fierce dedication to the "real Hawaii," is a place where the native people live a simple life and have seen less of the tourism that has brought commercialized luaus and beach high-rises to other parts of the islands.

Many visitors make it a point to drive the famous Hana Highway, known for its cliff-side views, scenic waterfalls and the harrowing turns that wind along for more than three hours. Once the road reaches Hana, though, most green-faced tourists are happy to buy a T-shirt proclaiming their survival, and the bus tours eagerly turn around and go back to Wailea or Lahaina.


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