Some lessons on Hawaiian culture

It was our first full day on Big Island, HI. What we had planned for the day was a Hawaiian culture tour on the west coast of the island:...
Hawaiian Culture tour| Pu'uhonua O Honaunau, Big Island, HI

It was our first full day on Big Island, HI. What we had planned for the day was a Hawaiian culture tour on the west coast of the island: A visit to Hulihe’e Palace, which was the summer palace of the nobles (now a museum), see Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical park and end the day watching some traditional hula performances.

If we had to catch the Hula we had to be back at the Waikoloa area by 6 in the evening and we had lost a lot of time trying find addresses for the GPS navigation system, which of course we failed at. So we decided on going to the southernmost point-of-interest first and then working our way back northwards. By the way, when we couldn’t find the street numbers and finding the place by its latitude and longitude also didn’t work, we turned to my android phone. With Bing maps and Verizon Navigation we managed to find everyplace we needed to, starting that day and that point.

(Keep this in mind if you plan to go there and find that your navigation system is letting you down.)

Hawaiian Culture tour| Pu'uhonua O Honaunau, or Place of Refuge, Big Island, HI

Hawaiian Culture Tour

We set out on the culture tour by getting on to highway 19, also known as Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway and began driving beside the Pacific Ocean once again. Highway 19 later turned into Highway 11, continuing to run by the coast. After almost an hour and half we turned right at Pu’uhonua O Honaunau Road and headed towards the Ocean to get to Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park, which is also called the Place of Refuge. This place told us a lot about ancient Hawaiian culture.

Hawaiian Culture Tour | Place of Refuge, Big Island, HI

The Place of Refuge was the last resort for people who had done badly at war or more importantly broken a kapu (sacred law) or done something that was considered taboo. This was the place they ran to if they wanted to avoid execution. The area was walled off  on one side and beyond that, was the Royal Grounds and a temple. And those who wanted to be washed off their sins had to take the water route to the temple where a  priest would purify them, thereby making them worthy of returning to society. However swimming across the bay and getting to the heiau (temple) was almost a feat, as the shoreline is made up of jagged lava rocks.

Pu'uhonua O Honaunau / Place of Refuge, Big Island, HI

Are you curious to know what might have been taboo in those days? I sure was. The notes that came along with a map I picked up at the visitor centre/gift shop had this to say:

According to the kapu a common person could not look at or get close to the chief, walk in the chief’s footsteps, touch the chief’s possessions or let his shadow fall on the palace grounds. Everyday activities too were regulated by the kapu. Women could not eat the foods reserved for offerings to the gods, they could not prepare meals for men or even eat with them. In order to provide for all, seasons for fishing, killing animals and for gathering timber were all strictly controlled. When a kapu was broken, the penalty was always death. Otherwise the gods might react violently, perhaps with volcanic eruptions, tidal waves, famine or earthquakes. To protect themselves form catastrophes, the people pursued the kapu breaker until he was caught and put to death or until he made his way to pu’uhonua.

Now, Pu’uhonua O Honaunau’s great wall and the ancient Hawaiian village were left to the mercy of the elements and were damaged in due course. However, a good part of it, including the stone wall and a temple have been re-constructed in order to preserve the history of the land. At the place of Refuge we also saw a canoe hut, a heleipalala – a royal fish pond and even caught sight of the green sea turtle that Hawaii is known for.

Hawaiian Culture Tour | Royal Fish Pond at Pu'uhonua O Honaunau, Big Island, HI

Royal Fish Pond at the Place of Refuge

After looking around this place we headed towards Hulihe’e palace to see the furniture and other things that the nobles used. We were more than half way there when I checked one of the travel guide-books we had with us and found that the palace would close at 3:00 pm. The book went on to suggest that we get there by half past two if we wanted to see the whole place. To my dismay, I had just learnt that we wouldn’t make it 🙁 but decided that we would take a detour to Ali’i  Dr. anyway and drive by the place at least. So we made no change of plans. There we also caught sight of Moku’aikaua Church, which is said to be Hawaii’s earliest church, built in 1820.

After a good evening walk through Kailua Kona, which is the home of the Hulihe’e palace and the church, we did manage to catch some Hula performance at Kings Shops later that evening.

A bit about Hula

Hula is the traditional dance of the Hawaiians. The song and chant that accompany the movements of the art form are an oral presentation of the history of the Hawaiian people.

The graceful movements, the colourful costumes and the mellifluous language of the Hawaiians have an amazing way of capturing our attention and keeping us fully engrossed in the performance. The natives of these islands are very proud of their rich Hawaiian culture and showcase it at several public places, museums and resorts.

We caught some action at an upscale mall in the Waikaloa area.

Just before the program at King’s Shops Center Stage began, a charming lady dressed in traditional attire and flowers in her hair gave us an introduction to Hula. It gave me a better perspective of the art form and so I really enjoyed the staged items. She told us a little about Hula –the art form and the two forms of it: the ancient and the contemporary. She went on to say how hula almost died with the entry of the missionaries and how it was  later revived. She explained the meanings of some of the songs and gave us a brief background of each of the performances, which further taught us about the counting system of the Hawaiians, the sounds that make up the language and about the songs that were sung in honour of the nobles of the land.

The Hula performance made for a perfect way to end the Hawaiian Culture Tour we on, on Hawaii’s Big Island.

Hawaiian Culture | Hula dance


Hawaiian Culture | Hula dancers and singers


Hawaiian Culture | Hula dancers


 Have you been to Hawaii? What did you learn about Hawaiian Culture and the people of these islands in the Pacific Ocean? Do put them down in the comments section and I would love to learn what you took home from the Aloha State.

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24 Comments on this post.
  • umashankar
    16 March 2013 at 11:05 am
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    Divya, it is going to be one of your most memorable traveogue, thick with mysterious, bizarre but musical names. 'Pu'uhonua O Honaunau'! What a name! You have spiced up with vignettes of ancient myth.

    Taboo is the oldest affliction known to humans. Who'd ever want to cast his shadow on the Chief's footsteps? But then there may have been enough temptaions for 'kapu'. And unless one made it to the sacred temple and gotten exonerated, there wss no way he could have enjoyed 'hula'!

    And those photgraphs are worthy of the adventure and mystique you have invoked.

    • dNambiar
      17 March 2013 at 3:04 am
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      That was a very memorable day and place. I was taken into another era; I kept thinking of life in those times and it took me a while to shake it off. This is not something that all places do to me. Although a good part of this place was re-created to look like the original, there was an unusual vibe to it. That was ONE experience!

      When I did my pre-trip homework I was so intrigued by Pu'uhonua O Honaunau that I decided there was no missing that place. (That and the Volcanoes National Park.)

      It is a very musical and graceful language that the Hawaiian's speak. I learnt that they have only about 12 sounds that make up the language. Their music is something else. Every time I hear the Disney Resort (Aulani) commercial, it makes me stop whatever I am doing and just take in the music. It's so soothing. If I can find a clip of it online, I'll share it with you. I'm sure you'll like it.

      Thank you so much, USP. It's so nice to know that this will be a memorable travelogue. It was special to me but I thought it might be a little too heavy for most people. Hawaii is a very special place too. It has an energy that few places have. I feel very privileged to have gotten a taste of it.

  • Rajesh
    16 March 2013 at 6:40 pm
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    Wonderful shots. Good to know that you have been here.

  • JK
    17 March 2013 at 9:01 am
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    Good information about a relatively lesser known place.

    • dNambiar
      18 March 2013 at 8:05 pm
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      … or lesser known things about Hawaii. 🙂
      Thank you JK. 🙂

  • TTT
    17 March 2013 at 3:28 pm
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    That was quite a lot of info…. I had heard about Kapu before …this is one of the places in my to visit list … thanks for the lovely write up and the great pics !

    • dNambiar
      18 March 2013 at 8:36 pm
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      Some tough Kapu there, quite like that of parts of ancient India.

      You have plans of visiting Big Island, Hawaii?

      Thank you TTT.

  • Rachna
    18 March 2013 at 4:18 am
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    Divya thoroughly enjoyed this one. Hawaii is exotic and so wonderful.

    • dNambiar
      18 March 2013 at 8:37 pm
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      Hawaii is exotic indeed. It also has a history like this. 🙂

  • Arti
    18 March 2013 at 4:26 am
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    Those kapus or taboo list sound really scary. Enjoyed taking my hawaiin tour along with learning more about their culture. Hula dance looks entertaining, I'm glad the people there revived it for good. The flowers in the hair is so trademark hawaii, the participation of children make the dance even more lively.

    • dNambiar
      18 March 2013 at 8:52 pm
      Leave a Reply

      Isn't it, Arti? I found it terrifying too.
      The Hawaiians seem like such happy-go-lucky people; it was nice learning about their ancient laws. 🙂

      Exactly. It's a happy dance and I simply love the songs they sing, it's such a beautiful language. I hope the Hula has a really long life.
      I made sure to pick up that Plumeria (flower) clip like the tourists to Hawaii do and wore it for a day. It's one place you get to wear a flower near your ear and not have people wondering if you're ok. 😀

      It's always great to hear from you, Arti. I saw the post on the Japanese Tea Ceremony. I'm coming by to read it.

  • magiceye
    19 March 2013 at 8:00 am
    Leave a Reply

    Wow that made fascinating reading. Thank you!

    • dNambiar
      22 March 2013 at 12:07 am
      Leave a Reply

      You're welcome, Magiceye.

  • Rahul Bhatia
    19 March 2013 at 10:06 am
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    This was yet another fascinating read and that dance Hula is synonymus with Hawaii!

    • dNambiar
      22 March 2013 at 1:38 am
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      Hawaii is fascinating. There is no place like Hawaii and the Hula dance. 🙂

  • aliasgarmukhtiar mukhtiar
    19 March 2013 at 12:17 pm
    Leave a Reply

    nice read

  • AmitAag
    2 April 2013 at 6:12 am
    Leave a Reply

    Terrific! Absolutely amazing!!
    Loved this grand post on this exotic location:)
    Thanks a lot, Divya:):)

    • dNambiar
      2 April 2013 at 6:47 am
      Leave a Reply

      This post is what it is because of the place. Hawaii is a grand place. Its History and its culture are very grand too. 🙂

      Thank you Amit.

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    8 January 2017 at 5:08 pm
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    […] More about Pu’uhonua O Honaunau here — Lessons in Hawaiian Culture  […]

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    […] you’ve spoilt us!). [You can read about the first part of that day -the culture tour — here.] We had to make a new arrangement in the culture tour so as to be able to catch some hula, and […]

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