Wailua Complex of Heiaus

Large gray stones in background with smaller stones and grass  in foreground.
Pōhaku Hoʻohānau (birthing stone) and Pōhaku Piko (umbilical stone), Holoholokū Heiau complex.

Photo by Joel Bradshaw. CC0

Quick Facts
Island of Kauai,HI
National Historic Landmark

The Wailua Complex of Heiaus, located in the town of Wailua on the Island of Kauai, was once the center of chiefly power on the island. Wailua was one of two primary political, social, and religious centers for Kauai's ali'i 'ai moku (paramount chief of an island) who lived at the site for much of the year. The Wailua Complex of Heiaus consists of several important sites including four heiaus (places of worship) - Hikinaakala, Holoholoku, Malae, and Poliahu; Hauola pu'uhonua (a place of refuge); ancient petroglyphs; a royal birthstone; and a bellstone.

Ancient Hawaiians had many types of heiau, each with their own distinct function and use by particular segments of society. Heiau ranged in size from single upright stones to massive and complex structures. Larger heiau were built by ali'i (chiefs), but the largest and most complex, the luakini heiau (sacrificial temple), could only be constructed and dedicated by an ali'i 'ai mokuLuakini heiau were reserved for rituals involving human or animal sacrifice and were generally dedicated to the war god Ku. Rituals performed at a luakini heiau highlighted the ali'i 'ai moku's spiritual, economic, political, and social control over his lands and his authority over the life and death of his people.

Hikinaakala Heiau, next to the mouth of the Wailua River on the Pacific Ocean, was once a sacred place used to welcome the sun. Hikinaakala means "the rising sun" and traditionally sunrise was celebrated at the heiau with chants and prayers. Hikinaakala Heiau was originally a large rectangular enclosure covering almost an acre and had walls 6 feet high and up to 11 feet wide. Near the heiau is Hauola, a pu'uhonua, or sacred place of refuge. People who had violated kapu (religious, political, and social laws) could seek refuge at a pu'uhonua such as Hauola in order to escape punishment. The site was also a sanctuary during times of war. Just north of the Hauola in the water are a series of boulders with ancient petroglyphs, rock engravings formed by removing pieces of a rock's surface through carving, incision, or abrading. The fine-grained grey-blue basalt boulders depict fish, as well as human and geometric shapes. The petroglyphs are partially submerged and are generally not visible due to sand and debris at the river mouth.


Holoholoku Heiau (also known as Kalaeokamanu Heiau) is thought to be Kauai's oldest heiau. Its traditional Hawaiian name, Ka Lae o Ka Manu, means "the crest of the bird." The walls of the medium-sized enclosure were made of stone and pieces of branch coral, which was used to indicate the sacredness of the structure. Legend says that the first Polynesian kaeke (large sharkskin-covered temple drum) introduced to Hawaii was brought from Tahiti to Kauai and placed in Holoholoku Heiau. Located a short distance from Holoholoku Heiau are Pohaku Ho'ohanau, the royal birthstone, and Pohaku Piko, a ceremonial niche for a newborn child's umbilical cord. An expectant mother of royal lineage would travel to Pohaku Ho'ohanau to deliver her child, helping to ensure its chiefly status. Legend says that if the child was destined to be a great ali'i (chief), the sky would fill with lighting, thunder, and a downpour of rain. When the storm cleared, a rainbow would appear over the birth area, with one end indicating the exact spot of the child's birth.

Poliahu Heiau is located on a bluff above the Wailua River and has commanding views of both Wailua Bay and the ridges and peaks of the Wailua River valley. This luakini heiau originally enclosed just over one acre, with rock walls measuring five feet high and five feet wide. Legend says that it was built by the menehune, mythical dwarf-like craftsmen often credited with the creation of large-scale projects, such as temples and fishponds. Near the Poliahu Heiau is the Wailua Bellstone, a reddish basalt boulder that was intended to be "drummed" with cobbles. When struck, it would produce a hollow sound that could be heard over a great distance. The Bellstone was used to announce important events such as royal births or the approach of chiefly or religious processions.

Malae Heiau, near the mouth of the Wailua River, is a luakini heiau. It is the largest heiauremaining on the Island of Kauai and one of the largest surviving temple platforms in the Hawaiian Islands. Oral tradition attributes the construction of the heiau to the menehuneand archeological records indicate that it was built before 1200 AD. The heiau covers almost two acres and the original walls were 8-10 feet high and 8 feet wide with a ledge running around the inside for seating. Malae Heiau was altered in the 1830s when Deborah (Kekaiha'ak'lou) Kapule, who at one time was married to Kaumuali'i the last independent ali'i 'ai moku of Kauai, tore down the interior walls of the heiau and used it as a cattle pen. In later years the surrounding field was bulldozed up to the outer walls of the temple platform and planted with cane.

The Wailua Complex of Heiaus, serve as a testament to the impressive degree of religious, economic, and political power that early Hawaiians developed on Kauai as well as other Hawaiian islands. The complex played a large role in the evolution of Hawaiian culture and tradition on the island. Each of the sites holds a unique legendary association and an important historical connection to the heritage of native Hawaiians.

The Wailua Complex of Heiaus, a National Historic Landmark, is located on the Island of Kauai, in the Wailua River State Park near Wailua, Kauai, HI. Hikinaakala Heiau is located at the northern end of Lydgate Beach Park on the ocean side of Hawaii Route 56 (Kuhio Highway) in Wailua, next to the mouth of the Wailua River. The entrance to the park is on Nalu Rd and the heiau is at the end of the road, past the beach pools. Also located here are the Hauola pu'uhonua (City of Refuge) and several ancient petroglyphs. The petroglyphs may be seen during low tide.

Holoholoku Heiau, Pohaku Ho'ohanau (the royal birthstone), and Pohaku Piko are located approximately 300 yards northwest of the intersection of Hawaii Route 56 (Kuhio Highway) and Hawaii Route 580 (Kuamo'o Road) in Wailua. All three sites are in the Poliahu Area of Wailua River State Park. In addition to the heiau and birthstones there is a small Japanese cemetery at the top of the hill overlooking the river. Poliahu Heiau is located on Hawaii Route 580 across the road from Opaeka'a Falls in Wailua River State Park.

Malae Heiau is located just south of Wailua and the Wailua River in the cane fields across the road from the intersection of Hawaii Route 56 (Kuhio Highway) and Leho Drive and is not open to public visitation.

For more information and park brochures, visit the Wailua River State Park website.


Last updated: August 16, 2019