WAILUA COMPLEX OF HEIAU
The Wailua ahupua‘a (traditional land division) ran
from Mt. Waiale‘ale to Wailua Bay. The Wailua River runs
the length of the ahupua‘a for a distance of 11.8 miles. The
ridges of Nounou and Kälepa divide the ahupua‘a into the
makai (seaward) portion called Wailua Kai and the mauka
(upland) portion called Wailua Uka.
Wailuanuiahoano, translated as the great, sacred
Wailua, refers to the lower portion of the Wailua River
basin and is named for an ali‘i who lived in the 14th
The Wailua Complex of Heiau was designated
a National Historic Landmark in 1962. Consisting of
Poli‘ahu Heiau, Hikinaakalä Heiau, Kalaeokamanu Heiau,
and Malae Heiau, these heiau denote the religious and
social significance of the Wailua ahupua‘a to the history
and culture of both Kaua‘i and Hawai‘i. Other sites within
this historic complex are the royal birthsite at Holoholokü,
the petroglyphs at the rivermouth, and the bellstone.
Wailua River State Park was initially established
in 1954 in recognition of the outstanding scenic and
wilderness character of the Wailua River along with the
significant historical, archaeological, geological and other
scientific values. The heiau sites were included in the park
in 1962 to promote preservation and public awareness of
these important cultural resources.
STATE OF HAWAI‘I
Department of Land &
Division of State Parks
Special recognition is given
to Nä Kahu Hikina A Ka
Lä, a community volunteer
group, for their hard work
and dedication as the
curators of Poli‘ahu Heiau.
PRESERVE HAWAI‘I'S PAST
FOR THE FUTURE
Artwork by Frank Fellhauer
Traditionally, food items
were left as offerings at a
heiau. Please do not wrap
or move rocks and do not
leave items such as coins,
incense, or candles as they
cause long‐term damage
to this fragile resource.
Wailua and Waimea were the two royal centers on
Kaua‘i prior to Western contact. These royal centers
were the political, religious, and social centers for Kaua‘i's
paramount chiefs (ali‘i nui) who resided at these sites for
much of the year. Certain areas, such as the heiau, were set
aside exclusively for the ali‘i and priests. The maka‘äinana
(commoners) supported this royal compound by farming
the agricultural fields along the river, harvesting the inland
fishpond, and fishing the ocean waters of Wailua Bay.
The traditional Hawaiian religion was abolished in
1819 and missionaries arrived in 1820. Debora Kapule,
former wife of Kaua‘i's king Kaumuali‘i, was an early
convert to Christianity. When she lived in Wailua in 1830s,
she is said to have used some heiau as animal pens.
Today, these heiau are important reminders of
Hawai‘i's past and a valuable link for the Hawaiian
community to their cultural heritage.
Wailua River State Park
No two heiau were constructed alike but there are
certain features that are common to all luakini heiau.
Within the walls of Poli‘ahu Heiau would be several
features built of perishable materials, such as wood and
pili grass. These structures were destroyed when the
traditional Hawaiian religion was abolished in 1819.
Today, only the stacked rock walls and stone foundations
ANU‘U or LANANU‘U MAMAO
Oracle tower where the kähuna
communicated with the gods. This
structure often measured 20 feet or
more in height and was a pole frame
covered with kapa.
This raised wooden platform was
where the offerings for the gods
Artist's rendering of Poli‘ahu Heiau as it may have looked
as a luakini heiau in the 1700s.
Poli‘ahu Heiau is situated on a bluff above the
Wailua River with commanding views makai (seaward) to
Wailua Bay and mauka (inland) to the ridges of Nounou
and Kälepa and the peak called ‘A‘ähoaka. This is one
of 7 heiau recorded along the Wailua River.
It is uncertain when this heiau was built but based
on historical traditions, its construction is attributed
to the menehune which suggests some antiquity. It was
probably in use during the 1600s and 1700s but may be
older. Oftentimes, heiau were modified and enlarged by
new ali‘i (chiefs) when they came to power.
The walls enclose just over an acre and are
constructed by locking the stacked rocks with no use of
mortar. The walls, measuring 5 feet high and 5 feet wide,
still show the craftsmanship of these rock wall builders.
Rock was brought up to this bluff by many hands from
the rivers below. The rock was used to build these walls
and pave the interior floor. An interesting feature of this
heiau is the notched corner along the east wall which
appears to be a later construction.
A large, complex heiau such as Poliçahu would
have been built under the direction of an ali‘i nui (high
ruling chief) in consultation with his kähuna (priests).
The gathering and stacking of the rock was done by
the maka‘äinana (commoners) who took time from their
farming and fishing to built these sites.
The function of heiau could change over time. Some
heiau were dedicated to the god Lono and ceremonies
were conducted to insure fertility of crops and fishing
grounds. Other heiau were dedicated to the god Kü for
success in war. These were called luakini heiau and could
involve human sacrifice as well as offerings of pig and
Because of the size and construction of Poli‘ahu
Heiau, it has been suggested that this heiau was a luakini.
As a luakini there would have been a number of perishable
structures placed within the walled enclosure, including
carved wooden ki‘i (images) and pole and thatch hale
(houses) to store ceremonial items.
The size and location of these luakini heiau conveyed
a sense of ali‘i power and authority. They illustrate the
development of complex chiefdoms in Hawai‘i in the late
pre-contact period (1600‐1778) and the close relationship
between the political and religious systems. It was only
the paramount chiefs (ali‘i nui) with the highest political
and social status that could built these large, impressive
heiau and command the large labor force needed for such
The ceremonial items were
stored in this pole and
thatch house where the
kahuna might also reside for
This structure housed the sacred
drum (pahu) that announced the
rituals and sent messages.
This is were the temple fires
were lit. These fires might
be used to cook the pigs as
The wooden images (ki‘i) were
placed by the altar and at the
entrance to oversee the site.