Ulupo Heiau – Ancient Sacred Site in Windward Oahu, Hawaii

Ulupo Heiau (pronounced oo loo PO hey ee OW) is one of the oldest archeological sites on Oahu and is sacred to the Hawaiian people. It is located in windward Oahu in the town of Kailua, just off of Kailua Road at the back of the Windward YMCA. Some might find it strange that an ancient archeological site is preserved in such an urban setting, but this is not an uncommon occurrence, as the Hawaiian people have gone to great lengths to preserve their language, culture, and heritage wherever these may be found.

c) Copyright 2011 Patrice Walker

The heiau itself is a massive, 140-by-180-foot platform constructed of large rocks, many of which are believed to have been brought from as far away as Kualoa, a good 10 miles from the site. Walls that are 30 feet tall slope down to, what is today, Kawai Nui marsh, Hawaii’s largest remaining wetland. In ancient times, Kawai Nui was a bay that the Hawaiians converted into a fish pond after a sand bar formed between it and the Pacific Ocean. The fish pond abounded in several varieties of fish and was surrounded by kalo (taro), banana, sweet potato, and sugar cane fields. Overlooking all of this agricultural activity was the Ulupo Heiau, where the ali’i (chief) and kahunas (priests) performed religious rites and ceremonies designed to ensure the physical and spiritual welfare of the people who resided there.

(c) Copyright 2011 Patrice Walker

Who built Ulupo Heiau? History is sketchy on this point because the Hawaiian record-keeping tradition before the advent of the Europeans was an oral one. Legend has it that the menehune built the site. This is one indication of its ancient origins because the menehune are said to be little people who lived in forests and caves and built dams, fish ponds, and heiau before the ancient Polynesians came to the Hawaiian Islands. One source puts the building of the heiau at around 900 AD.

In the 19th century, while the Ulupo Heiau was inactive as a ceremonial site, Hawaiians were still using the surrounding taro fields and Kawai Nui fish pond. And at one point, Chinese farmers leased some of the edges of the marsh for rice cultivation. But the taro fields were eventually abandoned because many Hawaiians were dying from diseases introduced by European and American colonizers, and much of the land was being ruthlessly taken from Hawaiians and sold. In the 1970s, when the City of Honolulu tried to sell the Kawai Nui marshlands to developers, strong reaction from the community lead to its being designated as a conservation area.

Ua mau ke ea o ka ‘aina I ka pono, O Hawaii
(The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness – Hawaii State motto)

Today, much work goes into the preservation and upkeep of Ulupo Heiau and the conservation of Kawai Nui marsh. Community organizations have assumed a large role in their ongoing care as the State simply doesn’t have enough money to accomplish all that needs to be done. Thanks to these dedicated volunteers, taro fields are being cultivated again, vegetation that was encroaching on the heiau has been cleared away, and pathways are under construction so that locals and non-locals alike can easily navigate through the area. In addition, events such as lectures, tours, spiritual activities, and workshops are held at the heiau throughout the year. Just remember that when visiting the Ulupo Heiau, don’t remove any rocks from this sacred site and stay on the designated paths.

For more information on the history of Ulupo Heiau and Kawai Nui marsh, visit the Hawaii State Parks website..