Hawaiian sailing canoe Hokule‘a has one more important stop to make before venturing home from its around-the-world voyage.
The voyaging replica vessel, newly reunited with its previous escort canoe Hikianalia, is slated to sail about 150 miles this week from Tahiti to the small leeward island of Raiatea, once the ancient capital of Polynesia.
There, its crews will be greeted by priests and elders at the coral stone temple ruins of Taputapuatea, where island societies separated by vast ocean distances once forged strong alliances, held jarring religious rituals and launched voyages of discovery about 1,000 years ago.
“It’s the beginnings of all of us. It’s the voyaging marae (temple) of all of Polynesia,” veteran Hokule‘a crew member Billy Richards explained in 2014 when asked about Taputapuatea (pronounced tah-poo-tah-poo-ah-tay-ah) while the crew had some downtime in Whangarei, New Zealand.
“It’s said that all of the major voyages that happened across Polynesia started there,” Richards said of the temple area.
He and others have described Taputapuatea, a complex of stone platforms similar to a Hawaiian heiau, as their mecca — a spiritual center for the voyagers of the Pacific.
The daylong ceremonies scheduled to take place Tuesday near the water’s edge on Raiatea are vital to bring Hokule‘a’s three-year, 40,000-nautical-mile Malama Honua (“Care for the Earth”) journey to a proper close, organizers say.
Richards will captain Hokule‘a on the upcoming sail. He’ll help guide a canoe fleet that includes Hokule‘a and Hikianalia through a traditionally sacred channel in the island’s reef called Te Ava Mo‘a. Then the crew will drop anchor in the crystalline, turquoise waters just off Taputapuatea.
And for one last time on the voyage, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser will be along for the ride via its ongoing partnership with the Polynesian Voyaging Society, with this reporter crewing aboard Hokule‘a and independently chronicling the visit.
Much like the revival of traditional canoe voyaging and navigating by the stars, interest in Taputapuatea has made a comeback in recent decades.
The temple area has a complicated and sometimes troubled history, according to scholars and voyagers. In modern times, however, it has come to represent reconciliation across Polynesia, with canoes such as Hokule‘a occasionally visiting the site in a symbolic homecoming.
Raiatea was the ancient center of Polynesian religion, culture and politics, historians say. A “pan-Polynesian alliance” of island kingdoms, as University of Hawaii senior professor Lilikala Kame‘eleihiwa calls it, would sail vast distances to get there and swap knowledge, deliberate and hold ultra-strict religious ceremonies.
But that alliance is believed to have collapsed around 1350 when a dispute turned violent, leaving a high priest from southern Polynesia dead and his compatriots fleeing the island in their sailing canoe. They never returned.
Oral histories and verse from multiple Pacific regions recall the incident, and voyagers and cultural experts today still refer to the “conflicts” and heavy burdens that hung over Raiatea for centuries in the aftermath.
When the renowned Maori anthropologist Peter Buck visited Taputapuatea in 1929, he found it “overgrown with weeds” and described it as a “mute symbol” for “something that we Polynesians have lost and cannot find.”
“It was sad to the verge of tears,” Buck wrote in his 1938 book “Vikings of the Pacific.”
In 1962, Polynesian Voyaging Society co-founder Ben Finney also found the site “abandoned and crumbling,” he wrote in a 1999 research article.
However, starting with Hokule‘a’s first sail to Taputapuatea in 1976, the burdens have been gradually lifted from the island, cultural practitioners say.
Randie Fong, Kamehameha Schools’ executive cultural officer, said a 1992 visit by the Pacific’s then-budding fleet of traditional canoes, including Hokule‘a, played an especially large role in lifting the ancient burdens.
“I don’t think even we really knew at the time how historical that was,” Fong recounted in a recent interview. Despite there being a drought, a deluge of rain greeted the voyagers there and they took it as a sign of cleansing, Fong said.
The atmosphere at Tapuatapuatea was “highly charged” and they could feel a powerful “live-wire mana,” or energy, he added.
The temple ruins there have since been restored, and currently there’s a push by some in French Polynesia to make Taputapuatea a United Nations World Heritage Site.
Jarring rituals of human sacrifice to appease Oro, the ancient god of war, are also said to have occurred at Taputapuatea during its heyday.
As the ancient canoes from abroad would arrive at the Te Ava Mo‘a channel (the same passage Hokule‘a is slated to cross this week), their crews would slay human sacrifices and lay the victims across the bow deck alongside shark, fish and turtle sacrifices, according to the 19th-century writer Teuira Henry, who’s considered an authority on ancient Polynesia.
Once on land, the corpses would be hung from trees by sennit strung through their skulls, according to Henry. She based much of her writings on the notes that her missionary grandfather took, and the firsthand accounts he got from locals there.
Corpses were also used as rollers to get the canoes up onto the beach, Henry wrote in the book “Ancient Tahiti.”
“When you read it, you pick up on the horror and the gruesome kind of history attached to the Oro cult,” Fong said. “That’s not to say that didn’t happen elsewhere, it just was graphically recorded and allows us to sort of imagine what it was like there.”
Other highly developed Polynesian societies, including ancestral Hawaiians, also incorporated human sacrifice into their most sacred rituals, he noted.
At Taputapuatea, centuries-old skulls were once stacked in rows in the crevices of the temple, according to Henry. “Bleached with age, these skulls lay sacred upon the marae, untouched by native or white residents until recently, when tourists” desecrated the site by carrying them away, she wrote more than 100 years ago.
“While it may have struck awe and fear in the hearts of people, there was this magnetism toward that place,” Fong said.
Hokule‘a crew members have carried part of the ancient temple with them throughout the Malama Honua voyage. They’ve kept an adze (an axlike carving tool) fashioned from stone at Taputapuatea aboard the canoe.
For each leg of the journey, a chosen crew member has safeguarded the temple relic. It’s often strapped to their backs as the crew ventures on land. Whenever the canoe sails into a new ocean, its steward carefully leans down to dip the adze into the water.
The stone piece aboard Hokule‘a actually represents the larger hui of dedicated canoe voyagers across the Pacific region — a group known formally as the Ohana Wa‘a (“Canoe Family”). In 2009, the ohana’s first members each took turns tightly lashing a handle to the adze to signify their bond. They haven’t yet given the piece a name, according to Richards, the Hokule‘a crew member.
Hawaii can trace the lineage of its chiefs and priests back to Taputapuatea, and stones from that temple were built into several Hawaii heiau to consecrate them, according to Fong and others.
“You go there with a higher level of appreciation, but also a responsibility,” Fong said of the temple. “You’re there because you’re claiming something that belongs to you, that you need to care for.”
Hokule‘a and Hikianalia are slated to sail back to Tahiti on Wednesday after the temple ceremony, so that crews can prepare for the final, approximately 2,700-mile leg of the voyage to Hawaii. A ceremony to welcome the canoes back to local shores is scheduled for June 17 at Magic Island.