I Mauna Lahilahi ko Wehi (Ka‘iulani)

An Essay by Kīhei de Silva

Haku mele: Unknown. 

Date of composition:  I suggest below that the chant was composed for Ka‘iulani in the mid-1880s, prior to her mother’s death and her own departure to England.  One can easily argue, however, that it was revised after her 1897 return – both in commemoration of those early, untroubled years and as an expression of loyalty to a fallen monarchy and its heir apparent.

Sources:  1) “Ka‘iulani,” Mary Kawena Pukui Collection as taught to Māpuana de Silva by Mrs. Patience Namaka Bacon at a Kalōpā, Hawai‘i, workshop in June 1982.  2) “I Maunalahilahi ko wehi,” part five of a five-paukū mele inoa whose opening lines are, “Aia i ka mauna ko wehi / I ka uhiwai o Manā,” HI.M.42:364-5, Bishop Museum Archives. 3) “I Maunalahilahi ko wehi,” Kapi‘olani-Kalākaua Collection, HI.M.10:109, Bishop Museum Archives.

Our text:  From the Pukui Collection as taught to Māpuana de Silva by Mrs. Bacon at Kalōpā, Hawai‘i, in June 1982.  English translation by Mrs. Pukui.  Hawaiian orthographic editing by Kīhei de Silva.

Mauna Lahilahi, literally “Thin Mountain,"[1] juts into the ocean at the foot of Mākaha Valley at the boundary between the ahupua’a of Wai’anae and Mākaha.  Its 230-foot height makes it less mauna than hill, but its thin, sliced-with-a-knife appearance certainly validates the lahilahi half of its name.  The Mākaha shoulder of Mauna Lahilahi curves into the small bay of Keawaiki; a wide sandy beach named Papaoneone once defined the shoreline here,[2] but much of it has been lost to storm surf, the rising sea-level, and insufficient construction set-backs.  In the last decades of the Hawaiian Kingdom, visitors to Owen and Hanakaulani Holt’s home at Mākaha Ranch arrived at Keawaiki [3] on small steamers like John Cummin’s Waimānalo, came ashore on smaller rowboats, and rode inland on an enormous, lumbering, English-made Tally-Ho coach pulled by a team of chestnut horses.  The Holts were staunch supporters of their mō‘ī – in both the heyday of Kalākaua’s early reign and the dark days of Lili‘u’s deposition;[4] consequently, they counted the King, his family, and his court as their most cherished guests.


During this time [the Holt estate] became a very successful, very lavish place – guest cottages all around the big house.  They expanded the big house, they added to it, they built new luas, oh my goodness, there were all sorts of things.  A little zoo for the kids, and it was in those days that everybody used to go up to Mākaha for weekends to visit.  Sometimes the whole court would go out – King Kalākaua, Queen Kapi‘olani, Princess Kekaulike, Po‘omaikelani.  ALL of them.  And the little boys, Jonah and David…They would ALL go out to Mākaha.  There are a lot of stories – a lot of mo‘olelo about those visits.  They had great hula dancers; Kekaulike was a great hula dancer.  Auntie Jennie Wilson told me that whenever [Kekaulike] went anywhere she went with her troops.  And Lili‘uokalani, Leleiōhōkū, they [brought] the singing troops…[and] Kekaulike composed SO MANY songs.  Kekaulike, Eliza Holt…they were always composing hulas for the occasion.  Auntie Jennie always used to say “I don’t know what happened to [those mele] – if any of them were written down.”  She always used to ask me if I knew what happened to Eliza Holt’s papers.  I said, “In the fire, perhaps – Who knows?” … Anyhow, [that’s how] the golden days of Mākaha were established.[5]

“I Mauna Lahilahi ko Wehi” was probably inspired by a royal visit to the Holt estate in those golden days of Mākaha Ranch.  We have no record of the mele’s historical context, but the congruence of text, geography, and Holt family memories strongly suggests a mid-1880s scenario: the young Ka‘iulani, as yet untouched by death, “exile,” or overthrow,[6] arrives at Mauna Lahilahi in the company of her beloved Pāpā and Māmā Mō‘ī (her names for Kalākaua and Kapi‘olani).  She is greeted with wehi (adornments; adorning name-chants) of flowers and words.  One such wehi – “I Mauna Lahilahi"– is composed in celebration of her arrival; perhaps its authors are Kekaulike Kinoiki and her po‘e hula; perhaps it is the work of Po‘omaikelani or Eliza Holt.  In any case, the chant opens by offering Ka‘iulani a lei of “pua māmane melemele”: “Here at Mauna Lahilahi is your adornment; it is made of the golden blossoms of the māmane tree.”  Since the māmane grows in the upper elevations of all the islands but O‘ahu and Moloka‘i, [7] its appearance here signals the laha ‘ole (rare, uncommon) nature of both lei and recipient.  Since the māmane blossom is figurative of a very attractive person[8] – in full flower, the māmane tree is “dramatically beautiful"[9] and a favorite of birds that feed on its nectar and seed pods[10] – its appearance here speaks of Ka‘iulani’s beauty and her mesmerizing effect on those around her.  And since the māmane blossom is both ali‘i-associated[11] and quick to wither, its appearance here also points up the near desperation with which Hawai‘i embraced its few and fragile royal children.  Thus, the chant’s single, seemingly simple, opening reference to a pua māmane strikes a complex chord of association and emotion that issues from Ka‘iulani’s rare, irresistible, and oh-so-cherished presence.

The second verse of “I Mauna Lahilahi” shifts its focus from flower to princess and from beauty to status: “You are anointed with coconut water whose fragrance is wafted by the gentle Kaiāulu breeze.” The ponia (to be anointed) and niu (coconut) of its first line carry considerable import, especially in reference to the only child of the siblings of a childless king, and cannot be glossed as the simple dripping of water from coconut trees after a passing shower.  Ponia also means “to be crowned, consecrated, appointed.”  The coconut tree – revered as the body of Kū[12] – is symbolic of a male chief whose power “reaches skyward” and whose “influence…rises and becomes overwhelming.”[13]   In 1877, Kalākaua named his sisters Lili‘uokalani and Likelike as first and second in the line of succession; they were to be followed by Likelike’s daughter Ka‘iulani.[14]   When considered in this light, “ponia i ka wai o ka niu” clearly refers to Ka‘iulani's designation by Kalākaua as third heir apparent to the throne.  The soft, refreshing touch of the Kaiāulu breeze in the second line of the verse serves to confirm and broadcast Ka‘iulani’s status.  This wind is traditionally characterized as the bringer of life to the Wai‘anae coast;[15] it greets Ka‘iulani upon her arrival at Mauna Lahilahi and bears the life-continuing, coconut water fragrance of her anointment.  The nation will live because of its Queen-to-be.  Since the Kaiāulu originates in Wai‘anae and arrives at Mauna Lahilahi by way of Pōka‘ī Bay to the south,[16] we are also reminded of the once-famous coconut grove of that district: O‘ahu people maintain that the first coconuts in the islands were planted at Nene‘u, Pōka‘ī, by Pōka‘ī, a chief from “distant Kahiki."[17]  A wind that carries the fragrance of niu from Pōka‘ī is thus a wind of ancestral approval; the founding ali‘i of generations past join with Kalākaua in validating the inheritance of their granddaughter. 

The third, culminating verse of the song releases the floodgates of love for Ka‘iulani and offers a prayer of hope for the ulu (life, growth, health, inspiration) of princess, nation, and people. Verse one introduces us to the beautiful, rare flower that is both Ka‘iulani’s adornment and a reflection of Ka‘iulani herself.  Verse two describes nature’s confirmation – through coconut water and wind-blown fragrance – of the royal child as heir to the throne and choice of her ancestors.  Verse three brings flower and natural action together in the drenching of the māmane in the Nāulu rain: “The Nāulu comes this way to soak the māmane blossom.”  A nāulu is a sudden, unexpected shower; the Nāulu are specific island rains.  The Nāulu that falls on Ka‘iulani is a metaphor of climactic emotion.  If this were a song of physical love, we could say that the act is here consummated; since it is a welcoming and adorning song for a princess, we can say that the full impact of her presence is now expressed in a spontaneous outpouring of aloha.  There are four Nāulu rains: the Nāulu of Kawaihae, Hawai‘i; the Nāulu of Kanaloa, Maui; the Nāulu of Hālawa, Moloka‘i; and the Nāulu of Ni‘ihau and West Kaua‘i.[18]  Like the māmane, the Nāulu does not occur on O‘ahu – except, of course, in the presence of Ka‘iulani.  The Nāulu that falls on Ka‘iulani is thus a kingdom-spanning rain; it falls from Hawai‘i in the south to Ni‘ihau in the north.[19]  It falls now for the princess at Mauna Lahilahi; so does Ka‘iulani attract and unite her people.

The characteristics of these Nāulu rains also add meaning to their presence in Ka‘iulani’s chant.  The Nāulu brings life to the parched Kawaihae coast, but its appearance is often associated with malihini discomfort: visitors are unprepared for this Nāulu “because it seems to come out of a cloudless sky, [but] a native knows by observing the winds and other signs of nature just what to expect."[20]  Ni‘ihau people define the Nāulu as a “fair and gentle wind from the north, sometimes known as a ‘royal’ wind,"[21] and their proverbs for the Nāulu dwell on its feminine attributes: “Hanohano Ni‘ihau i ka‘u ‘ike, a ka Nāulu a‘e ho‘oipo nei – Famous is the Ni‘ihau that I see, caressed and loved by the Nāulu wind."[22]  Kaua‘i people emphasize the cooling nature of their Nāulu when it crosses the Ka‘ulakahi channel and brings moisture to Waimea: “Maika‘i Waimea i ka la‘i / I ke ahe mai a ka Nāulu – Waimea is perfectly beautiful in the calm / Because of the Nāulu’s gentle touch."[23]  Other capacities attributed to the various Nāulu include those of love-making, flower-adorning, and kapu-signaling:

Aloha pililua i ka ua a ka Nāulu

Ka ua hau lipo i ka nahele.

We two share love in the Nāulu rain

The dark, cool rain of the forest.[24]

Nani wale ku‘u pua i ka wai

I ka lohia e ka ua Nāulu.

So beautiful is my water-soaked flower

Made to sparkle by the Nāulu rain.[25]

Kalani nui Liholiho i ke kapu he inoa

He kapu ‘oe no kuwalalua kauhale a ke ao

He ao he hale makani na ka Nāulu.

Kalaninuiliholihoikekapu is your name.

You are the sacred one of the tumbling cloud houses

A cloud formation, a wind house built by the Nāulu.[26]

All told, the various Nāulu rains suggest a retinue of loyal attendants gathered about Ka‘iulani, all bearing gifts of life, love, comfort, beauty, and sacredness.  These are what she attracts, what will accrue to her when she gains the throne.  Their promise can be summarized as the ulu of Kaiāulu and Nāulu (and perhaps of “ho‘opulu i ka pua”; the sound repetition cannot, I think, be accidental).  Ka‘iulani is doused in ulu-bringing rain; her people's hopes for the ulu of their nation rest in her.

The fourth and fifth verses of “I Mauna Lahilahi” adhere to the conventions of the wehi form: the adornment is offered, the recipient is named, and the song is brought to an end with a restatement of its intent: “The māmane is made into an adornment for the heavenly one, for you O Kawēkiulani; this ends my song to my lady, to Ka‘iulani, whose adornment this is.”  The mele’s verse-four use of Kawēkiulani – Victoria Kawēkiulani Lunalilo Kalaninuiahilapalapa Ka‘iulani’s second given name – is highly appropriate.  Wēkiu means tip, topmost, summit, highest rank.  Lani means sky, heaven, royal one.  The standard translation of Kawēkiulani, then, is the royal height.[27] In the context of the pua māmane of Mauna Lahilahi, however, the name takes on a more organic connotation: she is the choicest blossom at the very tip of the royal tree.  The blossom suits her because she is that which the blossom represents. 

Mauna Lahilahi is one of twelve wehi chants composed for Ka‘iulani and preserved in the Kapi‘olani-Kalākaua HI.M.10 Collection;[28] all comply with the opening-line formula “Aia i place ko wehi”[29] followed by a second line that identifies a specific flower or rain as her adornment: “Aia i Hanalei ko wehi nani / Ka pua ‘a‘ala o ka mokihana,”[30]  “Aia i Ulukou ko wehi nani / ‘O ka pua iliau nono i ka lā,”[31] “Aia i Ka‘ena ko wehi / I ka pipili ‘ula o ke kula.”[32]  Place names of the other wehi chants include Lehua Island, Hā‘ena (Kaua‘i), Ko‘iahi (Wai’anae), Hu‘ehu‘e (Hawai‘i), and Mānā (Hawai‘i); their adornments include kauna‘oa, hala, maile (twice), and the uhiwai mist. 

Despite the apparent popularity of these wehi in Ka‘iulani’s time, only “I Mauna Lahilahi” survives today in anything other than manuscript form.  Our hula noho, hula kuhi lima belongs to the Mary Kawena Pukui repertoire and was taught to us by Kawena’s daughter, Mrs. Pat Namaka Bacon, at a 1982 workshop at Kalōpā, Hawai‘i.  The workshop was sponsored by Keahi Allen’s State Council on Hawaiian Heritage.  Since then, we have reviewed the voice and motions of the mele hula regularly with Aunty Maka (Mrs. Bacon); we have performed it several times in her presence and twice in her honor.  We have come away, each time, with praise and carefully constructive criticism: motions to smooth out, wrists to relax, fingers to soften, fine distinctions to understand and convey.

Aunty Maka is particularly concerned with two aspects of the dance: 1) softness of wrist and hand, and 2) overall fluidity of movement.  It is not a stop-and-go, one-two-three-four hula; graceful transitions are as important as the place, lei, and flower motions they flow into and out of.  Her most frequent hula observation of late is directed at the unappealing stiffness of today’s dance and dancers.  Where, she keeps asking, did all this rigor mortis come from? 

We present “I Mauna Lahilahi Ko Wehi” at this year’s Merrie Monarch Festival with Aunty Maka’s permission and with her understanding that our Maya Saffery (who has been working on this hula since 1998) will dance and chant it in a manner as close to the original as we are capable. E ola nā iwi [33] is our sole concern in this presentation: to honor Ka‘iulani with the only surviving hula of her twelve HI.M.10 wehi, and to assure Aunty Maka that this Mauna Lahilahi has been properly transmitted, me ka rigor mortis ‘ole, me ka evolution ‘ole, to yet another generation. 

I Mauna Lahilahi (Ka‘iulani)

I Mauna Lahilahi ko wehi

‘O ka pua māmane melemele

I ponia i ka wai o ka niu

Kaiāulu a‘e ‘oe he moani

Ma ‘ane‘i mai ka ua Nāulu

Ho‘opulu i ka pua māmane

He wehi kāhiko no Kalani

‘O Kawēkiulani nō ‘oe

Ha‘ina ‘ia mai ka wahine

No Ka‘iulani nō ia wehi.

Your adornment is at Mauna Lahilahi

The golden hued māmane blossoms

Anointed by water that drops from the coco palms

Whose fragrance is wafted when the Kaiāulu blows

The Nāulu rain comes this way

To moisten the blossoms of the māmane

They are to be made into adornments for the heavenly one

For you, O Kawēkiulani

This ends my song to my lady

To Ka‘iulani, whose adornment this is.


1- Elspeth Sterling and Catherine Summers, Sites of O‘ahu, 77.

2- John Clark, The Beaches of O‘ahu, 99.

3- Or at Brown's Beach in ‘Ewa.  Conversation between John Dominis Holt and Agnes Cope, July 21, 1983, in Ka Po‘e Kahiko o Wai‘anae, 185.  Holt notes that the coach was ordered from England in the 1850s by Owen’s father Robert: “it was a BIG COACH – the Tally-Ho they called it.”

4- Dennis Kauahi, a Kaua‘i-raised descendant of the Mākaha Holts, told me how his kūpuna were forced to move to Kekaha, Kaua‘i, because the Provisional Government suspected them of plotting to restore Lili‘u to the throne (Personal Communication, August 1997).

5- Holt, 179.

6- Ka‘iulani's mother Likelike died in 1887 when the princess was 11.  Ka‘iulani was sent to England for schooling in 1889 – in preparation for the day when she would rule the islands.  In the last years of her eight-year absence, she came to refer to her situation as exile.  Ka‘iulani did not return to Hawai‘i until 1897; in the meantime, Kalākaua had died, Lili‘u had been overthrown, and the counter-revolution had failed; she returned, then, as heir presumptive to a kingdom that no longer existed. 

7- J.F. Rock, The Indigenous Trees of the Hawaiian Islands, 187.

8-  Kawena Pukui, ‘Ōlelo No‘eau, #408. “Haiamū ka manu i ka pua o ka māmane – The birds gather about the māmane blossom.”

9- Charles Stone and Linda Pratt, Hawai‘i’s Plants and Animals, 247.

10- Charles Lamoureux, Trailside Plants of Hawai‘i’s National Parks, 36.

11- Marie McDonald, Ka Lei, 63.  Pukui’s ‘Ōlelo No‘eau, #227 also associates māmane wood with royalty.

12- Isabella Abbot, Lā‘au Hawai‘i, 35.

13- ‘Ōlelo No‘eau, #560 and #926. 

14- Barbara Petersen (ed.), Notable Women of Hawai‘i, 181.  Lili‘u confirmed Ka‘iulani as her heir apparent in March 1891 (Kuykendall, The Hawaiian Kingdom, 3:477).

15- ‘Ōlelo No‘eau, #2495.  “Ola Wai‘anae i ka makani Kaiāulu. Wai‘anae is made comfortable by the Kaiāulu breeze.”  A more literal translation might be “Wai‘anae lives through the Kaiāulu breeze.” 

16- The Kaiāulu is traditionally associated with niu and Pōka‘ī; see, for example, the Hi‘iakaikapoliopele chant that begins “A makani Kaiaulu lalo o Waianae / E wehe aku ana i ka lau o ka niu” (HI. M.51. Bk. 1:130-131, Bishop Museum Archives) and the Peabody collected “A makani Kaiaulu o Waianae / O Kuaiwi i Pokai e” (FHI. L.23:87). 

17- Abbot, 33.

18- Moses Nakuina, The Wind Gourd of La‘amaomao, 50, 67, 69, 66, 135.

19- Kingdom-spanning is usually achieved in Hawaiian poetry of the period by means of sun imagery: the sun rises at Kumukahi, Hawai‘i, passes over each of the islands, and comes to rest in the west at Ni‘ihau or Lehua.  A similar poetic device is the roll call of islands found, for example, in “Kaulana nā Pua” – ‘Pane mai Hawai‘i, moku o Keawe…”  Our mele’s use of the Nāulu to accomplish the same purpose is at once masterful, subtle, and (to my knowledge) unique. 

20- ‘Ōlelo No‘eau, #1588.

21- Rereoterai Tava and Moses Keale Sr., Niihau, 27.

22- Tava, 28.  Similar sayings are given on pages 2 and 28. 

23-  These are the opening lines of a mele found in the Lili‘uokalani Collection, HI. M.5:194, Bishop Museum Archives.  “Ne‘ene‘e mai ‘o Ka‘ula,” a name chant for Kawānanakoa, contains a similar verse: “I ahona i ka Nāulu, / Malu ai nā kuahiwi – ‘Twas the Nāulu wind / That cooled the mountains” (Kawena Pukui Collection, as taught in 1992 by Mrs. Pat Namaka Bacon).

24- Micro 152.6, Bishop Museum Archives.  Translation mine.

25- Tililaulani.  Ka‘iulani Collection, HI.M.15, Bishop Museum Archives.  Translation mine.

26- A mele inoa for Kamehameha IV.  HI. M.32:144-145, Bishop Museum Archives.  Translation mine.

27- Pukui and Elbert, Hawaiian Dictionary, 383.

28- We have found two additional wehi of the same pattern in other chant collections; the total, therefore, is fourteen.

29- Or the more simple variation: “I place ko wehi.”

30- HI.M.10:106, Bishop Museum Archives, emphasis mine.

31- HI.M.10:101, Bishop Museum Archives, emphasis mine.  Ulukou is a Waikīkī place name; the iliau is a silversword relative found only on Kaua‘i.  This chant and Mauna Lahilahi are the only Ka‘iulani wehi I've examined that offer laha‘ole combinations of place and plant. 

32- HI.M.10:108, emphasis mine.  The pipili ‘ula is a native grass.

33- "May the 'bones' (elders/grandparents/ancestors) live."

© Kīhei de Silva 2005.  All rights reserved.
This essay was first published in Hālau Mōhala ‘Ilimaʻs 2005 Merrie Monarch Fact Sheet. 

It is offered here in slightly revised and updated form.