Garden of the Gods: Visiting Kauai’s hidden Hindu monastery

There I stood, hugging a rudraksha tree. Hugging it like it was one of my parents. And I wasn’t the only one. Several visitors from the mainland U.S. and a local horticulturalist were doing the same—all of us, for the moment, literal tree-huggers. 

A few hours at Kauai Aadheenam, tucked amid the breathtaking verdure straddling the winding, greenish-blue waters of the Wailua River near Kapaa, had inspired the arboreal affection and a oneness with Mother Nature.

“Hug the tree and it will take away your stress,” instructed Vel Alahan, a practicing Hindu who volunteers at the tropical sanctuary better known as Kauai’s Hindu Monastery. “You can have a real Hawaii vacation!”

The 45-year-old monastery, seminary and temple complex, identified as one of the world’s most important Hindu holy sites, is home to 24 monks. All are men, and all are sworn to lifetime vows of celibacy, piety and poverty. The complex occupies 382 acres composed of multiple gardens, ponds, waterways, tree groves and meandering paths. Rooted in the Hindu tradition of Sri Lanka and South India, the monastery was founded in 1970 by Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, a contemporary Hindu leader recognized for advocating Hinduism outside of India.

Resident monks and devotees of Hinduism are the only individuals allowed to participate in puja—morning worship held in the monastery complex’s Sri Lankan-inspired Kadavul Temple. Other areas of the complex’s lush acreage, however, are open to the public each morning for touring from 9 a.m. to noon. The free guided tour I took is offered once weekly.

“This property is one of the most beautiful places in the state of Hawaii and we love sharing it,” resident monk Paramacharya Sadasivanathaswami tells me after the tour. 

His white beard full and flowing, his eyes kind, Sadasivanathaswami (pronounced sadah-seevah-natha-swah-me) is dressed in the orange robes worn by the monastery’s swami, a title bestowed after acceptance of vows and more than a decade of training. Sadasivanathaswami lives in a small concrete structure on the monastery grounds and sleeps on the floor. His ascetic home has no running water or electricity. But the idyllic beauty surrounding the structure, in which he has lived for more than four decades, offsets the dearth of modern- world niceties.

Resident monks at morning worship in the monastery’s Kadvul Temple. Photo: Kicka Witte

Half of the Kauai monastery’s visitors are Hindu, arriving on pilgrimage to worship in the Kadvul Temple. Inside the stone- and wood-constructed temple—the monastery’s first, finished in 1973—108 gold-leaf-encased statues of the Hindu supreme god Siva, each in a different pose, line the walls. Just outside the temple sits a 16-ton statue of Nandi the bull, a representation of the perfect Hindu devotee. It was carved from a single stone.The monastery’s second temple—its architecture guided by founder Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, who passed away in 2001—is still under construction. Called the Iraivan Temple, stonemasons in Bangalore, India, began hand-carving the massive structure’s white, gray and black granite components in 1990, shipping each piece by piece to Hawaii. Assembly of the narrow, gold-leaf-domed temple at Kauai’s Hindu Monastery began in 2001 and is 95 percent completed. The cost so far is $8 million, with completion contingent upon donations and the availability of traditionally skilled sculptors to finish its remaining elements.

The detail of each component is a wonder to behold. Each is intricately carved, deftly conveying everything from details of Indian life and Hindu tales to Hawaii flora. Standing beside it, I felt for a moment as if I was in India, peering into an architectural masterpiece.

A sweeping view of the Wailua River’s north fork, seen from a stone pathway near the Kadvul Temple, pulled me back into the wonderful natural beauty of Kauai. Wandering the monastery grounds, I even caught a distant view of Waialeale, the island’s dominant central mountain, framed by a close-up landscape exemplifying Kauai’s “Garden Island” moniker. “We are trying to make the property a botanical preserve,” says Sadasivanathaswami, also the editor of the Hindu faith’s internationally distributed magazine, Hinduism Today. Sadasivanathaswami meticulously cultivated the Kauai monastery’s sacred, medicinal and culinary trees from India, as well as hundreds of varieties of Hawaii heliconia, ginger, water lilies, ti, palms and more. The monks grow 70 percent of everything they eat on the monastery grounds, even producing cheese, ghee and yogurt from a dozen resident cows. 

Sadasivanathaswami tells me every Hindu temple has flower gardens, used, in part, for offerings. But the gardens at  Kauai’s Hindu Monastery are particularly robust when compared to other temples.

“We’ve taken our flower garden to excess,” he says, laughing. 

Sadasivanathaswami reveals that his favorite place to meditate is at a shrine on the bank of the Wailua River. At the end of our tour, my companions find bliss under a giant Indian banyan tree, encircled by six flat rocks for meditation. I linger alongside a large, tranquil river pond. 

“The grounds are like a living temple,” says Sadasivanathaswami. “One visitor described the granite temple as masculine and unmoving [and] the garden temple [as] living and feminine. The contrast and balance is the completeness you feel when you’re here.” 

I still don’t know if it was my hugging the rudraksha tree, or my time within the natural beauty of the monastery, but the rest of my week following my visit was, indeed, less stressful.