In ancient Hawaii the Ipu plant was sacred and considered the kino lau (body form) of Lono, the Hawaiian god of agriculture. Ipus were so precious that they were often named after ancestors and handed down from one generation to the next. The Ipu played an important part in sustaining life in old Hawaii: It held the precious dinking water, medicines and food. It accompanied hula dances and chanting during festive and spiritual ceremonies. Up to today, the sacred rhythm of the ipu is heard in Kahiko (ancient) and Auana (modern) hulas.
Two varieties of the ipu were cultivated by ancient Hawaiians: the ipu manalo, or sweet gourd for eating; and the ipu 'awa'awa, or bitter gourd for medicine and containers. Through selective breeding the ipu 'awa'awa was developed into many sizes and shapes. After the harvest the gourds were hollowed, cleaned and polished to a shine. Sometimes they were painted on or decorated with leis in a special, artistic manner. All the symbols had a meaning. The colors and shapes were expressing important messages.