Category: Ifugao.

Northern heights

TEXT AND PHOTOS BY: SAM L. MARCELO, Reporter

MOUNTAINS HAVE the annoying habit of making you aware of your irrelevance.

While in the presence of their aloof majesty, you realize that you are but lint on the bellybutton of the universe. Such is the power of the chest-expanding beauty of the north.

The Banaue Rice Terraces remain to be the most recognizable symbol of the Cordillera Region. Its picture is on the back of the P1,000 bill and it’s even prettier in person. The people of Ifugao are legitimately proud of this marvel located 5,000 feet above sea level. A common boast is that if the steps, which cover roughly 4,000 square miles of mountainside, were put end to end, they would encircle half the globe.

In 1995, the terrace system was inscribed in UNESCO’s World Heritage List as a “living cultural landscape of unparalleled beauty.”

Two years later, in 1997, the Philippine Institute of Civil Engineers (PICE) and the American Society of Civil Engineers named it an Inter-national Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. A plaque installed at the Engineer’s Viewpoint estimates that the terraces were completed around 1,000 B.C. A few feet away, an obelisk also erected by the PICE says that the terraces are older by a thousand years.

At another viewing site, a hand-painted sign refutes the estimates used by both engineering associations. According to this sign, the terraces, which were built with “mini-mal equipment, largely by hand,” are 2,000 years old.

Knowing that the Banaue Rice Terraces are a matter of regional and national pride, it is understandable that eyebrows raised in disbelief when Stephen Acabado, now an assistant professor of anthropology and archaeology at the University of Guam, released a study that cast doubts over the antiquity of the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” as the Ifugao like to call the terraces.

Done in 2009 while Mr. Acabado was still a doctoral student at the University of the Hawaii, the dissertation titled “A Bayesian approach to dating agricultural terraces: a case from the Philippines,” found that the terraces are younger than previously thought. If Mr. Acabado’s findings are correct, the Banaue Rice Terraces were built circa 1500 to 1600 AD, making them 400 to 500 years old — or “young,” in this case.

Mr. Acabado’s article is an experi-mental methodology that used Bayesian approach to date a specific terrace system in Banaue, which is presumably the youngest of all major terrace systems in the region.

In an e-mail interview with BusinessWorld, he explained that the approach seems to be valid for the Ifugao terraces and can be useful to finally settle the debates on the age of the terraces after obtaining more Carbon14 samples from other terrace systems.

“I am not making a generalization that the whole Ifugao terrace system is post-Hispanic in origin yet,” he said. “Corollary to this, there is no scientific basis for the 2,000-year-old origins either.”

Asked if the younger age he proposed would somehow diminish the value of the terraces, Mr. Acabado replied that it wouldn’t. “The terraces are a magnificent manifestation of humanity’s ingenuity. A terrace built yesterday is as important as the ones built 500 years ago,” he said, adding that the point of his investigation was to contribute to the conservation and preservation of Ifugao local know-ledge as well as to anchor his discus-sions about social organization.

One of Mr. Acabado’s motivations for carrying out his research is tied to his experience as an elementary and high school student interested in history. “I still remember reading textbooks describing highland peo-ple (i.e. Igorots) as ‘primitive,’” he said. “When I first saw the terraces, I said to myself that there was no way that ‘primitive’ people constructed them. There was nothing ‘primitive’ about the place.”

According to the professor, the younger dates suggest that the people who settled in Central Cordillera were a highly skilled group who were able to modify the rugged topography to produce irrigated rice. The dates also suggest that the people who built the terraces had a social organization adapted to rice production, similar to all pre-Hispanic Philippine lowland populations.

“I think that it would be more important for us to focus on the realization that the lowland-highland division that we seem to see as real is just a product of history and colonialism rather than differences in biology or environment,” he said.

Upon reading Mr. Acabado’s dissertation, Pedro Dulawan, chairperson of the Ifugao Heritage Council, said that he had concerns regarding the basis of the study which he deemed “somewhat controversial.”

Both Messrs. Acabado and Dulawan, however, agree on one thing: age does not matter where the terraces are concerned.

“Assuming it is true that they are 400 to 500 years old, it doesn’t change anything. They’re still the Banaue Rice Terraces and their significance lies in the fact that they are part of the identity of the Ifugao people.” Indeed, standing before the terraces, you don’t really care about their age. The only thing you care about is how chest-achingly amazing they are and how human hands carved them out of the mountainside.

A larger matter of concern would be the physical damage wrought on the steps by drought and erosion, and the sprawl of houses jeopardizing the verdant panorama.

In 2001, the Banaue Rice Terraces were included by UNESCO in its List of World Heritage in Danger because of “conditions which threaten the very characteristics for which a pro-perty was inscribed on the World Heritage List.” According to UNESCO, if a site loses the characteristics which determined its inscription on the World Heritage List, the World Heritage Committee may decide to delete it.

‘People forget’

The terrace system is not the only symbol of the northern heritage in peril. The Hudhud, an Ifugao chant recited during the harvesting and weeding of rice, funeral wakes, and bone-washing (bogwa) rituals, was in danger of being forgotten by con-temporary Filipinos before the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) created the Hudhud Schools for Living Tradition and initiated annual competitions in 2006.

Recognized in 2001 by the UNESCO as one of the “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity,” the Hudhud is estimated to have originated before the 7th century. According to the NCCA, the chant is composed of over 200 stories, each having 40 episodes that are almost impossible to transcribe because of “repetitions, synonyms, figurative terms and metaphors.”

Last June, the Ifugao province celebrated its 43rd founding anniversary through Gotad ad Ifugao, a festival held in the capital town of Lagawe. The big-tent atmosphere included street dancing, indigenous games, and agroindustrial fairs. Under surprisingly hot weather, hawkers sold cotton candy and balloons that came in the shape of Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob SquarePants, while majorettes in tasseled boots and white silk uniforms led drummers through the narrow streets of the town.

On a stage, a little girl recently crowned “Ifugao Idol” sang a pop tune about unity and love for Ifugao and Kabunian. Several performances later, younglings dressed in traditional clothes sang Hudhud excerpts as part of a contest. A munhaw-e, or lead chanter, would begin the chant, essentially a round song based on a pentatonic scale.

After the children, wizened contestants also in traditional costume competed. Though toothless and white-haired, the old Ifugao chanters had voices that were surer, richer in timbre, and more textured than their beautifully lined faces.

“Our culture is diminishing because people forget,” said Ramon Tinawi, outgoing mayor of Hingyon, the municipality that won the Hudhud Perpetual Award this year. Mr. Tinawi estimated that only 20% of Ifugao youth have knowledge of the Hudhud. Christianity and the modern forces of industrialization, education, and development have forced Bugan and the other old gods into oblivion. The survival of the Hudhud and other intangible forms of heritage, he observed, could depend on festivals such as the Gotad ad Ifugao, which are important occasions for cultural transfer.

One practice that isn’t in danger of going anywhere is the chewing of betel nut, a mild stimulant that stains a user’s mouth pink. Local govern-ment has peppered Lagawe with signs reminding citizens not to spit on the road. While the campaign has succeeded in the town proper, the market’s streets are bathed in red.

Kissing concrete

Inhaling the rarefied air of the north inspires two things: unembar-rassed enthusiasm and unmitigated navel-gazing. The sun is brighter; the night, quieter, clearer, and starrier; the thunder, louder; the flowers, vivider; and the water, colder — cold enough to make hair sprout on your chest.

From Banaue, it’s worthwhile to pass through Bontoc and the terraces of Barangay Bayyo en route to Sagada, Mountain Province. The trip is several hours long and you’ll be travelling on a thread-like road that clings to the mountainside while it struggles to encompass — not even contain — the girth of the Cordilleras.

Parts of the road have fallen away because of landslides, leaving just enough concrete for a vehicle to pass through. At this height, awe is tinged with fear. A passenger seeing a moun-tain peak from a car window is akin to an ant standing eye-to-eye with a giant. Bloated reveries such as this, though, are squished by things like an impatient bus overtaking a four-vehicle convoy inching its way up the road.

Sagada is home to woven pro-ducts, Ub-Ubbo pottery, hanging coffins, and lemon pie. Enjoying its natural treasures requires a modicum of physical effort. There is no choice but to get up at 4 a.m., for example, if you want to experience dawn breaking at Sunrise Peak. Early-morning crankiness is forgotten when you’re standing 5,000 feet above sea level with the clouds — the breath of the earth — at your feet.

For the price of two hours of sweat trekking through concrete paths that wind way up and down the terraces of Banga-an, Modongo, and Fidelisan, you are rewarded with the powerful sight of Bomod-Ok Falls or Big Falls, a massive 200-foot water-fall. A spray of mist swirls by the basin, safe enough for swimmers who don’t mind the bone-chilling cold or the mighty roar of rushing water. Once again, the largeness of the falls framed by mountains dwarfs every-thing around it, overweening human egos included.

Sagada makes you feel alive through the ache in your muscles and the anxiety in your chest as you crawl, slip, and slide in the darkness of its caves. Depending on your fitness, spelunking through the 1.5-kilometer two-cave system of Lumiang and Sumaguing could take four to eight hours.

Our group of six — the “Sagada Six” as we christened ourselves after we managed to emerge exhausted but still breathing — took about four hours, the average time according to our guides. Our hands were slick with bat guano, our clothes soaked and muddy down to our underwear, our bodies weary.

We were too exultant to care. From the cave’s yawning mouth, an ancient burial ground stacked with coffins, wonders never ceased: stalac-tites, stalagmites, and other rock formations shaped like human geni-talia seen by the yellow flame of a gas lantern. Topside, it rained, creating a temporary waterfall through a sky-light. Caving is like time travel. We began while the sun was shining and surfaced from subterranean darkness to a night spangled with stars. I said “hello” to the moon and kissed the road in thanks.

(To go on your own Sagada adven-ture, contact SaGGAs or the Sagada Genuine Guides Association through http://sagadagenuineguides. blogspot.com. The NCCA recommends SaGGAs member Rodolfo Malidom, who can be contacted at 0910-459-2757)

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Category: Ifugao
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