The Sober Basi Revolt *

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In any festivity or occasion happening around the world, an alcoholic drink always has to be involved. In fact, it is nearly impossible to completely make sense of the our history without one. As the American poet John Ciardi once said, “Fermentation and civilization are inseparable”. During the recent celebration of Guling-Guling, an almost 400-year old Fat Tuesday tradition in my hometown Paoay, one of the rituals that we revived and started highlighting again was the ceremonial public basi toast. Basi is an Ilocano alcoholic beverage made from sugarcane juice that is fermented and aged in a burnay, a traditional earthenware.

To understand better what is so special about the basi, I went to another town 20 minutes east of Laoag City. The town of Piddig – a small, still sleepy town on the foot of the Philippine Cordilleras – has always been known amongst Ilocanos as the place where the best basi is made. However, the town, nowadays, may have a better recall to the younger generations instead as the hometown of athlete Teofilo Ildefonso. Upon entering the town, visitors are greeted with several signage and markers reminding them that this is not only the basi capital of the Ilocos region, but, more importantly, it was the place where a local rebellion against the Spanish government started. As one approaches closer to the town proper, it is also hard to miss the humble shrine dedicated to the heroes behind the town’s single most important source of pride, the Basi Revolt of 1807.

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Tip of the Iceberg, Symbol of a Movement
My initial thoughts were, “How can alcohol and a fight ever be the best idea anyone can come up with?” It was just difficult, yet fun, to imagine intoxicated men waging an attack against the authorities. However, during my conversations with Mario Tejada, a senior member of the town’s cultural and historical council, he explained to me that the Basi Revolt carried with it deeper and darker sentiments of the Ilocano people at that time.

“The locals of Piddig were already tired of the injustices and abuses of the Spaniards, as well as fed up in having to render free and voluntary services for public works”, Tejada further shared while pointing to the direction of the baroque Sta. Ana church, suggesting that the structure is one of the most enduring legacies of forced labor in town. But, it was only when the Spanish authorities decided to monopolize and control the basi trade, imposing low prices and dictating scales of production, that the locals organized themselves, broke their silence, and fought back.

In his study on the Basi Revolt, researcher Jayson Antonio suggested that during those times basi was one of the only few — and free! – pleasures in life available to the masses: they drink it after a day of hard work in the fields, it socially binds people together, and it plays various important roles throughout the entire life-cycle of an Ilocano (i.e., they drink basi to celebrate birth and marriage, they offer basi to the deities in the hopes of a better harvest, they use basi in a ritualistic ablution after a funeral, among others). It comes then as no surprise that the colonizer’s prohibition to basi making and consumption caused a massive disruption to the Ilocano way of life, something that the people of Piddig were more than willing to fight and die for.

The 20-Day Basi Revolt: From Piddig to Gongogong River
It is said that the sufferings of the Ilocanos caused by the tobacco monopoly of 1782 and basi monopoly of 1786 provoked the locals of Piddig to hold arms, marching towards Vigan to protest. While the authorities saw these policies as means to generate more profit, the Ilocanos, on the other hand, saw them as being unfair, oppressive and unnecessary. Nevertheless, despite the monopoly and possible heavy penalties, some Tingguians, an indigenous people group in eastern Ilocos Norte, still produced homemade basi secretly. The well-to-do of the town knew about this and would take the risk to go there at night, unnoticed by the authorities, to buy the favorite local drink.

Pedro Mateo, a former cabeza de barangay of the town turned fugitive from the Spanish authorities, led the rebellion together with Ilocano-Tingguian Saralogo Ambaristo on September 8, 1807. Even before the outbreak of the revolt, Mateo had already been notorious for always finding himself against other government officials and their policies. Oftentimes, these ended in violent physical confrontations. It even came to a point that he was faced with multiple charges, including murder, giving him no other option than to hide in the mountains and seek refuge among his Tingguian friends. In the mountains he met other deserters and outlaws led by Ambaristo. Not long enough, the two organized a movement against the government and the local officials. For two months, they gathered more men in town to join them, and amassed ammunition and other weapons from as far as the garrisons of Vigan.

Various theories have been offered as to what the original agenda of the group was, from it being a non-violent collective airing of grievance to the alcalde mayor of Vigan, to an aggressive attempt to destabilize the Spanish government all the way to Manila. Unfortunately, local history does not remember too well the intents of the locals as it does with the revolt’s actual outcomes.

The first attack was made in the town of Sarrat, where they eventually killed all the guards and members of the pricipalia or the town’s elites. This was followed by other significant victories in the neighboring towns of Batac, San Nicolas, Laoag, Paoay, and Badoc before it reached its terminal in the battle of San Ildefonso in Ilocos Sur. Needless to say, the movement unfortunately died even before it even reached Vigan.

Antonio also wrote that Mateo’s group faced almost no resistance in Sinait, Cabugao, Lapog (present day San Juan) and Magsingal, and that they even gained support to their cause from the people of those towns. Meanwhile, the governor of Ilocos already assembled an army to confront the approaching rebellion at Gongogong river in San Ildefonso. With most of Mateo’s men only armed with bolos, and bows and arrows, they were easily decimated before the rifles and cannons of the governor’s troop on September 28, 1807. It has been said that the river became a river of blood when the massacre was over.

Shortly thereafter, Mateo and Ambaristo were eventually captured and they were both sentenced to death by hanging in the following month for rebellion. The public execution was done in the main plaza of Vigan, the present day Plaza Salcedo. The other surviving members of the rebellion, according to Tejada, were exiled in Mindoro, which explains the presence of a considerable population of Ilocano speakers in the island today.

Basi Today and the Revolt’s Rightful Place in History
A few years ago, in an attempt to make the Basi Revolt more relevant in this day and age, a play that recalls the events of the revolt was even staged during Piddig’s town fiesta. Sadly, however, the play was never shown again. As a cultural worker, I can only wish that the local government will continue such local initiatives that honor the memories and heroism of the fallen in 1807.

The most famous representations of the revolt, however, are on canvasses that are now housed in the National Museum – Vigan branch. Ilocano Esteban Villanueva painted 14 panels depicting the Basi Revolt in 1821, making the artwork one of the oldest extant paintings in the region to record an actual historical event. In 2012, Villanueva’s masterpieces were declared as National Cultural Treasures of the Philippines.

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Before heading back home, Tejada also illustrated how basi is so essential to Ilocanos by singing lovely folk songs that mention drinking it. Recently, there has been an observed reintroduction of basi as a popular, fancy and versatile drink as well. The sugarcane alcohol now receives better packaging and branding, and has even made its way into bars as a base for Ilocano-inspired cocktails.

Although the little-known Basi Revolt was a failed movement, it paved the way for the emergence of other uprisings in northern Philippines. These ultimately contributed to the awakening and birth of the Philippine Revolution of 1898 – almost a century later after Mateo and Ambaristo made their bold attempt. The revolt represented more than man’s sheer love for alcohol. More importantly, it was a rally point in unity and nationalism. The Basi Revolt is to be remembered as the starting point of the Ilocano aspiration towards freedom, and as a genuine display of Filipino bravery and strength in “spirit” – pun intended.

 

*First published in Locale Philippines’ Drink Up: The Beverage Issue (2017).

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Indonesian Batik

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Batik is a pan-Southeast Asian artform often associated with Muslim communities. It is a technique that involves wax-resist dyeing on a cloth, where the artist applies wax, following a desired pattern, through an instrument called canting. This is done prior to soaking the cloth to a dye solution in order to achieve color/s. The wax is then melted later on with hot water, revealing the difference between the dyed and the undyed portions. The appeal of this traditional art has become so influential and far-reaching that it has successfully found a place in mainstream fashion.

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A batik master artist from Mirota Batik shop in historic Jogjakarta

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A male batik artist spotted in the village inside the Jogjakarta Kraton (palace complex)

Indonesian Batik is considered to be the best, and it has been inscribed as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2009. It utilizes various motifs and inspirations not only from Islamic designs but also from Hindu-Buddhist, European, Chinese and even local ones, illustrating the cultural syncretism manifesting in the country.

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Various Indonesian Batik on display in one of the cloth shops along Malioboro street in Jogjakarta center.

As with other heritage textiles, the batik also plays an important role throughout the entire life cycle of an Indonesian, from life to death, making it a truly national icon. Every October 2nd, Indonesia celebrates “Batik Day”, commemorating the momentous day that the Indonesian Batik was added to the prestigious list.

Arguing for Historic Elim, South Africa

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One of the most pleasant surprises that we experienced in South Africa was when we decided to make a stop at a historic town, declared as a national monument, on the way to the Boland region from The Republic of Swellendam.

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Elim, a Moravian mission station established by German missionaries in 1824, retains much of its original textures, scoring high both in authenticity and integrity. Backdropped by the Capefold mountains, this quaint town is one of the few remaining ones in South Africa still owned and managed by the church. Here are five things to definitely love about Elim:

ONE. Technological Advancement: The white churh’s 1757-built clock is regarded as one of the oldest working public clocks in the country. It is also ran by a long mechanism driving the two clockfaces mounted on both gables of the building, making it the only clock with an axle length of 26m there is to find.

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TWO. Town Planning and Vernacular Architecture: Its central axis leading directly to the church, which is flanked by two rows of nearly identical single-storey houses, is a delightfully neat sight. These houses differ a lot from the more ubiquitous Cape Dutch gabled houses. The carefully carried out town planning is not hard to notice.

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THREE. Memorial to a Historical Event: In front of the town’s library, which is housed at the former school building, is the only monument dedicated to freed African slaves in South Africa. It was ereceted in 1938, four years after the abolition of slavery in the Cape.

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FOUR. Engineering Feat and Water Control: Elim is home to the oldest functioning watermill in South Africa, which is also declared as a national monument on its own right in 1974.

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FIVE. Intangible Cultural Heritage: Renowned for its uniform thatched roofs, which are reminiscent to those found in Friesland in Germany, its residents are considered to be some of the best thatchers in the world. Utilitizing only restios locally found in the region, this aspect of Elim is clearly its most distinct living tradition that has been passed down from one generation to the next.

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All these elements, together with the fact that there were no other tourists roaming around when we were there, made our three-hour stay in Elim very memorable and fulfilling. Also, while there is no German-built colonial space listed yet as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the potential of Elim to be one is quite promising and is something that South Africa should consider.

Anuradhapura: the Soul of Buddhist Sri Lanka

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Hunting for World Heritage Sites has gone beyond just visiting and seeing sites. Rather, it has become more of experiencing them. Hence, in the Anuradhapura vs Polonnaruwa debate, clearly, I would have to give it to the former. Yes, I am in the minority block.

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The first capital of Sri Lanka remains very much alive today, attracting more faithful pilgrims than tourists. Its significance appears to outlive most of the other later historic sites. While most of the key monuments here are dagobas (local term for stupas) and the variety of architecture is not as diverse as that of Polonnaruwa’s, there is a great amount of history in each of them that is made more special by the reverence that the people have continuously attach to them. In fact, the age of the original monuments here would rival those Buddhist monuments in India, which was really surprising to find out. Not only are these dagobas some of the tallest monuments ever seen in the ancient world, moreover, they also stand as pillars as to why Anuradhapura is given the title “Sacred City”, and not just “Ancient City” as in the case of Polonnaruwa and even Sigiriya. There are two other sacred cities in Sri Lanka which we were fortunate to check out: the Sacred City of Kandy — also a WHS– and the Sacred City of Tissamaharama.

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The 2,000-y.o. Sri Jaya Mahabodhi tree is the most sacred component of the city and it sits right at the center. It is a direct descendant of the Mahabodhi tree in Bodhgaya where the Buddha sat under as he attained enlightenment. From there, the glaringly white Ruwanwelisaya dagoba is a short walk away, passing through the Mahalohapaya ruins. Currently, it stands as the tallest dagoba in the country after the finial of the more massive, red brick Jetavana dagoba broke off. To see the rest, it was, however, wise to hire a tuk-tuk.

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As a place mostly composed of dagobas, it is perhaps the best area to study this architectural style — from the ruined remains of the Dakhina dagoba to the carefully restored Mirisawetiya dagoba nearby, from the vatadage-styled Thuparamaya dagoba (the oldest and one of the smallest) to the ongoing construction of the modern Victory stupa, which will be the tallest once it will be finished.

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We also managed to visit some of the farthest sites such as the Isurumuniya vihara, which required a separate entrance fee. This vihara is considered as one of the oldest monuments in the city and we enjoyed talking to one of the resident monks there about the history of the site. He even kindly tied pirith nulas around our wrists, wherein I was able to record on video the chanting performed along with it.

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Half a mile away is the Vessagiri, an ancient rock shelter for monks. It features Brahmi inscriptions and faint traces of ancient frescoes that can only make sense with the help of a guide.

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A pleasant bonus was when our driver also took us inside the former citadel to check a few ruins including the Dalada maligawa, the former shrine housing the sacred tooth relic. That time, there was also a local herbalist who was gathering various plants for his concoctions. A photo I took of him while doing his thing among the ruins is probably one of my favorite shots.

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It took us a little less than 6 hours to see most of the sites included in this World Heritage Site, and I cannot say I was not impressed.

 

 

Old and Sacred: The Bodhi Tree

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The Bodhi tree was the old fig tree under which Prince Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment in 623BC in Bodh Gaya in Bihar, India. While the original tree does not exist anymore, there are several trees that are believed to have directly come from the sacred Bodhi tree. Among them, two trees play very central roles in the Buddhist faith and are highly revered by devotees for their close connection to the life of the historic Buddha. These ancient sacred trees are the Mahabodhi tree in Bodh Gaya and the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.

The Mahabodhi tree in Bodh Gaya is regarded to mark the same spot where the original Bodhi tree used to stand. It is regarded as the Axis Mundi, or the Navel of the World, among Buddhists, and it is their holiest site. While the age of the tree is not certain, inscriptions nearby reveal that Emperor Ashoka, who converted to Buddhism in 263BC after the Kalinga War, installed the Diamond Throne beside the sacred tree and erected a stone fence around them in 250BC.

 

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The Mahabodhi tree encased in stone railings at the Mahabodhi Temple Complex, India

 

The Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree in the ancient city of Anuradhapura, on the other hand, is considered to be the oldest documented planted tree by a person. The cutting from the original Bohdi tree was brought to and planted in Sri Lanka by the daughter of Ashoka, Princess Sangamitta, in 288BC. Anuradhapura, the capital of the first Kingdom of Ceylon, eventually developed and grew around the sacred tree.

 

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The Sri Jaya Maha Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

 

Spreading Buddhism has always been accompanied by the distribution of Bodhi trees, as symbolic bridges in bringing the believers closer to the faith and to the Buddha. A direct descendant of the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree was also planted at the southeastern side of the Borobudur temple in Java, Indonesia. The sapling was brought and planted by Narada Mahathera, a visiting Theravadan Buddhist monk from Colombo, in 1934 as part of his mission to revive Buddhism in the now predominantly Islamic country.

 

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The Bodhi tree beside the Borobudur temple, Indonesia

 

The earliest representation of the original Bodhi tree can be found at one of the ornate gates (toranas) of the Great Stupa of Sanchi in Mahadya Pradesh, India. Created in 100AD, the rock carving also shows the structures built around the tree that were commissioned by Ashoka. The Great Stupa is the oldest standing stone structure in the Subcontinent and is part of a bigger Buddhist monastic complex believed to have been constructed on the orders of Ashoka himself.

 

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The Bodhi tree depicted at the Great Stupa in Sanchi, India

 

The Mahabodhi Temple Complex at Bodh Gaya, the Sacred City of Anuradhapura, the Buddhist Monuments at Sanchi, and the Borobudur Temple Compounds are all UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

 

 

 

 

Tiong Bahru, a Thought on Heritage

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Singapore’s first public housing project surprisingly retains the textures of the then emerging international style and Art Deco movements in architecture. Tiong Bahru is a true heritage spot and an exceptional example of a planned urban space that is still glossed over by most who visit this bustling city in a garden.

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There are two reasons that I can think of for this:  the area hardly makes it to guidebooks, which sadly reflects the truth that what gets written in the pages are simply those that the writers just want others to see and know and there have been cases that they do NOT really know enough; and, more importantly, modern architectural movements still rarely appeal to many in ways colonial Straits shophouses do, as in the cases of Chinatown, Kampong Glam or Little India. It seems that the lack of “romance” and “ancientness” around the former hinder the interest of the average person towards them.

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In an advanced city now known for its modern marvels, how much attention and appreciation can really be accorded to the last remaining built-heritage around? It seems that turn of the 20th-century architecture suffers the most undervaluation and apathy, and Tiong Bahru’s case illustrates this phenomenon clearly.

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But how did I get there, to begin with? A friend took me there primarily for the food offering in Tiong Bahru market — which is amazing! The buildings were really a big surprise to me as I did not know anything about them beforehand.

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The Historical City of Maybod

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With the recent inscription of historic city of Yazd as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I am not quite sure how Maybod, another silk road desert city in the same region, would be able to position itself differently and subsequently provide a fresh perspective or OUV to the prestigious list.

 

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Narin castle and the old city of Maybod

 

 

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A dome of the Shah Abbassi caravanserai

 

Highlights of the old oasis city include the 2,000 year old Narin castle, an intact ice house, working qanats, a few badgirs (wind catchers), what is perhaps the most beautiful dovecote in all of Persia, and the Shah Abassi caravanserai, which also happens to be a component of the Persian Caravanserai – TWHS and quite possibly a part of the Silk Route – TWHS of Iran as well.

 

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An Ab anbar (water reservoir) that is supplied by a qanat running under it

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A covered well fed by a qanat at the center of the Shah Abbassi caravanserai

 

Interestingly, I have observed that inscribing a site more than once seems to be something that Iran enjoys doing. This can be seen with the following: Pasargadae – Persian Garden; Yazd – Persian Garden – Persian Qanat; Bam – Persian Qanat; as well as many others still brewing in the tentative list. Maybod can easily be reached as part of a regular day tour offered in Yazd.