Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras: Understanding the Complexity One Step at a Time


It was only last year (I hate to admit this!) that I finally came face to face with the Philippines’ world-renowned rice terraces. I can only think of few places I have been so far that are as picturesque and awe-inspiring as the Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras – they breathe the history of the Ifugao. The incredible mixture of purely man-made terraces, the mountains, the muyongs, traditional hamlets, and other visible cultural artefacts in the region certainly does not disappoint.

Batad Rice Terraces during post-harvest season as seen from the top. Photo: Patrick Duvanel

Batad Rice Terraces during post-harvest season as seen from the top. Photo: Patrick Duvanel

Ticking off this world heritage site can be very tricky. There are a lot of rice terraces in the Ifugao province. Though all are declared National Cultural Treasures under the all-encompassing title of Ifugao Rice Terraces, there are only five specific clusters that are inscribed as World Heritage Sites in 1995. These are the Batad, Bangaan, Mayoyao, Nagacadan, and Hungduan. These select rice terraces were able to pass UNESCO’s strict requirements due to the “well-preserved blending of the physical, socio-cultural, economic, religious, and political environment” in creating an exemplary evolved, living cultural landscape.

One misconception Filipinos have (and I’ve seen this perpetuated a lot in social media and networking platforms) is the generalized and erroneous notion that the Banaue Rice Terraces in the town proper is a world heritage site. Sadly, it is not! This is even made worse by Banco Sentral ng Pilipinas wrongfully citing the Banaue Rice Terraces as a Unesco World Heritage Site in the current 20-peso bill.

Most Filipinos are famiilar with the Banaue Rice Terraces. This cluster, however, is not a WHS.

Most Filipinos are familiar with the Banaue Rice Terraces. This cluster, however, is not a WHS.

Spending a weekend in Banaue with family and some friends, I was able to visit Batad and Bangaan in a day. As these two rice terraces clusters are along the same route, maximizing the opportunity to see both then became more of an undeniable obligation than being merely a right.

How big are the terraces again? Some are as high as 10-feet tall.

How big are the terraces again? Some are as high as 10-feet tall.

The Batad Rice Terraces, the smallest among the five clusters, appear to be the most popular with its amphitheatre-like appearance. Given its steepness, it virtually looks like a horizontally-lined cliff from a far. Some of Batad’s terraces are even stone-walled to prevent erosion and landslides. A larger exponent of this dry-stone walling technique can be seen in the Hungduan Rice Terraces, the largest of the five clusters. The oldest of these walls in Hungduan are dated to be from 650AD, making them the oldest stone structure across the archipelago.

How about waking up everyday to this view? :p

How about waking up everyday to this view?

The practice of rice terracing is not exactly unique to the Philippines. Just this year, the Hanni Rice Terraces in Southern China, for example, have also been designated as a WHS. Nevertheless, the unparalleled features that make the Ifugao Rice Terraces stand out are their altitude (reaching as high as 1500 metres from the base) and steepness (at 70 degrees maximum angulation). More so, these rice terraces are the oldest and largest continually used rice terraces in the world. The American Society of Civil Engineers named the Ifugao Rice Terraces as a Historic Engineering Landmark for water supply and control. In 1997, the same group came to the Philippines and formally declared (through a marker) the rice terraces as the 8th Wonder of the World (Thanks to former Tourism Secretary Mina Gabor for sharing me this information).

Bangaan, on the other hand, is recognized for having the best preserved rice terraces cluster that “backdrops a typical Ifugao traditional village”. Indeed, the most noticeable component of Bangaan would be the intact central hamlet. Instead of stones, the walls of Bangaan Rice Terraces are made of mud. As much as Batad is unanimously being hailed as the best, I actually found Bangaan to possess a better character; the experience, more authentic. I guess this impression stems from the fact that this cluster is much more colourful with varying shades of green and brown, together with the silvery reflections of its water-fed paddies – a phenomenon of natural beauty that I never saw in other rice terraces clusters (i.e., Batad cluster, Guijob cluster, Bayo cluster, Sagada cluster, etc).

The colors of the fields of Bangaan Rice Terraces

The colors of the fields of Bangaan Rice Terraces

The agricultural complex of the rice terraces is an ingenious work of art that allows sufficient irrigation to the terraced pond fields, and water storage method in an elaborate farming system. A unique irrigation network of earthen dikes, sluizes, canals, and bamboo pipes keeps the terraces adequately flooded. The humble muyongs (forest caps) that act as the main watersheds for the rice terraces are strictly protected areas as well. This culture of farming has been recognized by the Food and Agriculture Organization as an outstanding example of “worldwide, specific agricultural systems and landscapes (that) have been created, shaped and maintained by generations of farmers and herders based on diverse natural resources, using locally adapted management practices” and thereby declared the entire Ifugao Rice Terraces as a pilot for the Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) in 2002.

Slow food and goods mobility largely describes the rice terraces communities as well.  Goods must be hand-carried from the nearest markets to the Batad village. It takes around 2 hours to do this. This guy is carrying a live pig. Gotta be macho :)

Slow food/goods mobility largely describes the rice terraces communities as well. Goods must be hand-carried from the nearest markets to the Batad village. It takes around 2 hours to do this. This guy is carrying a live pig. Gotta be macho!

It has to be bore in mind that, as a continuing cultural landscape, the rice terraces should be seen and understood in relation to its environment (mountain landscape) and the traditions of its people (rituals, farming practices, beliefs, etc.). Key to better appreciation can be achieved by going beyond the tourists’ viewing points, and taking the effort to walk on terraces’ walls (only then will you realize the size of these structures) and interact with the locals of the immediate communities. Interestingly, the Hudhud Chants of the Ifugao, which is traditionally sung during planting and harvesting seasons, are also recognized as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity – another testament on how rich the culture truly is. If you want to read more about the hudhud, please check the previous post.

Until the inscription of the Bali’s Subak System in 2012, the Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras were the only properties in the World Heritage List that are dedicated to the production of the single most important crop in the world, rice.

The traditional Ifugao hamlet in the middle of the Bangaan Rice Terraces.

The traditional Ifugao hamlet in the middle of the Bangaan Rice Terraces.

What is then the assessment?

The rice terraces, however, also became victims of the disruptive nature and effects of modernization. The Ifugao Rice Terraces (this includes the 5 WHS) have been listed twice as one of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the World by the World Monuments Watch in 2000 and 2010, respectively. These were in response to the two waves of massive abandonment of the rice terraces by local farmers. In the aim to find greener pastures, farmers fled to the cities leaving the rice terraces unattended and crumbling. At the same time, the indigenous local rice strain that adapted to thrive in such high altitudes was also substituted with “more productive” and “easier to produce” cash crops, creating a serious shift in the integrity of this cultural landscape.

Given the alarming status of the world heritage Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras, the properties were also placed in the World Heritage In Danger List in 2001 until significant improvements and reparations were finally secured in 2012.

The Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras represent the larger entirety of the Ifugao Rice Terraces – the five sites are the best embodiment of the rice terraces’ Outstanding Universal Values. The Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras will always have a special place in humanity as it was the first set of properties to be assigned as world heritage sites under the cultural landscape category upon inscription. Indeed, these are a magnificent feat of human ingenuity, creativity, and resourcefulness amidst harshly mountainous, uneven terrains.

A Bul-ol, the Ifugao god of harvest, and other wooden crafts by the people of Batad.

A Bul-ol, the Ifugao god of harvest, and other wooden crafts by the people of Batad.

For Filipinos, with the farming traditions and the people’s lifestyles largely unchanged, these ancient rice terraces are an enduring portrait of the ways of life of the Ifugao for over 2,000 years.


Hudhud and Darangen: Voices from Pre-colonial Philippines


The Philippine Culture in Southeast Asia

Given more than 300 years under colonial rule[1], much of the cultural exponents of the Philippines have largely been branded as “westernized” to the extent of being “un-Asian” in terms of practices, orientation and even the mentality of its people. The dominant understanding of mainstream Philippine history only traces its beginning with the discovery of the Philippines by Spain in the 1500s. The cultural shifts that took place in the succeeding centuries masked how the Philippines was like prior to the 16th century, somehow severing the connection to the old ways of life that were known to early Filipinos (Del Castillo & Medina, 1974). Several festivals in the Philippines – which are already traditions introduced by the Spaniards – even depict how the ‘indios’ (the term they used to call the natives) have been enlightened and civilized through Christianization[2], and that their defeat[3] across the archipelago should be celebrated and immortalized. By and large, these became some of the  reasons why the Philippines at the moment is alienated from its Southeast Asian neighbors that have preserved much of their heritage, both tangible and intangible ones. This, however, does not preclude the fact that the Philippines has some traditions that – with adequate understanding and appreciation – ought to be cherished around the world. Post-colonial approaches have always been interested in unearthing what the Philippines might have been prior to the being dominated by foreign powers. But, for a country as diverse as the Philippines, coming up with a homogenized description on the ways of life of the people poses some difficulty. This occurrence of multiple cultural traits and lifestyles of the ancient Filipinos, however, should never be frowned upon. Rather, this only suggests how rich the history and culture is, and how there is no singular way in capturing the ways ancient Filipinos saw and approached life. After all, these are also the strings necessary in tying the Philippines back to the larger Southeast Asian cultural paradigm, to which it shares affinities and resemblances with. This note is a reflection on two ancient Philippine chants: the hudhud and the darangen epic. These two chants hold vast knowledge on the ways of life of ancient Filipinos.  Being the best preserved oral traditions that are not tainted by western influences these chants present themselves as valuable living specimens that possess high authenticity and reliability in providing not only the kind of music and songs that they had, but also a scintilla about the Philippines’ earlier worldviews. In here, I will also be drawing insights from my own experiences in witnessing firsthand how these chants are performed and how the locals deem them as important to their life-cycles and identities. The hudhud chants hail from the mountainous Cordillera region in northern Philippines, more popularly known for their world-renowned Ifugao rice terraces. Key in understanding the hudhud chants is to see its relation with and its influences on the immediate cultural landscape (Guerrero, 2013). The darangen epic, on the other hand, is a lengthy oral tradition that is artistically sung and acted (sometimes even danced[4]), rather than just being plainly recited. It recounts the history of the Maranao people around Lake Lanao, predating even the Islamization of southern Philippines in the 13th century. What binds these two ancient folk songs together is that they have both been proclaimed by UNESCO as masterpieces of oral and intangible heritage of humanity, an initiative that strengthens the call for humanity to widen its concept of cultural heritage by bringing in the intangible aspects being essential components of cultural diversity (UNESCO, 2000). The hudhud and darangen are the only two representative traditions of the Philippines that have been proclaimed as such. I am fortunate enough to have witnessed how these chants are performed in the traditional way.  

Cultural Landscape: Relationship of the Hudhud and the Rice Terraces


Keeping the spirit alive by passing down indigenous knowledge to the younger generations.

As a continually evolving cultural landscape, the World Heritage-listed rice terraces in Ifugao[5] should be seen and understood in relation to its environment (mountains and forests) and the traditions of its people (rituals, farming practices, beliefs, etc.). It is interesting to note that integral to their life-cycle is a set of ancient songs called hudhud. More than a ritual song, the hudhud plays a key role in shaping and preserving the ways of life of the Ifugao people for more than 2,000 years. The National Commission for Culture and the Arts of the Philippines documented these intangible treasures as, “recited and chanted … only during four occasions: the harvesting and weeding of rice, funeral wakes and bone washing rituals…. The hudhud [is] comprised of over 200 stories with about 40 episodes each. The language… almost impossible to transcribe, is full of repetitions, synonyms, figurative terms and metaphors. Performed in a leader/chorus style, the lead chanter – often an elderly woman – recites an introductory line to set the tone, and then this is taken up by a chorus of women to the end of the phrase…. It may take days to complete a story, depending on the situation. The hudhud is a celebration of Ifugao heroes, heroines, wealth and culture” (NCCA). When I went to Ifugao several years ago, during the harvesting month, the mixture of the picturesque rice terraces and the performance of the hudhud by women reaping rice stalks was awe-inspiring — women singing while in the paddies is not an everyday scene. In my conversations with the locals, I realized how the songs are really revered and have never been altered from how their ancestors sang them many centuries ago.


Ifugao women gathering together in a hudhud ritual. (Photo lifted from B. Capati’s presentation)

Pryer-Pereira provided insights as to how such an old and lengthy song is successfully committed to the memories of the people. She explained that “the chanters of the hudhud rely heavily on culturally constituted environmental stimuli to help them remember the chant. Objects such as rice harvesting tools, familiar bodily movements, and the songs of other chanters help to distribute the burden of chant memorization. It is only when these individual memories work together that the whole text can be recalled” (2007). It was also revealed to me by the locals that there are particular chants from the hudhud that are specifically sang for pest protection, and in guiding them in seed selection. As I paid closer attention to the practice, I noticed that most of those who were singing are adult women. In the Philippines, the preservers and guardians of culture are, unquestionably, always the women. This, however, brings to the fore another concern: “[t]he few people who know all the poems are very old, and young people are not interested in this tradition” (UNESCO, 2008).  Efforts are currently being undertaken by the government and various organizations to bring hudhud closer to the younger generation. One initiative undertaken was the institutionalization of Hudhud Schools of Living Traditions in the Ifugao (Talavera, nd).

Songs that Breathe the History of the Maranao: the Darangen Epic

The darangen, which literally means to “narrate in songs”, is one of the oldest and longest epic poems in the Philippines.  It consists of many cycles of episodes relating to different heroes, foremost among them Bantugan, whose name means, “one who makes history.” Through his heroic tales, the epic proves that early forms of government, culture, art, music, metal work and warrior arts were already in existence before the arrival of colonizers (Philippine Star, 2005).  In fact, the epic happens to be the local rendition of early Filipinos of the Hindu Ramayana, dating much older than the introduction of Islam in the south (Ty, 2010) – a undeniable proof that the far past is not unacquainted with the concept of cultural globalization (Tan, 2009). UNESCO further detailed that the epic comprises “17 cycles and a total of 72,000 lines, [and that] the darangen celebrates episodes from Maranao history and the tribulations of mythical heroes. In addition to offering compelling narrative content, the epic explores the underlying themes of life and death, courtship, politics, love and aesthetics through symbol, metaphor, irony and satire. The Darangen also encodes customary law, standards of social and ethical behavior, notions of aesthetic beauty, and social values specific to the Maranao. To this day, elders refer to this time-honored text in the administration of customary law” (UNESCO, 2005). The NCCA also revealed that the recorded and transcribed part of the darangen is composed of cycles in iambic tetrameter or catalectic trochaic tetrameter. Though each cycle is independent from each other, the cycles are connected to one another in a logical, cohesive progression.

Two Maranao singers recite some parts of the darangen epic. It was a powerful vocal performance.

Having witnessed how some parts of the darangen were performed by the Maranao themselves in Marawi, I can still clearly recall how the performers displayed good grasp of the lines, together with their abilities to engage the audience during the hours-long performance. The excerpt that I have seen lasted for roughly two hours, and I was told that that was only a small chapter of the epic. Henrieta Elle, a retired professor of music and dance at the Mindanao State University in Marawi, also explained to me that it would usually take almost a week to complete the cycles of the darangen and that the performance is often accompanied by heroic musical scores that use stylized brass gongs called kulintang, drums called tambor, and a kudyapi (a native  guitar-like instrument). Performers are also expected to wear their finest woven textiles called ina-ol and malong.


Kasingkil dance is from a portion of the darangen that retells the princess’ little wanderings in the bamboo forest.

Given the vastness and depth of the darangen, several aspects of it are still waiting to be unlocked and understood by scholars and practitioners. Nevertheless, current threats to the darangen stems from the fact that it is in an archaic language that is not used as an everyday medium of communication in the locality. Like the fate of the hudhud in the north, the darangen also faces an alarmingly decreasing appreciation from the younger folks. Nowadays, parts of the darangen are just performed during weddings and other special occasions. It has also been observed that there is a thinning number of people who know how to play the kulintang and kudyapi. At present, there are no living kudyapi masters anymore in Lanao del Sur.


The culture and history of the Filipino people is indeed older than what was earlier established. The richness of the old Filipino culture is carefully preserved in the oldest forms of literary works there are to find – ancient songs. The challenge nowadays is to make sense of them amidst being in the modern age. From the north, we see how highland chants have directly dictated the ways of life and the modes of survival of the people in  harshly mountainous, uneven terrains. The hudhud compliments the rice terraces in being enduring portraits of the ways of life of the Ifugao for over two millennium. Down south, cultural diversity and religious syncretism is recognized and established through the darangen epic. This epic breathes the history of the Maranao people, providing listeners a rich amount of knowledge about their norms, beliefs, and customs as it is rendered in a melodious performance of singing and dancing. Having both these oral literatures proclaimed as masterpieces of oral and intangible heritage of humanity only strengthens their importance and relevance not only to the Filipino people but to all around the world.


Bersola, C. (2011). The Hudhud of the Ifugao: enchanting chanting. The Philippine Star. Retrieved:  http://www.philstar.com/good-news/644254/hudhud-ifugao-enchanting-chanting

Del Castillo, T., and B. Medina (1974). Philippine literature: from ancient times to present. Caloocan: Philippine Graphic Arts.

Guerrero, B. (2013). Philippine world heritage sites: history of its people and their culture. 10th Cagayan Valley Regional Tourism Conference Proceedings. Np.

NCCA (nd). Intangible heritage: masterpieces of oral ang intangible heritage of humanity. Retrieved:http://www.ncca.gov.ph/about-culture-and-arts/culture-profile/culture-profile-intangible-heritage.php

Peralta, J. (2003). Ifugao Hudhud: local to global dimension of the sacred. Manila: NCCA.

Philippine Star (2005). UNESCO proclaims darangen epic as masterpiece of intangible heritage. Philippine Star. Pryer-

Pereira, T. (2007). Telling tales: memory, culture, and the hudhud chants.  Swathmore University. Retrieved:http://www.swarthmore.edu/SocSci/Linguistics/Papers/2007/pyer-pereira_tiana.pdf

Talavera, R. (nd). The role of schools for living Traditions (SLT) in safeguarding the intangible cultural heritage in the Philippines: the case of the chants of the Ifugao. Manila: NCCA.

Tan, M. (2009). A Maranao epic. Philippine Daily Inquirer. Ty, R. (2010). Muslims’ syncretism of the Hindu ramayana in the predominantly christian PhilippinesRetrieved:http://www.academia.edu/1671423/Muslims_Syncretism_of_the_Hindu_Ramayana_in_the_Predominantly_Christian_Philippines

UNESCO (2000). UNESCO to protect masterpieces of oral and intangible heritage of humanity. Retrieved: http://www.unesco.org/bpi/eng/unescopress/2000/00-48e.shtml

UNESCO (2005). Darangen epic of the Maranao people of Lake Lanao. Retrieved: http://www.unesco.org/culture/intangible-heritage/32apa_uk.htm

UNESCO (2008). Hudhud chants of the Ifugao. Retrieved: http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/RL/00015

[1]    Three centuries of Spanish colonial rule, three decades of American control, and short periods of British and Japanese occupations.
[2]    Sinulog festival in Cebu, Ati-atihan festival in Aklan, Daro Sinulog in Dumaguete, and to some extent even the Guling-guling festival in Paoay, Ilocos Norte.
[3]    Moro-moro is a play that recounts the battles of the Spaniards against the Muslim antagonists, where the colonizers and Christianity always win.
[4]    Most of the dances of the Maranao people are based on the Darangen. The finest of these dances is the Kasingkil.
[5]    Inscibed to the UNESCO World Heritage List as “Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras” , the first set of properties in the list to be designated as a cultural landscape upon inscription in 1995.