Filipino Culture & History through the Northern Philippines

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The Philippines has a rich history and culture, but we sometimes do not understand the country well enough to realize to what extent. It is not a question of whether we have it or not. Rather, it is of how much we really know and are aware. One way to get reacquainted with the Filipino identity and our past is by taking what I would call as a heritage trail up north. The beauty of Northern Philippines lies on the fact that it is home to four UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Sites.

What does this mean?

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A UNESCO World Heritage Site (WHS) is any given natural or cultural place, monument or landscape that holds outstanding universal values critical to the development of humanity, and which reflect diversity. Some of the more popular WHS around the world include the Great Wall of China, the Stonehenge, the Taj Mahal, Chitchen Itza, the Table Mountain, the Great Barrier Reefs, and even the Statue of Liberty. Regardless of popularity and fame, however, all of these places are treated with equal degree of cultural and historical importance.

With the recent addition of Mt. Hamiguitan Range Wildlife Sanctuary in Mindanao in 2014, the Philippines now has six sites listed as WHS. Two of which are marine natural sites in Palawan, the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park and Tubattaha Reefs Marine Park. Both of these sites are also declared as Ramsar wetlands of international importance. The other three are cultural sites found in Northern Philippines: the Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras, the Historic Town of Vigan, and the Baroque Churches of the Philippines.

From Manila — where San Agustin church, another WHS, is found inside Intramuros — one can make a Do-It-Yourself trip in taking on this heritage trail. A bus from Manila can take you to Banaue, the jump-off point for the rice terraces. From there, vans can be arranged to bring you down to Vigan. Sta. Maria is also along the way to Vigan, and finally, going further north by bus will bring you to Paoay in Ilocos Norte. Each place offers a taste of the depth of Philippine history and Filipino ingenuity.

Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras

Agricultural terracing is not unique to the Philippines. China, Indonesia, and Viet Nam have it. Peru and even Switzerland have this method, too. What makes the rice terraces in the Philippines unique is that they are the oldest and most extensive continually-used rice terraces in the world. As a comparison, these rice terraces have been around much longer than Machu Picchu or Angkor have! The more noticeable distinguishing marks of these engineering marvels would be their heights that reach as high as 1,500 metres from the base, and their steepness that defies limits with 70 degrees maximum angulation.

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The incredible mixture of purely man-made terraces, the mountains, the muyongs (forest caps), traditional hamlets, and other visible cultural artifacts in the region certainly does not disappoint. The Food and Agriculture Organization has cited the rice terraces 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.” The American Society of Civil Engineers also named the 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 [original] 8th Wonder of the World.

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For the Filipinos, with the mode of farming 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. The WHS-listed clusters are Batad, Bangaan, Hungduan, Mayoyao and Nagacadan rice terraces. Hungduan is also one rare site in the world as it is home to no just one but two UNESCO Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, the Hudhud chants and the Punnuk.

Historic Town of Vigan

Why does this small town merit a special place in the collective memory of the Filipino people? It is one of the few towns in the country that was spared from destruction during the World War II (Intramuros, Manila’s walled district, was razed to the ground and only one building was left standing there after the war). Being the best preserved Spanish colonial-era trading town in Asia, Vigan presents itself as an intact and authentic old town. It boasts a good collection of original houses wherein the ground floors are characterized as Hispanic, while its upper floors and windows suggest Chinese and Oriental influences. The best of these houses can be seen along Calle Crisologo, a re-created cobblestone street.

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One will notice that the town faithfully follows the historical “quadricula” or “grid” street plan. This, believe it or not, is the most ‘Hispanic’ feature of the town. The interior of a typical Vigan villa can be seen when visiting the likes of the Sy-Quia mansion, the family house of the former President Quirino.

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In 2012, Vigan bagged the ‘Best Management Practices for a World Heritage City’ award in a worldwide competition by UNESCO. And again, three years later, Vigan was voted as one of the Seven New Wonder Cities in the World through a global online poll.

Baroque Churches of the Philippines: Sta. Maria

Aside from the San Agustin church inside Intramuros and the Miag-ao church in Iloilo, the Northern Philippines boasts two of the best examples of Philippine Spanish-era churches. The town of Sta. Maria, some 40 minutes south of Vigan, houses a citadel church built on top of a fortified man-made hill. In the older days, the only way to reach the church is through the 82-step staircase made of granite slabs, making the complex easily defended.

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Made of red bricks, the Asuncion de la Sta. Maria church boasts a set of massive buttresses that supports the structure from the damages of earthquakes. The pagoda-shaped bell tower is leaning due to the collapsing retaining walls around the hill, which placed this church in the ’100 Most Endangered Sites’ in 2010 by the World Monument Watch of the World Monument Fund.

Baroque Churches of the Philippines: Paoay

The crowning gem of the “earthquake baroque architecture” is the San Agustin church in Paoay. This edifice is largely made of coral stones that have been glued together using egg whites, lime powder and molasses. This important church features a mixture of Oriental, Malay, and Western influences in its design. This comes as no surprise as long before the Spaniards reached present-day Paoay, the site was already a trading settlement known as Bombay in earlier records.

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Keen eyes will notice some fading carvings and bas-reliefs around the church. The most important exponents of this church are definitely its beautifully-constructed massive buttresses. Paoay church is considered to be a masterpiece of the Filipino reinterpretation of the baroque movement, fusing European principles with local Filipino craftsmanship. The bell tower is also separated from the church as a precautionary measure against the effects of earthquakes – this architectural innovation is unique to Philippine churches.

The churches of the Philippines are unique, and, thus, cannot be compared to those found in Europe or Latin America. As religious monuments, they are key in spreading further the Christian faith in the region (Southeast and East Asia, and the Pacific Islands). While as cultural specimens, they embody the artistic, technological, and intellectual interchange between the West and the East for more than three centuries.

While knowing and understanding Philippine history and culture is a large part of what I do as a heritage advocate, the biggest challenge is in making others see and appreciate things the way I do.

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I often have a hard time convincing friends who have already settled abroad to come back home to re-experience their native land. Most of them would rather spend their vacations going around Europe or elsewhere in Asia to see cultural and grand ancient monuments or old towns, believing none exist here.

 

Melaka and George Town: Trade Hegemons of Colonial-era Southeast Asia

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Since there is not much noise being made about George Town while unanimous praises are given to Melaka (Malacca), I was surprised to find out that the former component-city would be the highlight of Malaysia’s first UNESCO cultural world heritage site that was inscribed in 2008. The character of George Town is definitely more presentable.


Melaka has a rich cultural and trading history, and the role it once played in regional commerce cannot be underestimated. Its current condition, however, does not live up to its glorious past anymore. Without knowing its history, the city simply looks like any other Chinese-Malay trading town.

The red Dutch Square, the most recognizable exponent of Melaka.

Its history dates back to the well-networked and influential Malaccan sultanate, and later gained greater worldwide interest when it was occupied by the Portuguese and the Dutch successively. Though Melaka was never made as a capital of the Dutch East Indies (VOC), it served as the most important Dutch-controlled port-town between India and Batavia (present day Jakarta), monopolizing the trade movements over the narrow Straits of Malacca. Melaka was such a strong city then that it even rivaled the might and wealth of Ayutthaya in Thailand, yet it fell with the rise of the British control over the peninsula.

Porta da Santiago, or A' Famosa, is the only remaining section of the old walls that once protected Melaka.

This ancient city’s important monuments  can be easily explored in a day, on foot. I started off in the residential/commercial district of the core zone, just across the bridge over the Melaka River. From how I recall, nothing really stood out in that area, and its main thoroughfare Jonker Street (popularly pronounced nowadays as /djongker/ despite its original Dutch pronunciation /Yongker/) was a bit sober and empty during my visit as it was post-election time; most shops were closed in protest against the recent results. The spirit of Jonker Street, nevertheless, went to life when I visited some of the shop houses, learning some few things from store-keepers about the items that they sell. Only then can one feel that he is truly in a multi-cultural trading town.

Shop houses along Jonker Street in Melaka

The Street of Harmony, situated parallel to Jonker Street,  is nice, but its religious monuments are not as spectacular compared to those of George Town. The urban planning concept of putting houses of worships along one lane is one of the unique features of the two historic cities.

The oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia, the Temple of the Goddess of Mercy (Cheng Hoon Teng Temple)

The Dutch Square, also called Red Square, is small but very recognizable. While it is indeed picturesque, there is not much that the plaza has to offer other than four monuments: the Dutch Stadthuys  and Christ Church, Tan Beng Swee Clock Tower, and the British Queen Victoria Fountain. The red color of the city is often seen as impressive, but I’m not quite sure if I share the same assessment. After all, the old historic Dutch buildings were originally painted white. 

The better exponent of Melaka where one can feel its colonial past more would be the A’ Famosa – St. Paul’s Hill area. Inside St. Paul’s ruins, there are numerous 16th to 17th century Dutch gravestones on display. This site was also the first resting place of the mortal remains of St. Francis Xavier before it was transferred to Goa in India. It is said that during the canonization of the saint, the Vatican asked for his right hand as a relic for its safekeeping. Interestingly, the statue of St. Francis Xavier in front of the ruins is missing its right hand! Apparently, a branch of the tree fell over and broke it.

Dutch gravestones inside the ruins of St. Paul church.

The St. Paul ruins also offers a commanding view of the city and the straits. Other interesting monuments in Melaka would be the watermill along the river, just beside the ruins of the old Portuguese and Dutch ramparts, and the small windmill near the Dutch Square.

The Malacca Sultan Watermill along the Melaka River.


George Town, on the other hand, was a real surprise. Historically, this British-era city rose to prominence with the decline and demise of Melaka. Without expecting much, I originally planned to stay there just for a night. But, seeing how lovely the place was, I ended up staying for three days. I enjoyed going around the city on a bike. Aside from surveying the main sites, there are other things to do here like checking out the street arts (which became a big craze after a Lithuanian artist did some wonderful works in the city), as well as treating oneself with the famous Penang dishes like Penang laksa and char kway cheow.

Georgian architecture-inspired George Town City Hall.

There are more monuments in George Town, and they are more grand, colorful, and definitely better maintained than those in Melaka. Key British legacies include the impressive Georgian-inspired City and Town Halls, the bit worn-out and empty Fort Cornwallis, the two mid-sized churches, and the colonial-era buildings along Lebuh Pantai, the old business lane of the city. By seeing some old photos of George Town, I was surprised to learn that there were more British colonial buildings that stood there before, creating a real “Little Europe” atmosphere during its heyday.

mix-architecture houses in George Town. Most are shop houses.

George Town was intended to be the successor to Melaka’s trade hegemony, as well as the crowning glory of the British empire’s might and supremacy in Southeast Asia. In comparison to Melaka, the historic centre of George Town is larger and that there are more shop houses around.

Fort Cornwallis, a brick fortification built upon the site where Sir Francis Light first landed in Penang.

Furthermore, I enjoyed the city a lot as local colours are much vibrant there. Its Little India, for example, is one of the better Indian quarters I’ve seen so far in the region; Muslim communities (Southern Indians and Malays alike) are largely concentrated around George Town’s three mosques; and the Chinese clan temples are richly decorated. In experiencing the straits Chinese-Malay culture, the Pinang Peranakan Mansion in George Town appears to be better than the Baba Nyonya Museum in Melaka. Also, George Town’s Teochew Temple and Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion have been conferred by UNESCO Asia-Pacific with the Best in Heritage Conservation Awards as well.

Masjid Kapitan Kelling along the Street of Harmony in George Town

Melaka is one reminder of Asia’s close contact with the Portuguese and the Dutch; George Town, with the British. Key to a better appreciation of these sites is to see each city holistically and to understand the diversity and cultural uniqueness that each has to offer.

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As with any South and Southeast Asian trading town such as Vigan, Hoi An, Macao and Galle, the biggest threats at present to the two cities are urban developmental pressures. Buffer zones are obviously weak in some areas. The waterfront face-lifting of the Melaka River and the intrusive development plan in the historic enclave of George Town have been frowned upon by the World Monuments Fund and other international organizations.

Street art in George Town - this is the biggest! Here's a photo of my newly found friends doing some rounds around the city at 2AM (after a night of booze!) :p


PS. Is it possible to have Singapore inscribed, too? Trade control in the Straits of Malacca started in Melaka, then transferred to George Town, and eventually ended in Singapore. It would be nice to see Singapore alongside the two inscribed sites in representing the complete trading history along the straits. The difficulty with Singapore, however, is that much of its old district landscape has already been altered, modernized and compromised.

** Visited George Town and Malacca in May 2013

Temple of Preah Vihear: Sacred amidst Tensions

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When I found out that it was possible (albeit near-impossibility at that time) to visit this sacred temple on a day trip from Siem Reap in 2012, I immediately grabbed the opportunity to see it while it was then — once again — enjoying a short “time of peace”. For a very long time in the past, as a disputed territory, the promontory of the Temple of Preah Vihear and its environs have had some serious history of crossfires between the Cambodian and Thai military forces. In fact, a few months prior to my visit, several soldiers from both camps were killed in an unexpected clash.

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The iconic first gopura, which contains some of the most impressive carvings in the temple complex.

Three years after that brave trip, as I look back, it is still perhaps the single most unique experience I have had in visiting a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Back then, it took me nearly four hours on a private vehicle to reach the temple from Siem Reap. Given recent road constructions, the travel time is now reduced to nearly half of what it took when I went there.

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The second gopura: the carving style of the pediment is different from the first one.

The Temple of Preah Vihear never failed my towering expectations, to say the least. After all, it was confidently inscribed on only one criterium: “(i) as a masterpiece of human creative genius”. So far, only this temple, the Taj Mahal, and the Sydney Opera House are inscribed solely on this basis.

The third gopura as seen from the elevated fourth gopura that encases the main sanctuary of the Preah Vihear Temple.

The third gopura: the walkway leading to the fourth gopura prior to the main central sanctuary is dotted with lingams. One lingam near the portal can be seen in this photo.

In my opinion, the temple rightly deserves to be on the same ranks as Angkor Wat and Bayon, if not even better. The incomparable beauty of this site stems from the following:

1. its history – older than those in Angkor, dedicated to Shiva and, according to some sources, is also one of a few that has a history of critical lingam worshiping;

2. its location – situated right beside a cliff, on top of the Dangrek Mountains to a height of nearly 600 metres. From the temple, one can already gaze at the Golden Triangle, an area shared by Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos;

The Infamous Golden Triangle: transnational boundaries of Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos.

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3. its relevance – a major pilgrimage site for Khmer kings, as well as a rare key temple off-route the Angkorian Royal Road;

4. its architecture – the extensive 800m-long layout of the temple is unique, the galleries surrounding the central sanctuary served as inspiration for the arrangement of Angkor Wat 300 years later, and the carvings offer a different style from those in Angkor (notice the style of its nagas, and the impressive quality of its carvings can only be compared to those of the much younger Banteay Srei); and, lastly,

5. the geopolitical struggles and controversies associated with its WHS-inscription in 2008, and the earlier landmark International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling in 1962. More recently, in 2013, another ICJ ruling finally awarded the contested peripheral forest zone of the temple to Cambodia, putting an end to the long-standing dispute between the two Southeast Asian kingdoms.

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As a military zone, several soldiers are stationed in and around the temple complex. A political statement such as that in the photo clearly asserts Cambodian ownership over the promontory and its immediate vicinity.

As the Temple of Preah Vihear lies in an active military zone, it comes, then, as no surprise that not many travelers take the effort in seeing this site when I made my visit. In the five pleasurable hours that I spent there, I only managed to see about three other civilians — who might just be even locals — in the temple complex.

The central sanctuary guarded by a military personnel

The central sanctuary that is guarded by chanting monks. Outside, a soldier is also on guard.

Aside from the breathtaking view from the top, I truly enjoyed receiving blessings by chanting monks guarding the central sanctuary; as well as exploring the interior of the largely ignored vegetated Tower of the Long-haired Lady that is reminiscent of Ta Prohm in Angkor.

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The tower of the long-haired lady, an isolated structure that has been overgrown by plants and a tree.

Clearly, I got the strong impression that the Khmer people are indeed proud of the Temple of Preah Vihear as suggested by the displaying of the flags of UNESCO, Cambodia, and the World Heritage Committee not far from the first gopura. Such subtle declarations never fail to get noticed.

The temple of Preah Vihear together with its brother temple atop Phnom Chisor in the province of Takeo, which I also got the chance of visiting back in 2010, will always have special places in my heart for the wonderful experiences they have left me. In sum, the Temple of Preah Vihear clearly and easily justified itself as being one of the best single sites I have seen so far.

Just behind the temple: one simple mistake and I am history. The cliff drops to a height of 600 metres.

A view of the plains of the Preah Vihear province. This was taken at the edge of the Dangrek Mountain cliff.

There is no entrance fee to the temple. But, at the base camp, visitors have to pay for the motorbike that will transport them to the top for a fairly reasonable price. On this trip, I also went to the nearby town of Anlong Veng, visiting some ‘Khmer Rouge’ related sites such as the house of Ta Mok and the final resting place of Pol Pot.

Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park

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A complete “mountain to sea” ecosystem, this karst landscape in the Philippines has the sole underground river in the world that flows out directly to the sea. This unique topography subjects the lower part of the underground river to tidal influences – a remarkable natural phenomenon that has no equal elsewhere across the globe.

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The limestone cave passage where the underground river exits from the karst mountain to join the South China Sea

 

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The “candle”, one of the spectacular displays of gigantic stalagmites inside the chamber.

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The underground river has a total length of 8.2 kms. The 1.2kms leg that is open for the public allows visitors on paddled boats to view  rock formations that can be as old as 20 million years (Miocene period).

 

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As a site for globally important biodiversity conservation, the park boasts eight forest types that are homes to various endemic species of plants and animals.

 

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World Wildlife Fund reported that the park is largest and most valuable limestone forest in Asia, which also boasts a beach forest and a mangrove forest.

The Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park is part of the bigger UNESCO-led Palawan Biosphere Reserve that was established in 1990. The park was also declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, and, in 2012, it was also proclaimed as one of the Seven New Wonders of Nature though a global popular poll.

These, my friends, are the real bragging rights of this natural gem in Palawan, the Philippines. 

A Pilgrim’s Progress: Our Lady of Caysasay

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A rare opportunity to have a photo taken of an all-women devotees presented itself. The photo below was taken from the back of the Nuestra Señora de Caysasay, a Marian image canonically crowned by virtue of a Holy See approval in 1954.

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Though I cannot come up with anything conclusive as to what the ongoing activity might have been then, the fact that the service was only attended by women made me feel alienated, and a bit awkward about my presence inside the shrine when things were unfolding. If any, however, despite my unconventional stance on religion, one cannot deny the experience and fulfillment in capturing religion in action as a material culture here.

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Pilgrims to the Shrine of Our Lady of Caysasay in Taal, Batangas may receive the plenary indulgence that is granted to those who visit the ancient church of Sta. Maria Maggiore in Rome.

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The old town of Taal is one of the only four heritage towns in the Philippines — together with Vigan in Ilocos Sur, Pila in Laguna, and Silay in Negros Occidental — designated as National Historic Landmarks by the National Historical Institute of the Philippines.

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Tri Hita Karana: A Study in Photos

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The cultural landscape of Bali in Indonesia is largely shaped by its locals’ traditional belief systems. Tri Hita Karana — roughly translated into English as “the three causes of prosperity” — is a philosophy that governs and guides the daily lives and attitudes of the Balinese. This unique concept puts premium to the universal respect of and observance to the three domains of the world: the divine (gods), the universe (nature), and the domain of the people (human beings). This doctrine is said to be best illustrated during many special ceremonies, the most common of which would be acts of worship.

In here, I am sharing what I believe is the easiest demonstration and most obvious material cultural manifestation of the practice of Tri Hita Karana:

The realm of the divine. Worships and offerings made inside public temples (major temples such as the sea temples, water temples, the directional temples, and village temples) are dedicated to the gods who created life, and nature and all of its gifts.

Balinese Hindu attending a ceremony in the monastery of Gunung Kawi in the subak landscape of the Pakerisan watershed.

Balinese Hindu villagers attending a ceremony in the monastery of Candi Gunung Kawi in the subak landscape of the Pakerisan watershed.

Locals and some converts  are making their pilgrimage in Tirta Empul, the source of holy water that flows out to the waterways and irrigation systems in Tampak Siring area.

Locals and some converts are making their pilgrimage in the sacred Pura Tirta Empul, the source of holy water that flows out to the waterways and irrigation systems in Tampaksiring.

The realm of universe. Offerings made outdoors (streets, parks, rice fields and the like) are exponents of worships to nature, the domain that sustains and supports the needs and activities of humans.

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Bantens, the traditional offerings in Bali, scattered on the walkways in Ubud. This one was seen on the way to Sari Organik, a restaurant in the middle of the rice paddies in Central Bali.

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These offerings were made in an irrigation canal of one of the subak systems in Gianyar, a regency northeast of Ubud.

The realm of human beings. Worships and offerings made inside clan temples, home temples and shrines, or even inside cars and houses are dedicated to the people who have the moral duties to establish traditional communities,  erect temples in which to worship and hold ceremonies such as daily offerings, and preserve nature and all its contents.

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A Balinese Hindu casually making an evening offering before a family temple inside his home compound in Kuta.

Tri Hita Karana is also the single most important backbone of Bali’s inclusion to the UNESCO World Heritage List. Several keys sites in the island were collectively inscribed  in 2012 as the “Cultural Landscape of Bali Province: the Subak System as a Manifestation of the Tri Hita Karana Philososphy”.

Acknowledgement. My appreciation to Dewa Gugun for taking the time in explaining to me the doctrine of Tri Hita Karana while I was trying to understand the equally difficult concept of subak.

Guling-guling 2014

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In the Philippines, it is only my hometown Paoay that celebrates Fat Tuesday, the last day of merry-making before entering the Lenten season. Guling-guling, a four-century old tradition, involves street dancing, cooking dodol (a Malay deli), and smearing the sign of the cross (using ash or rice flour mixtures) on the foreheads of devote Christians – which is interesting as, in this town, this religious practice is done prior to Ash Wednesday. Modern-day celebrations now culminate in a dance showdown in front of the UNESCO World Heritage listed San Agustin church, the crowning glory of the earthquake baroque architecture.

The dancers sport the loom-woven textile called abel Iloco, one of the products that my humble town is known for.

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