RICE TERRACES OF THE PHILIPPINE CORDILLERAS
The rice terraces of the Philippines Cordilleras were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995. According to UNESCO: They “are living cultural landscapes devoted to the production of one of the world's most important staple crops, rice. They preserve traditional techniques and forms dating back many centuries, still viable today. At the same time they illustrate a remarkable degree of harmony between humankind and the natural environment of great aesthetic appeal, as well as demonstrating sustainable farming systems in mountainous terrain, based on a careful use of natural resources. [Source: UNESCO]
“They are the only monuments in the Philippines that show no evidence of having been influenced by colonial cultures. Owing to the difficult terrain, the Cordillera tribes are among the few peoples of the Philippines who have successfully resisted foreign domination and preserved their authentic tribal culture. The history of the terraces is intertwined with that of its people, their culture, and their traditional practices.”
The rice terraces of the Philippines Cordilleras: 1) “are a dramatic testimony to a community's sustainable and primarily communal system of rice production, based on harvesting water from the forest clad mountain tops and creating stone terraces and ponds, a system that has survived for two millennia. 2) The rice terraces are a memorial to the history and labour of more than a thousand generations of small-scale farmers who, working together as a community, have created a landscape based on a delicate and sustainable use of natural resources. 3) The rice terraces are an outstanding example of land-use that resulted from a harmonious interaction between people and its environment which has produced a steep terraced landscape of great aesthetic beauty, now vulnerable to social and economic changes.
History of the Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras
According to UNESCO: “ he rice terraces of the Cordilleras are the only monuments in the Philippines that show no evidence of having been influenced by colonial cultures. Owing to the difficult terrain, the Cordillera tribes are among the few peoples of the Philippines who have successfully resisted any foreign domination and have preserved their authentic tribal culture. The history of the terraces is intertwined with that of its people, their culture, and their traditional practices.” [Source: UNESCO]
“The terraces, which spread over five present-day provinces, are the only form of stone construction from the pre-colonial period. The Philippines alone among south-east Asian cultures is a wholly wood-based one: unlike Cambodia, Indonesia, or Thailand, for example, in the Philippines both domestic buildings and ritual structures such as temples and shrines were all built in wood, a tradition that has survived in the terrace hamlets.
“It is believed that terracing began in the Cordilleras some two thousand years ago, though scholars are not in agreement about the original purpose for which it was employed. It is evidence of a high level of knowledge of structural and hydraulic engineering on the part of those who built the terraces. The knowledge and practices, supported by rituals, involved in maintaining the terraces are transferred orally from generation to generation, without written records. Taro was the first crop when they began to be used for agriculture, later to be replaced by rice, which is the predominant crop today.
Construction of the Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras
According to UNESCO: “The terraces are situated at altitudes between 700 m and 1,500 m above sea level. There are four clusters of the best preserved terraces in the region, with its basic elements of a buffer ring of private forests (muyong ), terraces, village and sacred grove. Terraced rice fields are not uncommon in Asia. To contain the water needed for rice cultivation within the paddies, even gently rolling terrain must be terraced with stone or mud walls. High-altitude paddies must be kept wet and have to rely upon a man-made water-collecting system. The principal differences between the Philippines terraces and those elsewhere are their higher altitude and the steeper slopes. The high-altitude cultivation is based on the use of a special strain of rice, which germinates under freezing conditions and grows chest-high, with non-shattering panicles, to facilitate harvesting on slopes that are too steep to permit the use of animals or machinery of any kind. [Source: UNESCO]
“Construction of the terraces is carried out with great care and precision. An underground conduit is placed within the fill for drainage purposes. The groups of terraces blanket the mountainsides, following their contours. Above them, rising to the mountain-tops, is the ring of private woods (muyong ), intensively managed in conformity with traditional practices, which recognize a total ecosystem which assures an adequate water supply to keep the terraces flooded. Water is equitably shared, and no single terrace obstructs the flow on its way down to the next terrace below. There is a complex system, of dams, sluices, channels and bamboo pipes, communally maintained, which drain into a stream at the bottom of the valley.
“The villages or hamlets are associated with groups of terraces, and consist of groups of single-family tribal dwellings which architecturally reproduce the people's spatial interpretation of their mountain environment. A steeply pitched thatched pyramidal roof covers a wooden one-room dwelling, raised above the ground on four posts and reached by a ladder which is pulled up at night. Clusters of dwellings form small hamlets of interrelated families, with a centrally located ritual rice-field as their focus. This is the first parcel to be planted or harvested; its owners makes all the agricultural decisions for the community, manages its primary ritual property, which includes a granary housing carved wooden gods, and the basket reliquary in which portions of consecrated sacrifices from all agricultural ceremonial rites are kept. A short distance from the cluster of dwellings is the ritual hill, usually marked by a grove of sacred betel trees round a hut or open shed where the holy men live and carry out traditional rites.”
Ifugao Rice Terraces
According to UNESCO: “For 2,000 years, the high rice fields of the Ifugao have followed the contours of the mountains. The fruit of knowledge handed down from one generation to the next, and the expression of sacred traditions and a delicate social balance, they have helped to create a landscape of great beauty that expresses the harmony between humankind and the environment....The terraces are located in the remote areas of the Philippine Cordillera mountain range on the northern island of Luzon. While the historic terraces cover an extensive area, the inscribed property consists of five clusters of the most intact and impressive terraces, located in four municipalities. They are all the product of the Ifugao ethnic group, a minority community that has occupied these mountains for thousands of years. [Source: UNESCO]
“The five inscribed clusters are: 1) the Nagacadan terrace cluster in the municipality of Kiangan, a rice terrace cluster manifested in two distinct ascending rows of terraces bisected by a river; 2) the Hungduan terrace cluster that uniquely emerges into a spider web; 3) the central Mayoyao terrace cluster which is characterized by terraces interspersed with traditional farmers’ bale (houses) and alang (granaries); 4) the Bangaan terrace cluster in the municipality of Banaue that backdrops a typical Ifugao traditional village; and 5) the Batad terrace cluster of the municipality of Banaue that is nestled in amphitheatre-like semi-circular terraces with a village at its base. ^^^
“The Ifugao Rice Terraces epitomize the absolute blending of the physical, socio-cultural, economic, religious, and political environment. Indeed, it is a living cultural landscape of unparalleled beauty. Reaching a higher altitude and being built on steeper slopes than many other terraces, the Ifugao complex of stone or mud walls and the careful carving of the natural contours of hills and mountains to make terraced pond fields, coupled with the development of intricate irrigation systems, harvesting water from the forests of the mountain tops, and an elaborate farming system, reflect a mastery of engineering that is appreciated to the present. ^^^
“The terraces illustrate a persistence of cultural traditions and remarkable continuity and endurance, since archaeological evidence reveals that this technique has been in use in the region for 2000 years virtually unchanged. They offer many lessons for application in similar environments elsewhere. The maintenance of the living rice terraces reflects a primarily cooperative approach of the whole community which is based on detailed knowledge of the rich diversity of biological resources existing in the Ifugao agro-ecosystem, a finely tuned annual system respecting lunar cycles, zoning and planning, extensive soil conservation, mastery of a most complex pest control regime based on the processing of a variety of herbs, accompanied by religious rituals. ^^^
“The Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras are authentic in form, character, and function as a direct result of the 2000 year-old and continuously maintained regime that balances climatic, geographical, ecological, agronomic, ethnographic, religious, social, economic, political and other factors. Through ritual practices, chants and symbols which emphasize ecological balance, the Ifugao community has maintained the intactness of the terraces’ traditional management system over this long period of time, ensuring the authenticity of both the original landscape engineering and the traditional wet-rice agriculture. Once this balance is disturbed the whole system begins to collapse, but so long as they all operate together harmoniously, as they have over two millennia, the authenticity is total.
“Being a living cultural landscape, evolutionary changes continuously fine-tune and adapt the cultural response of the terraces’ owners and inhabitants in response to changing climatic, social, political and economic conditions. However, the fact that the Ifugao community continues to occupy, use and maintain their ancestral lands in the age-old traditional manner ensures appreciation and awareness of the enduring value of these traditional practices which continue to sustain them.”
Ifugao Province (322 kilometers north of Manila) is where Banaue, Batad and many of the famous rice terraces are located. The province is a land-locked area located at the foot of the Cordillera Mountain Range, bounded on the west by the province of Benguet, Nueva Viscaya on the south, Isabela on the east, and on the north by Mountain Province.
Ifugao Province covers an area of 2,517.78 square kilometers and is home to only 200,000 people. It has a population density of 77 people per square kilometers, making it one of the most sparsely population areas of the Philippines. Politically, it is sub-divided into 11 municipalities and 178 barangays, with Lagawe serving as the provincial capital town.
The province has a a dry season from November to April and rainy season the rest of the year. The hottest months are March and April while the coolest months are November to February. English is widely spoken and understood among the populace. The local language is Ifugao. the Ilocano and Tagalog Farming, tourism, trading industry (gift, toys & house wares); services; manufacturing (garments & textiles); and food & beverages.
Banaue Rice Terraces
Banaue (10 hours from Manila by bus) contains magnificent rice terraces that have been described as the eighth wonder of the world. Originally constructed between 1000 and 2000 years ago by the Ifugao people, who still maintain them, the terraces rise from the steep river gorges and ascend—and sometimes engulf— the mountains like green amphitheaters. It is said that if the terraces were laid end to end they would circumnavigate the earth.
The rice terraces around Banaue were designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1995. They : somewhat similar to the rice terraces in Bali, except bigger and more all encompassing. In some cases they extend all from the top of the mountains down to the rivers and streams below. The view an entire chain of mountains terraced to their highest peaks for the cultivation of rice is truly an amazing site
Banaue Rice Terraces are part of the rice terraces of the Philippines Cordilleras that were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. There is some evidence that the first rice terraces may have been carved out of the mountains as early as 1000 B.C. Most were built in the last four centuries. By some estimated the rice terraces would extend for 11,400 miles if placed from end to end. Among the Ifugao, a man’s status is based on his rice fields. Ownership of the paddies and terraces, and the responsibility for taking care is passed down from one generation to the next. The system, allows the Ifugao to live in fairly dense concentrations in an otherwise inhospitable region.
Banaue Rice Terrace Irrigation and Maintenance
According to UNESCO: The terrace clusters “continue to be worked and maintained in the traditional manner although other nearby terraces have been abandoned or have temporarily fallen out of use due to changes in climate and rainfall patterns in the terraces’ mountain watershed. In some villages, Christianization in the 1950s affected the performance of tribal practices and rituals that were essential in maintaining the human commitment that balances nature and man in the landscape; today, tribal practices coexist with Christianity. However, the terraced landscape is highly vulnerable because the social equilibrium that existed in the rice terraces for the past two millennia has become profoundly threatened by technological and evolutionary changes. Rural-to-urban migration processes limit the necessary agricultural workforce to maintain the extensive area of terraces and climate change has recently impinged on the property resulting in streams drying out, while massive earthquakes have altered locations of water sources and caused terrace dams to move and water distribution systems re-routed. [Source: UNESCO]
“Irrigation is achieved through a network of dikes and sluices. The size of the fields range from a few square meters to more than one hectare, with the average size being 270 square meters. In rocky terrain the terraces are built from the top down, by first hollowing out the top of a mountain and surrounding the outside with narrow platforms. Stones that are removed from the fields are used to construct the terrace walls, whose cracks are filled with chalk-base plaster. The platforms are then filled with earth. In this fashion the terraces are built down the mountain until the reach the valley.
“If the soil is crumbly work begins at the bottom and moves upwards. Under these circumstances the terrace builders they try to dig out the earth to reach the rock which is used as a solid base and which, if necessary, can be supported with tree trunks. Unfortunately, the terraces are starting to erode and deteriorate somewhat because younger Ifugao are not taking care of them as their attention is distracted by other things like television, smart phones and making money.
“The terraces have long been protected and managed through traditional ancestral land use management traditions of the indigenous Ifugao community. Individual terraces are privately owned and protected through ancestral rights, tribal laws and traditional practices. The maintenance of the living rice terraces reflects a primarily cooperative approach of the whole community which is based on detailed knowledge of the rich diversity of biological resources existing in the Ifugao agro-ecosystem, a finely tuned annual system respecting lunar cycles, zoning and planning, extensive soil conservation, and the mastery of a most complex pest control regime based on the processing of a variety of herbs, accompanied by religious rituals.”
Banaue itself is a pretty big town in the region. It has a lively market and can be reached by paved roads. There are lots of backpackers, guest houses and cheap restaurants. It is located in valley an elevation of 1,200 meters (3,960 feet).
Worth checking out in the town is the Museum of Cordilleran Sculpture, founded by George and Candida Ida Schenk in the 1980s. It grew out of a small antique store in Manilla and desire to preserve a dying craft. There are over 1,000 pieces in the museum’s collection, ranging from large carved wooden Bululs, masks to smaller scale figures, textiles, utilitarian objects, and composite objects
On the road to Bontoc, there is a lot of beautiful views of the rice terraces. Walking from Banaue up to the main view point takes one or two 2 hours, depending how often you stop to enjoy the superb view. Try to get as far away as possible from Banaue: the higher up you got the better the views. It is possible to walk through the rice terraces but is also easy to get lost, so best take a guide if that is what you want to do.
It is possible to take a bus directly from Manila to Banaue. Ohayami Trans (Lacson Ave cnr Fajardo St, Sampaloc, Manila, near University of Sto. Tomas or take the train from the Legarda Station & then a trickshaw to the terminal) and GV Florida Transport (Dangwa Transport Co., Lacson ave. cor. Earnshaw st. Sampaloc Manila, Sampaloc terminal) both operate daily buses from Manila that take 9-10 hours and cost about US$10. You can also reach Banaue from Baguio and Bontoc. Because of road conditions and the number of things to see, tourists often hire a car with a driver for the seven-to eight-hour trip, driving to Bontoc or Banaue but make several stops along the way.
Batad: in the Heart of the Banaue Area Rice Terraces
Batad (one hour jeepney ride and two hour walk from Banaue) is the home of some of the most spectacular rice terraces in the Banaue area. Here the mud and stone walled structures look like a tropical stairway to heaven that continue on and on, up one winding river gorge after another, and look the Bali rice terraces transplanted on the foothills of the Himalayas. They are especially beautiful in the morning sunlight when mist still clings to the mountains.
The terraces are laid like a an amphitheater. Each terrace is supported by stone walls that give the terraces a neat, organized look. The further away from the terraces you are the more their imperfection are hidden and the cleaner their lines look. When you look up the terraces they look like giant staircases. When you look down on them, when the paddies contain water, they resemble shimmering saucers of vegetation and liquid piled on one another.
Water is kept in the terraces year round.. If they dry out, the terrace walls crack, increasing the likelihood of a landslide in heavy rain. Irrigation water in the dry season comes from steams that tumble down out of the mountains. Some of the water is carried in bamboo pipes. Living in the paddies is a unique ecosystem that includes frogs, snakes, snails, fish and wading birds. In recent years some of the terraces have fallen into disrepair as an increasing number of Ifugao have abandoned traditional life and gone to the cities and plantations in search of work.
Batad lies at the center of center of a “living cultural landscape” designated by UNESCO. Numerous hiking trails wind along the edges of the terraces and the walls of the terraces themselves. Destinations include beautiful waterfalls, swimming holes, large mountain, villages, former guerilla camps and pine forests. Guides, often old Ifugao men, can be arranged in Batad, which is (or at least was) also a popular hangout with Israelis.
Mountain Province in Cordillera Administrative Region
Mountain Province is known for it weaving and is the home of the Bontoc rice terraces and the Sagada hanging coffins. There are a a number of weaving centers sporting different designs that bespeak of the province’s cultural heritage. The people in this province practiced a traditional form of democratic governance led by the respected elders in the communityknown as Dap-ay/Ato that predates the Spanish.
Mountain Province is bounded by Isabela on the east; the provinces of Kalinga, Apayao, and Abra on the north; the provinces of Benguet and Ifugao on the south; and the province of Ilocos Sur on the west. It has an area of 2,292.31 square kilometers, with 83 percent mountains and 17 percent hills and flat land. There are rivers, waterfalls and caves. The province has two seasons: dry from November to April and wet the rest of the year.
Mountain Province is composed of ten municipalities: Bontoc, Barlig, Bauko, Besao, Natonin, Paracelis, Sabangan, Sadanga, Sagada, and Tadian, with Bontoc as the capital town. There are 144 barangays comprising the 10 municipalities. The province is only home to about 160,000 people and has 72 people per square kilometer, making it one least densely populated provinces in the Philippines. Kankanaey is the major language-dialect spoken. English, Ilocano and Tagalog are also widely spoken.
Most people are farmers and there has been some effort to generate some small scale industry. The furniture industry, made from raw local materials such as pinewood and bamboo,. is a growing venture in the province. Bamboo and rattan basketry is also practiced. Backstrap weaving, an age-old handicraft, expanded to the use of loom. Colorful clothes are now used to make product like bags, purses, tapestry, ethnic costumes, blankets, linen, and fashion accessories.
Bontoc and the Maligcong Rice Terraces
Bontoc (three hours from Banaue) is the home of the Igorot tribe. Like the Ifugao, they are terrace builders and former headhunters. Even if you have seen the Banaue and Bataad terraces it is worth taking a look at the ones in Bontoc. The terrace walls of some are constructed of stone and have a different look. Many people who have visited them say they are more impressive than the ones at Bataad. There are reportedly even more impressive-looking terraces deeper in the mountains.
Bontoc town is relatively small and is very easy just to walk around the main street and find everything you need. Tricycles here are cheap if you need to go anywhere. There are few guest houses but it isn’t nearly as developed as Banaue. Among the places worth checking out are Mainit Hot Springs and Pusong and Ganga Cave Trek. The Bontoc Museum has some interesting photographs and artifacts of the Igorot
Nearby Maligcong is known for its impressive rice terraces. To get the best view of these, one has to hike up Mt. Kopapey. It takes about 30 minutes of hike from the village to the mountain top. Many hikers try to climb early in the morning so they can get of the sea of clouds breaking up over the terraces. The view of the gently cascading hills engulfed by rice terraces is breathtaking. Mt. Kopapey feeds creeks and springs which supply water to Maligcong Rice Terraces. These creeks join together into a stream that flows the three-level Lipnok Falls.
The jeepneys to Maligcong leave from in front of Pines Kitchenette and Inn at 8:00am, 12:00noon 2:30pm, 4:30pm, 5:30pm to Maligcong and 6:30am, 8:00am, 9:00am, 2:00pm and 4:00pm to Bontoc, but may leave a little earlier if full. The price is low and it takes about half an hour to get there. There is a small entrance fee. The terraces start at the jeepney final stop. They are easier to explore than Batad and there are less steps to climb and there is a concrete path to the village. It takes a few hours to check them out. You can walk back to Bontoc in about 1½ hours.
Getting There From Manila:: Cabletours, departs 8:30 pm. The bus terminal is inside the Trinity University of Asia Campus at E. Rodriguez Ave. Cubao, Quezon City, 600 Pesos From Banaue: Jeepneys depart from the market, 1 hour 45 minutes. Scenic ride over the mountains with spectacular views. Site on the roof if you dare. From Baguio: GL Lizardo Trans departs 8:00am, 10:00am & 2:30pm from Governor pck Rd. Baguio City, 220 Pesos D'Rising Sun Buses departs 5:00am-1:00pm from Slaughter House Compound, Baguio City.
Sagada; Hanging Coffins and Caves
Sagada (13 hours from Manila) is a small town in Mountain Province in north-central Luzo. Its main draws are its relatively cool temperatures, interesting caves and hanging coffins set in an area of beautiful mountains. The town is fairly isolated. It has only has one ATM, which is not always working. Exchange rates are quite bad. Popular sights include: The Mission Compound, Kiltepan Rice Terraces, Echo Valley Cliffs, Sumaging (the Big Cave), Bokong and Bomod-ok Waterfalls, Burial Cave, Mount Ampakaw, Underground River and Lake Danum.
There are several places where you can find hanging coffins. The closest is downhill from the town, but they are not very impressive. The most impressive ones are in the north of the valley behind a Christian graveyard. To get there head north uphill from Sagada’s central main road. Turn right at the municipality hall, following main road, and after the basketball court, turn right again. Pass the church on your left and go up the stairs until you face a small gate. Turn left and on the Y-fork after 150 meters, turn right. Cross the graveyard straight ahead. Follow the small path for maybe 300 meters and still uphill, you should already see the coffins on the opposite side down in the little valley. Go downhill, keep right, and you run straight into the main coffin spot. Hidden around this area, you can find several other coffins decorated into some rocks. Best light for pictures is in the afternoon. No guide required.
A guide is not necessary but required because some tourists behave disrespectfully in the spiritual area and there is danger they may deface the coffin. The fee for the guide is not so high; often there is someone at the stairs to the collect the fee. You should have a guide with you when arrive. Ask for English speaking guide. Tourist Information can call for a guide (P200 for a guide) while you wait at the stairs.
Caving is popular (See Below). Other activities including hiking to Bumud-ok Falls (Big Falls)., where you can jump from the ledge. You can go rock climbing, near Echo Valley. White Water rafting is available on the Upper Chico River. The best time is from July to early January, but that conditions vary according to to amount of rainfall that fallen recently. The sections of the river being rafted are downstream from Bontoc. Most sections have numerous class 3 to 3+ rapids and several class 4 rapids. Equipment is international standard and guides are trained by US rafting professionals. Cost ranges from 2500 to 3500 pesos/person depending on group size and section being rafted. Inquire at Sagada Outdoors, in the white commercial building across from the jeepney stop. Sunrise at Kiltepan Peak is worth getting up early for.
Getting There: From Baguio: both Lizardo Trans and D'Rising Sun run several buses a day, starting at 06:00 and taking 5.5-6.5hrs depending on road conditions. Last bus is about 13:00. From Bontoc: local jeepneys ply this route throughout the day (first one 08.30 and last one 17.00). Tthe last return trip is at 1pm. From Manila: Coda Lines runs daily buses 21:00 for 730 pesos. Bring a jacket. The Bus terminal is located in Cubao near EDSA on Maryland street. From Vigan: Arrival at Sagada within a day is possible, but only if you leave at 6am. Take the Partas bus down towards La Union, stopping at Tagudin, then take a van to Cervantes. From Cervantes, take another van (last van departs 4pm) to Bauko. And finally, from Bauko, take a van towards Bontoc, dropping off at the Sagada junction. At this junction, just waive down any vehicle to get to Sagada Town. The entire journey will take approximately 7 hours.
Hanging Coffins of Sagada
On the “hanging coffins” in Sagada, Karl Grobl of CNN wrote: “Hanging coffins are an ancient funeral custom in northern Luzon. In several areas, coffins of various shapes can be seen hanging either on beams projecting outward from vertical faces of the mountain, in caves in the face of cliffs, or on natural rock projections. The coffins are quite small due to the fact that the deceased are placed in the fetal position, believing that people should leave the world in the same position as they entered it. The reason they do it is because they want the spirit to go up to Heaven, they believe that if they bury a person the spirit can't go up to Heaven.” [Source: Karl Grobl, CNN, May 5, 2012]
In her book 'Making An Exit', a book about how different cultures mourn, Sarah Murray describes taking part in a funeral in Sagada that combines the rites of Christianity with the pre-Christian practice of burying the dead, wrapped in ceremonial blankets and compressed into the fetal position, “in wooden sarcophagi that are left hanging on cliff faces or lodged in the fissures and caverns of Sagada’s jagged forests of stone.” For a moment,[Source: Rachel Newcomb, Washington Post]
Angel Bautista, an archeology student at the University of Santo Tomas Graduate School, wrote: For the Kankanaey, the ethnic group to which the people of Sagada belongs, “death is dreadful because it removes a family member physically in a permanent fashion; however, it is also mysterious because it makes possible for the spirit of the dead to continue social connections with the living. Possible reasons why the region practices such belief: one is because of filial piety, another is the belief that the ancestors have the powers which they share to each other and because of their polytheistic view in decomposition of the body and most likely the preservation may last longer than to bury the corpse on the ground. The sudden exposure of the body in the air as soon as it was opened, after years of being inside the coffin, also affects its decay along with the burial materials associated with the corpse. Picpican also noticed that human intervention also caused the body to rot easily. In line with the findings about factors affecting the easy decay of mummies, the best way to preserve these bodies and to keep these dead remain with their riches and prestige is to simply “leave them alone.” [Source: Angel Bautista, University of Santo Tomas Graduate School, March 16, 2013 /*/]
“Disturbing the natural environment and ecology of the burial sites where the mummies were kept and preserved for centuries would not, in any way, help in the preservation of the mummies but instead push them into oblivion (Picpican, 2004).” Destroying these mummies is like destroying the tradition of the people, thus, slowly commodifying their belief. For thehanging coffins of Sagada, the locals did not permit to open any coffins for the people to study one reason can be because of the later. Such reason can be considered as an answer to why they hang their dead. Isolating the coffins away from the community and hanging them on the cliffs will give the impression that People of Sagadas were trying to prevent people from disturbing these well respected corpses of their ancestors. /*/
“Another reason behind this practice is from the guides who explain to their tourist that these coffins were hanged because of the belief that “the higher the body is placed, the closer to heaven (Weird asianews).”This is also similar with the study conducted by Chinese experts with the Hanging Coffins of the Bo. The recent discovery of these coffins gave opportunity to further understand the mystery of the hanging coffins in Sagada. It was said that the earliest coffin in the area dates back 2,500 years ago, which is quite parallel to when Sagada started their burial customs. As they further study the Bo people using the hanging coffins, some conclusions rose to why they place their dead on the cliff ironically away from their family which far different from the Chinese belief. Professor Lin Xiang of the University of Sichuan, concludes that Bo people hang their coffin for either spiritual or practical reason. To be closer to heaven is what he considered as the spiritual reason, while to protect the coffins from animals and destruction was perceived to be the practical reason. Conversely, Guo Jing the director of Yunnan Provincial Museum theorized that for the Bo people, the mountains were considered to be the stairway to heaven while the coffins were the bridge towards heaven. Such theories agree with the belief of the Kankanaeys of Sagada. As to whether these two communities relate to each other is another theory that needs to be proven with facts, but it is probable that such occurrence happened one might have influenced the other. Locals will also tell you that the rich or the respected members of their society are the only ones to be buried on the cliffs. /*/
“The social hierarchy in Sagada among the rich, the middle-class, and the poor still exist and are properly observed — even for the dead. As the rich wants to preserve his wealth and status, burying him on the cliff will help in recognizing his status, which can be considered as the third reason to why People of Sagadas have such practice. Last reason that can be considered is that People of Sagadas are said to be from the lowland who were forced to go up into the mountains to avoid the Spanish rule. Adjusting from this environment will entail them to use alternatives in order to survive. In this manner, being in a mountainous area had given them limited land to cultivate. As to not waste the land area for their agriculture, they chose to bury their dead into the caves, even hanging them fromthe cliffs as to allot an area for their dead.
In the year 1950, Eduardo Masferre had said these words: “…rituals that Sagada has not lost despite modern times.” And after 63 years, Sagada still remains to be faithful to its traditionand has taken good care of it. This proves that the people in Sagada, regardless of the modern period present in the area, have never forgotten to respect their ancestors. Basically, this show that their tradition is not an act to attract people, rather it is something they live by. It is the authentic culture that in its literal meaning “–the way of life.”
For Malanes (2003), “Sagada folk, until now, still observe some of the burial customs and traditions of their ancestors.” The Echo Valley’s hanging coffins are the proof of it. Although there are some changes that happened over the years, yet the village and its people did not forget who they are and how to practice their tradition — particularly their death and burial customs. Regardless of the modern names given to them and other changes in the society, the Kankanaeys of Sagada still chooses to place their Kankanaey’s name on their coffin and be buried the way their ancestors did it.
Caving at Sagada
A two to three hour trip including a visit of the Sumaguing Cave, the burial cave, Lumiang Cave and the hanging coffins goes for about US$16 for first person, and US$8 for each additional person. The group goes in from Burial Cave and comes out from Sumaging cave. Book at the tourist information counter. Prepare to get wet and ziplock all the belongings. The "cave connection," is a rather extreme activity. Some of the crevices you have to squeeze through are very small. Much of the way you are hanging on the walls with steep drops beneath you. Most people just go down and up the Sumaguing cave; only a small number attempt the dangerous cave connection.
On his cave trip experience, Kim Ventura wrote: “Dark, cold, muddy, with thousands of bats...So down we went the slippery trail, carefully watching our step and holding on to rocks covered in bats’ droppings....I won’t lie to you. Caves aren't easy, and this one not the least. But your effort will be worth it once you get to the point the guide tells you to remove your footwear and go barefoot on the flow stone. The water cooled our feet and we started to relax. And from there, our guide pointed to interesting rock formations like “the elephant” and “the king’s curtain.” There were fossilized shells embedded on the rocks, too!
“The next part, with its tricky and tight crevices, called for some acrobatic skills! Good thing we had our very own “Alfred,” a guide from SAGGAS (Sagada Genuine Guides Association) who offered his knee so we could have a ladder for the hard-to-reach spots. The thrills got even better as we rappelled down into trenches. We found a deep pool of ice-cold water, and we chose to dive in. We were wet, anyway! But the best part was having to do everything all over again on our way out of the cave. We felt more confident with our footwork and the ascent back was easier. Once on dry land, we found ourselves wet, muddy, but definitely grinning from ear to ear. We did it! We survived Sumaging Cave!
Kabayan Mummy Burial Caves
Kabayan Mummy Burial Caves(320 kilometers north of Manila) feature Ibaloi mummies placed in caves in central Luzon between 10th and 18th centuries. Old or seriously ill Ibaloi who were believed to be on the verge of dying sometimes prepared their bodies for mummification by drinking a brine solution to cleanse their bodies. Thirty-two Ibaloi in four caves near Kabayan, are bring threatened by logging, vandalism and rodents. In 1998, the World Monuments Fund placed the Kabayan caves in their list of the World's 100 Most Endangered Sites. The caves are accessible from La Trinidad, a town with 130,000 people in an area of Benguet Province known as the “Strawberry Fields of the Philippines". Worried about preservation issues,
Kabayan Mummy Burial Caves were nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2006. According to UNESCO: “Kabayan is one of the Municipality of Benguet Province in the Cordillera Mountain Ranges of northern Luzon. The municipality is recognized as a center of Ibaloi Culture. The Ibaloi, the dominant ethno-linguistic group, of Kabayan have a long traditional practice of mummifying their dead. Mummification began prior to the Spanish colonization. Individuals from the higher societal stratum of the Ibaloi of Kabayan used to be mummified through a long ritual process over a long period of time. The process of mummification using salt and herbs and set under fire may take up to two years. When the body is finally rid of body fluids, the mummy is placed inside a pinewood coffin and laid to rest in a man-made cave or in niche dug-out from solid rock. During the Spanish period, Christianity spread and took a foothold in the mountains of Benguet and the practice of mummification and cave burial was abandoned. The remains are then placed in wooden coffins and interred in man-made burial niches in rocks or rock shelters and/or natural caves. [Source: UNESCO]
“Strategically located in the mountain slopes of the municipality of Kabayan, more than 200 man-made burial caves have been identified and 15 of which contain preserved human mummies. Out of the several ethnolinguistic groups in the Philippines, only the Ibaloi practiced mummification in preserving their dead. There are also instances of mummification in the caves in Mountain Province which is inhabited by another ethno-linguistic group, the Bontoc. It is not certain however whether this is a practice by the Bontoc, or merely an extension from Kaayan, Benguet, to Alab, Mountain Province. There are also cases of mummies in the province of Ifugao, also in the Cordilleras, but this is probably due to population movements from the province of Benguet to the province of Ifugao. There are of course instances of mummification in Sulawesi among the Toraja and other parts of Southeast Asia. Well known are the sites in South America. Mummification in Southeast Asia, however, are from a different technology from that practiced in Egypt.”
Mt. Pulag is the second highest mountains in the Philippines at 2,922 meters high. Located in central Luzon, it is a natural habitat of endemic species of wild plants, such as dwarf bamboo and the benguet pine, and wild species of birds, long haired fruit bats, Philippine deer and giant bushy tailed cloud rats. Mt. Pulag was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2006. Mt. Pulag National Park lies on the north and south spine of the Grand Cordillera Central that stretches from Pasaleng, Ilocos Norte to the Cordillera Provinces. It falls within the administrative jurisdiction of two Regions — Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) and Cagayan Valley State — and is located in provinces of Benguet, Ifugao, and Nueva Vizcaya.
According to UNESCO: “The whole park is located within the Philippine Cordillera Mountain Range and is very rugged, characterized by steep to very steep slopes at the mountainsides and generally rolling areas at the mountain peak. Mt. Pulag National Park is the highest peak in Luzon and is the second highest mountain in the Philippines with an elevation of 2,922 m. above sea level. The summit of Mt. Pulag is covered with grass and dwarf bamboo plants. At lower elevations, the mountainside has a mossy forest veiled with fog, and full of ferns, lichens and moss. Below this is the pine forest growing on barren, rocky slopes. Falls, rivers and small lakes mark the area. [Source: UNESCO]
“The Park has a large diversity of flora and fauna, many of which are endemic to the mountain. Its wildlife includes threatened mammals such as the Philippine Brown Deer, Northern Luzon Giant Cloud Rat and the Luzon Pygmy Fruit Bat. One can also find several orchid species some of which are possibly endemic to Mt. Pulag, and other rare flora such as the pitcher plant.
“Mt. Pulag is an important watershed providing the water necessities of many stakeholders for domestic and industrial use, irrigation, hydroelectric power production and aquaculture. Mt. Pulag was proclaimed National Park by virtue of Pres. Proclamation No. 75 on February 20, 1987 covering an area of 11,550 hectares. It was established to protect and preserve the natural features of the area such as its outstanding vegetation and wildlife. It belongs to the Cordillera Biogeographic Zone located in Northern Luzon. Mt. Pulag is a National Integrated Protected Areas Programme (NIPAP) site”
On climbing Mt. Pulag, 59-year-old Boboy Yonzon wrote: “Mt. Pulag was truly challenging, especially on the last ascent to the peak, which began at 4 a.m., in time for sunrise. The freezing temperature and thin air almost made me black out, but I was a stubborn bull....After much huffing and puffing, I finally made it to the summit just as cries of triumph greeted the sun. Its rays broke through the thick clouds and blanketed the narrow mountaintop with golden yellow.”
Getting there: Several buses travel from Manila to Baguio. From Baguio, you can rent a jeep with a driver to take you to Babadak Ranger Station, the jump-off point to Mt. Pulag. There are four routes from Babadak to Mt. Pulag, and the easiest is the Ambangeg route. To schedule a trip, you must reserve a slot through Park Superintendent Emerita Albas at mobile no. (+63) 919 6315402. She’s in charge of assigning your guides and porters for the climb.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Philippines Tourism websites, Philippines government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Japan News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Updated in August 2020