In the beginning,

there was the forest

Words and photographs by Celine Murillo

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This article is part of Issue #16

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Challenging misconceptions and reweaving the contemporary narrative, a group of Visayan heritage advocates are on a voyage to unearth the legacy of pre-colonial Philippines and reshape what it means to be a Filipino.

Minxie Villaver, 28, arrives in the parking lot of a supermarket on the back of a scooter. She is dressed in a black-and-gold tapis (a tubular wrap-around dress) cradling a saruk (a woven hat with a brim) on her lap. She removes her helmet and reveals a long alampay (shawl) on her head, with white flowers tucked and gleaming against the black cloth. Regal, even if slightly dishevelled from the commute, she waves to her sister, who is standing by the entrance to the store.

Sharrie Villaver, 24, is dressed differently - but somehow, similarly - to her sister. She is wrapped in a deep blue batik (wax-dyed) tapis, with a bakus (belt) cinching her waist and a trio of hair ornaments: a tusuk (golden comb), a pudung-pudung (golden crown), and lavender tagunbaisat (flower headpiece). Standing amidst the coming and going of the store crowd, her chin slightly jutted out as if issuing a challenge, she waves back.

Here in Cebu, the Villaver sisters are cultural figureheads. Since 2019, they have been on a voyage to retrace, relearn, and reclaim the wisdom of pre-Hispanic Philippines in general, Visayan heritage in particular.

When the Spanish conquistadors reached the shores of Sugbu - the old name of Cebu, a province in the Visayas - in March 1521, it was a functional society. Yet they claimed they were uncivilised, barely clothed and Godless. In the name of gold, glory, and God, the conquistadors systematically - and violently - Christianised the Philippines. Centuries later, this faith held the majority of the country, becoming home to one of the largest populations of Christians and Catholics in the world.

Now, Sharrie and Minxie, who are passionate artists and diligent scholars, are diving into ancient texts, scripts, contemporary papers and journals to uncover more of the Philippines’ pre-colonial and pre-Christianised history.

It is written by foreigners, most likely colonisers. So it takes on a condescending tone, and often puts our people in a bad light.

For many pre-colonial enthusiasts, the 16th-century manuscript The Boxer Codex remains one of the most known and well-cited works. Originally written in Spanish, it contains detailed and colourful illustrations of Indigenous peoples all over Asia. But the Villaver sisters go beyond this text. “First of all,” Minxie laughs. “It is written by foreigners, most likely colonisers. So it takes on a condescending tone, and often puts our people in a bad light.”

“That’s why we cross-reference,” Sharrie chimes in. “And we are cautious of translations and translated works. Much could, and would, get lost in the process so we find as many resources and references as possible,” she says. “For example, foreigners tend to misspell words because they do not know our language,” adds Minxie. “So we really scrutinise translations.” One such case is the name of the Central Visayan deity Naginid, the female version of Naga, a multi-headed serpent god. The popularised name is Ynaguinid, whose origins appeared once in a journal called Relacion de Las Yslas Filipinas by Miguel de Loarca. It turned out to be the English mistranslation of the Spanish “y ay naguined”, also written as “y ay naguinid” in some cases, which actually meant “and oh Naginid”.

Proud of the personal library she had built over the years, Minxie says that the gathering of information and resources had not been easy. There are no known first-hand sources from their ancestors, and references are not readily and widely available. What Sharrie and Minxie know is not mainstream knowledge despite being so integral to Filipino identity. “These are rarely taught in schools,” Minxie says. “And if they are, it’s not enough and often inaccurate.”

Seeking to correct misconceptions like this, the Villaver sisters, together with the theatre group Karakoa Productions - named after the precolonial Visayan warship - and its crew of passionate advocates, have been setting sail, holding public performances, talks, webinars, dialogues, and social experiments to address the mis-, dis-, and mal-information surrounding the region’s pre-colonial history since 2019. Their efforts have proved fruitful, transcending the boundaries of the Visayas and reaching from mainland Luzon to the Filipino diaspora.

Nahia Lloren, 23, glides in her pink-and-red baru (blouse) across an arboretum at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City - one of the few remaining urban green spaces in Metro Manila. Nahia grew up detached from her Visayan roots, spending most of her life in Manila and barely speaking Cebuano, one of the main native languages spoken in the Visayas. When she came across Sharrie’s popular social media post where Sharrie wore pre-colonial Visayan clothing, Nahia decided to join Karakoa on their voyage to learn the truth about their ancestors.

Nahia has worked with Karakoa Productions on various projects since 2020. Chief among them are the webinars and learning sessions for both Filipinos in the homeland and those living abroad, which Karakoa Productions holds in collaboration with another cultural group called Baba Bisaya. “I am the Manila Chapter of Karakoa,” Nahia explains.

The first time she and a portion of Karakoa’s crew met each other, they gathered in an outdoor restaurant in Quezon City, coming fully dressed in their ancestors’ garments - a faithful facsimile at the very least. This is not a novel thing for members of Karakoa Productions, to go out in public dressed in pre-Hispanic attire. To them, it is a way to challenge the colonial tendencies of modern Filipinos.

“We are often asked, ‘Are you performing? Is there an event? Why are you in costume?’’’ Sharrie laughs. “When one is in a barong,” Minxie points out. “People don’t react like that.” The barong, usually made out of woven pineapple fibres, is a traditional Filipino men’s outfit more popular in the Tagalog regions, which are areas in the Philippines, particularly in Luzon, where the largest ethnolinguistic group - the Tagalog people - and their culture are prominent. The barong is a version of the baru (blouse) mixed with Spanish clothing styles.

One common criticism they receive is that their attires are just copies of Southeast Asian traditional wear. “There’s a reason for that,” says Nahia. “We had trade relations and diplomatic ties with countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, going as far as China and India and even with Arab states. In fact, we share ancestry with these people. So of course, there is similarity in the way we dress and even in our languages.” Minxie agrees: “We try to be consistent despite these comments. We want to normalise this.”

While there is a euphoria and pride that comes from learning about her heritage, Nahia is also careful not to romanticise precolonial history. She recognises that the lessons and wisdom that can be had from it are a mix of emulation-worthy practices and cautionary tales. For instance, some claim that ancient Filipino societies were matriarchal, but Nahia says that this is inaccurate. Women were not above men, per se, but they have their own domains: governing and wars were for men and community and domestic decisions were for women, for example. Some jobs were exclusive to one group and could not be performed by the other, such as goldsmithing for men and weaving for women, but this does not mean that one is held in a higher regard - all domains and genders are treated as equally important. Straddling these domains, holding an esteemed place, are the Babaylan.

The Babaylan are priestesses, shamans, ritualists and healers. They were almost always women, or feminine men and people called asog. They were much revered and respected, sought by the tumao (nobles) for wisdom and advice. Through them, their ancestors communicate with the kalag (soul or spirit) of dead family members as well as the diwata (deities and nature spirits) and are reminded of their shared and entangled existence with the whole of kalibutan (the world).

Nahia, herself a trans woman, is especially proud of this. “Our society, then, was by no means perfect. There were indentured servants and serfs and we sometimes engaged in tribal wars, but how our ancestors treated and valued women and trans-women is worth paying attention to,” she says.

Beyond clothes and fashion, the pre-colonial belief that everything has a kalag, a soul or spirit, that guides us and therefore merits our respect, is something that the group also wants to bring into focus. Minxie, Sharrie, Nahia and the rest of Karakoa Productions consider their ancestors’ syncretic beliefs and practices - with animistic, Hindu and Buddhist influences - worthy of a place in the modern Philippines, and a way to reestablish our connection with the natural world and with one another.

While there is a euphoria and pride that comes from learning about her heritage, Nahia is also careful not to romanticise precolonial history.

Hilot (a traditional healing practice) still persists to this day, employed in the barrios (remote villages) and in rural communities. The Tagalog “tawas”, and the Bikolano “santigwar” are forms of this ritual that have evolved to call on both Christian saints as well as nature spirits to facilitate healing. And the use of the Tagalog phrase “Tabi, tabi po”, a form of “excuse me” and asking for permission, when passing through or conducting business in natural places is still prevalent even among the youth.

Most notable of all, is the continued practice of a form of nature worship in many Indigenous communities in the Philippines. Having experienced the least cultural influence of colonialism, Indigenous peoples still remember, and have managed to live in, a way that honours their connection with the natural world.

Up north in Luzon, in the province of Apayao, the Isnag people have lapat, a word that means “sanctuary” or “reserve”. In this practice, portions of forests, bodies of water, plantations and residential lots are declared off-limits in honour of a dead community member. These areas are guarded by the bereaved family for a year or two. In this way, the area, like the departed, is allowed to rest. When lapat is lifted, a grand festival called Say-am takes place. This way of honouring all kin has been adapted into a form of land and resource management, a conservation measure supported by the provincial government.

From the clothes they wore to their ways of worship, pre-colonial Filipinos were merely trying to make sense of their place in the world, finding meaning in their existence.

From the clothes they wore to their ways of worship, pre-colonial Filipinos were merely trying to make sense of their place in the world, finding meaning in their existence. “I want to be a mirror,” Sharrie reflects, “for Filipinos to recognise what we looked like and who we were. We were not, and have never been, savages.”

In the beginning, there was the forest.
And the mountains.
And the vast, sacred ocean.
We were - are - Children of the Sea.
Nurtured by the land and the water.

Adorned with the Earth’s bounties were our bodies: gold for our limbs, crushed pearls for our skin, vines and root crops for our teeth, the flower essence of Styrax for fragrance, and silk and cotton for our garbs. Here were the rajah, the hara, the datu, and the bae - rulers and leaders of chiefdoms and villages. There was the balangay, one of our sea vessels, for we were mariners, sailors, traders, too - children of the sea. The Sea had a soul and we have always known it. And so did the trees, the forest, the rivers, and all in nature.

Generations of Filipinos navigating the flotsam and jetsam left by the colonial maelstrom could find harbour in this legacy. At the very least, it could buoy them through the turbulent waves of a collective voyage, towards knowing what it means to be a Filipino - to be human - in search of a brave, better, and kinder new world.

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Words and photographs by

Celine Murillo

Celine Murillo is a Filipino storyteller who combines words and visual imagery to tell stories of wildlife, wild places, and the intertwining of na… Learn more

This article is part of Issue #16

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