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A Saving Ifugao's Pride

(By Eva Govena)

The Ifugao Rice Terraces are the proud manifestation of Filipino ingenuity as seen through the man-made stairways almost reaching the skies. Perfectly accenting the Cordillera mountainsides, the wondrous terraces were intricately fashioned by the Ifugaos using their bare hands.

It's not hard to imagine how the famous terraces of Ifugao province achieved global prominence and recognition as the eighth wonder of the world. All that have been said and written about the Ifugao Rice Terraces reflected deep admiration for the rich cultural beliefs and practices of the Ifugaos, notwithstanding, of course, their indigenous skills.

It's saddening however to think that its natural beauty and cultural richness are slowly fading because of socio economic and environmental conditions threatening its existence. There have been reports that the rice terraces are slowly collapsing along with the ancient customs and beliefs of its people. From this alarming situation came efforts of the government and some advocacy organizations to restore this significant fragment of world heritage.

When news exploded about its worsening condition in the 80's, the government commissioned a development and conservation plan for the rice terraces. This plan focused on irrigation system restorations and road improvements particularly for its four municipalities namely Banaue, Mayoyao, Kiangan and Hungduan. More are yet to be done though, especially on preserving and cultivating the socio-cultural aspects of the region.

In making this possible, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) recently extended its support to the provincial government of Ifugao through a Php 50-million-grant aimed at restoring the region's cultural roots. The grant was received by Ifugao Provincial Governor Teddy Baguilat, Jr. from the NCCA, represented by its chairman Evelyn B. Pantig.

More than boosting its agricultural potential, the NCCA is particularly concerned in reviving Ifugao traditional beliefs and preserving their cultural significance. Among the almost forgotten rituals of the Ifugaos is the chanting of the hudhud, a long epic that depicts the exploits of their ancestors chanted during rice harvests. In 2001, it was declared by the UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in recognition of its cultural significance to the Filipinos and to mankind, in general. Other practices which are seldom performed nowadays are the bakle, a thanksgiving ritual during the harvest season and the patipat, another ritual to drive away pests and bad spirits in the rice fields.

It's impressive how the Ifugao people have successfully resisted Spanish and American domination, being the only Filipino cultural group to fight foreign aggression. They were able to retain their identity and go on with their lives in accordance to their sacred beliefs.

The Ifugaos may have succeeded to exist independently without foreign influence, yet this was not a guarantee that they have remained unchanged throughout the course of time. Most of their children whom they've sent to Manila for education have assimilated the city life and have been converted to Christianity. This phenomenon may very well signal the gradual waning of the Ifugao culture, yet there is still hope to save what is left of the beautiful traditions in the northern mountains.

The Roots of Ifugao Pride

The Ifugaos are undeniably among the most creative and hardworking of Filipinos. This is evident in their exceptional skills in craft making and farming. The Ifugaos have brilliantly constructed the rice terraces using the simplest hand tools even at the risk of losing the land's natural contour. This, however, did not pose any problem since the Ifugaos have acquired a thorough familiarity of local drainage patterns.

From the valley floor to the mountain peak, the Ifugaos mounted sturdy stonewalls that reached 50 feet, with each step built slightly higher to form the amazing terraces. It's truly incredible how the Ifugaos managed to devise a unique irrigation system where water flows through stone-lined canals and bamboo logs coming from the streams and rivers above the mountains.

Farming to the Ifugaos is more than just basic sustenance. It also serves to prove their deep affinity with nature and the supernatural forces around them. The core of their religion lies on a sacred rite called baki performed by their native priest whom they refer to as mumbaki. The baki is done to nurture their rice agriculture and protect every phase of man's life.

The Ifugaos believe in a supreme being called Maknongan, the god of reproduction and controller of man's life to whom they offer their sacrifices and rites. They also worship other gods like bagol, dalom, lagud, daya, and daggahna. From among these spiritual entities, the most famous to tourists is bulul simply because of the many wooden effigies and ornate pieces of the image available for sale. Bulul is said to be the guardian spirits of granaries and forests.

As highly skilled craftsmen, the Ifugaos are renowned for their wood sculpted gods and unique basketwork, not to mention exquisite textile designs and body tattoos. During ceremonial occasions, the common Ifugao is garbed in colorful body adornments of native necklaces, earrings and headpieces made of coiled copper, shells, and precious beads.

The Ifugao house is another display of noted creativity as seen in the small-enclosed structure embellished by hand-hewn native timbers elevated on four huge trunks of living trees. Typical in the houses of the rich Ifugaos are decorated attic beams, doorjambs carved with human effigies, and ornate exterior of native animals. Common Ifugaos, too, keep artistic pieces of elaborately carved shelves and other wood furniture.

Aside from the featured cultural expressions and the awe-inspiring view of the rice terraces, there are indeed more to marvel about the Ifugao province. There are several unexplored caves, hot springs and waterfalls. One must not miss Kiangan for the famous Yamashita Shrine and the Ambuwaya Lake which is perfect for fishing and family picnics.

Knowing that a large portion of Filipino cultural heritage faces the risk of deterioration is enough cause to seriously think about conserving the rice terraces -- the Ifugao people and the whole Philippines" pride.

With the initial fund release of Php 10 Million to the Provincial Government of Ifugao, the Ifugao Rice Terraces and Cultural Heritage Office (IRTCHO) was established in October 2002. Since then, it has implemented the initial phase of the restoration and preservation of the Ifugao Rice Terraces which includes the updating of its master plan; conduct of community-organizing activities to instill awareness and gather support from regional and local stakeholders; and the starting of specific activities to enhance and strengthen the physical condition of the terraces. Also underway are tourism and cultural development projects to complete the presentation.

With all these efforts, the Filipino people are assured that an important world heritage monument will again withstand the ravages of time and bring a rich, distinctive Filipino culture to the attention of future generations.

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