Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Banaue Museum of Cordillera Heritage: Of Supernatural and Other Tales

Trail and shaman staffs
We came to Bissang, Tam-an, in Banaue, Ifugao under driving rain and darkening skies.  Eventually finding our way to the Banaue DDD Heritage Inn, we look up to the Museum of Cordillera Heritage just adjacent to it, shrouded in bromeliads, palms, shrubs and more bromeliad, looking mysterious.  On the side window, we espied bulols, rice god statues, seeming to descend down the stairway.  Must be an overactive imagination, you might say. 

Museums like these, though, hold a special fascination for me on more levels than the obvious.   On the physical side, the objects on display are concrete evidence of a way of life lived and maybe lost forever.  On a metaphysical aspect, I feel the energies of these relics.  There's something about old museums that heightens one's senses, more so the ones outside the realm of what can be seen, smelled, touched, heard, and felt.  

Our guide, longtime caretaker, Fe Ida, gave us the better half of one morning to explore two floors of Cordillera heritage, over a thousand pieces and growing.  A transplant from Leyte, Fe has overseen the inn and museum for the past 27 years, growing a family and losing some members (her hubby passed away a few years ago while a son migrated to Baguio with his own family).  She transitioned seamlessly from the former owner, an American octogenarian who has repatriated to Canada, to its current owner, Atty. Dominador Buhain, the patriarch of the Rex Bookstore empire, himself an avid traveler and collector.  Atty. Buhain's museum of Cordillera pieces in the Book cum Ethnology Museum in Marikina is, in itself, a priceless collection that deserves more renown and patronage.
Bululs stand on guard every step of the way
While we went around, Ms. Fe shared her stories, some touching on the supernatural (there's that word again).  We we were no strangers to stories like these anyway, having had our fair share of encounters hard to explain to skeptics and "insensitives".   One very memorable account in her nearly three decades here was the purchase of an old chest/trunk which turned out to be unsanctioned by the parents of the selling party; it came with a mysterious snake that slithered out of nowhere.  Needless to say, the trunk was returned in haste.  

Anyway.  IMHO, it's always a good idea to visit a museum like this one especially that nowadays, tourists rarely spend more than a day or two in these parts, mostly focusing on scenic viewpoints that give but a glimpse of the rich culture, history, and splendor of our highlands.  A distant, macro view you might say as the terraces are also sculptures; larger than life and carved from whole mountains.  The museum pieces, on the other hand, form part of the microcosm, the smaller details that weave a picture of how life was once lived here, small pieces that form the big picture.
Shaman boxes
Take for example a shaman box containing materials for the mumbaki (priest) usually containing a hipag or idol representing the ancestral spirits, going by many names -- paamuhan in Banaue, pikly in Hungduan, kintib in Hapao, innama in Mayoyao -- linguistic variations testament to the "isolation and warring of the various montane communities" so said the accompanying caption.  The boxes are accented by glyphs of hog heads (inspired by the pigs in the ceremonial slaughtering) as well as the Banniyah, the lizard spirit and bringer of good fortune.  Fascinating, isn't it?  And we're just touching on priestly boxes here.
Lower floor of the two-floor Museum of Cordillera Heritage
Display no. 968 is proof of social classes in Ifugao society in the olden days, a hagabi or Ifugao prestige bench considered sacred, sponsored by a couple from Kiangan to secure their place among the elite.  Carved in the 1920s, the hagabi was paid for in kind:  three feasts (imbayah) for the whole village with each party lasting for days and calling for the slaughter of at least eight pigs and two water buffaloes -- a princely sum for sure then as now.  Looking up the display statues where colorful woven blankets were hung, intricate grave stones, dog toy pieces and ornate meat pickling boxes, I find it unfair that history books have almost without fail, labeled our highlands ancestors as primitive.  Their art and crafts are a testament to their sophistication and creativity. 
Carved horn ornament
Perhaps what draws me to museums like this one isn't just what can be seen but also what can be felt.  The weight of the years.  The memory, the energy more apparent in some objects than in others.  And the specter that haunts and lives on.  In the display of walking staffs, one stands out -- a mahogany trail staff circa 1970, carved by a tribal shaman, Meyngo of Agaw, Besao, in the image of his wife, covered by a shock of her own hair.  On ascending to the second floor, I personally remember seeing the staff facing outwards midway between the southeast corner and the south-facing window.  After going around, ogling and shooting, we came back to the same spot to find the shaman's staff facing inwards to the other direction.  Fe, when asked, said she didn't touch anything.  Was the staff keeping watch over her domain, filled with relics that shared her past?
Facade of Museum of Cordillera Heritage

Info for booking, reservations and inquiries:
Address:  Bissang, Tam-an, Banaue, Ifugao (just a short tricycle ride from Banaue Hotel)
Open:  9:00AM to 5:00PM, Monday to Sunday
Admission Fee: P200 per person
Contact person:  Ms. Fe Ida

Contact numbers: 0932.165 9176, 0915,9317460, 0927.4011484 • (02) 570.4449
FB page link here 

Image info:  All images taken with a Sony A6000 + Sony 50mm f/1.8 / Samyang 12mm f/2 lens © 2018 Oggie Ramos

Lagalog thanks: Ma'am Noemi Cruz for welcoming us and facilitating our stay and unobstructed visit to the Museum of Cordillera Heritage;  also, to Ma'am Fe Ida for attending to our needs even though we visited when the weather was inclement


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