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December 01, 2003


The effect of acculturation among the Ifugao of the Cordilleras of northern Luzon, Philippines is the transformation of a sacred chant, alim, into theatrics, while endowing the nature of the non-ritual chant, hudhud, with a sacral character through institutional recognition.

There is a causal relationship between mundane practices of people with aspects of their belief system. When this relationship erodes due to acculturation, the cohesion of an indigenous culture is altered. There are state-coordinates that keep societies in a more or less stable equilibrium. It is due to these coordinates that traditional societies remain conservative in their ways. The disruption of even one of these stasis-maintaining mechanisms will erode these relationships and create new ones. What results from this are maladjustments in the causal association between practice and belief system.

Contact between peoples is inevitable and even necessary, in some cases, for viability, hence the axiom that – a group should marry out or die out. The exposure of indigenous cultures to external pressures, which may have beneficial effects, can also have negative repercussions. Among the indigenous peoples of the Philippines, the single most efficient event that induced global change in traditional cultures is the introduction of the great religions of the West and East. The new religions supplanted indigenous belief systems, and with this altered, diminished or totally eradicated practices associated with these systems of believing. Only those practices not linked with local religions survive only to be beset by other alien factors of change. Hence there are cultural practices that survive in some recognizable form despite the changes, while others are assigned to oblivion if not already precariously on the threshold. Indigenous beliefs are vulnerable due to the fact that the intrusions are in the intangible aspects of the culture. The effect is such that even the objective correlatives of beliefs become irrelevant to the society.

The Ifugao

The Ifugao people of the northern Cordilleras of the island of Luzon, Philippines are a graphic example of the vulnerability of a traditional society to the pressures of global intrusions. These are the same people who are famous for the incredible rice terraces that they build on mountain sides, which have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ritual world of these people is dominated by the male before the advent of Christianization. Even before even before this, the cosmology of the Ifugao is already very complex. The Cordillera environment is highly textured, and this created a number of cultural niches that effectively created both physical and social circumscription. This is compounded by the movement of people into the area from different adjoining areas, including people from different ethno-cultural stock. This intermixture had effects on the belief system of the Ifugao. While beliefs usually are convergent such that the people will tend to congregate, something different happened to the Ifugao.

One of the postulates explaining the nature of the belief system of the Ifugao people is the movement of populations from the adjoining province of Benguet, located to the west. These people are the Kankanai, again quite a complex people with a convergent kind of religion, traditionally with a religious hierarchy similar to that of a church. This condition prevails in the centralized areas where the people live. In the fringes of this society, however, the reach of the religious structure is rather rarefied. It is from this religiously thinly constituted segment of Kankanai society that moved into western Ifugao province, bringing with them an unstructured form of religion that diverged from the core practice. These divergent forms coalesced in each of the environmental niches of the mountainous terrain of the province, resulting in the variegation of practices and rituals within the same general belief system among the various socio-cultural groups.

Another population movement from the east into the northeastern part of the province resulted in formation of linguistic groups that segment the Ifugao people: the Tuwali in the west, the Ayangan in the northeast and the Hanglulu in the southeast. The latter is an admixture of Tuwali with another ethno-linguistic group in the southeast, the Kalanguya, which resulted in several dialects in the Asipulo area. The three main groups also constitute analogous religious ritual composition based on a generally similar belief system. The practices in each, however, are not interchangeable with the others.

Central to all these differentiated groups of rituals is the religious specialist – the mumbaki (“sayer of prayers”). Almost every adult male is a mumbaki , which came as a result of the divergence of practices when the migrating populations lost contact with the central religion in Benguet among the Kankanai. Separated pockets practiced their religion in isolation. Each group had their own ritual specialist who practices the tenets of the religion in accordance with his own individual associations. Each mumbaki would have his own personal set of deities that he invokes, such that there exist among the Ifugao a religious pantheon of some 2000 named deities. Common among all practitioners, however, is the belief in one supreme deity, Maknongan., and the general strain of the indigenous set of beliefs. The character of this segmentation makes the religion of the Ifugao vulnerable to change.

Correlatives of Beliefs

The correlatives of traditional Ifugao religious heritage is set out in myths, stories, legends that people vocalize in the form of narratives, songs and chants performed during specific occasions from the mundane to the sacred. The more common oral literature are the liw-liwa (short simple songs in verse sang as intermission numbers during the conduct of rituals), the Baltung (a chant characterized by the stamping of feet.). The major forms of the oral literature are the hudhud and the alim. The alim and the hudhud consist of numerous narratives regarding Ifugao lifestyle, custom laws, religious belief system, indigenous traditions and practices. What distinguishes one from the other lies in ritual. This difference also explains why one has the potentials to survive globalization, while the other in the very near future will be assigned only to frangible memory.

The alim cannot be chanted unless this is done in the context of ritual. These are narratives that explain the origins, historical background, the rationalizations and intents in saying the baki or prayers. This oral literature is found principally only among the Tuwali Ifugao, although the practice has spread where there are admixtures of Tuwali culture as among the Hanglulu sub-group. This is chanted only during occasions of death and exhumation rituals, and other special occasions like prestige feasts for the members of the elite class- the kadangyan. The only prestige ritual where it is not chanted is during the konong#. The chant is quite lengthy and is chanted in a very peculiar and distinctive manner. The chant is led by a principal chanter who is accompanied by a chorus of other mumbaki. Being a prestige ritual chant not all ritual specialists are allowed to perform it. Only a few mumbaki who have attained a certain ranking among the specialists can do the chant, and more so since the performance require a certain expertise in the text and verbalization. There are some thirty three narratives chanted in the alim, the chanting of which is started during the evening of the celebration day and lasts to the midmorning of the next day. Since only mumbaki can chant the alim, this oral form is an exclusive domain of men.

The hudhud, on the other hand, has related stories which form a kind of continuity. It is chanted during three occasions. During harvest time, the harvesters sing it to break the monotony of the task. People also sing it during the long vigil for someone who died a natural death. Thirdly, this is sung during the wake held in the exhumation of the dead (bogwa). In both the alim and hudhud, only mortals are involved and never supernatural beings. Idealized in the narratives are Ifugao romances of praise for their concepts of wealth, love, and marriage. Emphasized are attributes of strength and courage among the men, and the feminine virtues of beauty and diligence. The chant is performed by a presentor (munhaw-e) who sings the narration, and gives the cue to a chorus (mun-hudhud/mun-abbuy), that continues the chant while providing commentaries. While the members of the chorus need to be familiar only with a set of recurring phrases, the burden of the chant lies with the munhaw-e who has to be familiar with the numerous variants of the narratives. There are said to be 200 myths grouped in some forty episodes, the chanting to which may take from three to four days. It is not performed on the occasion of a ritual and is therefore not a celebration that would require the services of a mumbaki. The hudhud stories, while related to the alim are sang purely by the laity and predominantly by women.

When the alim and the hudhud started to be chanted is unknown. The Ifugao state that both have been chanted since time immemorial, with no words to specify whether this is in the hundreds or thousands of years. A study by a scholar of the hudhud indicates that this might have pre-dated the construction of the rice terraces. The earliest dated terraces are found in Bunghalian municipality with a Carbon-14 determination of 610 AD., although the earliest human occupation of the municipality of Banaue is between 1545-825 BC. Both forms are virtual anthropological documents that orally record through time the changes that took place in Ifugao social organization, structure and tradition. The infusion of modern elements in the text indicates the relative time of change. For instance the mention of a gun in one of the stories suggest an influence that could only have come from the West, although the fact that the gun caused the conflagration of an entire village indicate the idea of a gun was still a bit confused and was therefore still something novel.

Although the hudhud narratives are more entertainment and less sacramental than the alim, these contain the myths and legends which are the bases for the stories in the alim that deal with the ritual prayers (baki). In effect, the women chant the myths and legends that serve as foundation of the belief systems contained in the alim.

Western Influx

When the culture of the West principally that of the Americans, arrived in the Cordilleras, there were major forms of changes. The local forms of leadership, domestic economy, traditional education and indigenous religion were altered by the more dominant alien culture leading into the development of a plural form of society. More apropos to the issue at hand is the introduction of Christianity among the Ifugao.

The concept of monotheism is not difficult to be introduced among the Ifugao due to their traditional belief in a single supreme deity, maknongan, in spite of the existence of enumerable deities invoked by the mumbaki since Christianity, too, call upon enumerable saints and angels. The essential parts of Christian ritual were present in the traditional rituals too: offering, sacrifice and communion. There was also an advantage in adapting the religion of the dominant culture. The offshoot is the widespread Christianization of the Ifugao, including the catastrophic effect on indigenous religious beliefs and practices. Even the mumbaki became enfolded in the new religion, inhibiting them from indulging in native rituals still asked by surviving traditional events demanded by the society, as in prestige feasts. Some ritual specialists go through the motions of the ritual required but without the legitimizing belief system to support it. Becoming a mumbaki is no longer aspired for by men, more so since the training to become one is an onus on top of being under a national educational system, and the need to survive in a changing social structure and organization. There was hardly any value to becoming a ritual specialist in a religion that is giving way to the onslaught of Christianity. With the conversion of the mumbaki, traditional rituals and practices became relegated to mere theatrical performance. With this is the impending demise of the alim, as a sacred chant with only a handful of “Christianized” mumbaki remaining with the proper status, and who still know the text. It is now in the process of being relegated as an anthropological nuance in Ifugao literature. In the globalized world, it is losing its functional sacredness,

The hudhud, survives the alterations in the indigenous religion of the Ifugao since it is neither sacramental nor does it require the services of the male mumbaki. There is also no interconnectedness with the new social order. The myths and legends are still sung by women while they harvest the rice from the terraces, when they congregate during wakes and in other social events. It continues to be a living heritage of the Ifugao. It has been declared by UNESCO as a “Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”. The women earlier asked why this chant that they use to ease the tediousness of their labor has merited international attention. To them chanting the hudhud was as natural in their culture as breathing. They are not aware that they are holding on to the sacredness of the values of a disappearing culture.

In a way, this non-ritual chant is becoming sacramental in the modern world even if not in the indigenous sense, since it is a manner by which aspects of a traditional culture is being maintained through the medium of institutional concern with ethnic diversity. The hudhud has been made sacred.