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July 11, 2003


I remember in high school coming upon what seemed to be as hieroglyphics. Imagine my surprise when I learned that the writing was, in fact, Filipino and is called “baybayin,” an Indic-based writing. Juan de Plasencia’s “Doctrina Cristiana en lengua española y tagala,” the first book printed in the Philippines, is itself written in baybayin.

I recall trying to copy the syllables that corresponded to my name (or approximated my name), crudely understanding that baybayin works like stenography –the words are broken down into syllables. I never got to mastering it though.

Working at the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), I encountered “baybayin” anew, this time as part of Mangyan’s (generic term for the indigenous people of Mindoro) “ambahan,” or their poetic literary form of seven-syllable lines used to convey messages through metaphors and images. This encounter is largely owed to having come across Gawad Manlilikha ng Bayan (GAMABA) awardee Ginaw Bilog, a prolific Mangyan poet of the ‘ambahan tradition of the Hanunoo Mangyan of Mansalay, Oriental Mindoro.

National Living Treasure

First awarded in 1993 to three outstanding artists in music and poetry, GAMABA (or the National Living Treasures Award) has had its roots in the 1988 National Folk Artists Award organized by the Rotary  Club of Makati-Ayala. As envisioned under R.A. 7355, the term ‘Manlilikha ng Bayan’ refers to a (Filipino) citizen or group of citizens engaged in any traditional art uniquely Filipino whose distinctive skills have reached such a high level of technical and artistic excellence. This skill should have been passed on to and is widely practiced by the present generation in their community with the same degree of technical and artistic competence. Eight traditional artists in different art forms have already been conferred the Award since 1993.

The NCCA, the highest policy-making and coordinating body for the county’s culture and arts, with support from all the concerned agencies, conducts the search for the finest traditional artists of the land, and adopts a program that will ensure the transfer of such skills to others.

When Bilog received his award in 1993, he was dressed in typical Mangyan garb of loincloth and a blue type of jacket, wearing as well an easy smile. This same image of him was seen at Luneta by students and other visitors at the Dayaw: Philippine Cultural Communities Arts Festival held at Rizal Park, Manila from December 3 to 9 in 2001. He was among the estimated 400 traditional artists, craftsmen, scholars, and cultural practitioners from 38 cultural communities, including the Aeta, Aklanon, Bagobo, Bicolano, Cebuano, Gaddang, Ilocano, Ivatan, Maguindanao, Tagalog, T’boli, and the Yakan brought together for the festival, freely interacting with visitors, showing them how engraving the “ambahan” onto the skin of bamboos was done.

This process of engraving involves a facility with the use of stylus or knives on the skin of the bamboo. The ambahan are usually sang or chanted accompanied by guitars, fiddles, flutes or jew’s harps. Only the Hanunoo of southeastern Mindoro and the Buhid on the south of Bongabon River actually use this type of script (although there is a second type of script unknown to these two groups that is used by the Buhid along the Tangon River). These messages range from courtship to giving advice to farewell notes. In an extemporaneous way, this poetic form inspires lively chanted debates displaying wit and creative imagery during social gatherings.

Local system of writing

The ambahan, written in baybayin, supports the fact that even before the arrival of the Spaniards, Filipinos already have a system of writing. It also supports the observation made by Jesuit historian Pedro Chirino in 1604 (in ‘Relacion de las Islas filipinas’) that ‘there is hardly a man, much less a woman, who does not read and write’ in the country. The more interesting part is that this system of writing, reserved usually for the privileged classes of other ancient civilizations, is common and established among the locals.

An example of these ambahan written in baybayin, or what the Hanunoo (true) Mangyan call surat Mangyan are the following:



Kamo ay mga babaye

Kayo, mga babae,

Burungan inyong kapte

Paggawa ng sinulid ang inyong harapin.

Kami ay mga lalake

Kaming mga lalaki

Kami manakayam de

Ay mamamangka na lamang

Bukun sakayan sa dili

Kahit ang bangka ay di sa amin,

Pan huraman lamang sa pare

Kahit hiniram lamang sa pari,

Sa baybay kami maage.

Kami’y sa aplaya magdadaan

Urukay undok undok

Pabirong urukay

Ang tao nagpinurunto

Mga tao’y nagsiumpok

Sa idalum itlutok.

Sa ilalim ay putik.

You, maidens,
Attend to your tasks and the spinning of thread.
We, men,
we shall paddle on the waters
though we do not own this banca
though we have merely borrowed it from a priest,
we shall travel by the seashore.
Here’s an urokay joke–
Everyone gathered together
with muddy bottoms.

  Minangyan Tagalog
Dogdog napanipasan Ang nangyari ay dumaplis sa pagtaga
Ti pangalima gamtan Heto na nga ang manggagawa
Ruyung de anahawan Nakatungo ang anahaw
Kami di od magkamgan Ito’y di naming kinakain
Kangko bay ti nahuywan Ang aking nabihasnan
Ga maggabod inwagan Ang kinakain ko ay iyung pumupulupot sa kahoy
Gamislakay sa duyan Natutuwa ako, tila dinuduyan
Bantabay nakan kun man Siguro kaya gano’n
Lantang di kigbadbadan Matagal pang makalas
Ginan babaw sangdulan Ang aking isipan.

A blow glanced off while I was cutting
So here are the workers
and the anahaw is bent
but we do not eat this plant
what I have been accustomed to
is to eat the vines that twine themselves around the tree
I am pleased, my mind rocks gently like a hammock
and I think this is something that will take
a long while to fall away
from my memory.

(*From the book ‘Marino’ Hanunuo Mangyan Music and Chanted Poetry)

One important thing to remember about the ambahan texts inscribed on bamboos is that they are left along forest trails to greet strangers or guide travelers. And Bilog, in essence, has been consistent with this aspect of ambahan tradition. By naming Bilog GAMABA awardee for the ambahan tradition, the NCCA also made Bilog a conduit for transferring these knowledge before they are gone or forgotten by the young Mangyan in the community. Bilog has been teaching elementary students the art of ambahan thrice a week, with special arrangements with the principal of Bait Elementary School, while waiting for the construction of their own Training Center.

School of Living Tradition in Mansalay

Bilog’s Training Center is located at Bait, Mansalay (the trip from Calapan to Mansalay involves at least 5 hours of travel). From what this writer gathered, Bilog only managed to finish first grade, writing only in the regular alphabet when he is to sign his name. And there he was, teaching young Mangyan their old system of writing. He could not have been happier.

The Center is Bilog’s very own School of Living Traditions (SLT). An SLT is one where a living master/culture bearer or culture specialist, in this case, Bilog, imparts to a group of young people (from the same ethno-linguistic community) the skills and techniques of doing a traditional art or craft. NCCA Guidelines further state that ‘the mode of teaching is usually non-formal, oral and with practical demonstrations. The site maybe the house of the living master, a community social hall, or a center constructed for the purpose.’

The establishment of the SLT is in response to the UNESCO declaration that there should be two approaches to the preservation of cultural heritage: one is to record it in a tangible form and conserve it in archives; the other is to preserve it in a living form by ensuring its transmission to the next generations. The SLT addresses the second approach.

The program for the establishment of SLTs is also anchored on the mandate of NCCA to ’conserve and promote the nation’s historical and cultural heritage by encouraging and supporting the study, recognition and preservation of endangered human cultural resources such as weavers, chanters, dancers and other craftsmen, as well as the conservation and development of artistic, linguistic and occupational skills that are threatened.’

Last June 03, 2003, Bilog died of a lingering illness. He was 50. He left behind five children with a 27-year old daughter as eldest. He was buried near his house in Kalaya, an hour’s trek from Bait. He was said to have requested not to be buried at once and asked for at least three days more in case he ‘awakens’ from death. Plans are rife at the NCCA for the continuous funding of the SLT despite Bilog’s death. We can only hope that those he left behind will continue the ambahan tradition, a tradition in which Bilog mainly communicated, a tradition where he found life.

Perhaps, somewhere in the Mansalay forest trail, still lay some untouched bamboo tubes with ambahan written all over it waiting to greet passersby. Who knows what kinship such a discovery would bring? For now, we are assured that ambahan will always connect us back to Bilog and the cultural community he belongs to.

For further details on other GAMABA awardees, contact Cecil Picache at 527-2192 local 307.