Tuesday, 11 June 2013

1) Kiangan - At the Epicentre of History

If you are contemplating a trip to Ifugao, you will likely have your sights set on the rice terraces of Banaue Here however I present the case that Kiangan, the cornerstone of the Ifugao story from prehistoric times to the present day, should be at the top of your itinerary.

To make that case, here is a brief a synopsis of that history. Watch Kiangan's significance expand, and with it the profile of Ifugao itself. From the local, a house by a river in a valley; to the national, an unconquerable highland which protected its ways as the Philippines changed around it; to the international, as the final stand of imperial Japan's colonial armies; and now the truly global, as the first cultural landscape onto the UNESCO World Heritage List, and a recognized foremost example of human adaptability, ingenuity and resilience.

Ancient Kiangan: The Cradle of Ifugao
It is told in the legends that long ago, Wigan, greatest of the Skyworld gods, looked down on the fertile valleys of Ifugao. "What a shame," he declared, "that so rich a land is unpopulated!" And so he came up with a plan to do something about it.

He built a house; equipped it with rice and chicken coops, chickens and pigs; and placed his sleeping children inside: his son Kabbigat, and his daughter Bugan. Then he sent it down to the most fertile valley below: Kiyyangan.

When the children awoke, they were confused to find themselves in that strange land, so feared their father Wigan had abandoned them. As they couldn't go back to the Skyworld, they stayed and decided to make the best of things: inadvertently becoming the first settlers of that land – the first Ifugaos.

And then it gets particularly interesting. A taboo on brothers and sisters sleeping together under the same roof led to Kabbigat sleeping outside, and Bugan sleeping inside. A division of labour developed along those lines: Kabbigat would hunt, while Bugan would develop the house and tend to the pigs and chickens.

It must have been a flexible arrangement though, because it so happened that one morning, it was Kabbigat who was feeding the chickens, and Kabbigat who noticed a rooster mating with the hens. He thought about this, and logically surmised that if male and female roosters could procreate like that, then so could he and his sister. And so, that night, and for several nights after, he climbed the ladder into their house and secretly slept with her.

Well, Bugan noticed; though because it was dark, she could not see who it was. She suspected her brother – after all, they were the only people in Ifugao at that point – but decided to find out for sure, so she applied lime to her navel and waited for nightfall. Sure enough, the next morning, Kabbigat showed up for breakfast with lime marks that had rubbed off onto his stomach. "Come on," Bugan said to him, "let's not pretend any more. Let's live together and have children."

And so they did. Five, in fact: three girls and two boys. Two and two of those also formed mating pairs, producing many more children who went off in different directions and settled across the land. Over time, Wigan's envoys would come down to teach them how to cultivate rice, raise animals for food, and conduct the rituals that maintained the relationship between those of the Skyworld and those of the Earth.

But of those original five children, there was one daughter who had no brother to form a pair with. And so she left, embittered and angry, and travelled to Lagud (the East), where she married the god Muntalug. Together they birthed the deceptive gods and envious spirits, whom humans would constantly need to appease and ask not to curse them.

Now here's a thought. In most of the world, chickens crow at sunrise. In Ifugao however they crow absolutely whenever the heck they want, at the tops of their voices, including near your head at 2:30 in the morning. Did the deceptive gods have a hand in that too? Or have the chickens merely recorded their own pivotal role in this story down the generations, and cry proud reminders that if not for them, Ifugao might never have been populated?
So runs the Ifugao creation story, or one of many variants of it passed down in the oral heritage over centuries. Thus it was established that Kiangan, the ancestral home of Bugan and Kabbigat, was the first of Ifugao's settlements and the cradle of the Ifugao people. As for its accuracy, let us just say that the theories are numerous; but Kiangan has drawn great attention from historians and archaeologists. Some of that work has sought to establish just how long the Ifugao people have built and farmed rice on those remarkable terraces; but more on that in the next post in the series.

Kiangan in Colonial Times: Why Not to Invade Ifugao
Kiangan's central mythological role was borne out in its destiny. For hundreds of years, until just after Philippine independence in fact, Kiangan was the political, commercial, intellectual and military centre of Ifugao. Now the capital has been moved to Lagawe, but the elders and shamans (mumbaki) of Ifugao still look to Kiangan as their culture's essential origin.

While the peoples of Ifugao diversified and established themselves in the mountains, things were not going well for the wider Philippine archipelago. A seafaring crossroads, the islands had accumulated a diverse population from across its Asian and Pacific neighbourhood, organized into multiple kingdoms, rajahnates, sultanates and confederations that rose and fell. Exposed to the currents of culture, trade and religion from all directions, a harbinger of drastic changes to come arrived in 1521 in the form of Ferdinand Magellan, famously killed on Mactan when the local Datu (chief) Lapu-Lapu refused to submit to the king of Spain, and fought back against Magellan's attempts to convert him and his people to Christianity.

Within decades, the Spanish arrived in force. The fragmented polities of the islands made easy pickings (except for in Mindanao in the south, where the Muslim Moros resisted them much more effectively; and – as we shall see – in Ifugao). Through conquest, the Spanish unified the Philippines for the first time, and transformed the island in a colonial image of Western-style law, systematic formal education, trade with the colonies in Mexico and South America, and – above all – comprehensive Christianization, by which the church gained huge popularity as much for its customs and colourful ceremonies as for its doctrines. The devout Catholicism of the Philippines today is largely a legacy of this period.

But not in Ifugao.

Having overrun most of Luzon, the Spanish advanced on the Cordillera mountains from neighbouring provinces; built horse trails for easier access; constructed military outposts, and encroached on the Ifugaos' ancestral home. The Ifugaos retaliated with raids on Spanish positions and convoys. The conflict escalated, and the Spanish set themselves on the conquest of Ifugao with burning determination, mounting the first full-scale assault on Kiangan in 1767. But they lacked the Ifugaos' strategic prowess and intimate familiarity with the mountains and forests: and so they were drawn deep into the passes, and into Kiangan itself, where a storm of Ifugao spears and chants descended upon them. Decimated, the Spanish retreated in disarray.

This, in fact, was to become the pattern every time the Spanish renewed their efforts to conquer Ifugao. They never stopped trying: launching punitive expeditions, building garrisons, burning villages and granaries, pouring more and more troops into those mountains. But every time the Spanish destroyed the Ifugaos' homes, the Ifugaos left, then returned and rebuilt; every act of abuse or subjection was met by Ifugao retalitation of tenfold ferocity.

For the entire 333 years of colonial rule in the Philippines, the Spanish could never take Ifugao. This may have been why the empire that came to replace them decided to not even try. And that, in the end, produced more change in Ifugao society than force ever did.

The empire in question was the Americans, who arrived in 1898 just as the Filipinos had risen up against Spanish rule and thrown them out of Luzon, except from the walled city in Manila, and as revolutionary leader Emilio Aguinaldo declared the Philippines' independence. In apparent cooperation with them, the Americans defeated the Spanish holdouts in Manila – but negotiated an end to the war with the Spanish while excluding the Filipinos both from the proceedings and from entering their own capital. The US had come not to end the Philippines' subjection, but to subject them in Spain's stead: and there followed a horrific fourteen-year war between American forces and Filipino guerrillas that was many times more destructive than the revolution against Spain. And in the course of this struggle, it was through Ifugao that Aguinaldo made his famous escape from the advancing Americans, before he was captured to the east, in Isabela, and called on his people to lay down their weapons.

But in Ifugao, the Americans approached not with force, but with patience and diplomacy. They arbitrated to help end conflicts between Ifugao villages; opened schools; and appointed Ifugao natives to administrative positions, centred, again, on Kiangan. By the opening decades of the twentieth century, the precedents were in place for the entrance of outsiders into Ifugao on peaceable terms.

Foremost among those were the Christian missionaries and scholars, who through persuasion, schools and medicine did far more to impress Christianity in Ifugao hearts and minds than Spanish aggression ever did. The implications of this, and the relationship between Christianity and indigenous Ifugao religion, are a complicated matter, also explored more fully in a later post. Of the missionaries, Kiangan particularly remembers and esteems one Father Jerome Moerman of Belgium, who lived in the community for many decades and made huge impressions.

Kiangan and the Pacific War: General Yamashita's Last Stand
Manila, declared an Open City to Japanese forces in January 1942 to prevent its destruction.
The Americans did not mean to stay in the Philippines forever; rather were grooming it for eventual independence in such a form as reflected American interests and values. However, in December 1941, just after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbour, the imperial Japanese army fell upon the Philippines and swept out the unprepared American forces in scarcely four months. The surrender of the American and Filipino defenders on the Bataan peninsula was followed by their forced march to a prison camp in Tarlac over 100km to the north, through sweltering heat and under brutal mistreatment by their captors. It is thought over 10,000 of them died, most of them Filipinos; and as such the Bataan Death March, later judged as a war crime, has become one of the most notorious episodes of the Pacific War to this day.

Ifugao's experience, again, was different. Though the Japanese established a military regime and firmly asserted their authority, they strove to win the Ifugaos' loyalty and present themselves as "brothers" casting out the American occupiers. Schools were kept open, albeit with Japanese language and culture infused into the curriculum; and for a large part, the occupiers interacted with the locals peacefully, and are remembered there with little of the opprobrium they left behind in the rest of the Philippines.

Nonetheless, Filipino guerrilla resistance mounted against the Japanese, all the more so when the Americans returned in October 1944. General MacArthur's landing at Leyte was followed by many more up and down the country, and Manila's historic heritage was reduced to ruins as the Americans wrested it from Japanese control.

The Supreme Commander of the Japanese imperial forces in the Philippines was one General Tomoyuki Yamashita, known as the "Tiger of Malaya" for his earlier defeats of the British in the Malaysian Peninsula and Singapore. Even before the Americans reached Manila, he had ordered all his forces out of the city and retreated north, hoping to escape by submarine to Japan; but they found themselves hemmed in by guerrillas who by now controlled much of Luzon. So instead they fell back on the only option left – the mountains of Ifugao. Leaving a significant force in Kiangan, Yamashita commissioned tunnels to be bored beneath the mountains and ridges, and dug himself in, preparing for what was to come.

Soon the Americans and Filipino guerrillas caught up, and for the rest of 1945, Kiangan and surrounding areas became the climactic battlefield of World War II in the Philippines. American shelling and airstrikes battered Yamashita's rear guard, inflicting calamitous damage on Ifugao's forests in the process. The ridge where the Japanese defenders were finally defeated was later termed "Million Dollar Hill" by the Americans, such was their expense in bombs and shells before they could take it.

His forces eliminated, Yamashita gave up on September 2nd. Emerging from his hideout, he was escorted to the old Home Economics building of Kiangan Central School, where he surrendered to American officers. Though he was flown to Baguio City the next day to formalize his surrender, it was in Kiangan that the Japanese occupation of the Philippines effectively came to an end – and the Kiangan Central School still stands, with the site of Yamashita's surrender now bearing a museum that commemorates that historic occasion.

The Instrument of Surrender.

Yamashita would go on to be sentenced to death at an American military tribunal in Manila, for war crimes in the Battle of Manila and in Singapore. This was controversial, even for some American jurists, given the dubiousness of the proceedings and the uncertainty of how far Yamashita had actually been responsible for those massacres. Nonetheless, the occupation period left a lasting link between Ifugao and Japan, and for many decades Japanese tourists – including war veterans – visited Kiangan to pay their respects on their relatives' burial grounds or search for their bones. The World War II shrine at the centre of Kiangan has thus become emblematic of its role in the history of wider East Asia – as well as offering visitors splendid views across the region.

A futher complicating legacy is "Yamashita's Gold": the treasures looted by the Japanese across Southeast Asia and transported to the Philippines, which, the story goes, was hastily buried in the desperate Japanese retreat. Given how rapidly the Japanese had to abandon it, it is surmised that it cannot have been buried too deep; and despite the lack of clear evidence for this story in the first place, Kiangan has at times faced problems from treasure-hunters taking to its grounds with their shovels.

Ifugao in an Independent Philippines: A New Wave of Challenges
With the war over, the Americans finally relinquished sovereignty over the Philippines in 1946, though with typically significant political, economic and military strings attached. Nonetheless, the accession of an independent Philippine government in Manila left many Ifugaos nonplussed. As is now perhaps evident, submitting to a central authority was never quite the sort of thing they did.

For the government, the only recourse in the end was to persuade. What else had ever won anyone the Ifugaos' respect? The government sought to convince the people of Ifugao that the relationship was one of care and obligation towards them: translated in practice as regular financial dole-outs, an understanding which has very much left a legacy of its own.

Meanwhile the journey of the independent Philippines had its own nasty surprises in store. The standard narrative tells how what twenty years after the war had become one of the most promising emerging nations in East Asiam was reduced to a corrupt and debt-ridden shambles by President Ferdinand Marcos, who in 1972 declared martial law against a rising wave of lawlessness and proceeded to reshape the Philippines in accordance with a bold new vision, whose substance, as is usually the case with such things, lay mostly in repression, Marcos's personality cult, and the cronyism of his regime. Discontent came to a head with the assassination of the opposition leader Benigno (Ninoy) Aquino Jr. in 1983, and a further attempt by Marcos to steal a general election in 1986, whereupon the "People Power Revolution" – an enormous and peaceful mass uprising – forced him into exile and restored relative democracy to the Philippines.

Manila was the stage where most of this story played out, far from the highlands of Ifugao or indeed other parts of the country. Ironically it was Marcos who set in train the newest attempt by outsiders to reshape the Ifugao narrative: by declaring the rice terraces a 'national landmark' and 'irreplaceable treasures of the country', and beginning the transformation of Banaue into a tourism centre with hotels and services. Meanwhile Ferdinand's wife, Imelda Marcos, who effectively ruled at his side, got herself involved in attempts to improve the Philippines' agricultural practices and standards of living: but in the generously polite words of one commentator in Kiangan, Imelda was well-intentioned 'but not a scientist'. Fond of the golden snail, she had the insightful idea of introducing them to the rice terraces: where they escaped, drove the indigenous snail species to extinction, instigated the use of pesticides to keep them off the rice plants, and remain the primary pest in several Ifugao villages to this day.

Terraces in Batad. Those pink things are snail eggs.
Thus the onset of the era of our making brings a new wave of challenges to Ifugao, and to the complex system by which the communities and terraces sustain one another into the future, that is at once scientific, spiritual, industrial and cultural. The next post will look more at those systems, and the terraces themselves which define Ifugao – or even the Philippines – in millions of imaginations worldwide.

It suffices for the current purpose to note that after all these turbulent centuries, the Ifugao communities still endure just as they always did. They change; they adapt; their settlements accommodate people of different origins, customs and purposes; but at the heart of Ifugao is a stalwart continuity, by which rice will continue to come forth from the terraces, the rituals will continue to affirm the arrangement with the gods, and the chickens will continue to crow at two in the morning.

Indeed, Ifugao perhaps did more to change its unruly foreign guests than they did to it. Spanish, American and Japanese colonization visisted depraved cruelties upon the Filipino people, each in its turn; but Ifugao's memory stands apart in each case. The Spanish, conquerors elsewhere, found only defeat there; the Americans, whose opportunism shattered the dreams of the Philippine Revolution, wandered into Ifugao as friends; and even the Japanese, whose atrocities in the Philippines are recorded in history books (at least, outside Japan) as iconic of their wartime savagery, were best remembered by people I spoke with as having courteously visited their grandparents' houses to sit down for tea. Whaover tries to change Ifugao, ends up changing more than Ifugao does.

There seems a clear lesson from this. You cannot coerce an Ifugao. In Ifugao, force is the weakest and most pointless thing in the world. That is a very important message in our kind's current circumstances.

The Ifugaos do things because they choose to. When they change, they change on their terms. The gods of the Skyworld did not create them, did not charge them with some plan to multiply and settle the land then send them on their way. Rather Wigan left Bugan and Kabbigat to their own devices, and they founded their own people through their own logic, and then their consensus: they persuaded each other. And as successive intruders who grasped this lesson found out, if you seek to persuade an Ifugao, to engage in equal terms, you may find yourself welcomed as a friend, even a legend one day, no matter where you come from or how different you appear.

And that is why I have confidence that despite the scale of the challenges of today – of climate change, of tourism, of landslides and earthworms and eroding cultural knowledge and migrating youth and all the other things – Ifugao will continue to endure. It is a confidence I thought I glimpsed in so many of the people I listened to in Kiangan, who absolutely know the scale of the challenges they face. They convey a sense missing in many other lands: that these people know who they are. They are captains of their own destinies, and so they shall continue to be.

So if you get the chance, whether you're after an immersive cultural experience or merely a few days' rest – visit Kiangan. There you can stand at the epicentre of centuries upon centuries of history; feel its resonance course through the present; and there join those who came to Ifugao in friendship, and in so doing learnt much of the worthiest human qualities.


  1. Hi! great entry! wondering how I can contact you to ask about your research paper on Kiangan back in 2013? I am on IG: @DEFINITELYMICHELLE thanks!

    1. Thank you! I have sent you a reply in the other place you sent a message.