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Cordilleran Heirlooms

Cordillerans sell heirlooms, part with their soul
By: Joya Santos
Published: January 5, 1999

Pulled from Philippines daily Inquirer

CORDILLERANS today are slowly losing their grip on their rich cultural heritage. One of the reasons is that they are halfheartedly ceding their valuable heirlooms to various antique shops mostly in Baguio City.

Chinese glazed ceramics made during the Hang Dynasty (202 BC to 220 AD) and Sung Dynasty (1260-1279), jars with floral designs in cobalt compound, and blue and white porcelain manufactured during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) have been disappearing from Cordillera homes and filling up curio shops since the early 1960s.

Home utensils and personal ornaments of various Cordillera tribes also find their way to these shops. Antique buyers can easily find clay jars lined with flowers, stars and diverse geometric shapes, bronze plates, silver and gold spoons, rattan and bamboo baskets.

Colorful personal ornaments like the Yang ngoh (hornbill headress of the Ifugaos), necklaces, headresses, girdles and earrings made of attractive glass beads, ivory, pearls and shells, sturdy armlets and necklaces made of crocodile teeth and wild boar's tusks, and decades-old blankets and clothing of the Bontoc, Gaddang, Isnag, Kalinga and Benguet tribes can be bought in these shops.

Even traditional religious objects, including the bulol (Ifugao granary deity) in various shapes and sizes are for sale in these stores.

 

Alarming

''This is very alarming,'' says Naomi Velez, a missionary for more than 30 years in the Cordillera and head of the Apayao Christian Learning Center.

She says these antiques and family heirlooms have their own stories to tell and these connect their native owners to their roots.

''These pieces have been passed down from one generation to another. These portray a rich cultural past that traces a tribe's or a family's history,'' she says.

Velez explains that these pieces are often used during religious rituals and community celebrations that reflect the Cordillera culture. For instance, the bulol is used during ceremonies to ask for a more bountiful rice harvest.

Personal ornaments made of glass beads, and shells mixed with animal parts like crocodile teeth, boar's tusks or ribs of a small animal and fashioned into necklaces, headresses, belts or girdles have been used as talismans during various expeditions into new territories or tribal wars.

Mary Ngalawen, an antique dealer, agrees. She points to Chinese jars of varied sizes in her shop. The extra large jars were used to ferment native wines like basi (sugar wine) and tapuy (rice wine), she says. The smaller ones were used to cure the native homemade bacon called itag.

Natives would attest that the wines used in these jars are tastier and more zestful than those fermented in plastic jugs, glass containers or even the newly made jars from abroad.

Chinese porcelain plates, Ngalawen says, have varied uses for the natives. The tappao is used as a foot rest for a dead person propped in a sangadil (death chair). There are also death plates used during the wake.

Celadon plates or those made during the Ming dynasty are used during special occasions like fiestas, weddings and baptism feasts.

Besides their usefulness, these family heirlooms have also become invaluable because of their sentimental value as these link the heirs to their ancestors.

For instance, a boaya (Bontoc necklace) was used while killing a tribal enemy. The ornament was passed from father to son and had become a symbol of family pride.

A particular bulol, on the other hand, brings back poignant memories of how it was carved by ancestors and of large feasts that were celebrated in their honor.

Hoarding these precious pieces therefore could very well deprive the natives of their cultural ties, Velez says. For without these, she explains, natives feel that there is something lacking in their cultural celebrations or even in their day-to-day lives.

 

Attachment

Such is the attachment of natives to these antiques that Ngalawen maintains that if one is sensitive, he or she would feel spine-tingling vibrations coming from the jars and other items in her shop.

Ngalawen relates that an American buyer had to come from Germany to return a jar that had been causing him distress since he bought it. The glazed jar, made during the Sung Dynasty, was used to decorate the American's living room.

Since then, his family would hear somebody walking or eating in their living room at night. When they woke up in the morning, they would find the furniture in the room in disarray.

Worst, his wife and child started experiencing intermittent fevers that left doctors baffled as to their cause.

The American could still not associate these happenings to the new addition in their house but one night, he saw a man in g-strings come out of the jar.

At first, Ngalawen narrates, the American thought that he was just being fooled by his imagination. But the supernatural visits became more frequent and so after six months, he decided to return the jar.

Ngalawen got the jar from a Kalinga family in the early 1980s. The family that owned it was hesitant to sell the heirloom but eventually surrendered it.

Since it was returned to their shop, the Ngalawens never sold it again. They believe it is inhabited by a spirit although it has not caused them any trouble.

 

Forced to sell

Cordillera historians believe that heirlooms, mostly consisting of Chinese pottery, were traded by the natives in the lowlands in exchange for their cows and other products. These have long occupied Cordillera homes but for a number of reasons, these are filling up antique shops.

Some folk readily sell antiques for quick cash, not knowing their true value. Others make it a business of stealing antiques and selling these to antique dealers.

Most of the time, Ngalawen says, natives are forced to sell these artifacts.

For instance, Rodolfo of Abra tells about his group's ''treasure-hunting'' days during the 1960s and 1970s. He narrates they would loot graves of their artifacts and bring these to antique shops in Baguio City.

Before doing these, however, they would ask the medicine women in their community to perform a ritual to appease the dead. Rodolfo explains that he was forced to do this so he could feed his family.

During the height of the war between the communist rebels and government forces, especially in Marag Valley where natives were caught in the crossfire, Ngalawen says the natives were forced to sell their heirlooms.

''They would rather sell their heirlooms, even at a cheap price, than had these stolen once they had to evacuate and they could not bring these along or see these shattered when bullets or grenades hit these items,'' she says.

Traditionally, Ngalawen says, money taken in exchange for the antiques was used to settle tribal wars or to buy carabaos for dowry payment.

But lately, natives have to sell the items because of the increasing cost of living. More often, Ngalawen says, selling these antiques comes with much hesitation and forebodding by the family who owns it.

She says he has seen elders and their children cry over the sale, parting with the object with doleful eyes and broken hearts. Dealing with this, and not haggling over the object's price, Ngalawen says, made it more difficult for her to acquire the object.

But lately, antique dealers do not have to scour the Cordillera countryside in search for antiques as these are brought to their shops.

Often during lean months, Ngalawen narrates, students bring in their family heirlooms in exchange for cash to support their school needs.

But often, these pieces are surrendered with a tear or two, on the part of the seller, Ngalawen says. ''Selling these is often a last resort because, who would want to part with an object that has long been a symbol of one's family?'' she says.

Ngalawen realizes the sentimental value of the antique pieces she sells. That is why, when she sees that it is too much a sacrifice for owners to separate with their heirlooms, she strikes a deal with them. She extends a loan to the owners and keeps the heirlooms as collateral.

 

Great art

Roberto Maramba, author of a book portraying the personal ornaments of Cordillera tribes, says the antique Cordillera ornament is the original expression of pre-Hispanic Philippine culture.

''Its aura is distinctly Asian, its earthy directness typically Filipino. It strikes a chord in us. We respond to its simplicity, directness of design, integrity of materials and its talismanic, fetishistic power,'' Maramba describes Cordillera ornaments in his book.

''When seen in the context of ritual, music and dance, the wearer elevates it to great art,'' he says.

''This is authentic culture from the earth and mountains. It is pure real pomp and grandeur that never fails to impress. It has the intuitive and synthesizing power that is the essential quality of true art. Art that is the direct product of imagination.''

He concludes that the Cordillera ornament has an organic integrity that should make every Filipino proud. ''It is a cultural heritage that nourishes the soul and continues to inspire all that fall captive to its unique spell.''

Besides being great art, antique lovers here and abroad value the pieces for their fine intricate designs. These provide an exotic aura in living rooms, hotel lobbies and offices.

For this reason, the antique business is thriving. One dealer proudly claims that his collection sells like hotcakes, and more importantly, at skyhigh prices.

He says he buys the pieces cheap and sells them at least 10 times their price. Most of his buyers come from Manila who use the pieces to adorn their homes.