Halupi #1: Like Water Like Country

One distinct feature of most pre-Hispanic pagan Filipino cultures and societies is an affinity for water. We loved water then and it still shows today in our fiestas and daily lives. Our pagan brethren’s repeated daily bathing even scandalized early Catholic missionaries. We already believed in ablutions. To that was added absolution by baptism. It was…natural.

Philippine society was built through waterways. Our connection to water is enshrined in “barangay”, a term derived from the historical balanghai which were the hollowed out boats that our migratory ancestors used to travel to the Philippines. We did not come in waves of migration. Far from it.

Instead, it was slow, but not so steady. It was dangerous and it was intrepid. We are descended from explorers and adventurers. It’s in our blood.

Sail on, sailor.

Butuan: Home of the Balangays

            They say that before there was Philippines, there was Butuan. And indeed, the National Cultural Treasure kept safe within the walls of the Balangay Shrine is a testimony to that statement.

            The treasure that I am talking about is none other than the oldest watercraft known in the history of the Philippines: the balanghai boat, otherwise known as the Butuan Boat. The balanghai boat was made a National Cultural Treasure by the late former President Corazon “Cory” Aquino through the Presidential Proclamation No. 86 series of 1986.                                 

            When I found out that I was going to visit the Balangay Shrine, I was filled with a sense of trepidation and excitement. I was finally going to see the treasure of Butuan that before, I had only heard about in the pages of a history book.

            The balanghai boat measuring fifteen meters in length and three meters wide, occupied the space in the middle of the shrine, taking the center stage. Its creation dates back to 320 A.D. as determined by experts from the Gakushuin University of Tokyo, Japan and is made of the Doongon tree, the Kamagong tree, and the Magkuno tree. Balanghai boat number one has been lying undiscovered for more than a thousand years until its discovery on the third of September, 1976.

            The story was this: due to the recent floods in various areas of the city, the government decided to build a drainage system to keep the water out. Imagine their complete and utter surprise when they stumbled, literally, into the balanghai boat itself. What a great discovery!

            From what I can see through the thick, transparent glass that protects the balanghai from harsh weather conditions and human error, boat number one is made up of a few planks and many wooden pegs tied together by a rope called Cabo Negro which is made of very strong fibers. This form of boat building is a technique popular among the countries of Southeast Asia. In fact, the goods found in the balanghai boats include precious ceramics from China such as a celadon from the Yuan Dynasty and a porcelain bowl from the Ming Dynasty. From this information, we can infer that Butuan was already a thriving place where trade with neighbouring countries takes place.

            When I went outside, to the rear of the Balangay Shrine, a hugely misshapen form of land indented into the ground met my eyes. This sunken land, measuring 1.20 meters below the surface of the earth, is actually where the first balanghai boat was excavated. Due to this rare and extensive discovery, the owner decided to donate the land to the government to use as a place where the boats can be kept in safety – thus the establishment of the Balangay Shrine as a field unit of the National Museum.

            Aside from balanghai number one, there are, in point of fact, eleven more balanghai boats in existence. Although the other boats are not kept in the Balanghai Shrine, the balanghai boat number five remains to accompany boat number one.

            Boat number five. Although not displayed, is undergoing the critical stage of preservation through chemical treatment using Polyethylene Glycol. It is kept inside a shed to the side of the shrine and fenced with wire to keep unauthorized person out. According to experts from Australia, the creation of this boat dates back to 900 A.D.  The boat measures thirteen meters long and three meters wide and is made from the Sangilo tree.

            It is truly a wonder how the boats have stood unflinching against the changes the city of Butuan has undergone through the years. Truly, the Butuanons who built the boats chose the correct materials for building, as the trees that they have chosen to use are hydroscopic organic materials. These trees absorb water when the atmospheric conditions are wet, and release the accumulated moisture when the atmosphere is dry.

            In going to the Balangay Shrine, I know only one thing: that our ancestors strived hard to reach the farthest that they can and that we, as the caretakers of the treasures that our forefathers left unto us, must also do the same as a tribute to our ancestors’ sacrifices.

            I encourage everyone, locals and tourists alike, to visit the Balangay Shrine and take a peek into the rich history of Butuan. It may not be your everyday definition of fun, but learning the past can be the key to paving the way for a brighter and innovative future.

            When we think about the future, let us all remember to look back at our past and remember the people who made up the civilization that sprung up along the banks of the Agusan River, remember their sacrifices and traditions, and use it as a guide to the building of a better Butuan. Let us all go hand in hand and showcase the marvelous wonder of Butuan and take the whole world by storm.