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Deep into the Cordillera Mountains, a ritual as old as time flourishes

Text and Images by Wong How Man

  • PRESERVING TRADITIONS The Igorot burial tradition of hanging the coffins of their loved ones is still practiced in the Cordillera Mountains

    PRESERVING TRADITIONS The Igorot burial tradition of hanging the coffins
    of their loved ones is still practiced in the Cordillera Mountains

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  • CLIMBING SAGADA Ever since photos of the hanging coffins went viral online, curious tourists flock to Sagada to witness the preserved culture of the Igorots

    CLIMBING SAGADA Ever since photos of the hanging coffins went viral online, curious tourists flock to Sagada to witness the preserved culture of the Igorots

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It seems strange that I should be writing about the Hanging Coffins while looking at one such coffin site slightly below the Bed and Breakfast where I am staying. From my desk, which overhangs a garden that drops off to a gorge with a seasonally surging river, the coffin site may only be two to 300 meters across from me. Four wooden coffins hang against a whitish patch on the limestone cliff. When Nash, my new writer friend and “guide,” picked this B&B, she had no idea that it directly faced a site with hanging coffins, the chief purpose of my visit. The house, peach in color and a five-minute walk down from a football field, is well hidden, just like the nearby coffins. Even Canadian anthropologist Joachim Voss, who knew this area well, did not know of its existence.

Since his first visit in 1976, Joachim had been studying the Igorot people of Sagada, which later became the focus of his doctoral thesis.

Since then, Joachim and his wife Villia, also an anthropologist, have been coming back several times a year to live among these people that they have learned to love. Obviously the feeling is reciprocal. As Joachim showed me around the region, passersby waved or nodded at him. Just yesterday afternoon, soon after I arrived in Sagada, Joachim took me on a hike into Echo Valley, a gorge where the most popular coffin site is. From a small path next to the Episcopal Church, we took a short cut to join the main trail toward the coffin site. Suddenly, it seemed I had rejoined Manila traffic, though on a foot path. The railed steps were jammed at several places as each line of tourists had to wait for the other to pass before proceeding forward. I was told however, that up till five years ago, there were hardly any tourists. Then, all of a sudden, the fame of the hanging coffins went viral. Of late, there is a night bus from Manila and another bus service from nearby Baguio bringing busloads of visitors every day. Buses and vans arrive every weekend with young tourists in droves, flooding the 40-minute walk from the Episcopal Church to the coffin site. It may seem strange, but I myself have been yearning to come here for years, ever since seeing a single picture of these hanging coffins of the Philippines in a magazine over two decades ago. I had studied similar burial customs and hanging coffin sites in China since 1985. The main difference is the burial rite has died in China over 400 years ago, and it is still practiced here in the Philippines.

In 1999, I had led our CERS team to explore and conserve one coffin site we discovered that had never been reported before. A full-hour Discovery Channel film about our work on the hanging coffins of China won Best Documentary Award. Now after 25 years of dreaming and two days of driving from Manila, I finally have my five minutes grace with the spirits residing in the hanging coffins of the Philippines!

Alma is the owner of the Inandako’s B&B, opened three years ago to accommodate the huge influx of tourists. After 25 years as a dentist, she decided to retire early and now enjoys managing her six-room outfit. The bed is spacious and the breakfast sumptuous, a full meal including her famous cream of pumpkin soup, vegetable, egg, corn beef, toast, and rice. She is a member of the Igorot tribe who has lived among these karst hills as long as history has a record. This region is called the Cordillera, or Mountain District.

As Alma noted to me, the Igorots have never been conquered, not by rival neighbor headhunter tribes similar to themselves, not by the Spanish, not by the Americans, and not by the Japanese during WWII. The only conqueror is perhaps the Episcopal Church, which Alma admitted to be almost 100 percent successful in converting the Igorot people. Even today, the Igorot live a very autonomous existence with a traditional democratic way to manage community affairs and relationships, far superior to many so-called democratic societies.

Alma is very passionate and opinionated. She easily gets irritated by anything she feels is unreasonable. One such matter is the name Echo Valley for the prime site of the coffins. “There is no such place as Echo Valley,” she spoke while pounding the dining table in front to make her point. “The guides made up the name and now visitors shout in front of the coffins hoping to hear an echo, and it is just repulsive and disrespectful,” Alma said with high emotions.

The fire-brand dentist continued to explain how this misunderstanding came about. “In our tradition, when such a burial ritual takes place, which by the way is only reserved for tribal elders with particularly high standing of rank, three to four persons would lead the way in front of the procession with torches,” Alma explained. “As they walked, they would shout out the name of the deceased, allowing the ancestors to know that an important descendent is about to join them,” Alma continued. As practically all Igorot belong to the Episcopal Church, a priest would come along to bless the deceased. The entire ritual usually would happen very early in the morning when the spirits are believed to be most active.

“The deceased elder would be bound to a chair, the more senior in rank, the longer his body would stay in the chair before burial. The body would be curled into a fetus position and put inside a coffin to be hung up the cliff,” Alma explained. That is the reason some of the coffins are rather short, not for children or infants as many have speculated. Both man or woman can be buried on the cliff. Some coffins are shaped like a boat. The chair would then also be hung outside of the coffin. “I had the opportunity to witness the last burial in 2007 and had it all filmed for my own record,” Alma said proudly. Her voice mellowed, she added, “It is a very solemn and respectful ceremony.”

But only momentarily, as Alma’s voice went into high pitch and her mood ballistic again, “I hate it, just hate it, when some tourist with his lover would shout at the bottom of the cliff at the top of his voice ‘I love you’, to get an echo back. Of course you can never hear the wall talk back.” Finally the lecture on Echo Valley ended. But not before I chimed in and said, “Don’t worry, I will now circulate the story that it works only at midnight, and during full moon!” After all, it is full moon these couple of days. There are 10 or more coffin sites on the cliff along the river, which changes name as it flows, from Latang River where the gorge is to Dinetaan River where Alma’s house faces it. Further down near a long cave it has yet another name, the Sogong River. The most popularly visited site of Echo Valley has more than 10 coffins, Alma’s site has four, and I noticed an additional site with only one coffin. With Sagada’s newfound fame through the hanging coffins, the indigenous Igorot people have now also become a focus for tourists. A new guideline just issued and posted in public areas can perhaps shed some light on how the Igorot feel about the advent of tourism. While they cherish to some degree the economic gain, they certainly abhor the human and car traffic in tandem with such an influx of outsiders, not to mention some of the behavior of those who look upon their tradition and heritage as either exotic or romantic.

As Joachim said, the Igorot know their priorities in life. The restaurants and shops are open only when they feel like it, and close for any excuses that come their way. Certainly these guidelines reflect that the Igorot care more about their identity and integrity than economic gain, something the rest of the “modern” world can learn from.

Scholars have studied the Igorot’s burial custom and tourists have come and admired these sites in awe. While others may feel the hanging coffin burial is a cultural heritage of the Igorot, I feel strongly that such a practice borders on being a natural heritage. After all, the deceased is put back into place closest to nature, in mid-air among the mountains and with the running water below. Over my short two days’ stay, Joachim not only took me to Echo Valley to see the most impressive coffin site, he also led me on two hikes, one to a nearby village and another up to a pine ridge to see a beautiful sunset. I stopped by to bid farewell to Joachim and Villia. Their house is set on a karst hill, with the limestone coming inside and becoming part and partial of their house, with them living literally as modern cave dwellers. As we parted, I borrowed from the famous promise made by General Douglas McArthur to the people of the Philippines, “I shall return.”

A few extracts of the guidelines for tourists, worthy of note, according to locals.

Do not touch or disturb coffins or burial sites.

Do not attempt to join or film any ritual without direct permission from the presiding elders.

Please don’t ask them “where are the Igorots.” We are the Igorots. We do dress in traditional clothing for special occasions, but please don’t expect any of us to pose in traditional clothing for pictures, because we don’t do that.

Sagada is a community, not a museum. If you want to see the way we lived a century ago, there’s an excellent museum in Bontoc. Please visit it.

Don’t think, or say, that we have “lost our culture” because we no longer live in traditional houses or dress daily in wanes and tapis. We are indigenous people and we are deeply attached to our traditions and culture. We are also modern, well educated people who are comfortable in any living or professional environment the world offers.

Please conserve water. Sagada suffers from water shortages, especially during dry season and periods of peak tourist flow. This can lead to diversion of water from our farms and rice terraces, where it is desperately needed, to support tourism.

Please be modest. This is a small, conservative town, and we like it that way. Please save the revealing clothing for the beach, and save the displays of affection for your private space. We are not known for nightlife. Business in Sagada closes at 10 p.m. If you like to party all night that’s fine, but you’ll have to do it somewhere else. There is no commercial sex here, so please don’t waste your time looking for it.

Wong How Man is a former journalist with the National Geographic and founder/president of CERS, an NGO which turns 30 this year, with a focus on exploration and conservation to nature and culture in Asia.