Women, north and south
- Tingting Cojuangco () - March 23, 2008 - 12:00am

I have lived for research, breathing in the air of suspense, undertaking inquiries and rejoicing at findings that reinforce archival material while smelling the scent of fish from the sea air, observing burnt-blond-haired children, playmates of waves and sea goddesses, whose aroma is rancid from the sun. Among these reminiscences, my thoughts turn to a woman who was honored and reaped much attention. She was a Shaman of Tawi-Tawi.

* * *

We were entertained by a traditional maritime tabawan, a Tawi-Tawi dance led by a dark-skinned, tantalizing, high-cheekboned woman garbed in black, with a red kerchief around her neck. Her long nails were covered with sungalay that glistened like the movement of the fish the woman mimicked with her fingers. What eyes! They pierced my inner soul. She was Inda Taas and her extraordinary stare did not surprise me — after all, she was a diviner!

Inda acquired her extraordinary powers when her son Binoy died. Coming from school one day, her son slept and never woke up. He was pronounced dead and, following Islamic custom, Binoy, aged 20, had to be buried before sunset of the same day. In her mourning, Inda played the gong and an unidentified spirit jin entered her as she broke out in a cold sweat. He instructed her not to bury Binoy for he would resurrect in three days. And he did!

Who was the spirit? The guardian spirits of Tawi-Tawi. As a female Duwarta or Shaman, Inda Taas performed rituals of thanksgiving, fasting, births, weddings, deaths and rituals to cure illnesses. Fortune-telling was best on the 15th moon, when the jins called Putli Jailon, Leo Lahi Alam, Kutul Dila, Tuko-alam Silo, Tuan Bojeron and Maharlika Awon were most accessible.

We witnessed Inda and her jins in a fortune-telling session held within her 20-foot-square nipa hut. Noisy, suntanned children accompanied me inside Inda’s house. Soon her house became jam-packed with a musky aroma.

Two female attendants opened an old wooden chest to get Inda’s malong, wrapped around her waist, and put on a V-necked top, a typical Samal and Taosog outfit called samra.

She sat on the center of the bed in a yoga position; beside her was the jins’ tonic, the Malaysian Narie Mataduyong Siren brand. Inda gulped it down and put it on her palms, wiped it into her hair and face, leaned back on the bed and belched.

She went immediately into a trance. A female spirit, in the form of Danda, was the first to enter. Upon Danda’s appearance, incense in a coconut shell was lighted. Her movements considerably slowed down to signal that questions could now be entertained. “You are so many. What is it you want?” Inda answered, “I pray all their wishes will come true with God’s will.” She answered, “the spirit said all would succeed…”

The Samal interpreter announced a male spirit was intervening, the husband of the female inside Inda. Inda Taas rose from her bed, changed clothes behind her malong, this time into a black shirt and pants, a Samal male outfit, to let us know the male spirit would now enter her. Making whistling sounds, our Shaman reached for a piece of cloth, folded it into a man’s turban. Again, she said, “Do not worry…”

We sailed so far to the tip of Tawi-Tawi and now were told not to worry! We were worried; the seas were getting rough; we had to sail away.

In her sober state, Inda has no qualms admitting she is not bothered by those who remind her that her practice is contrary to Islam. She insists fortune-telling and divination are part of folk religion and old women of Tabawan have long engaged in these practices like her. What a beautiful, if frightening, woman!

* * *

The dispersal of the Samal Balanguingui of Sulu to the north was caused by the Spanish attacks on their island, Balanguingui, because of the effects of Samal piracy on Spanish territories.

Consequently, the Samal arrived in Isabela in 1859 to be transformed from the fiercest pirates to docile farmers. But culture dies hard and their animistic practice such as the boat ceremony remains. The purpose of this ceremony is to appeal for good health and good fortune.

Preparations were this took two hours! The rice was placed on seven saucers. On top of the rice sat one hardboiled egg, its pointed tip erect in the center. Fifteen small banana leaves about five inches long were filled with rice and rolled. A thread tied it all together securely; freshly laundered tablecloths held two candles on the left and right sides of a table, a plate with coins, the bracelet of beads, a cigarette box, the Agua Florida and one match box.

The ritual: the first woman sprinkled Agua Florida on a miniature boat reciting an incantation. This perfumed water was meant to attract the spirits. Hurriedly she ran outside the house. With outstretched arms, she waved to call her friends from beyond. Reentering the house she sprinkled the boat with Agua Florida again. The boat had to be sweetly scented to offer to the gods. Another woman stood in front of the altar. Both began to dance. It was an indication that a spirit was in them. I recognized the tune of Santa Clara Pinung-pino and it put a smile on my face.

Apprentice Woman #2 picked up the boat with colorful Japanese paper and danced a waltz with it, pretending the boat was a male. Inside the boat were the rice cakes, cigarettes, a handkerchief and the tiny rolled banana leaves with more rice. This woman carried the boat to us and let us hold it, swaying with the music.

Dancing before the table, Woman #1 picked up the beaded bracelet and also waltzed. After laying the bracelet on its platter, she suddenly fell into a swoon. After a few moments she got up, perspiring, to get rid of the spirit inside her; the same procedure of standing in front of the altar table getting ready to be possessed was repeated. Now in a trance, the two women began to dance again. They smoked a cigarette and blessed its smoke above the guests’ heads; wisps of conversation and familiar words in Spanish (voluntad, primero, bastante and “Ma primero ka sangaw”) followed.  They were Chabacano words. They really never lost a mother language after 10 years in Zamboanga in 1848 and now it’s the 21st century. And off they went into another swoon.

The women fluttered and flung their arms like eagles in flight. Shockingly, they scolded the five musicians because a hotheaded Gaddang spirit had egged her on to hit the men of the band.

Dancing with the second woman, the first one suddenly became angry because she could not follow her steps and slapped her. We were aghast. What a horrid spirit!

When will this end, I thought. They asked me to dance with them. Both women fell at the same time and passed out leaving me alone in the living room.

Finally, it was over. The boat was laid on two bamboo slots. We walked to the bank of the Cagayan River. One of the men put the boat on the water after we prayed under the quarter moon. It sailed away with the current. An offering to the gods (or was it Allah?) was completed. It was a tiring thanksgiving exercise by women: two Baylans.

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