Freeman Cebu Lifestyle

Sinulog through time

POR VIDA - Archie Modequillo - The Freeman

As societies evolve, their ways also change. Old, customary practices fade away, while new lifestyles emerge. Yet some societal traits hold on, amid the changes that come with the onslaught of modernity.

The Cebuanos of the pre-colonial times were pagans, like all primitive peoples. They hallowed the heavens, the tides, rivers, trees, cliffs. They worshipped anything they thought wielded some supernatural powers over them and their life conditions.

The natives performed rituals, slaughtered animals and presented farm crops as offerings to their gods. Many of them wore pieces of shell, wood, bone, beast tooth or stone as amulets, to ward off sickness and evil spirits and to give them special abilities.

But upon the introduction of a new religion by the Spanish colonizers, in the 16th century, the pagan practices of the Cebuano natives changed.

Magellan came to Cebu in 1521, bringing with him the promise of eternal life through Christianity. Many villagers believed and welcomed the introduced faith. The village chief, named Humabon, and his queen, Humamay, were converted, together with some 800 of their subjects.

On the occasion of the natives’ formal acceptance of the Christian religion, Magellan reportedly gave the image of the Santo Niño to Humamay as a baptismal present. A few days after, Magellan was killed by Lapulapu, a tribal chieftain not friendly to Humabon, in a battle at neighboring Maktan Island.

For a while, the Santo Ni?o unified the faith of the Cebuano natives. The icon brought together their various concepts of God. While they used to worship many, different deities, they had come to trust in an Almighty God who had immense power over everyone and everything. But soon the local people slid back to paganism, adding the Santo Niño to their original line of idols to worship.

Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, who came to Cebu almost half a century after Magellan, reestablished the faith that his predecessor had earlier introduced. He taught his new wave of converts to worship God in a designated place meant for the purpose – the church. The rekindled Christianfaith, though, still did not completely erase the native people’s pagan ways. Some old practices carried over into the new religion.

The sinulog, for instance, found its way to the church where the image of the Santo Ni?o was kept. It was probably a political decision on the part of the Spaniards to eventually allow the practice of sinulog by local Catholics. It was a tactic to sway the rest of the natives to the new faith.

The sinulog is said to be a simulation of the sulog (water current) of the once abundant Pahina River, the one that snakes through the plains towards the city’s south. Owing to its enormous size, the river was revered by the pagan villagers inhabiting the surrounding areas. Hence, the mimicking of the movement of the river waters in their worship rites.

The Pahina River is situated close to what is now San Nicolas district, for which reason it is likely that the ritual dance once flourished in the area. Moreover, San Nicolas was later on to be the center of resistance activities by the natives, who were concentrated in the district at the early part of the Spanish occupation.

It is possible that out of defiance and opposition to the new order, particularly to resist Christianization, the people of San Nicolas performed the sinulog in a highly ostentatious way, the ritual being their own and, therefore, a precious identity symbol. They could have used the ritual as a political statement.

There has emerged in recent times –  starting in the later part of the last century, in 1980 – a variation to the simple worship dance of the Cebuanos of old. The prayer ritual has encouraged a full-blown festival. The Cebu City government, upon the instigation of some enterprising minds hoping to put Cebu on the tourism map, took sinulog to the streets.

And, indeed, the Sinulog Festival has since become the biggest public celebration of its kind in the country. The lively dancing in the city streets, is in more ways a secular event than religious. To many participants, it is purely a release, both physical and emotional; a tonic of sorts. To many spectators, it is a spectacular entertainment, an entirely cultural affair, with no religious significance whatsoever.

And the value of Sinulog as a public festival is obvious. The yearly event does not fail to bring in a corresponding dynamism to the local economy. The fabulous production, the lure of big fun attract throngs of visitors to come, filling the city’s hotels and other business establishments to overflowing.

Today’s Sinulog parade takes the scale of a grand mardi gras, usually taking a whole day to cover kilometres of the parade route. Some parade contingents wear costumes and use performance paraphernalia that completely depart in look and character from the sinulog of old. The original free-wheeling sinulog steps have been modified into the “two steps forward, one step backward” footwork for the street dancing.

And yet the original sinulog still continues to be performed by candle vendors at the front yard of the Basilica del Santo Niño. Here, there are no elaborate costumes or uniformed choreography; each dancer invents his or her own dancing. The only thing common among them are the basic steps that have carried the dance through time.

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