Pre-Hispanic burial secret now almost forgotten


THE Ifugaos, whose ancestors carved the more than 2,000-year-old Banaue Rice Terraces in the mountains, traditionally do not observe All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day but their burial tradition can be gleaned from a secret they have kept even before the Spaniards came to the Philippines.

How they honored their dead and the tradition they observed in relation to it can be traced back to the time when they began building the World Heritage site that is the Banaue Rice Terraces.

These are the pre-Hispanic gungat burial chambers that have been kept secret by the Ifugaos.

Villagers believed that centuries ago, the gungat were created by their ammod (ancestors) during the time when the terraces were also being prepared. As they built the terraces, they also created the the gungat for their kinsmen.

DYING TRADITION The villagers carry their dead to be buried in one of gungat chambers. PHOTO BY LEANDER C. DOMINGO

DYING TRADITION The villagers carry their dead to be buried in one of gungat chambers. PHOTO BY LEANDER C. DOMINGO

The ammod had to find places with firm soil or rock to ensure that the gungat could stand any impact and it would not collapse. Typical Ifugao gungat have a small entrance and tunnel that leads to the burial chambers.
As the number of their buried kinsmen increased, the gungat became multi-chambered, each chamber had space enough for the coffin of the dead relative of the family who owns it.

Inside were the bones of the more distantly departed, some still in their traditional sitting position particularly in the deeper end of the gungat.

Except for the family who owned them, the existence of and location of these burial sites were not known even among Ifugaos.

One of these ancient gungat in Ifugao province can be found in Hingyon town which is believed have been tended for years by a certain tribal chieftain named Pugong for his ancestors until he himself was buried there by his descendants.

Hingyon, now a 5th class municipality, was carved out of the municipalities of Banaue (where pumapayao or builders of the rice terraces came from) and Lagawe. Hingyon is located 358 kilometers north of Manila.

Like all other Ifugaos, the people of Hingyon, if legend is to be believed, are descendants of the first man (Wigan) and woman (Bugan) on earth.

Former Vice Mayor Marcos Bantiyan said the kadangyan (wealthy) are those who are privileged enough to be buried in the gungat.

American anthropologists like Samuel Kane, Harold Conklin, and William Otley Beyer, who came here after Spain seceded the Philippines to the Americans in the 1890s, found in their field studies that one indication of an individual’s or household head’s social status is the number of pigs or carabaos he has butchered.

The butchering of the carabao usually goes hand in hand with how wide an area of the rice terraces a kadangyan owned because the more terraces he owned, the wealthier he was, the more respected he was in his village and the adjoining villages. The kadangyan’s house is then adorned with the skulls of carabaos he has butchered in the past.

But today, a new concept of the kadangyan has emerged in the villages; considered rich are no longer those who own the widest terraces but those who have much money, or who have much cash whether earned locally or from working abroad.

The Bantiyan clan of Bito village in Hingyon town is among the kadangyan who have maintained their gungat, continuing the tradition that started a thousand years ago.

A Bantiyan clan member said his father, the late Malayyu Lah-u Bantiyan, a 92-year-old tinanudan (descendant) of the clan, was among the last to be buried among the thousands of their ancestors in the family gungat.

Entombment of a newly departed one in the family gungat was as an arduous affair with pallbearers carrying the remains by trekking through difficult terrain like rice paddies and rolling hills. Only the in-laws are allowed to bear the dead and they follow traditional guidelines.

After the burial ceremonies are over, the gungat is sealed. The soil carved out of the gungat must be put back inside immediately so that it would not smell, be dug out by dogs and to prevent insects from entering. They put clay in the bricks to cover the gungat. It has to be fixed well with kabite or tuping (cut rock) so that the mouth of the gungat is airtight and moisture would not seep into the tunnel.

Joseph Habbiling, a seminary graduate, said the gungat is the original lubuk (cemetery) of the Ifugao people. He said that even the Lord Jesus Christ in was entombed in a cave, something like a gungat.

He added that the Ifugaos now bury their dead in modern cemeteries which are more accessible and there has been a modification in the practice even for those who still opt for the traditional gungat.

“Many among the Ifugaos have embraced Christianity, and thus, there were changes in our burial practice even in the gungat among the kadangyan,” Habbiling said.

He added that the old practice was for the dead to be placed in a sitting position called hangdel. “We wrapped them in a traditional bayyaung (blanket) for the dead but they are now put inside coffins and buried.”

A great number of Ifugao natives had left the mountains and settled in the lowlands in neighboring Isabela, Nueva Vizcaya and Quirino provinces where they now thrive in trade and commerce. As a result, the gungat, which is an important part of the rich Ifugao culture, is slowly becoming forgotten.


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