BAGUIO CITY—Photographer Tommy Hafalla once chastised folk dancers who performed a Cordillera dance draped in black-and-white blanket, because the woven fabric is traditionally used to wrap the dead.
Hafalla’s concern was not just the young generation’s misuse of old knowledge. Like many people who live in the Cordillera, he believes that these death blankets are some of the few items that help younger Cordillerans connect to their ancestors.
The distinctive blankets, called “binaliwon” in Kalinga, are still wrapped around the remains, which are washed and placed inside a wooden coffin.
In Sagada, Mt. Province, the body of the late community leader Lakay Sumbad Pecdasen was covered in a white woven blanket with a black strip in 2007 during what might have been the last ritual where it was propped up on a “sangadilâ” (death chair).
Ritual feasts in Buguias, Benguet, involved people of various class donning blankets, “which would ultimately serve as burial shrouds,” wrote Martin Lewis in his book “Wagering the Land: Ritual, Capital and Environmental Degradation in the Cordillera of Northern Luzon.”
“The topmost blanket, ‘alladang’, along with its five complementary garments, could only grace the community’s highest echelon. The second highest, ‘pinagpagan,’ was also restricted to the elite. The lower ‘kwabao’ could adorn the older and more respected commoners, but most common people were entitled only to the cheaper ‘dil-li.’ The poorest individuals donned only ‘bandala,’ a cheap, essentially secular covering,” says Lewis.
Satin-lined caskets are widely used in the Cordillera, but mourners will continue to fold and tuck these “mortuary textiles” in their loved ones’ coffins to avoid compromising “the relationship the living have with their dead,” wrote Rikardo Shedden, a doctoral graduate in anthropology of Australian National University, in his ethnographic study, “Textiles that Wrap the Dead.”
Shedden’s piece was published in the September 2009 issue of the Cordillera Review, a journal produced by the University of the Philippines Baguio Cordillera Studies Center (CSC).
A CSC research affiliate, who spent 2008 in Torcao, an upland village in Kalinga, Shedden observed how modern funeral practices, the commercialization of Cordillera woven fabrics and modern education have not cut “the immutable, enduring connection people have with the blanket in relation to the ritual treatment of their dead.”
“One day, [my neighbor, Peter, a farmer in his ’50s] spoke to me of Korya … [who became] a ‘mirotoy,’ a fearsome spirit who at nights still comes to Torcao [wrapped in a binaliwon] in search of the descendants of those who had killed him,” Shedden says.
“Lasting imagery like [Korya] serves to strengthen the connotation local people have of the binaliwon; its connectedness with spirits of the dead (‘achogwa’) and the aura of danger it evokes … People consider it unimaginable to sleep with this blanket, and to wrap oneself with it against the cold would only be a portent of one’s own death,” he says.
Shedden says people will not display or unnecessarily handle the blanket.
“Those who own a binaliwon will typically store it out of sight and particularly out of reach of children, who are the most susceptible in these communities to sickness and mortality. And it is not just more traditionally minded members of the community who treat this mortuary blanket with caution. Even younger people who generally dismiss their parents’’ and grandparents’’ old beliefs as “pagan’’ often speak of their unease at even looking upon a binaliwon blanket,” he says.
In his study, Shedden says mourners will fold the binaliwon inside the coffin and speak highly of their dead, lest relatives “run afoul of an unquiet achogwa.”
In her 2008 study, “Towards a Christian Understanding of Ancestor Reverence in the Benguet Tradition,” Leonila Taray, a faculty member of the Institute of Philosophy and Religion at Saint Louis University (SLU), says that “where the imported ways do not seem effective, the tradition becomes the last resort” in the Cordillera.
The study quotes the late Ibaloi writer Gabriel Pawid Keith “who observes that Benguet Christians perform simple or elaborate rituals to remember their ancestors, go to church yet call on the “mambunong” (ritual priest) to propitiate the spirits and ancestors, consult the doctor and take the prescribed medicine yet call on the mambunong to perform the healing ritual for them, and when faced with a series of misfortunes or losses, they turn to their deities and ancestors.”
Kalinga folk have gradually refashioned the binaliwon’s significance for other customs largely because of its association with death, Shedden says.
For example, a suspected thief was forced by Torcao villagers to undergo the “sapata,” a ritual that makes an individual take an oath of innocence “with the strong belief that dire consequences will befall” a guilty man, he says.
Recently, the binaliwon was incorporated in sapata “to add an element of anxiety” to the ritual, Shedden says.
The villagers Shedden interviewed bore no stories of the binaliwon’s origins except to state that the first cotton blankets introduced to upper Kalinga folk were binaliwon traded for sacks of rice.
“Some elders spoke of how people went to great lengths in the old days to produce cotton blankets,” he says, citing the story of a Torcao family who exchanged its rice field for a blanket to bury a relative. “