Cordillera Rituals: Their Features and Significance

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Cordillera Rituals: Their Features and Significance

Cordillera Rituals in the Global Perspective: Initiatives

In a continuing research on the spirituality of people worldwide, rituals, as part of local experiences with ancient wisdom, have maintained an influence in people’s lives among the developed and developing countries, even in communities where churches were earlier established.

In the global scenario, rituals continue to be performed specifically among identified tribes based on their beliefs of the reciprocal interrelationship of man, nature and the spiritual world. Some of the many ritualistic tribes around the world are:

  1. Shona tribe in Zimbabwe believes in Mwari whose spiritual world is composed of different spirits with different tasks and responsibilities.

  2. Thalli tribe in India performs rituals to control pests and diseases, just as farmers in the village of Malnad, Karnataka, India are the Krishi Prayoga Pariwari group of traditional leaders.

  3. Tharu tribe of Nepal, especially at Chitwan Valley, performs rituals to show their strong attachment to the soil, land, and nature.

  4. Dagaaba tribe in Sri Lanka performs rituals to invoke the blessings of God and their ancestors. Buddhists in Sri Lanka believe that spirits inhabit trees especially the Bo trees. The ritualists chant verses to express their thanks.

  5. Boosi tribe in the Bongo village in Ghana relates to the spiritual world through rituals with prayers addressed to their ancestors, gods, and spirits.

  6. Maori tribe in New Zealand performs rituals in a Marae (parallel to the dap-ay or ato in Mountain Province) for environmental protection and for cleansing from any bad encounter among the community people.

  7. In North Iran, among pastoralists, rituals are performed with animal sacrifices. Certain areas are off-limits so as not to disturb the spirits around the place.

During the medieval times, among the developed countries like England and France, the English and French believed in the intercession of saints to restore their health. The saints whom they addressed for specific disease were: Saint Vitus for cholera; Saint Maur for gout; Saint Anthony for skin diseases and Saint Pius for paralysis. It is astonishing to know that Stella Horrocks (Reader’s Digest,1998), a retired school teacher in England took dictation from the dead as “Secretary to the Spirits” like John Kennedy, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, movie star David Niven, Duke of Wellington. Likewise, Raymond Lodge became more famous after death as he communicated regularly to his father and gave him instructions to find things. Similarly, in the medieval times, English King Edward, the Confessor, was canonized for his healing power. Whether he acquired his healing power from his ancestors or through his own Holiness was a matter of dispute.

Cordillera Rituals: Background Information

Cordillera rituals have been handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth, even when the Americans came and introduced Christianity. With the Igorots’ competence of their indigenous knowledge, such rituals are structured even today as to steps and procedures per se, in application of the customary laws, indigenous knowledge, and their Christian beliefs as well. Among migrants like the Ilocanos and Tingguians, they perform rituals as an influence of migration and as participant-observer of rituals performed by Igorots in Cordillera. Likewise, Igorots are also influenced by Ilocanos in Cordillera, who believe in offering food (atang) for the dead.  

Cordillerans perform ceremonies and rituals as part of their everyday living. Rituals are performed as an effective means of communicating their requests for blessings and thanks to the Supreme Being, the spirits, and deities. It was during the 7th Igorot International Consultation (IIC-7) in July 2008 in Banaue, Ifugao when Rose Pal-a Dulnuan expressed in her presentation that her family from Kapangan, Benguet and Kiangan, Ifugao had always faithfully adhered to Benguet and Ifugao rituals. Her parents believed that rituals greatly contributed to the continuing expansion of their string of business establishments including the recent acquisition of Dangwa Tranco, now “Jacks Transport for the People.” This was strengthened when Conchita Pooten, confirmed how adherence to rituals evidently contributed to their successful endeavors. In essence, both the Dulnuans in the Cordillera and Pootens in the United Kingdom faithfully believe that they are who they are today out of their own sweat with the guidance and blessing of Kabunyan, the Supreme Being, whom they communicated through rituals. On the contrary, as further discussed, the negative side of rituals is when performed to curse someone or as a strategy of witchcraft.

Rituals Relevant to Environmental and Cultural Preservation

The Supreme Being is believed to be the creator of all things. He is in control, along with spirits and deities as stewards of the land, water, air and natural resources. Rituals are performed in respect of a Supreme Being and spirits everywhere. Such power of creation by the Almighty is also seen in the wonders of His creation like caves.

Rituals are systems of cultural rites to preserve the environment as a gift from God to sustain life. Among the Igorots, rituals affirm and re-affirm their connection to nature, and are a  means to strengthen their cultural identity as an ethnic tribe rooted in the past. They perform rituals in everything they do, like the indigenous technologies of tattooing or mummification. They believe that deities, environmental or ancestral spirits help control any natural phenomenon that may happen. 

Rituals are performed with utmost respect for  seniority rule among elders, anchored on hierarchical structure with leadership that automatically evolves among the Council of Elders (COE). Rituals are hosted by an individual or a group. Likewise, the subject of a ritual could be an individual, a family or the community. In family-hosted ritual, it is usually performed for thanksgiving or request for any blessing from God or for cleansing like the ‘daw-es’ to wash away any misfortune. Family ritual with animal sacrifice is usually performed to heal a sick person believed to have been disturbed by the spirits that made their presence known. 

As such, there is a need for a ritual to appease the spirits. In all rituals, there is always the series of prayers. In some family rituals, it could last for some minutes to a day or more, especially if an animal is butchered. 

Features and Significance

Cordillera Rituals in General: Their Features

Rituals are identified with series of invocations and performances. In rituals where there is butchering of animals, it includes praying to God and the spirits; chanting by individual or group with an elder leading. In addition, activities include dancing, wine-drinking and food-sharing. 

The communal meal, as part of the ritual, is a customary concept tied up with sharing and spirituality. As of today, this is still being practiced during family or clan reunions. 

Prayers in Rituals

In some rituals, prayers are accounts of stories about the journey of Kabunyan or Lumauig or Alawagan (to the Isnags) from heaven to earth. The prayers teach the people how to adore the Supreme Being in heaven or appease spirits through rituals. A famous story that is usually related during prayers is how Kabunyan through Lumauig taught the people long ago how to grow rice, make rice wine (tapey), pray, perform rituals, comfort the bereaved and guide the newly-weds as they start a living. Other stories accounted for in prayers are about origins of the world, of the people, of plants and animals. 

Prayers are suggestive of moral and ethical values relevant to the significant event or the ritual’s purpose. If the event is a community feast of thanksgiving for a bountiful harvest, stories would be how people long ago labored to maximize whatever weeds and other organic waste. If the ritual is relevant to land ownership, stories of struggles in defense of the land is accounted for. In all stories though, there is not an account of Lumauig having risen from the dead, unlike Jesus Christ.  

On Purpose and Animal Sacrifices in Rituals

Rituals are for specific purposes -- for prosperity, abundant harvest, good health as in  birth-related rituals among the Ifugaos, fertility of couples and a long, peaceful life,  empowerment of leaders or people and  send-off during burials. In the process, when rituals are performed, rules including sanctions, are expressed. Some rituals have very specific requirements. Specific requirements of animal sacrifice include the maturity, sexuality and color. Time and place of performance are also considered. In some rituals, specifically, a black pig is required. 

Among the Isnags, butchering of a dog is significant in any deal like settling of conflicts. This is considering the dog’s fierce characteristics. There are prohibitions or cultural inhibitions associated with fishing, tree-cutting, hunting, traveling, and other interactive activities. Agricultural rituals involve the butchering of chickens or pigs to appease spirits that are in control of nature by the power of a Supreme Being, sometimes referred to as Kabunyan ay Adikaila for Unseen, Manakabalin for powerful, Nintotongcho for someone in heaven, Mangus-usdong for Overseer. In Ifugao, aside from Kabunyan, there are unseen deities like ‘maknongan’ or ‘mabaybayang.’

Rituals associated with death or marriage necessitate the butchering of bigger animals not only for the message read and interpreted in the bile sac’s appearance, but also for the communal meal being symbolic of sharing resources among the community people and sharing to the spirits and deities as well. 

Rituals as Part of Customary Laws

Customary laws legislated by the COE in an ator as to moral or spiritual aspects were found out later to be parallel to Biblical laws as subsumed in the Igorot sense of ‘inayan,’ ‘lawlawa baw,’ ‘mangisiw,’‘ngaag,’ ‘madmadi’ that forewarns one’s conscience  to do what isin accordance with God’s will for there is the ‘wad-ay Nintotongcho,’  ‘wada baw din Adikaila,’ ‘adda Dios idiay ngato.’ In church, we used to hear and say, “All things come of thee, Oh! Lord! And of thine own have we given thee.” The Igorots articulate the meaning of the phrase in their customary practice of sharing whenever one performs or hosts a ritual. 

The ritual is part of the collective memory to help sustain the reciprocal relationship among the people, the land, the spirits, and the Supreme Being. Moreover, among the Igorots, the erosion of values in relation to indigenous resource management, customary laws for sustainability are highly affected by migration, modernization, education, and technologies, which disregard rituals considered as superstitious.

In relation to the indigenous judiciary system, the performance of ‘sapata’ ritual has been an effective application of a customary law with its prescribed best time and place. Suspects in a crime are made to swear before the all-powerful God Almighty as the judge, witnessed by COE, who define what should happen to the suspects as a consequence of swearing. Before swearing, a series of touching prayers are recited before the suspect decides to go for the sapata or to forego it. In some instances, after listening to the series of prayers, the guilty suspects may opt to tell the truth lest they suffer the consequences.   

The peace pact ritual is identified with ethnic tribes in Abra, Kalinga and eastern Mountain Province. The irony is that where there are no peace pact forging, it is more peaceful than provinces with peace pact practices.

On Acquisition of Property Rights

In the acquisition of land and other property rights among the Igorots especially among the Kalingas, ownership is made binding and legal in the Igorot cultural parameter through the performance of a ritual. The participants of a ritual are those knowledgeable of the land boundaries who act as witnesses, should land dispute arise. What makes the land right acquisition spiritually-guided is that during the ritual, the prayer-invitation is extended to the spirits of the ancestors who were the original land owners, especially if irrigated wet-rice fields are involved. 

The last step in making the land acquisition binding is the sharing of meat or any food, as a symbol of oneness. It is implied in the prayers that the spirit of the land, if respected by the land ‘acquisitioner,’ will result in something good. Similarly, rituals may be performed in thanksgiving for other properties acquired like car, house, jars, beads; to  request the blessing of the Supreme Being and to direct the right use of the acquired properties. In terms of the sharing concept of the ritual, food is shared to all other attendees and a little money shared to the witnesses.

On Exclusiveness or Inclusiveness of Rituals

Another feature of Cordillera rituals is on its exclusiveness or inclusiveness. Rituals could be performed inclusive of a family or clan within their home or ritual involving the community, depending on its purpose. In general, a community holiday is declared so as to make the ceremony with series of rituals inclusive of the community people. The ceremony is performed to thank and adore the Almighty for the good harvest or to seek the intervention of the powerful Unseen for prosperity and abundance, and for peace and good health. A community ceremony is also performed to relate with natural forces. Specifically, rituals are performed to seek intervention of the Unseen God and spirits who are in control of the community, to cleanse them of whatever misfortune, calamities, epidemics, and other bad experience. In the aspect of healing, there is a ritual performed to put a mentally-imbalanced individual back to his senses. Such ritual, with gong playing performed for its psychological healing effect on a subject individual, is exclusively performed by elders and closed for other viewers to be effective. 

In community rituals, it is selective of appropriate time -- what it includes and excludes. Rituals may last for less than an hour to a day or more. Most community rituals require animal sacrifice with rice wine, water, salted meat and fire. Rituals, as a routine by individuals, do not necessarily require animal sacrifice. 


Rituals are significantly meaningful if with props, prayers, gadgets or other materials. The performers or officiating elders, the time and venue also have significance for a ritual to be effective in attaining its specific purpose. 

Specifically, in relation to the environment and agriculture, rituals are  performed in sync with the traditional agricultural calendar of activities by the community. Rituals are guided by the growth patterns of certain plants, arrival of birds and astrological symbols (phases of the moon and position of the stars and heavenly bodies in the sky). 

The Props and the Prayers in Rituals

In any ritual, props or symbols are used for certain specific reasons. Props like the sculptured stone of a seated man’s figure among some Igorot tribes are for good health and long life. A carved wood, the bulul serves as a man-guardian of the rice granary for abundant harvest is practiced among the Ifugaos. 

As used in rituals, the rice, chicken, betel or plants leaves symbolize abundance; the spear, bolo, shield symbolize defense of their community and their territory; the gold, silver coins for financial stability. Symbols may also imply precaution. A pudong (bundled leaves tied to a rod) stuck visibly at an entrance door is a warning to the bad spirits not to enter, whereas a pudong in western Mountain Province is to warn any visitor not to enter because a member of the household just left on travel. Ember or fire in some rituals  symbolizes life and strength of the various elements of nature that has to be acknowledged. 

In some prayers, the elderly officiant names the elements and equates them to human characteristics. This is a way of bringing about the sense of familiarity and certainty over natural forces, which otherwise would cause disaster, epidemic, famine and other difficulties in life.  In the prayer, water represents its cleansing effect and the request for long life. Fire is acknowledged as first produced by Kabunyan; rice wine is a spirit-inspired drink taken in sip by sip which  symbolizes friends who kindle and/or rekindle friendship; and salted meat is a symbol of abundance, sharing and generosity. The boar necklace worn by the elder is a symbol of the people’s strength to resist the destructive force of thunder or lightning. The necklace and armlet are also attributed to a fierce crocodile that can swallow any intruder or enemy. Wearing the crocodile fang worn can divert devilish intentions of anyone subjected to the ritual. 

The Lead Officiant in a Ritual

A lead officiant in a ritual like the mumbaki in Ifugao has certain needed characteristics too. He has to be knowledgeable of community events and articulate in expressing and interpreting messages of signs and symbols. The officiant like that of a warrior-officiant in Kalinga should be trustworthy, unselfish, responsible, and not envious. In fact, an Igorot to be in the limelight could be one who is culturally-inclined and a peace maker through indigenous strategies.

The officiating elder clad with necklace of boars, crocodile fang and/or teeth, armlet of chicken feathers is symbolically necessary as a means to establish relationship with nature. In order to give meaning in most rituals, the officiant recites a series of prayers around a cup of clear water, a jar of rice wine and a piece of salted meat.

Sounds and Colors in Rituals

The dancing, chanting and drinking activities in rituals enhance unity and solidarity. The Ifugaos are famous for their Hudhud chants recognized as the ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.’ The gongs as musical instruments are symbolic too of their sounds to announce that a feast of thanksgiving is on-going. The sound of gongs drives evil spirits and calls for good spirits to give their blessings. 

As narrated by an elder Tinoyan of Twin Peaks, Tuba, he said that even during the construction of Kennon Road, series of rituals were performed with the playing of gongs.  Colors are that symbolic too. Bright colored tapis that are traditionally woven aredominantly worn in rituals associated with happy events while dark colors are associated with sad events. Except for the Isnags of Apayao, their traditional attire, which is dominantly dark in color, is worn in all kinds of festivities.

Significance of the Research to ICBE Participants: Challenges


Taking a grasp of the Cordillera rituals as to their features and significance, the next question would be,  “Of what relevance is the research to the ICBE participants who left Igorotland and now reside overseas where rituals are impractical for many reasons?” 

In an attempt to answer the questions posed and in consultation with people, the following challenges are given:

1. Every ICBE member is knowledgeable of Cordillera rituals as a guide for social upliftment. An overseas migrant, who still traces his ethnic roots, should recognize that indigenous knowledge systems like rituals and western science could enrich each other. It is not a matter of opposing any development project for the sake of culture but it is looking into its benefit. It is not a matter of condoning rituals because it is believed to be unchristian but it is a matter of reconciling cultural and religious beliefs for social upliftment. Social upliftment may include the introduction of prayers in rituals presented in Sallidummay melodies.

2. The moral and ethical values like sharing, spirituality, honesty, fear of God, care of environment, as manifested in rituals and folklores could be taken in its global perspective. These are integrated in anyone’s way of life, wherever he is, whether overseas or in the villages.

3. The support of overseas migrants in research, documentation of customary laws, Ifugao Hudhud chants and other chants, and so on, are important as we all recognize our own people as the rightful owners of indigenous knowledge systems or folklore and not by foreign writers. For example, a textbook written by a non-Igorot had given wrong information such that the former Congressman Gualberto Lumauig had to react and call the attention of the Secretary of Department of Education.

4. For ICBE participants to be made aware of the situation and extend support systems to help promote conservation of both biological and cultural diversity. In a way, the participants perpetuate and adapt a viable socio-cultural system yet the kinship system is strengthened. 

5. For ICBE participants to appreciate the Igorot culture and Igorot history so that they may symbolically adapt the concept of a traditional ritual but reconstructed to suit societal policies and laws of the land where they are. For example, understanding that before, half-nakedness was with dignity when involved in rituals. Today, it does not suit other cultures. 

Suggested Applicability of Rituals among ICBE members

Carrying the original concept of different rituals of different tribes (Kankanaeys of Benguet, Aplais in Mountain Province, Bagos, Tingguians, Isnags, Kalingas, Ifugaos) integrated together yet presented as a modern-day secular ritual, the following are recommended:

1. Panagwawagi for an opening ceremony in conferences. This ritual is practiced among the Isnags from Apayao who migrated to four municipalities of Ilocos Norte like Dumalneg, Carasi, Nueva Era and Adams. This ritual is performed to foster brotherhood and camaraderie. Hosting of panagwawagi is done alternately by the four municipalities. In the panagwawagi, innovations could be made to make it Cordillera-wide. The grand march of participants, if necessary, to give impact could be the integration of the kayew or processional march in a begnas community festival among the Aplai in Mountain Province. Then the opening prayer in kulipanpan chant among the Tingguians or opening message through the uggayam among the Kalingas be made part, just as the Ifugaos may come in to beat the gongs to give sound while the bogaw be done by one from Benguet.

2. Watwat or Kakag for a closing ceremony. The concept of sharing and spirituality is evidently manifested in Igorot rituals. In any Igorot ritual, the ‘watwat’ makes the performance binding. This could be done during the closing ceremony of a conference. To integrate western culture, the conference may end with the singing of “Auld Lang Syne,” then the saying of wish, affirmation of wish through group song or chant just like what elders used to do in a ritual. This is made binding with the distribution of watwat/kakag which is traditionally a piece of meat but could be substituted with any gift item for souvenir. The concept of watwat was actualized during the 4th ICBE Consultation in May 2007 in Dublin,  Ireland. To make the ceremony more solemn and with meaning, it could be broadened to include candle lighting, if done in the evening. This is a general practice in the Cordillera.

3. The Panebkaan concept with the integration of other rituals like luweb aimed at empowering anyone and the baliwat/bogaw shouted in between the sounds of gongs practiced by all Igorot tribes, could be all integrated for a turnover ceremony. The panebkaan ritual is traditionally performed before the takba is transferred to the ‘dap-ay,’ which signals the start of the begnas community festival. Traditionally in Besao Proper, the Panebkaan is also performed before a granary is transferred to another place. Relevant to the Igorot International Consultation (IIC), this is an appropriate ritual to be performed before the Gong, as a symbol of responsibility, is transferred to another venue. It may be reconstructed to suit participants coming from different ethnic groups, yet the concept is retained. 

In a script for presentation, representatives from all chapters each holding the common props in rituals (jar of rice wine, rice or palay) led by the host country holding the gong as the symbol of responsibility march solemnly to the dap-ay-structured stage. The ritual continues with an opening prayer to empower (luweb) the incoming hosts, incoming leaders, thenthe declaration of acceptance with sounds of gongs or dancing and transfer of the gong to the incoming host with a closing chant or prayer. In general, that is the concept but there could be other parts that are relevant to enrich the presentation. 

4. Thanksgiving and Sharing Concepts of Adivay, Say-am, Lang-ay,Imbayah,Gotad, Ullalim,Arya Abra, Sassaliwa, Begnas could be done to raise funds for the Igorot Global Organization (IGO) Scholarship Program. Say-am is for the Isnags, Lang-ay for Mountain Province, Imbayah for Ifugao and so on. As part of motivating members to share their resources, it would be the recognition of achievements of Igorots during conferences. As the achievers are presented, let it be followed with the beat of the gongs too, identical of each tribe. Series of prayers follow to motivate givers then the hat is passed for the participants’ least coin donation, as a symbol of thanksgiving through sharing. 

5. Peg-as/Wasawas. This ritual among the Kankanaeys of Benguet is a cleansing ritual performed after burial. However, in an interview with elders Marquez Federico from Mankayan and Jose Esteban from Itogon, the rituals can be performed for cleansing of any misfortune. The universal cleansing concept of the Peg-as ritual is then appropriate in similar cases that any ICBE member may encounter. 

The Ritual

With a bundled long elongated green leaves, a basin of clear water, a bowl of cooked meat with ginger, rice wine particles, salt mixed into it to symbolize their cleansing effect, an elder officiant says a long prayer making an account of how elders were taught long ago. After the series of prayers, another elder says a prayer then soaks the bundled leaves in the clean water and splashes it to all people around saying, “May you all be cleansed from any misfortune, by the power of the Holy Spirit.” This is the wasawas, whichliterally means turn around and splash everyone with the blessed water for cleansing.

Concluding Statement

In conclusion, Cordillera rituals are among the factors affecting cultural and socio-economic development of the Cordillerans, wherever they live, depending on how they apply the rituals’ spiritual and sharing concepts. A ritual in its purposive nature as passed from generation to generation is significant when performed with one’s knowledge of the significance of cultural beliefs reconciled with one’s Christian faith. Understanding the Lumauig stories and the parables of Jesus Christ are value-laden as basis for adherence to rituals. Other significant considerations in the performance of rituals is the deeper understanding that Jesus Christ died and rose from the dead while Lumauig did not, the consequences of the so-called karma, and  acknowledgment of God through His creation seen all around. Likewise, getting informed about the features and significance of rituals is a way of cultural empowerment to discern and make a choice of what is practical or not, what is sensible or superstitious but ultimately acknowledging with faith that no doubt there is a Supreme Being, the source of everything. Such rituals affirm and re-affirm one’s faith in God, whom various ethnic groups call by different names. Rituals, as part of everyday living are knowingly and unknowingly performed, and putting meaning and significance to it could also be intentional or unintentional. In essence, rituals continue to be performed today with innovations although the concepts are retained.


Keynote address delivered during the 5th ICBE (Igorot Cordillera BIMAAK-Europe) Consultation held in Vallendar, Germany on 10-13 April 2009. The article was also published in April 2009 in the ICBE magazine, “Cordillera Rituals as a Way of Life.”   

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