Tinglayan, Kalinga: A Memento From The Mambabatok of Buscalan
Being raised in a traditional family wherein tattoos were considered taboo, getting one flashes a red light – that was before I had my rear shoulder down to the elbow inked with a text inscribed in Baybayin, a pre-Hispanic Philippine writing system. Many of our folks (not everyone, of course) believed these we consider as “art” today were, back then considered as the marks of a gang or probably an ex-convict who committed theft, fraud, or worse, murder – a menace in society. But during the tribal war era in the Cordilleras, slaying the enemy earns the brave warrior valor and respect illustrated through symbols marked in his skin. These markings were crafted by the tribe’s mambabatok. This was my journey to the village of Buscalan where I encountered the “last” Kalinga traditional tattoo maker, Fang-Od, who gave me a souvenir that I will remember for as long as I breathe.
Good morning from Sleeping Beauty mountains.
Misty morning in Luplupa Village.
Beams of light peeked through the ridges of the Sleeping Beauty mountains, still enveloped in mist – a beautiful scenery that I remember standing halfway across the bridge as I bid goodbye to the quaint Luplupa Village. Together with our guide, Kuya Amfat, we stood along the main highway waiting for the 7AM monstrous bus-looking jeepney bound for Bontoc.
On the roof of the bus-looking jeepney.
Among the few paved roads connecting Mountain Province and Kalinga.
Kalinga’s majestic rice terraces.
Sharp curves and hairpin turns as we approach Bugnay Village.
Riding top load for two hours on rugged cliff side roads with landslide paths on one side and the drop on the other doesn’t sound kind of fun, yeah? On occasion, whilst sitting on the jeepney’s roof, you could feel the vehicle tilt as if it’s about to fall and landing on the local tabloid the next day. Nevertheless, marveling on the breath-taking mountainous landscapes of Kalinga got my mind off the dangers. Eventually, you’ll get used to those bumps and tilts.
Bugnay Village, another river side settlement in Kalinga.
A cluster of rice terraces in Bugnay.
Opposite the National Highway and across the Chico River is Bugnay Village. Among the clusters of rice terraces I’ve seen all over Cordillera’s jagged topography, I think Bugnay’s rice terraces was among the magnificent looking cluster with its paddy fields running along the banks of Chico River, and layering as it goes up the mountain slope. For a better vantage point of the riverside settlement and the rice fields surrounding would be Bugnay Junction, which also happens to be the jump-off point to Buscalan Village.
Two-hour hike into the mountains.
You will also see during the hike Butbut’s (if I’m not mistaken) rice terraces cluster
No guides were available during our visit to Kalinga, good thing we found Kuya Amfat.
A resting point a few meters just before the village.
Isolated by massive mountain ranges and dense jungles, no public transports ply the treacherous road from the Bugnay Junction to Buscalan Village, thus, the safest way probably was on foot. The two-hour hike begins with a dirt road wide enough for a jeepney which turns into a 12-inch wide cemented footpath comprised of with moss-covered inclines and steep staircases. Regardless of the difficulty, this trail unveiled astonishing vistas that got my mind off the pain I was about to endure.
Elevated wooden house overlooking majestic mountains.
Native pigs roam around everywhere. Don’t worry they are harmless. They’re cute actually.
Local kids sat in front their stilted huts.
Buscalan Village seemed like a labyrinth of stilted houses with livestock such as native pigs and chickens freely roaming around. Getting lost around the village would introduce you to the daily lives of the locale – simple, and far different from our lives back in our concrete jungles. Finding Fang-Od’s house, on the other hand, was quite easy since it’s only a few meters passed the elementary school located on the village’s main entry point.
Local kids poses for the camera.
Having lunch inside Fang-Od’s house.
Situated on higher ground, the village has wondrous views of surrounding mountains and rice terraces
Rice fields in Buscalan Village.
Layers of Buscalan rice paddies.
During the hike, the question, “Who is Fang-Od?”, just kept my mind afloat. Yes, everyone knew her as the last traditional tattoo maker of Kalinga. The 93-year old elder of Buscalan Village has undeniably gained quite a popularity among tattoo communities, the local travel scene, and even reaching far out across the vast oceans to foreign backpackers. Who is this legendary tattoo maker?
Buscalan’s traditional tattoo maker, Fang-Od.
Native Kalinga coffee for welcome drinks. It’s on the house.
I must admit – I was starstruck when I first saw Fang-Od. However, there was no blinding light, nor a chorale of angels playing trumpets and singing in harmony, but a grey haired lady wearing a bandana on her head and sports a black shirt printed with a green five-finger cannabis leaf. She bears a friendly smile while welcoming visitors with a freshly-brewed cup of Kalinga’s native coffee. Though unable to communicate in Tagalog tongue, the warm hospitality can be felt by any visitor through her gestures. One could say that Fang-Od has become quite a celebrity in Kalinga’s indigenous culture, but like many other in remote villages, she lives a simple rural life feeding livestock, pounding coffee beans, and harvesting crops – that is when she’s not holding a pair of bamboo sticks and in “Mambabatok mode”.
Tattooing using sticks, thorns, and charcoal.
Memoirs from Fang-Od’s previous visitors.
If conventional tattoo uses electric-powered machines, the traditional tattoo artist called a Mambabatok utilizes a pair of bamboo sticks, while those skin-piercing needle/s are replaced with a single citrus thorn. Those permanent markings came from pine soot instead of regular tattoo ink. These tools in the hands of of the Mambabatok equipped with an exquisite backhand tattooing technique are the key elements to the the thousand-year old cultural practice called “Batok”.
The heavier the tattoo, the more beautiful.
All tattooed women of the Cordilleras wore them with pride.
Back then during the “dark ages” of headhunting and tribal wars, these skin-deep markings symbolize rank, power, and respect among warriors. Some tattoos were believed to protect the individuals from evil spirits which may cause sickness. For females, lasses were transformed to lovely ladies through this tattoos which were merely ornaments that beautifies these women. These are like the modern day bracelets, earrings, and necklaces, but of course, are irremovable. The painstaking art of tattooing has played a major role in culture and tradition, not only in Kalinga, but also the many peoples of the Cordillera, and we’re about to get a taste of this bloody and painful tradition. I volunteered first, not out of bravery, but to avoid being more nervous than I currently was.
Fang-Od prepares the ink made of pine soot.
She uses a strand of straw as stencil. (Photo by Mong Cinco)
Mong, just about minutes into the tattooing.
There’s the swelling.
…and there’s Mong, after almost 3 hours.
First thing everyone asked when I got back was, “Did it hurt?”, I said, “Yes!” But surprisingly, I think the pain was much more manageable than the regular machine tattoo, especially when the numbing begins. It’s either the “Batok” process and the tools used that creates a placebo effect which looks really intimidating, or it’s just me, my low pain tolerance with needles, and the blood. Nonetheless, I still find it painful.
That’s me right there during the entire process. I can’t even look at the blood. (Photo by Mong Cinco)
So if it hurt, why did I do it then, you might ask. Why travel hundreds of kilometers and trek high altitudes just to get a simple tattoo wherein I could just get a copy of the design and go to a nearby tattoo shop which is more convenient?
Fang-Od tattoos Mong.
Mong’s rice bundle tattoo.
In my own personal opinion, delving into the roots of the our country’s culture and traditions takes more than just books and Google. Knowledge comes best from real life experiences – living it, breathing it, eating it, or even permanently embedding it on my skin. The agonizing process of the batok represents the long arduous journey to reach this isolated village and understanding the way of life back then, the pine soot ink was the knowledge and the enlightenment that fed my mind and my soul, and Fang-Od, an embodiment an old tradition from the peoples of Cordillera region, facing the brink of extinction. But with her apprentice, her niece, Grace, and the previous efforts of NGO’s, and LGU’s by promoting the Kalinga Batok Festival, this tradition will live for many more centuries.
My bloodied and swollen forearm after an hour and a half of batok.
One lifetime may not be enough to learn the diverse cultures and traditions of the Filipino people, but I hope to learn as much as I can while I walk the surface of the earth. And as I walk, I will proudly wear Fang-Od’s memento, and tell the world her story, and the story of Kalinga’s tattooed culture.
Thank you, Fang-Od for giving us food and shelter during our visit, and thank you to all the people we met who warmly welcomed us in their community.
Here are some fast facts that may help you on your trip:
1. The first trip from Tinglayan to Bontoc leaves between 7AM and 8AM. Be on the highway and wait for the jeepney.
2. Fare from Tinglayan to Bugnay Junction cost P20.00 each.
3. Wear comfortable footwear for the hike, and bring a scarf or a jacket for the chilly nights in the mountain if you’re spending the night.
4. Bring enough water.
5.For a guide, you could contact Kuya Gilbert (0908 479 2012).
6. The centipede tattoo on my forearm (a basicdesign) cost P1,300. Again, there’s no fixed rate.
7. For our stay in Fang-Od’s house, we paid an extra P200.00, but we also brought some groceries. This is not really required but just a generous donation to the family. Over-the-counter medicines could also be helpful.
8. Bring a box of matches for the elders, and bring candies for the kids.
9. Read more about this 7-day Backpacking Trip in Cordillera
10. More about Kalinga.
11. Please LIKE Biyaherong Barat on Facebook.
12. Follow @BiyaherongBarat on Twitter.
13. Happy travels everyone, and always be safe.