Touring the Otherworld

It would not seem so from immediate appearances but Cebu is steep in spirituality. It would take an amount of sensitivity to realize it but one could tour this island not just for its physical destinations. One could also take in the spiritual world with its own vistas and sites.

The nature of local religiosity is something quite noteworthy. Catholicism came here in 1600 with the establishment of local Spanish settlements. Before these there had been the practice of Islam and Animism. Catholicism eventually took deep root but even so, many of the old animist practices persist in a system of mythologies, belief systems and rituals that are practiced to this day.

The Catholic faith is quite easy to appreciate. The city celebrates the Sinulog in January, every year. Sinulog is a ritual dance traditionally performed at the door of the Sto. Nino Basilica. The dancer raises candles to the air while dancing to a tempo alleged to be pre-Christian in origin. Some theory relates this tempo to sea currents. But the idea is that the candles become “blessed” by this dance and will have the greater potency in delivering the request of the person who lights it in a designated area inside the Church. Thus, the ritual is a transaction of sorts. One buys the blessed candles from the dancer who actually performs a religious function as alternative to the regular authority to bless reserved for the regular priest. This practice is actually the norm here where regular Catholicism is now interwoven into a system of indigenous spiritual practices.

One good way to appreciate local religion is to rent a car and drive down south with a group. One of these days the local tourism office will probably have to train locals to guide visitors through the religious practices here. But any local will probably be well versed of the local church monuments. The first stop you should make is Carcar. The church plaza complex here is quite typical. The central portion is an unusual because the statue of Jose Rizal, the national hero (who was also well known for being a Freemason) dominates. The plaza is a clash of religious and civilian statues, which speak of a history of conflict between religion and civil practice, which has occurred here over the past 100 years.

As one enters the plaza one sees immediately a statue of a dignified soldier on a horse. This is the statue of Leon Kilat who led a local revolt here against the colonizing Spanish in the late 1800s. Like Rizal, Kilat fought against the abuses of Spanish friars. Much metaphysical powers were attributed to this rebel hero. His followers did not have sufficient weapons to fight. According to historical accounts they had only sharpened bamboo stakes and knives. To convince his followers to fight nevertheless he fashioned for them cotton vests onto which he inscribed various incantations in pig-Latin in order to make their wearers impervious to the enemy’s bullets. He succeeded in this revolt for awhile until he was eventually murdered. An elite family residing across from where this statue is now invited Leon to the town fiesta and filled him with food and drink. In the night, his henchmen came stabbed the rebel leader to death after which they buried him in a shallow grave away from the town cemetery.

This town plaza also contains exquisitely maintained wooden buildings for either civil or religious use. These include the convento, the hospital and St. Catherine’s school. All offer good picture opportunities. The local delicacies are good to sample (try the chicharon, tapa, lechon and ampao at the local wet market) before driving down to the next town. You could make a right turn to the hills but that’s for another story. For this one, you should drive straight through towards Sibonga after driving through the famous Carcar rotunda. This rotunda was designed and made by the brothers Martino and Ramon Abellana with some help at the beginning from Fidel Araneta. These three are the most accomplished of their generation of local artists and came of age after the second world war.

In Sibonga, go directly to the church and gaze upwards towards the ceiling. The paintings here give us a good picture of the quality of the local Catholic belief system. Reymundo “Ray” Francia painted this ceiling in the mid 1930s. He did many of these all over Cebu and Bohol but very few of the paintings survive. The islands are regularly visited by typhoons some of which blow off the roofs thus destroying the ceiling paintings. But Sibonga is the best preserved of Francia’s works. The ceiling over the altar depicts the 7 days of creation in a charming half-circle tableau with God the Father occupying the central area. Depictions of the devil are definitely surprising and bespeak the dark Gothic imagery popular of the mid 1900s Christian thinking.

This imagery makes for good comparison with the ceiling paintings at Dalaguete and Argao town. You’ll drive past Argao town but skip this and drive directly to the next town of Dalaguete. Canuto Avila with whom Francia competed for reknown made these paintings with the help of sons and daughters. Avila’s style is more classical and staid. It is unfortunate that the papinters near altar are quite faded. As you revel in the images notice that the paintings are painted over the original wooden planks of the ceiling. Some of the cloth caulkings are falling off. Soon these art works will have to be restored or be lost forever. Consider yourself lucky to be able to see these works at all. If they are destroyed entirely a good part of local history would be lost to us because these paintings are really examples of how local culture dealt with the intruding colonial culture and in a way mastered it in the sense at least of art.

Before leaving Dalaguete try a see the wonderful beach. From there drive on to Argao and see the church there. The ceiling here was done probably by Francia and Avila although this work is not signed. Here you can really see the stylistic differences of these two artists. The battle between the angels and devils is especially interesting. It is unfortunate that the statuary on this church has practically been destroyed by erroneous restoration attempts. But in a sense this makes a trip like this timely. These works may soon be lost if not by natural causes then by the most well meant efforts.

Stay overnight at Argao and ask about local beliefs. For right beside this Catholic religiosity hides beliefs in the animistic creatures of old. “Dili Ingon Nato” is a general name applied to all otherworldly creatures including abat, wakwak, kikik, ungo and others. Any query along these lines will draw immediate response. But the most interesting creature of all is the sigbin. Reported to look like the Australian kangaroo this is a mythical pet, which will grant its owner the power to travel quickly from place to place. Other powers are attributed now to this being whose blood was recently rumoured to be a cure for AIDs. But don’t get too interested many “visitors” are reportedly out there still caught in the long and so far fruitless search for this creature of the “otherworld”.