Balangay, Where the Sky Meets the Sea

Manila, the Philippines

September 26 / October 24, 2010

There are 7,107 islands in the Philippines. High tide or low tide? Only a Filipino beauty queen knows. But you don’t have to be a beauty queen to know that the sea is a geographic border that could separate people and places. However, in pre-colonial times, before the Philippines became the politically unified archipelago as we know it, “communities were connected, not separated, by water,” according to historian William Henry Scott.

Japanese Tourist Attempting the Split at the Museum of the Filipino People

For years, the sophisticated maritime culture of pre-colonial Philippines remained a theory – until the 70s when wooden remains of ancient sailboats, called the balangay, were dug up in Butuan in southern Philippines; the oldest of which was carbon-dated to 320 CE. I hadn’t realized this before: This Austronesian watercraft predated the Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the Renaissance in Europe by hundreds of years! Our ancestors had been navigating the seas for centuries before the first Europeans set sail to the Orient. We weren’t the primitive society that the Spanish colonists projected us to be.

Remains of a Balangay at the National Museum of the Philippines

The extant balangay planks exhibited at the National Museum of the Philippines (dated to 1250 CE) occupied almost the entire length of the hall at 15 meters long. With a 4-meter width, it had the capacity of about 90 people. These specs indicated its use in trade, warfare, and migration, not merely in small-scale offshore fishing. Early Filipinos were expert seafarers; they navigated their own fleet. Today, many Filipinos still take to the seas, mostly as “seamen” (contract workers in international cruise and cargo ships). Their seamanship is highly regarded even by Scandinavians, who also have a long maritime history.

Balangay Replica at the National Museum of the Philippines

Our ancestors were akin to other Pacific Islanders, not only in our boat culture, but also in our coastal city-states. Even then, they already lived in small tightly-organized socio-political units, called the barangay. The similarity with the word balangay is uncanny but also completely logical. William Henry Scott explained that each barangay was autonomous but not necessarily self-sufficient. It was with the balangay that barangayes on different islands or different parts of the same island traded food and goods, as well as ferried people and ideas. To this day, the barangay concept is retained as an administrative unit.

Balangay at the Museum of the Filipino People

To me, these were the most impressive archaeological museum pieces in both the National Museum and the nearby Museum of the Filipino People. They bridged the gap in our history textbooks focusing mainly on the colonial era and the republic. It was not an encompassing empire or a central government that strung our islands together; it was the balangay. Water was our common ground; the same open seas that scattered islands and the rivers that cut through these islands also provided a link amongst groups of indigenous Filipinos.

While continental Asians skirmished for territorial expansion on the vast open land of the world’s largest continent, ancient Filipino islanders shared with one another the open waters of the world’s largest ocean.

Other notable archaeological finds in the Museum of the Filipino People:

2,000-Year-Old Anthromorphic Burial Jar from Ayub Cave
14th Century Porcelain Dish with Fallow Deer Design

Clay jars molded into the shape of a human face, dated 2,000 years old, were testaments to the culture and art of our pre-colonial ancestors. Porcelain dishes from the 14th century provided evidence of trade between the islands and China.

Now a warning: Be careful of the warped stairs at the Museum of the Filipino People. I was an inch away from completely losing my balance. I could’ve fallen over and smashed my skull!

Warning: Warped Stairs at the Museum of the Filipino People

Some treasured artworks on display at the National Museum of the Philippines:

“Lady with Mandolin” by Severino Fabie

Severino Fabie’s sculpture Lady with Mandolin detained my attention at a hall called Beloved Land. The instrument reminded one of Picasso’s Cubist painting, Woman Playing the Mandolin, but Fabie’s poignant piece conveyed profound sorrow. The woman, playing the mandolin on her knees, seemed to be praying, not with words, but with ineffable pain.

In another hall, an intriguing artwork aroused curiosity with its unidentified subject. National Artist Vincente Manansala’s final work was an unfinished portrait of an unnamed woman.

Fernando Amorsolo’s Last Unfinished, Untitled Painting

Our museum guides were History majors completing their OJT (on-the-job training) hours. They were quite knowledgeable about art and, of course, history. In fact, our young guide dished out information about the long-dead artists in celebrity-gossip fashion.

Ki and Guide

Last but not least, there was the Juan Luna obra maestra, Spoliarium, which I wrote about in my previous entry.

Juan Luna’s Spoliarium at the National Museum of the Philippines


23 thoughts on “Balangay, Where the Sky Meets the Sea

  1. Some time ago, I wanted to become a tourist guide and now when I saw the pictures of the guides, my old passion was rekindled. A lifetime seems too short for doing all that one likes.

    I liked the line: “Water was our common ground” and I guess that sums up this entire post. Liked the Balangay immensely. Age, it would be wonderful if you could do a post on the fishes in your part of the world.

    The half finished painting is so intriguing. Why did the artist leave it unfinished? Did he die or was he distracted or did he just abandon it?

    And last: I am glad that you didn’t trip and fall 🙂

    Joy always,

    1. I suspect we live parallel lives, Sus. That’s also one of my dreams. But more than a guide, I want to be a curator! 🙂

      Thanks for taking interest in the balangay. I kinda felt the post was too Filipino-centric. I was not sure how it would be received by non-Filipinos. A post on tropical fishes? That would be nice, but I’d have to take up scuba diving and wildlife photography – which are both beyond my budget now! I’m more partial to birds, actually. You gave me an idea though. I could revisit a swamp area here frequented by migratory birds. Maybe I can start with that.

      Sorry I didn’t explain. Amorsolo died before he could finish that painting. In fact, no one knows who the subject is. There are a lot of speculations swirling through the years about the identity of the woman.

      And yes, thank God I didn’t fall! 🙂

      Joy always to read your comment, Sus.

  2. The ocean doesn’t split up the world… it seems far from one island to the other, still we would be able to reach out along with the tide in the end. I’d love to be a voyager of the balangay… just hope not to get lost on the way. 🙂

    1. I’m afraid you WILL get lost, Karry. The balangay doesn’t have GPS. You have to solely rely on the stars and your knowledge of ocean currents.

      1. Then I wouldn’t complain wherever the balangay took me to, still it would be fun to be on it. Just let the ocean currents carry me away…
        FYI, it’s not unusual for me to get lost even having GPS. 😉

    1. The stairs…the stairs. Strange structural defect, indeed. It seems it has melted! And the first photo, it really has nothing to do with the post but I like it. Haha! The Japanese tourist is actually a friend of mine.

  3. This is an interesting read AJ! I haven’t been there but I may attempt to do a yoga pose in front of that Juan Luna’s masterpiece…. I can’t do a split! Geez! Well the floor kind of inviting, shiny and clean and stuff like that…. Haha! Thanks for sharing….:)

    1. Congratulations Jorie! Your comment is this blog’s 1,000th! I’ll think of a prize for you. Maybe a surprise visit in CDO? 😀

  4. Very interesting. It reminded me of the “balangay” which I only encountered in my history subject in elementary. It’s nice to go back and remember these things that represent our authentic Filipino culture 🙂

    1. The Fabie sculpture is also one of my favorites in the museum. I don’t know if it was inspired by Picasso’s Cubist painting, Woman Playing the Mandolin. But unlike the painting, which had the woman standing while playing the instrument, Fabie’s lady is on her knees while her head is resting on the mandolin in profound sorrow. She seems to be praying, not with words, but with music. I immediately connected with the angst that the sculpture conveyed.

  5. well done. =) true, sadly, sinunog nila para kunwari tau ay mga “mangmang” at sila nag-educate saten.
    kapag nagbabasa ako ng post mu madame ako natu2nan at naaalala. na miss ko tuloy ang anthro dahil dito. 😀

    1. Kaya nararapat na bigyan ng kahalagahan sa edukasyon at lipunan ang ating angking kultura, bago pa man ito’y nalupig ng mga Kastila.

      Tila bang anthro lesson ang post na ito? Ako’y nagagalak dahil naipasariwa ko ang kaalamang ito na maari nating naipasantabi sa ating kamalayan. Chos! 😀

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s