Reaching for the Gods in Sagada

I first visited Sagada, a sleepy town at the heart of the Mountain Province, on a cold November day. The first things that caught my curiousity were the ashes and remains of burnt wood left at the graves in the Christian cemetery.However, I was more absorbed in that short hike to reach Echo Valley and have a glimpse of the hanging coffins on the other side of the mountain.

Indeed, Sagada is most famous to visitors because of these archeological treasures. Seeing the coffins suspended on the cliff is one thing, but hearing the stories of how the Kankanaeys (natives) honor their dead is whole new different tale in itself.Unlike in most parts of the country that was ruled by Spain for over 300 years, the Cordilleras was a region unfazed by colonization. The absence of Spanish influence allowed the natives to preserve traditions and rituals, including those involving their dead.Until the first Anglican missionaries arrived in Sagada in the early part of the 20th century, the natives did not bury their dead. They believed that to cover them six feet under would prevent their spirits from breathing.

Instead, they put their dead in steep crevices to bring them closer to the gods.Taking care of the dead involved a meticulous ritual in Sagada. The body is dressed with colorful beads and other accessories or essentials that its soul may need in its journey.

The deceased are not embalmed and are strapped on a bamboo chair for the wake. The wake could last from three days to a week. Unnecessary noises and playing of gongs are prohibited. The only sound you will hear is the baya-o, a traditional chant performed by the elders to scold or praise the dead.

The chant varies from humming, murmuring, wailing, and ends with a shout and a thud of a foot. The chant also served as a plea to the dead not to return to haunt the living, and help them instead to lead a prosperous life.It is the elders who decide if it was time for the dead to go.

The journey begins when the corpse's knees are bent to touch the chin and the body is wrapped with a with cloth and tied with a rope made from the maguey plant. Tribesmen will carry the body and run fast to bring it to the burial ground.Upon reaching the mountain, the men would bind themselves in ropes to climb the steep mountainside and haul the body. Once the resting place is reached, the body is placed in a coffin crafted from pine lumber. Then they would chant prayers and bid the dead the last farewell.

.John Grant has been living in the Philippines for 5 years and has travelled the country extensively. His online Philippines Travel Guide gives you an extensive coverage of destinations like Sagada.

By: John Grant

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