Subanen ritual buklog nominated for UNESCO intangible heritage list

The buklogan is connected to the house by a stair-bridge called thitay

Subanen ritual buklog nominated for UNESCO intangible heritage list

By Roel Hoang Manipon

For several days, an indigenous community of the Zamboanga Peninsula performs several ceremonies, and a structure towering over a village is constructed. Chants weave through the gurgle of the river and rustle of the forest. The sounds of flutes and gongs and thump of wood and feet reverberate through the house. Sacrificial animals are slaughtered. Almost all members of the community come together both in merriment and solemnity, displaying multiple expressions of their beliefs, aspirations and traditions, embodied and unified in a spectacular system of rituals.

The buklog ritual system of the Subanen in western Mindanao has been nominated by the Philippines, through the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, for inclusion in the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The UNESCO Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) are dedicated to fostering better protection and wider awareness and recognition of ICH elements. As a result of the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, UNESCO maintains two lists: the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, which comprises “elements that help demonstrate the diversity of this heritage and raise awareness about its importance,” and the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding, which includes elements that “require urgent measures to keep them alive.”

Before the formation of these lists, the UNESCO had been proclaiming ICH elements as Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity from 2001 to 2005. Cultural elements that had been proclaimed as such were subsequently included in the Representative List. Two Philippine elements were given this honor—the hudhud chants of the Ifugao in 2001 and the Darangen epic of the Meranaw people of Lake Lanao in 2005. In 2015, another Philippine element, the punnuk ritual of the Ifugao, was inscribed in the Representative List, included in the single entry of tugging rituals and games of Cambodia, Philippines, Korea and Vietnam.

With the buklog ritual, the Philippines submits a nomination for the Urgent Safeguarding list for the first time.

An ancient practice with mythical origins, the buklog is the most important of Subanen rituals and celebrations, known for its magnitude and complexity. It can last for several days, weeks and even months, involving everybody in the community and engaging other communities as well.

The community dance, gbat, marks the culmination of the buklog ritual

The most distinctive feature of the buklog is a tall structure made of wood and bamboo and attached to a house. It has a highly flexible platform for the gbat or ritual dancing. Aside from being a sacred area, it also serves as a large musical instrument. As participants dance, the structure, called buklogan, makes a distinctive percussive sound, drawing more people.

The buklog has several types, marking the stages and corresponding to different aspects of life in Subanen society. Different types include buklog as thanksgiving for a good harvest, honoring a new thimuay or village leader, thanksgiving for recovery from illness, and honoring the souls of the dead.

A shaman or ritual specialist called balyan presides over the buklog and a series of attendant rituals, with the help of the thimuay. Among other things, the preparatory rituals ensure harmony among members of a family or clan and the community, as well as between the human world and the spirit world. Harmony is requisite to the success of the buklog.

The series of rituals include the sinulampong, where the balyan asks permission from the spirits to cut timber for the construction of the buklog structure and signifies the community’s readiness for the ritual; the sangat, where community members offer pairs of coins to two strong spirits in order to maintain the balance in the spirit world; and the phanmalwasan, which is done in the dark, where the spirits of the departed are invited to partake in the festivity with offerings of food.

The gathering of materials for the building of the buklogan is itself a ritual called kanu gulangan. During the cutting of trees especially for the important components of the buklogan such as the dulugan and the phetaw, giloys are chanted.

The rituals gampang and ghelet are for the spirits—one is done at the nearest river for the water-dwelling spirits and another facing the mountains for the land spirits.

After this, the buklogan structure can be built. A highlight of the construction is the placing of the dulugan and the phetaw, done in a ceremony. The dulugan, a hollowed out log, is placed under the buklogan, in a trench at the center of the ground, while the phetaw floats above it, piercing through the platform, at the center of the buklogan. While people dance, the phetaw and dulugan hit each other like mortar and pestle, producing a booming sound.

The buklogan is connected to the house by a stair-bridge called thitay, through which participants enter, creating a representation of man’s journey from the mundane to the sacred.

The series of buklog rituals concludes with the gbat, a trance dance by the community and visitors on the bouncy platform. Their movements resonate throughout the buklog as well as to the whole community. The gbat can go on all day and all night long for several days, a moment of joy, excitement and togetherness.

For the duration of the buklog, the Subanen entertain themselves and their visitors with music, dancing, story-telling and the drinking of the traditional wine called gasi or panggasi. Thus, the ritual system remains the most compelling cultural marker of the Subanen people and the strongest unifying force of the community, embodying the religious, social, cultural, political and creative values and expressions of the people.

Holding a buklog is expensive and time-consuming. In the past, a grand buklog is usually held every seven to nine years. As the Subanen society changes over time, the holding of the buklog becomes rarer. A recent inventory conducted by the NCCA in five municipalities in the peninsula revealed that over the period of 10 years, the range and frequency of practices have generally decreased. In the municipalities of Lakewood and Kumalarang in Zamboanga del Sur, a buklog was held twice, while in Sindangan and Siayan in Zamboanga del Norte, only one buklog celebration was held. In other communities, no buklog was held.

There are several factors that affect the continued practice of the buklog.

A craftsman carve the dulugan, an important part of the buklog structure

Anthropologist and Mindanao culture expert Nestor Horfilla says that “Of the social threats, most notable is the continued influx of lowland and other cultures into the Subanen’s traditional homeland, bringing with them different educational, political, economic and belief systems and shift in social values, among others.”

According to him, the threats to the ICH include the shift from traditional belief system to Christianity; the weakening of indigenous leadership system; changes in family dynamics that affect the transmission of the knowledge and skills from the older generation to the younger; the change in the demographics of some communities from a purely Subanen to an ethnically heterogeneous one; armed conflicts that lead to the displacement of the Subanen; and increasing incidence of poverty that affects resources required for the buklog.

Despite these threats, the Subanen, Horfilla adds, “remain resilient and develop high adaptive mechanisms for the survival of their cultures. New alliances were forged with civil society organizations, national agencies and even with some local government units…. More importantly, the existence and recognition of the balyan as spiritual leaders and the strong governance maintained by the local gohoman (council of elders) in the relatively intact Subanen communities are evidence that the element, despite the constraints, is still viable.”

The community dance, gbat, marks the culmination of the buklog ritual


A craftsman carve the dulugan, an important part of the buklog structure
The sinulampong ritual


The ghelet ritual is for the spirits of the earth and mountains (photos courtesy of the author)

While there have been efforts to safeguard the buklog, inscription on the UNESCO list will further draw attention to the perilous state of the ritual, mobilizing international cooperation and assistance as well as encouraging local and national agencies and groups to provide support to safeguarding measures. Currently, the NCCA is formulating modules in its flagship School of Living Traditions program for the buklog, encompassing many aspects of Subanen culture such as traditional crafts and food, performing arts and oral literature.

A recent buklog, called Buklog Thindeg, held from February 28 to March 4, 2018, in the barangay of Sicade in Kumalarang, engaged several municipalities all over the Zamboanga Peninsula. The Buklog Thindeg, meaning “buklog of resurgence,” was held to make manifest the Subanen people’s willingness for and support of the UNESCO nomination.


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