The Buklog Festival: Sounding the Subanen's sacred lumber

By Iris Sheila G. Crisostomo, The Manila Times, 20 November 2000

A visit to Lakewood, Zamboanga del Sur for the Buklog Festival of the Subanen cultural community is certainly a rewarding (and trying!) experience.

For a cultural worker so much immersed in the bustle of city life, the trip becomes both a breather and a test of physical endurance. For the rough roads along the periphery of the lake give one a fantastic view of the waterline and lush greenery.

Yet one has to endure a one-hour drive aboard a habal-habal (a single-motor vehicle) and bear a four-hour hike up the slopes of Mt. Kulabog to reach the tranquil village of Lanayan—this year's host of the Buklog Festival.

The buklog, which also stands for ceremonial platform, is a thanksgiving festival of the Subanen, a group that derives its name from suba (river) because of a preference to settle near rivers and mountain streams.

For centuries, the Subanen have held staunchly to this ancient ritual to honor the spirits, particularly the malengma (spirit of the waters), mamanwa (spirit of the forest), and manising palingkitan (spirits of the mountain), on which they rely for an abundant harvest and protection from misfortune.

This year, with the support from the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), the Buklog Festival again reaffirmed the community's profound gratitude for the continuous blessings. Moreover, the festival was held in response to various land and natural resource management projects implemented in the area with the help of various agencies and organizations.

The mountain village of Lanayan

Lanayan is a Subanen settlement composed of some 60 households. It can be reached by foot from Barangay Gasa and provides a majestic view of the mystical Mount Pinokis in the distance. It is under the chieftainship of Timuay Balibis.

The 47-year-old timuay gladly received us in his house, along with guests from other organizations and government agencies who had come to witness the festival. (Timuay is the traditional title for the communal leader. It is a Maguindanao word which means chief or leader and connotes both civil and religious authority for the bearer.)

In the receiving area of the house, members of the group happily dropped their bags and immediately sat on the wooden benches, glad to have been relieved of a heavy load. Just a few minutes after, it began to drizzle outside, making us very thankful that we were sheltered from the rain.

From the kitchen, the women began serving hot chicken stew. They revealed that Timuay Balibis had insisted on preparing the stew for the guests. The team felt honored by the warm gesture of hospitality. Bowls were set on the table and the warmth of the soup was comforting on that cold, rainy day.

Constructing the buklog

The rains continued until the next day, causing fog to envelop the village. The weather slowed down the construction of the buklog, which is the central structure of the festival.

The buklog is erected using eight sturdy tanguile and white lauan trunks as foundation. It stands eight to 10 feet high using wooden trunks 10 to 18 feet long.

We watched the men in their hats, jackets, and plastic raincoats straddled on the wooden posts. Unmindful of the cold, fog, and rain, they persisted, skillfully securing the wood with uway strips. Their minds were made up that the buklog had to be completed by sundown so that the festival could begin.

With the foundation in place, the workers started to lay wood trunks side by side to form a platform. They worked swiftly, with one or two chanting prayers as they hauled one trunk after another. The chanting, according to Timuay Balibis, was performed to ward off evil spirits.

After the platform had been covered with bark, four or five of the men would jump on it to check its pliability and its strength. The platform had to be strong enough to bear the weight of the festival's participants but at the same time pliable to move up and down without breaking.

In the middle of the platform, a pole was inserted and set right above a hollow log three meters long, which was laid horizontally on the ground beneath the structure. The intention was for the pole to strike the log and produce a resonating sound.

Invitation to the Buklog

Timuay Balibis became the village chieftain when he was 15 years old upon the death of his father. It was an exceptional case, he said in Subanen. Traditionally, the title is bestowed on married men.

For many years now, he has witnessed the celebration of the Buklog, which they consider a prestige festival. The festival requires months of preparation and entails a large amount of money for the purchase of more than a dozen chickens, five hogs, and 10 sacks of rice as offering to the spirits. The last festival was held in Lakewood in 1998.

An announcement of an upcoming Buklog is made weeks earlier through the continuous sounding of the agung or gagong. The rhythmic booming of the gong located atop a hill can reach settlements hundreds of kilometers away.

But Timuay also sent out formal invitations—strips of palm leaves with knots numbering the days before the actual Buklog. Other timuays receiving the palm leaf would cut the knot each day until all the knots have been cut on the day of the festival itself.

The invited households would then travel by foot along mountain trails until they reach the venue of the festival.

Countdown to the festival

Three days before the festival, the community elders led by Timuay Balibis performed a ritual invoking permission from the spirits to gather the materials needed for the festival. Trees like white lauan, baktikan, bagasuso, babalud and tanguile are used to construct the buklog.

A day before the festival, another ritual, the Gempang, was held near the bank of a stream. This is a water ritual held to appease the spirits and protect the community and their land from any ills.

At around seven in the morning, the village elders headed by Timuay Balibis headed to a nearby stream for the Gempang ritual. They erected three sets of lukay or wooden posts to hold the offerings, which consisted of uncooked rice, chicken or pork, eggs, and sliced betel nut.

The lukays vary in size depending on what spirits they are intended. The tallest comes up to about six feet high and is for the higher spirits; the shorter ones (two feet or less) were for the lower spirits.

As part of the ritual, a pig was slaughtered near the waterline and its blood was taken downstream by Timuay Balibis. This was symbolic that any bad omen had been thrown away. Then, the pig was roasted without salt and its meat cut into pieces as an offering. Two young chickens were also killed to please the gods.

The Subanen also believe in drawing up a boundary to prevent evil spirits from entering their territory. A thin branch was tied between two posts to indicate that boundary. The branch was hung with strips of folded palm leaves and a chunk of pork.

Holding bunches of folded palm leaves, Timuay Balibis then performed a dance ritual around the area. He then dipped the leaves in the stream and directed it towards the people as an act of blessing and protection.

The dance ritual was done simultaneously with an assistant trailing him, burning incense and sounding a porcelain bowl with a stick made of fragrant wood. The incense was said to invoke the good spirits and the tinkling sound of the bowl, to guide the spirits towards their direction.

This sequence was done seven times in a counter-clockwise movement around the area and back again seven times clockwise to seal the circle. The ritual progressed with the sound of the agung in the background.