Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

River stones consulted by Onyor as a healer and ritual specialist ⓒ Renato S. Rastrollo

Experiencing Healing Rituals of the Philippines

Filipinos believe in a two-dimensional world: one of the living and another in a parallel spiritual plane. When the living unintentionally disturbs the spiritual world, unexplained ailments, maladies, and misfortunes befall them. When medical science in the world of the living cannot cure unexplainable conditions, Filipinos resort to traditional methods, reaching out to the spiritual world in various ways.

Among the Tagalog, the manghihilot is recognized as one who has the ability to heal anybody who suffers from body pains. With the use of coconut oil, the manghihilot massages and frees the knots that cause the pain.

Coconut oil is also an important medical application for the albularyo or herbal ritualist. Unlike the manghihilot, however, the albularyo uses herbal concoctions, prayers, and incantations for specific ailments and maladies.

Personal experience with an albularyo happened to me when I was in grade school and suffering from tagulabay, a skin condition. For more than a week, patches of various sizes slowly appeared exactly at twilight, completely covering my skin throughout the night. At sunrise, the rashes disappeared, leaving only reddish marks.

It was around this time that an old woman, an albularyo, visited our house in Quezon City, located near the boundary of Manila. Not as populated as it is now, that area had a mini-forest at the end of the street, with water flowing down the creeks in front and surrounding our house. Old folks say this waterway is buhay na tubig (living water), where they believe unseen elements reside.

The albularyo made each family member lie on our wooden couch in the living room. With a lighted candle, she recited some prayers, made a sign of the cross on our bellies as she applied coconut oil and ash from the match she lit. She sprinkled an orange-flavored soda drink as she offered prayers around the house. After her visit, the rashes never made another appearance.

In 2014, while doing field research in Manabo, Abra, I met then 29-year-old Arsenio Felipe Bagay, Jr. of West San Ramon. A baglan (healer) and mandadawak (ritual specialist) since age 15, he has the mien and a walk of an old man, as if he has gone through a lot in his young life. In an interview, he said that Bagattulayan and Kabunyian, the Supreme Gods of the Itneg, are his source of power as a baglan and mandadawak.

He also identified pinaing or river stones, where the Itneg believe gods and goddesses reside, as his spiritual guides in healing and performing rituals. Serving as medium, the spirit possesses Onyor whenever he presents himself before these pinaing, identifying whether they are Dumanlawig (has the power against illnesses); Dalmiisan (shields the barangay against epidemics); Dalilisan (is a female spirit); Bumugtong, Bumakag, and Gumilaba (have the power against war); Lamiisan and Baal (have power against floods); and Binuwatan (is another female spirit), and Atuwan. In each possession by any of these spirits, Onyor describes how his eyes turn red, and he gets chills and a headache and sees people around him like small ants.

Drinking tawak is an annual ritual for farmers © Renato S. Rastrollo
While doing more field research early this year, I met Dennis Narzoles, a local healer from Mogpog, Marinduque. Known as a mantatawak, people flock to his house in Barangay Janagdong for his tawak, a local brew he prepares annually only during Holy Week. The tawak serves as an antidote against animal bites, specifically dogs and snakes, which farmers like him are prone to.

A combination of leaves, herbs, barks, and vines, the ingredients of the tawak are collected as early as Holy Monday in the forests and mangrove. When all the ingredients are gathered, Norzales prepares them for brewing on Holy Thursday. It takes at least four hours for the tawak to turn red, the indicator that it is ready for drinking. By early morning of Good Friday, people start to come to get the first taste of the brew. They drink as much as they can before returning home with a bottle or two for other family members.

The traditional ways are as numerous as there are practitioners who vary their practice according to their individual predilection.