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Sensing the Past; Digging Identities

WHAT is it about artefacts that make us all giddy? Or, what is it about the past that causes us to diminish the value of the present?

The University of Santo Tomas Museum has had in its custody two extant documents written in “Baybayin,” a syllabary in use by those who were living in territories that would be later be made part of what we know now as the Philippines. They were not used by Filipinos because that appellation did not exist by then.

Recognized for its cultural value, the two documents were declared recently as National Cultural Treasure (NCT) by the National Archive of the Philippines.

As shown in photos released, the documents looked very fragile. Remember these documents show the kind of language – or at least the tools for communication – as it was written when the inhabitants of this land came into contact with the colonizers.

You might ask, how did the Spanish invaders interpret the words? How did they read the syllables?

With the declaration of the Baybayin documents came the “rectification” of what archivists – some archivists anyway – believe to be a gross mistake of referring to the ancient syllabary as “Alibata.” No one has dated the use of the term “Baybayin” as the dominant use of the label. What some archivists say is how “Alibata” is a recent invention, a name that some historians or putative experts conjured in the 1900s.

The Baybayin documents in the UST Archives, however, have awakened the interests of other experts and students of histories and cultures. Readers, for example, raised a very interesting issue about the dismissal of “Alibata” as an inappropriate category. They point to the Arabic alphabet where the first three letters are “Alif,” “Ba” and “Ta.” This makes the “ABC” or, at least the basic sound of the first syllables as “Ali-ba-ta.” It makes a bit of sense, doesn’t it?

There is another issue about the prominence given to the Baybayin in the UST Archives. These are not the only documents written in pre-Spanish, pre-Islamic syllabary. There was the Laguna Copperplate Inscription (LCI), found by a fisherman at the mouth of a Laguna river. The said plate had been interpreted by many experts. Antoon Postma, a Dutch anthropologist, was one of the more prominent experts who had interpreted/read the syllabaries on the plate. The said syllabaries were linked to Java and other culture complexes. The syllabaries are said to be different from Baybayin or any other Tagalog scripts.

Postma happened to be an expert also of the Hanunuo Mangyan who, with the Buhid Mangyan, Tagbanwa and Pal’awan groups retained their old syllabaries. Postma, a former SVD missionary who married into the Hanunuo, worked to revive the ancient scripts.

Were the works of Postma recognized by the government?

Would we declare the works of the Mangyan and Tagbanua as National Culture Treasure? These ethnic communities write letters and poems using the old syllabary up to now. The onslaught of development has pushed them to negate their ancient ways, read as “backward” in favor of the new means of communication. With the Laguna Copper Plate should be mentioned the Ticao Stone.

Back in 2011, two limestones were found at the entrance of a school in Monreal, Ticao Island in Masbate. For many years, these stones were used by children to wipe their shoes of mud before entering the classroom. Dirtied for a long time, the stones were asked to be cleaned by a new teacher occupying the classroom. This teacher saw on stones what looked like “baybayin.”

Dr. Francisco Datar, who was in Capul, Samar, an island between Ticao and Sorsogon, by that time, was summoned by an aunt to check the stone. After a few months, a seminar was organized by UP to examine the stone. There were archaeologists, paleolinguists, historians, and physicists. There was excitement in the discovery. The major TV networks covered the event.

I was in Ateneo de Naga then having assumed the Directorship of the Institute of Bikol History and Culture. Contacting Dr. Datar, a relative, we began organizing the Second Ticao Stone Conference in Ateneo de Naga.

Back in Monreal, in Ticao, the Ticao Stone had assumed a magical charm all of its own. People flocked to the multi-purpose hall where it was housed. At night, there was a report of an old man who, passing by the place where the two stones were enshrined, saw the limestones shining, as if hiding some gems or treasure within.

The frenzy brought about by the two stones encouraged Datar and company to request from the local government that the said artefacts be shipped to the National Museum. I do not know if this was verified but there were talks that the people did not like the idea of the stone being carted away from them.

Days before the conference, there were suggestions that we bring the Stones to Naga. This was nearly impossible until I was informed that a cousin, Dr. Roger Lim, had patiently and obsessively copied the surface of the two stones using a tracing paper. This dear cousin who was both a doctor of medicine, a cultural worker and an artist, agreed to bring his replica of the stones to Naga. My Deputy travelled a day before the conference to fetch my cousin at the pier in Bulan, Sorsogon.

On the day of the conference, the Stones were shrouded in black. I do not remember now whose idea was it to hide them. At the end of the speech of Dr. Lim, the black cloth was removed. As the stones were revealed, someone switched on the lights that I did not know were placed around the platform for the stones. There was a murmur from the audience, an audible gasp.

No one had yet deciphered the syllabaries written on the two stones. There are interesting explorations around the words that come out of the inscriptions. On the bigger one, the word “halad,” which means offering appears. The two irregularly shaped stones have been measured properly, with the trapezoidal one weighing 30 kilos, 11 centimeters thick, 54 cm long and 44 cm wide and the oblong being 6 cm thick, 20 cm long and 18 cm wide. They are now in the Baybayin Section of the National Museum. Like the LCI or Laguna Copperplate Inscription, the stones are now called TSI or Ticao Stone Inscription.

I remember still what I said that day in Naga: While you here in Mainland Bikol were writing on barks and leaves of trees, we in Ticao were using stones to carve laws and literatures. Of course, I was being emotional. I was exaggerating, imagining my link to a past and naming it my own.

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