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 THE PHILIPPINES : Headhunters of Banaue 

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Land of Rice, Land of Blood

Text and photography by Eric Pasquier 


In the northern Philippines, in the heart of Luzon territory, there is what can only be described as the eighth wonder of the world.

Here at Banaue, the Ifugaos – an indigenous people better known for their reputation as head-hunters – have built thousands upon thousands of rice paddies. Laid end to end, they would be longer than 6,000 km. For over two millennia, these people from another age have been chiselling away – by hand – at the cliffs of the Grande Cordillera Range. 

A giant amphitheatre flooded with water.

This is the very first image that the visitor from Manila sees after a more than eight-hour bus journey to this remote region of the Philippines.
Known here as the Eighth Wonder of the World, the rice paddies of Banaue flow down the sides of the Grande Cordillera Range.

For the past two thousand years, the locals have carved away at the countryside to create this most impressive succession of terraces.

Today, the Ifugaos harvest rice using the same techniques as their ancestors. Nothing has changed over the generations in the entire process from planting to harvesting. Each Ifugao family cultivates one or several rice paddies, depending on their wealth.

Banaue is located in the northern portion of the island of Luzon, the main island of the Filipino archipelago. The rice paddies of Banaue – farmed at an altitude of 1,200 metres – are an eight-hour bus journey from Manilla, although during the rainy seaon, when the roads are almost impassable, the trip takes much longer. The paddies are located along a 16-km long strip around Banaue; the most picturesque paddies can be found at Bangaan.

The Ifugaos, in addition to being farmers, are also reputed for their head-hunting ‘skills’. An ancient custom that has made them one of the most feared ethnic groups of this mountainous region. The practise of head-hunting – officially extinct – goes back to tribal customs whereby a tribal court could call for the decapitation of the guilty party in a dispute. One of the last court sentences dates back to 1977, when a young Ifugao was killed by a bus. The village council decided that the bus driver, or a member of his family, should be punished.

The ceremony surrounding such an execution is long and convoluted. All the members of the tribe begin to dance the ‘bangibang’, the Ifugao war dance. Carrying their shields, spears and hatchets, the warriors dance on the walls of the rice paddies, coiffed in their katlagang, a headdress made of dried leaves. They then gather to form a circle, in the middle of which a chicken is sacrificed. The person closest to the bird after it bleeds to death will be the one chosen to carry out the execution. And once the victim’s head is brought back to the village, it is ceremoniously placed in a wicker basket and smoked. It will stay in this basket permanently, except when it is taken out and displayed for certain ceremonies. 

Their reputation as head-hunters and the difficult mountain paths that lead to their villages, have preserved the Ifugao from Spanish missionaries. In the only Asian country where the majority of the population is Christian (more than 80% of all Filipinos consider themselves Catholic), the Ifugao have maintained their animist beliefs.

“We, the Ifugao people, believe neither in heaven nor in hell. We do believe, however, in the truth of happiness and sadness,” says one village elder.

Thus it is that when a member of the tribe reaches a certain age, the spirits of the dead ancestors are called upon so that he might reach Kadhuhayan – the House of the Beautiful Dead. Otherwise, once deceased, the tribal member will be relegated to the Kapitihand – the House of Bad Death.

The Ifugaos are a people who like a good ceremony. A wedding, birth, death, harvest-time, a fruitful hunt - even the arrival of outsiders - all are reasons for organising a canao in the village; a ritual feast where rice alcohol and blood flow freely. During these festivities, the men dance, eat and talk among themselves. The blood of sacrificed animals – chickens and wild boar primarily – is used for a communal soup.

The tapuy, or the Ifugao alcohol used during these ceremonies, is also a local product: the Ifugao keep the recipe secret from the Chinese merchants who come here specifically to purchase it. Rice, harvested at the full moon, is first partially boiled in fresh water. It is then enclosed in an earthen jar with a lump of sugar. The jar remains sealed for six months while the mixture ferments and reaches maturity.

Despite the obvious attraction that the Western world has on the youngest members of the tribe, Ifugao ancestral tradition is still a strong binding force among these people: the skulls of carabao (a kind of buffalo) decorate the walls of their huts and the men wear traditional jewellery or pendants symbolising the rice god, Bulol.

Copyright © Eric Pasquier 
All rights reserved.

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