Philippine mummies

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By Ver F. Pacete

As I See It

Tuesday, August 5, 2014


AMONG all the grizzled societies of the world, only the Egyptians and the South Americans (specifically the Peruvians mummified their dead). The Ibalois of Benguet are the only known Asian culture that practiced such, and it is in the Philippines.

The mummies are located in the mountains around Kabayan, a city in Benguet province in the northern part of Luzon. It is situated 85 kilometers northeast of Baguio City. In the latest survey of the National Museum, there are 36 intact mummies accounted for, but sad to say, they are in a state of considerable deterioration.

I am encouraging those who have not been to Kabayan to include Benguet in your next travel itinerary. The mummies are contained in wooden coffins (pine tree). The mummified bodies of the mountain people have intricate tattoos. Those are signs that would help them find their way in the afterlife.

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The Kabayan Mummy Caves remained unexplored but in 1972 a logger in Benguet accidentally discovered the place while cutting timber. The Ibalois (members of the ethnic group) only mummified royalty, the rich and wealthy (“baknangs”). The family of the dead royalty had to host a “cañao.” It is a 40-day feasting and ceremony based on the practice of the ancestors. (See Nora Aunor’s movie, “Igorota”)

The process of mummification is complicated and expensive because it starts even before death. While having his last breath, the person to be mummified is made to drink water with a good amount of salt. The expired person is undressed and then bathed with spring water. Later, the corpse is seated on a death chair, the “sauganchil or saugandil.”

There is a scarf ready to be tied over the forehead connecting to the backside of the chair to keep the body erect. A native woven blanket (just like what we see in Baguio Maharlika Market) is draped around the waist and allowed to hang freely over the legs.

A low fire is lit under the chair to help in the process of drying the body and to help preserve the tissues. (It is the same with what we do with smoked fish.) An earthen jar is placed under the chair to catch the bodily fluids that may seep out of the body. The tribesmen believe that the fluids are sacred. They even drink it and feel the red bull effect.

When the body has been drained of its fluids, it is brought out in the sun to hasten drying. (It could be compared to our way of making fish “lamayo”.) The elders in the community have a ritual. They peel off the outer skin as a part of the drying process. They rubbed the body with the mixed juices from the powerful leaves of “diwdiw”, “besodak”, “kapani” and native guava.

The elders would gather around the body, light their super-size tobacco, start smoking and the tobacco smoke is blown into the body through the mouth of the corpse to help in the preservation of the internal tissues and drive out worms. Their ancient “pot session” stays for a longer period.

Unlike the Egyptian mummies (as shown in the movies), Kabayan mummies internal organs are not removed but are preserved intact. Burial sites have been chosen earlier. The chairs could be a natural cave or the cave could be improved by excavating the earth at the base of the rock.

The coffin is made out of a sturdy pine tree. Usually, the mummy is in crouch position and could be carried to the cave by one man. The dead in caves are not sealed. The entrance is only covered with stones (stonewalls) to keep off animals. (To be continued)

Published in the Sun.Star Bacolod newspaper on August 05, 2014.

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