Chasing Whang–od, the oldest Kalinga mambabatok

THERE is an incessant ticking as you near a hut at the back of Whnag–od’s house, like the sound of a giant clock set next to your ear.

As you near her working hut, Maria Oggay more popularly known to the world by her native name “Whang–od” sits calmly on a small homemade bangkito, as people flood and invade her small house which has been improved and extended to accommodate visitors daily, while tapping the skin and marks her patrons with her signature.

Whang–od, from the Butbut tribe in Kalinga remains single, childless and with a sense of humor one would not expect for the world revered mambabatok, (traditional Kalinga tattooist) as you approach her with reverence, she will stare back at you with her old eyes, slowly warming up to smile breaking the unease of the mystery of her person.

By her side is her grandniece, 33–year–old Grace Palicas and 17–year–old Elyang Wigan who have learned the art of traditional tattoo and included in the stable of her trusted apprentices, flanking her in the makeshift hut, where she does her work.

Whang–od’s ink is composed of the mixture of charcoal and water that will be tapped into the skin through a thorn end of a lemon or pomelo tree.

The hand tapped tattoo in Kalinga the technique called “batok” dating back to thousand years and is said to be more painful than a tattoo machine.

Whang – od or Fang –od as spelled and pronounced in the village is a paradox which a multitude of her fans created, which the community has propagated and the obscurity her small village is situated.

Rumored to be the oldest mambabatok and the last of the breed, Whang –od cannot prove it. She has no birth certificates to attest she is on the brink of turning a 100 but she does not care, she smiles when asked how old she is, leaving it for you to decide.

Whang-od is also tauted to be the last living traditional tattoo artist in the province, which is easily dispelled by the entire community she has taught the ancient art and accounts of locals which say there are more tattoo artists in neighboring villages, but none as famous as the revered Whang–od.

Her house can be seen at the opening trail leading to her Buscalan village in the Municipality of Tinglayan at Province of Kalinga. The hike from the two kilometer paved road where the vehicle will stop and leave you to your own walking – hiking skills will take another hour or two depending on your reliance to the heat and steep route.

When asked what her favorite food is, translated by her granddaughter Grace, she answered Cloud 9, a local chocolate bar she eats while going about her work, but that day, beside her was a pack of Max blue mints, that she pops in between tattoos.

Whang–od is unassuming, but will engage you with banter.
Eldest of a brood of seven, she takes care of her extended family of granddaughters, nieces and her siblings.

Grace said Whang–od’s strength and longevity comes from her being childless.

“Buong buo pa ang lakas niya,” added Grace.

Whang – od smiles and laughs a lot, when you ask her why she never married she says it is her destiny or ‘gasat’ to be single and live a long life. Rumored to have had lovers along her lifetime, the old lady just smiles through the banter over her love life.

A few houses away, lives Emily Oggay, one of the great grandchildren of Whang – od whom she has taught the trade of tattooing.

Emily married into the family of the Oggay’s and has been taught by Whang – od the art of tattooing. “This is my second year of tattooing, ginagawa ko sa oras na wala akong gawain sa bahay,” Emily said.

Emily said Whang–od will teach you as long as you are interested to learn, taking you to her home and making you observe her work before guiding you into the craft.

Emily has two children and considers the craft Whang-od taught her as a way to augment her family’s income, acknowledging the undeniable help the hoard of people coming to their small village gives the community.

Along with the thriving tourism in the area are the almost sixty tour guides in the Busacalan area alone, guiding visitors to the home of Whang–od or the close to a dozen apprentices she has taught.

In the area, there are also homestay programs for those who want to spend the night, a small eatery and small stores within the village.

All the industries thrive with the popularity of Whang–od’s renowned tattoos, she however claims nothing and is seemingly oblivious to the uproar she is causing.

The more than 90-year-old mambabatok is now being deliberated to become on the National Living Treasures of the country by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, Whang–od relays she is aware of the award that might be bestowed to her and claims, she welcomes it.
Curiously, Whang–od was never honored by her province neither by the village she has chosen to live in all her life.

No recognition, no plaques, nor citations has been bestowed the lady the world reveres as the oldest and last of the mambabatok.

If the NCCA confers her the Gawad sa Manlilikha ng Bayan (Gamaba) also known as the National Living Treasures Award, it will be the first in her lifetime.

The Gamaba is conferred for citizens engaged in any traditional art uniquely Filipino whose distinctive skills have reached such a high level of technical and artistic excellence and have been passed on to and widely practiced by the present generation in the community with the same degree of technical and artistic competence.

As Whang–od catches up with the millennium, we see droves trying to chase whatever legacy she offers to pass on, awards may be due, but the old lady in Buscalan has never asked for all of this living in her village peacefully, oblivious to the throngs trying to keep up with her.

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