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Pomp and Pageantry in Panay
by Erwin Chiongson
Date: 1/8/2003

Even before the 45-minute flight, at the Manila Domestic Airport’s pre-departure lounge, there are tell-tale signs of fellows headed for Kalibo’s raucous, offbeat weekend. A backpacking denim-and-sneakers group discuss loudly their booking predicaments with the Blue Moon and Casa Alba, and weigh their options to camp out in the plaza square or on the beach. The “standing” joke about the Ati-atihan can be funny – if you don’t mind slleping upright on your feet!

At the jampacked Kalibo airport, you jostle for a ride to town in one of its gaily-festooned ‘taxis’ – ingeniously rigged motorcycle side cars that seat five or pile on ten. The cheerful driver is a most important source of practical information…despite his unintelligible English.

Of course the posters and handouts detail scheduled events and places to see – the annual trade fair and piña cloth display; cockfight derbies; photo tilts; beauty pageants; fireworks; religious processions; masses and novenas. But it is the spontaneous welling up of the human spirit, vented en-masse in the soot-stained abandon of the Ati-atihan dance-parades, that makes Kalibo proud.

Making-out-like-an-aborigine or Ati is what the term Ati-atihan connotes. It is a melding of history, religion and culture into a living tradition. It recounts a peace gathering among erstwhile warring aborigine clans, and the magnitude of the ensuing revelry that affected a purging of their war-like souls… a catharsis that ensured enduring peace.

Ati-atihan also traces the epic journey of the ten Bornean datus (chieftains) who fled the tyrannical Majapahit rule; their eventual founding of the first Malay settlement in the old site of Kalibo; the purchase of the island of Panay by Datu Puti, the Malay chieftain/leader, from Marikudo, his Ati counterpart – the island for the token value of a hand-beaten gold salakot (native hat), a gold necklace ad trinkets for Maniwantiwang (Marikudo’s wife), and a portion of a single harvest!

The Ati-atihan is also for the religious devotee. Reliving the story of mass conversions to Christianity, (kalibo-libo literally means ‘by the thousands’), no one can truly claim having totally participated in the Ati-atihan without a visit to the Cathedral to have himself rubbed, (pasapak) with the image of the Child Jesus (Santo Niño) as a sign of homage and an appeal for blessings.

Excuse me, but you have a smudge on your nose! But not to worry. You have just been baptized into the Ati-atihan spirit. Among the snake-dancing lines, someone in a polymer masque of a western hag appears. Then a werewolf, then Frankestein. And you notice they are denimed, sneakered and all having a riotous time.

Such is the character of the Ati-atihan festivities, a dizzying mix of soot-smeared faces garbed in stylized costumes rendered in native material; the occasional datu and his court in full costume regalia; religious sycophants bearing their revered images overhead; city visitors and camera-clicking foreign tourists, blending into the writhing human tapestry.

Above it all, above the din of the drums, above the melee’s endless chanting of “hala-bira!”, the figure that lingers in your memory is that of a soot-stained devotee, a crucifix in one hand, a bottle of beer in the other, stomping away barefoot in trance-like ecstatic abandon.

As the last valiant chants fade in the Kalibo streets, the fun-loving droves turn their attention to Iloilo City, Panay Island’s single metropolis, 150 kilometers southeast. Here, preparations for the Dinagyang (celebrated the weekend after the Ati-atihan) is stirring up the staid, conservative and normally laid-back city.

Source: Chiongson, Erwin. Mabuhay (Jan. 1992), p. 14-21.

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