Taming Batanes



Taming the Islands

The Batanes islands, even the largest ones, are small. No part of their inland, creek, or mountaintop, is away from the sea by more or less than an hour’s hike. They are hilly, even craggy, and mountainous towards the inland (iraya). On the hill and mountain slopes, between the crags, and on the narrow strips of flat lands along the coasts are some fertile plots of land which have been cultivated by the Ivatan for centuries. There he raises root crops and some grains for staple.

To cultivate the fertile but scanty land, he used tilling sticks; and as metal came he created implements like the iswan eventually supplemented in Spanish times with asada (hoe), bareta (crowbar), arado (plow), and the ancilliary surod (harrow).

To help him clear the forests for farming, he created the lukoy (bolo), the wasay and kutaw (axes). And when the forest had been cleared, he would save the timber and wood for other uses (e.g. house construction and fuel) and burn the rest.

But he realized that clearing a forest was easier than clearing cogonals for farming. He saw in the ahas (farm lot trees) an ally in keeping the cogon from infesting his farmlands. So when harvest was over, he made sure a new forest grew on the land while it fallowed. He scheduled his cultivation cycle in such a way that the soil could at least partly regain its fertility—a cycle he figures to be about five to seven years.

To ensure a steady supply of staple, he discovered the most felicitous time for the planting of his crops. He made a planting calendar. And finding that crops grew best and produced optimally at certain times of the year, he created a planting cycle keyed to the Batanes climatic cycle of amyan (winter), Tagalit (tail end of winter), rayun (summer), and kavavayat (monsoon season).

He also invented ways of husbanding his produce. He consumed first what could not be stored for long. And those which stored well he kept aside in storage. He stored uvi, wakay, paray, mais, bawang, and bulyas. The stored uvi he called vaak, the camote he called tambubu; he kept his rice in dry hanging storage safe from rats. His corn, garlic and onion he kept in constantly warm and smokey storage (above the kitchen stoves — paya and tambubo) to protect them from mildew, fungus, and other forms of rot. Rats and weevils, of course, were always the villains of crop loss. So he kept domestic cats, placed his rice under the tarugo, and saw to it that the stored corn in the tambubo is always generously smoked to discourage weevils (amek).

To peel his yam and camote for cooking or eating, he created knives (pangungudit, tatarip, ngareh—and later, kuchilyo in Spanish times). To cook his rootcrops, he made pots of varied sizes. To produce porridge (inavusang), he created vahanga (earthen bowl), and tutumi or tutudu (small wooden pestle) for mashing cooked tubers. To husk his rice (paray) and millet (raut) he created mortar(husong) and pestle (ahu). To grind his corn, he used the ururan (stone grinder consisting of a flat or concave stone and a spheroid hard stone which he rolled back and forth
over the grain.)

To winnow his cereals, he invented bilaw (winnowing basket), and to strain cornmeal flour he used bitay (winnowing strainer). For storing his husked or ground cereals, he used earthen pots, and in later times glazed jars imported from elsewhere, generally from Luzon and ultimately from China.

He supplemented his staple of roots and grain with some meat from hunting and trapping wild birds, and, before they vanished or became extinct, fowl, wild pigs and deer. (The lachit or wild duck no longer appeared after its pond dried up; and vulaw a bagu [wild pig) and hagsa [deer] became extinct probably due to over-hunting about a century ago.) He invented the puket (net trap) and asduk du manumanuk (bird trap) to catch birds. He made asduk du tatus (crab trap) to catch the coconut crab; and nichit (a very sticky gum made from tree sap) to catch the many valichit (small seasonal bird) in the months of August-September.

He had learned to track the tatus in Winter when it was in hibernation deep in its umon in the earth. He knew in what jungles the marida (large brown snail) crawled out at night; and when it showered, in what woods and thicket to gather the taveh (snail). When he cleared the forest for planting, he gathered there other edible snails such as the chidway and sayi.

To put some color and pep to his days, he produced sugarcane whose juice he cooked into sugar (panucha) and/brewed into palek (alcoholic beverage). For making sugar he used large vats (kawa); for brewing his palek, he imported stoneware jars (angang) from the Ilocos. To age the brew he imported brown glazed stoneware (taru) and glass (e.g. damahwana). To store the yeast for the next season’s brewing, he used various small glazed Chinese jars called tagaw, or mayas. Their usual measure was called gusi.

To serve his beverage, he used portable containers of various recycled glass jars called frasko, dos litros, madeded (a recycled spherical crystal buoy), and a host of other recycled bottles generically called dijiaw. But in older days before the coming of bottles he used varied portable sizes of dried container gourd shell called tavayay. To serve the palek he used a coconut shell cup called tatauy. He served all his guests in that one cup.

During those inebriate moments of social drinking, he passed on the lore of his people sharing with his fellow villagers the kabbata (folk narrative), the laji (folk songs), and the talk of the village (kakaununungan). These moments of recreation prepared him for each new day in the chain of days of taming Ivatan lands.

Batanes is hot in summer, has high rainfall, and cold in winter. The Ivatan woman wove a headgear of stripped palm (vuyavuy) or banana leaves called vakul – a thick light head-and-back-cover which keeps off much of the sun’s heat, wards off rain, and is warm in winter. The men have their tadidi or kanayi also woven out of palm or banana leaves which they wear on their shoulders and covers front and back like a jacket. Since the tadidi does not cover the head, Ivatan men wear a conical hat (talugung) woven from ñiñi and bamboo.

To assure the greater chance to win the contest with his land, the Ivatan created many forms of labor cooperatives whose principle was “work you do not need today when invested with a townsman in need today, will be paid back to you when and where you need it.”  This is how the payuhuwan, kapaychahwan, kapanidungan and kayvayvanan were organized.  And when disasters such as typhoons destroyed community roads and other facilities, there was the community self-help called yaru to which every household sent at least one able-bodied representative. (This has been killed by government’s teaching the communities that they should be paid to help themselves!)

Taming the Sea

Ichan is the word for all viands, but with a special application to meat viands. Ichan used to be iakan (i + akan)—” that with which one eats” or that by which eating (the staples of rootcrops or cereals) becomes easier and more pleasant. Much of the protein in the Ivatan died is from the sea-mostly from fish , and a number of crustaceans and mollusks.

All Ivatan land is surrounded by sea. The Pacific Ocean and the China Sea to the East and to the West. The Bashee and the Balintang Channel to the North and to the South. And in between the islands are seas that abound in marine life.

To catch the fish on the coastal reefs at high or low tide, the Ivatan wove nets of appropriate sizes and kinds out of hasu (an indigenous linen fiber) as sakdit, sagap, puket, sahakeb, and nanauy. He also made (i) pangna (hook-line-and-pole), and sajit (hand-held-hook) for catching kuyta (octopus).

To put his catch in, he makes fishermen’s baskets and bags: alaman, kalapay, and karay. The women use baskets (alat/batulang, and yuvok) for their seaweeds, crabs, clams, and mollusks (collectively called nanawen) gathered on the reefs at low tide.

The Ivatan diver-fisherman created diving goggles and arrow guns for fishing in both shallow waters (atan) and deep sea (mandichud). The deep Batanes seas abound in a great variety of fishes large and small, perennial and seasonal.

The saysariñan (fish caught by hook-and-line) are perennial and could be had as weather permits. The dibang (flying fish) and aray (dorado) come in the month of March, April, and May. The dibang attracted by the light can be caught at night by means of a sahakeb (scoop net). In the day time, they are caught by yuyus and hatawen (hook and buoy). Caught alive they are excellent bait for the arayu which are caught by large hook and line. To make all this deep sea fishing possible, the Ivatan created the tataya—an oar-driven outriggerless seacraft which has also been the Ivatan’s chief technology for mobility in his sea-bound home. In the past, he made sails out of pandan mats. When canvas and other textiles became available, he used them.

The catch may not have always been bountiful, but when good fortune struck, he preserved the excess as pawpaw with salt and dried it in wind and sun to become kulay; and if he had lots of it he kept it in containers as kulong which he husbanded almost ritually for the days of amyan when fishing became impossible due to strong winds and turbulent seas.

With his tataya he also ventured out into the deep with his masen a sahakeb (very fine scoop net) to catch the yuyuno and the munamon which, being too small for most other forms of fish cuisine and sundrying, are salted to make bagung (salt-pickled fish)—an Ivatan table delicacy and sauce component. To make this pickling possible, he recycled a great variety of wide-mouthed glass jars; or when there was plenty of catch, he used glazed and stoneware jars.

The sea has been a marvelous benefactor of the Ivatan, and this he acknowledges annually in the rituals of kapayvanuvanwa when the shamans of the fishing villages offer the vuhawan nu anito (the anito’s gold) to the gods of the sea at the fishermen’s ports, and then sacrifice pigs there whose liver and lungs are scrutinized for the messages of the gods of the sea.

As a good seaman, he reads the face of the sea. He knows the swiftness of currents by its texture and rhythm. He matches the time of day and phase of the moon to forecast ebb and flow of tides, and knows just when it is amteng, isak, or pinayvit. And when crossing the straights, he marks his progress by the appearance or disappearance of land features.

By the direction and temperature of the wind, he forecasts the temper of the sea. The idaud (North Wind) is usually harsh; and the avayat (West Wind) is moody, and seas may be rough in Basco, Mahatao, Ivana, and Western Sabtang. The pangaditan (East) and sumla (South) send gentler winds.

Less ritually but tragically the Ivatan has often paid the gods of the sea in lives lost in its frequent turbulence. To lessen the risks, he constantly endeavors to improve his seacraft. He has also marked days he believes are bad luck days to venture into the deep.

So bound to the sea has been his life that at some period in his history, he marked his grave with tataya-shaped stone markers—as if saying that even the transit to the afterlife was in a boat, or perhaps that life out there needed boats!

Taming the Wind

The wind is a constant in Ivatan life, and it has made rather than break the Ivatan. He takes the wind as a competitor. But it shapes much of his life style, especially his architecture.

In the days before the adaption of the lime-and-stone walls now characteristic of the “traditional Ivatan house,” he contended with strong winds and typhoons by building low huts walled with stones plastered with mud. He thatched it with cogon sewn to a fastening of reeds and local vines and rattan such as ulis, chibdas, valit, away, and didit, and the tavangungu (sheath of the coconut flower). At the close of the eighteenth century through the building of churches and public buildings such as the casas reales, tribunales, and fuertes, and infrastructure such as bridges, he learned a new technology-the use of lime (amed) for cementing walls. Amed was not new to him. He had been using it as condiment in his mamahen (betel quid). But mixing it with water and sand (inahwahuyu) as mortar for building walls was new. He also learned how to produce lime in large quantities through the kapaychima (lime making),using hahan (limestone) and puget (logs) fired in dug-out kilns called chimaan.

He came to know that fresh lime does not yet have the cementing strength of aged lime. So he aged his lime for about a year, meanwhile gathering a large quantity of stones for his house walls.

The lime being well-seasoned and the stones sufficient, he builds the walls-about a yard thick; and in the early days, it was for just one floor. To this wall he embedded woodwork that became anchor for thick beams and rafters (tukah, pakaw, etc.) calculated to withstand the strongest blasts of super typhoons or the weight of dozens of workers laying the thick thatch of cogon during the kapayatep (laying the roof). This mighty roof is also built to withstand very strong expanding blast of wind from inside the house should doors get opened during typhoons.

Always, the consideration is the wind at its worst. To the Ivatan the wind is one to contend with. It is useless to blame the wind should it lay waste his home. Vis a vis the wind, the Ivatan house is a winner.

To be doubly sure he outwits the wind, he orients the great walls of his house such that the solid back wall faces the direction where the wind usually blows strongest. This often windowless wall (some have miniature windows or appertures) is a shield. In this way they are somewhat ineffective for interior lighting. But no problem for the traditional Ivatan did not use chairs but worked on the floor instead. There the light from the low doors fell brightly. Besides, since the floor space is small and rectangular the light from the openings can illuminate the entire floor space.

To shut the doors and windows against the fury of the wind, he closes them with thick solid wooden aneb (shutters) hinged to the door frames with thick hinges (yembra y machu) produced locally by manipu (blacksmiths) whose essential equipment are the viyutan (bellows), tangtangan (anvil), masu (large hammer), panupit or susupit(tongs), garugad (file), and pabahasan (tempering bath)–all housed in the panipuan (blacksmith’s workshop). He locks his shutters from inside with panahtah (wooden bars). In earlier times when large nails were not available the blacksmiths made them.

There is a roughness in the appearance of the bare stone-and-lime wall. To give it a finer look, the Ivatan makes a thick paste of lime (palitada) and fine white beach sand for plaster. He applies it with a steel palita (trowel). When the plaster is dried he mixes pure lime with water to produce whitewash with which he painted it. The result is a glowing white wall which gives Ivatan villages newly whitewashed an impression of immaculate cleanness. The wind, of course, could wear the whitewash after a typhoon which blasts the walls with sand and seaspray. But there is always more lime to repair the plaster and give it a new coat.

Building the Ivatan traditional house is tedious and difficult. So, as in his contest with the soil, he resorts to his trusted labor cooperatives such as the kayvayvanan or kapanidungan. Thus, every single traditional Ivatan home is literally the work of the community. It is hard to think of a better social masterpiece tradition than this. (But reinforced concrete and galvanized iron are now subverting it all.)

To be a Winner

Winning is not arriving a mile ahead, but being ahead. The Ivatan has never been far ahead in his contest with the rough land, the sea, and the wind. He has never been very rich; but hasn’t been a pauper. Yet if he broke off from community and began to contend not with Nature but with his kaidian, soon we would see a few winners and many losers. And when that happens, it will not be a contest but a battle.

by Dr. Florentino H. Hornedo

Dr. Florentino H. Hornedo
Dr. Florentino H. Hornedo


Hornedo F.H. (2000) Taming the Wind, Ethno-cultural History on the Ivatan of the Batanes Isles,  Manila, Philippines, UST Publishing House