The Faithful and the Playful, and Other Taal Tales That Bind

Taal volcano a month since. A calmer Taal volcano as seen from the shores of San Nicolas town. A month after its 12 January 2020 eruption, it is shrouded in ash suspended by the billowing wind

Since she was around 10 years old, Lulu Abante has heard stories of how faith had saved the townsfolk from the eruptive episodes of Taal Volcano in Batangas province. She recalls one wherein a congregation of townsfolk saw before their very eyes the ashfall change direction and spare the town when they had the Mahal na Poong Santa Cruz (Beloved Lord Holy Cross), or simply Poon, face it and prayed their utmost sincerity. Another variation of this tale was the townsfolk witnessing the Poon levitate and fly high up in the sky at night to shield the town from destruction. The following day, the Poon was back in its place inside the church, sooty all over.

Now 57 years old, Abante, who hails from Sinala, Bauan in Batangas, tells NewsNarratives that many stories of the Poon’s intercession have been passed from one generation to the next.

Beloved Poon.  The Mahal na Poong Santa Cruz guarded by glass to the right of Bauan Church’s altar, its anubing wood fully covered by stainless steel. Due to its miraculous nature, townsfolk and even priests want a piece of the wood which they turn into amulets. The sun icon with a face has also been the subject of thievery, the latest was in 2005.
Photo by: Shei Datinguinoo

The Poon was the original patron of the town of Bauan, before the titular patroness Immaculate Conception was introduced in 1641.  If you have been a visitor of the famous dive sites of the town of Mabini in Batangas, most likely you have been to Bauan’s población and you have passed through the Immaculate Conception Parish, the town’s centuries-old Catholic church.

This church is unique in many ways, and the first to catch anyone’s attention will almost certainly be the image of a cross atop its façade, with an M-shaped ‘alampay’ or a piece of cloth hanging in its arms. This said miraculous cross is a replica of the Poon, a piece of wood from anubing (a tree endemic to the Philippines) that the people have venerated since 1595 when its first apparitions were said to have taken place. The Poon is believed to have protected the towns of Bauan and Alitagtag, which was once part of Bauan, from all kinds of danger.

Cross on top. A peculiar feature of the 258-year old Bauan Church is the Mahal na Poon Santa Cruz standing atop its façade. The church is under conservation to once expose its original adobe walls once concealed by tiles from former renovation efforts.
Photo by: Shei Datinguinoo

According to 81-year-old Jose Sandoval Sr., who was born in Alitagtag, the Poon miraculously emerged from a well at Binukalan Shrine in his hometown. Given his fading memory, he doesn’t remember much of the entire story, but one that involves the story of a couple.

Apparently, there are other versions of this story.

Based on one online source, there was a couple named Arsenio and Juliana, who lived around Binukalan community. The husband was a gambler, jobless, and was cruel to his wife. Treating his wife like a slave, he sent her every day to fetch water from the lake. Every single day that she did so, Juliana passed by a large wooden cross and prayed for her husband. The cross was said to have been placed first at Dingin, a neighborhood in Alitagtag, for protection against ghosts and impending Taal Volcano eruption, before it was transferred to Binukalan.

In one of her stops for prayer, Juliana witnessed a miracle: water flowed from the side of the cross as if provided for her. Arsenio found out that she was able to fetch water easily and had doubts that she may have a man helping her. He followed her and saw for himself the miracle of the cross. Since then he became kind to Juliana and became a devotee of the Poon.

Another source has this version based on local archives: “the cross was a sturdy post of a demolished house in a village in Alitagtag in 1595. It was transformed into a cross and was said to drive away ghosts and protect the area from plagues and calamities. There were also accounts of it moving around the village.”

Sandoval recalls his grandfather was a caretaker of the original Poon. He witnessed how his grandfather had carried the wooden cross on his shoulders.  He himself had carried the cross when he was younger.  “Kapag hindi ka sumasampalataya sa Poon, hindi mo siya basta mabubuhat, mabigat siya. Pero kung may pananampalataya ka, magaan lang buhatin (If you don’t have faith in the Poon, you can’t simply carry it because it’s heavy. But if you have faith in it, it’s light and easy to carry),” he says.

As far as he knows, there are two replicas of the Poon, of which one is in Alitagtag and being used during religious processions. The replicas in Bauan and Alitagtag have been referred to as “siblings.” But the original wooden cross has been kept at the altar of the Alitagtag Church, he says.

Sandoval first left Alitagtag in 1947 to study at a public school in La Union, and went back again a few times to his birthplace, before finally settling in that Northwestern province. Whenever his family would go back to his hometown in May for a summer vacation, in time with the town fiesta, he would take them to Binukalan Shrine as it is close to their elder’s home.

His family has seen how the shrine had changed over the years. It was previously a non-gated area where you can simply come near the miraculous well, look down, and wonder at the story of it. His children, now all grown-ups, would play around the well, drop a coin or two, and make a wish. The last time they visited, several years back, a fence has been placed to protect the well and the Shrine—proof of how it continues to be revered and its story preserved, however different the versions of the story are.

Inextricably Linked: Bauan, Taal, the Poon, and a dance ritual

“Bauan Parish, Its Beginnings,” an article written by Fe C. Ferrer in her piece shared to me by the Bauan Parish, indicated there was Lumang Bauan (Old Bauan), which sat along the slope of Mt. Maculot, a favorite among mountaineers to climb during the Holy Week as a form of penance. Lumang Bauan was established as a visita (settlement with a chapel but without a resident priest) of Taal on May 17, 1590. Bauan’s foundation year, however, references 1596, when it was separated from Taal as an independent parish.

The Bauan Municipal Hall.  Bauan’s current site is the result of a third move away from its original site along the southern shores of Taal Lake.
Photo by: Shei Datinguinoo

Bauan’s current site is the result of a third move in 1692.  The first move happened in 1662, presumably because of the volcano’s series of eruptions in the mid-1600s, which inundated the settlement and eventually forced its away from the lake.

Thomas Hargrove, author of “The Mysteries of Taal,” wrote that despite historical accounts not being clear if Bauan’s other transfers were directly linked to Taal Volcano’s activities, he was convinced that they were. I am inclined to believe, too.

These lines from Bauan’s town hymn offer clues. The hymn is entitled “Bauan: Bayang Walang Maliw” (Bauan: The Town that Refuses to Die) and parts of its lyrics allude to fire and ash.

Ang kasaysayan mo, giliw naming Bayan,

            Kumbaga sa saga’y may dalawang kulay;

            Itim ang anino niyong Kamatayan

            At pula ang sinag ng Muling Pagsilang.

            Itim-pulang tatak niyong kagitingang

            sa Kamatayan ma’y ayaw pasasaklaw;

            Ilan ka nang ulit na halos maparam,

            sa halip maglaho’y lalo kang kuminang

(Thy past, glo’ing with the fire of thy fierce will to live,

            Is like the saga’s famed, proverbial black-red seed

            Black is the shadow of defeat, the shroud of Death,

            Red is the glow that comes with triumph and Rebirth.

            True valor’s black-red badge that bravely signifies

            The triumph of Life o’er Death, of laughter over sighs;

            Five times the Angel of Death himself didst thou defy –

            Blessed with the Will-to-Live, thou has refused to die.)

Bauan is home to the subli, a dance ritual done with chants that narrate the journey of the Poon. Dr. Elena Rivera Mirano has written extensively on the subli, and described this “long and elaborate artistic performance encompassing music, dance, and poetry” as inextricably linked to the Taal landscape. She is the former dean of the College of Arts and Letters of the University of the Philippines Diliman and a multi-awarded traditional culture and music historian. In her piece “Subli Revisited,” from the 2002 book, “Batangas: Forged in Fire,” she wrote that the subli retraces “displays of miraculous power emanating from a large wooden cross” (the Poon) by the edge of Taal Lake and the journey of its “retrieval and enthronement in the town of Bauan.”  

For the restive Taal volcano.  Subli the ritual was offered to the Mahal na Poong Santa Cruz on January 18, 2020 in the town of Bauan.
Photos By: Kapatiran ng Mahal na Poong Santa Krus Multimedia Team, with permission from the Immaculate Conception Bauan Parish FB Page.

To this day, devotion to the Poon is strong among the faithful, as with Quiapo’s Black Nazarene or Cebu’s Santo Niño. The subli, more than a dance, is a panata (vow), a physical manifestation of such devotion. Dr. Mirano wrote that the performance of subli is not just a re-enactment but a renewal of this panata forged in mythic times, a relationship negotiated by the devotees and devotee communities on the one hand and the Poon on the other for the latter’s continuing favors in the present day.

Unsurprisingly, the moment Taal Volcano erupted on January 12 this year, Bauan resident Brian Jay Giman’s first impulse was to organize the town’s manunubli. He is the president of the Bauan Parish’s Kapatiran ng Mahal na Poong Santa Krus (Brotherhood oftheBeloved Lord Holy Cross). They carried the Poon and performed the ritual from the Bauan Church going to the Bauan Technical High School where thousands of evacuees were housed. 

Similarly, in the town of Alitagtag where the Bauan Poon’s twin cross resides, another subli was performed “to appease a restive volcano,” as Rappler reported on  January 15, three days after the onset of the eruption.

Marian Pastor Roces, curator, historian and a Batangueña herself, was in Alitagtag and saw this dance ritual organized by Atty. Ipat Luna, a Taal landscape conservation advocate. I ask her for enlightenment on this profound faith of the Batangueño, as I try to understand the context of the reported refusal of many residents to evacuate even in the face of a possible cataclysmic eruption.

“The refusal of many residents to evacuate must not be understood as simple-minded faith in some feeble superstition,” Roces tells NewsNarratives via Facebook Messenger. “The Poon and the dance subli that is performed in long rituals in southern Batangas, is the survival of precolonial cosmology, albeit with liberal borrowings from Christianity.”

“When the Poon is mentioned as protector, it does not mean an irrational stubbornness. It should indicate that the residents of Volcano Island and the Taal lakeshore comprehend and assess their circumstances through an ancient worldview that remains intact for them,” she further explains.

According to Roces, the concept of protection is not isolated and belongs to a complex. “The Tagalog people managed to sustain this complex through the absorption of Christian elements. They are not the only language group in the Philippines to have done so: the indigenization of foreign culture, religion, philosophy. This should be cause for awe and celebration. But, more than anything else, the men and women who cite the Poon (the Source, the Origin) deserve the attention of those who arrogate the role of planning their lives,” she says.

I ask Giman and a young Sinala manunubli, John Carlo Africa, why they believe the apparent calm of the volcano now might be attributed to the subli ritual, and if they believe all the tales surrounding the Poon. They answer in the affirmative, and with conviction. The proof, they say, lies in the existence of the Poon and the 425 years of enduring veneration. “Nandiyan ang Poon, nahahawakan (The Poon exists and can be touched),” they say.  

That playful philosophy

Danger, danger. Fissuring along the San Nicolas Baywalk is a clear reminder of a clear and present danger. In the background is Mount Maculot, where Lumang Bauan once settled.
Photo by: Shei Datinguinoo

The recent Taal Volcano eruption brought another trait of the Batangueño to the fore. If you knew one, he or she is rarely the timid nor the somber type. You’d be hard-pressed to find one without a joke ready for cracking, or a snarky remark that is not for the faint of heart.

I am a Batangueña, and we always have that side of us that won’t buckle in discussions petty or grave, with neither one giving up on the chance to outwit the other. For a non- Batangueño who’s listening, such discussions would seem like a shouting match, but in truth, aggression is the farthest thing such scene signifies. If one listens closely and long enough, such discussions are always peppered with playful philosophizing (“pamimilosopo”), ending with neither party conceding to the main argument of the other sometimes, and in a raucous laughter always.

Of course, this is not a curiosity unique to us in Batangas. Everyone can banter with as much vigor, but many would agree there is a swagger or art to the banter manifested only by Batangueños. Could it be our inflection?

Take the case of the Talisay town vice mayor Charlie Natanauan whose interview with TV and radio anchor Noli de Castro went viral a week after the volcano first spewed its ashes.

All of Talisay’s barangays were within the 14-kilometer danger zone set by the authorities, with two barangays located in the northern half of the permanent danger zone that is Volcano Island. At the time of the interview, Alert Level 4 and strict lockdowns on affected towns, including Talisay, were enforced. Alert Level 4 is the 2nd highest alert and means that a hazardous eruption is imminent.

Amid tension resulting from the residents defying the town’s lockdown order, and fears of economic collapse, Natanauan chided government agencies for the warnings and protocols that had been put in place. He likewise appealed to President Rodrigo Duterte to have the opinion of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) changed because it made the situation (of the eruption) seem worse in the news. Phivolcs issues daily volcano alert level used by the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council as basis for lockdown orders.  

Speaking in Filipino, the Talisay vice mayor was quoted in news reports as saying, “No one in the whole world, not even scientists, can predict volcanic eruptions.” He added that Phivolcs’ “opinion” adversely affected the economy of the whole of Batangas. “How can he say that the volcano will erupt? Is he God? We are just humans and even he, as a scientist with instruments, was not able to detect (the impending eruption),” he said, alluding to Phivolcs chief Dr. Renato Solidum, and referring to the sudden phreatomagmatic eruption that caught everyone by surprise.

“We cannot just wait for it to erupt. What will happen if it takes one year? We should be allowed to return to our homes since the volcano has calmed down,” said the vice mayor. He told of stories from his father that characterized the series of eruption from 1965 to 1976, and explained further why, based on such stories, he believed the volcano would no longer erupt in the catastrophic way Phivolcs had warned people about.  

While this series of eruptions Natanauan referred to during those years was not particularly disruptive to Talisay residents in the mainland, it was deadly to its barangays in Volcano Island. About 200 people perished in its most intense explosive activity that began before dawn of September 28, 1965.

In the article “Taal Volcano: Beauty and Fury,” also from the 2002 book “Batangas: Forged in Fire,” Dr. Raymundo Punongbayan, former Phivolcs director, described the scene as residents of Barangay Alas-as fled from Volcano Island. “During that time, the only motorized boat on the island belonged to the Commission on Volcanology (COMVOL) and this left for Agoncillo at 2:13 A.M. to ferry the first batch of twenty evacuees. The boat made it to Agoncillo. Many of those who had no choice but to go the slow way, using bancas and bamboo rafts, did not,” Punongbayan wrote. “Hot cinders rained on them, with some of the big fragments hitting them on their heads and other parts of their bodies. The cinders were too hot to handle and since these could not be removed, they filled up the bancas and caused these to sink. Then the killer base surge arrived and later the base surge-generated giant waves delivered the final blow.”

The deadliest eruption, however, occurred in 1911 with 1,335 fatalities. In contrast, the January 2020 eruption only records one death and one missing among Volcano Island residents, with 39 deaths in the evacuation centers indirectly related to the eruption (i.e., due to heart attack).

From the March 6, 2020 situational report of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, affected families stood at 191,952 or 736,802 individuals while a total of 14,082 partially and totally damaged houses were recorded. A Department of Agriculture bulletin reported damage to agriculture at PhP 3.06 billion.

According to records, the most explosive and destructive was the 1754 eruption that lasted for seven months, burying the lakeshore settlements of Old Taal, Sala, and Tanauan. Twelve died in this eruption, according to the historical account of Spanish friar identified only as Buencuchillo. This figure is “extremely low,” wrote Punongbayan, considering that it was the most explosive of Taal Volcano eruptions.

In view of the recent 2020 volcanic unrest, this 1754 eruption was also considered as a worst-case scenario. Half a million people living in the 14-km danger zone would be at risk with an eruption of that magnitude, if and when indeed it would occur again.

Taal volcano a month since. A calmer Taal volcano as seen from the shores of San Nicolas town. A month after its 12 January 2020 eruption, it is shrouded in ash suspended by the billowing wind
Photo by: Shei Datinguinoo

Six days after the Natanauan interview, Phivolcs lowered the Alert Level from 4 to 3, which meant there was still unrest but there was decreased tendency toward hazardous eruption.

Natanauan’s interview that trended in the news cycle and went viral on social media surfaced not only the playful and stubborn “pamimilosopo” the Batangueños are all too familiar with. His belief, while on the fringes of a scientific standpoint, was one echoed by locals, and underscored the tension between the sacred and the scientific.

The UK-based organization Wellcome conducted a 2018 global study titled “How does the world feel about science and health,” which affirms the existence of such tension. Among Filipinos, the study found 74% would choose to believe our religion if science said something that contradicted matters of faith.

The vice mayor had faith in the truthfulness of the stories passed down to him by his father, believed it with his life, and challenged the science behind the eruption of a complex volcano system. His faith in his father’s story functions the same way religion does to any society.

In a journal article, “The Engkanto Belief: An Essay in Interpretation”, Fr. Francisco R. Demetrio, S.J., posits that religion has always meant to supply humanity with satisfaction of existential needs. He was a Jesuit priest with a doctorate in folklore, the classics, and comparative religion. In 1990, the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) gave him its highest award to artists and cultural workers, the Gawad CCP Para sa Sining (CCP Awards for the Arts) for his contributions in cultural research.

Fr. Demetrio’s work in this journal article is a rich source on the value of early Philippine religion, which in form consisted of “myths, legends, rituals and sacrifices, beliefs in high gods as well as low; noble concepts and practices as well as degenerate ones: worship and adoration as well as magic and control.” According to him, religion gave solace in time of griefs.

In the context of the Taal Volcano eruption and Natanauan’s assertions, his faith in the words of his father had the same effect as Fr. Demetrio’s characterization of religion. When faced with an impending threat, such as loss of lives and livelihoods, the faithful would adjust construction of the world according to what would best satisfy existential needs, both material and psychic. Between believing science, which locked down communities and took away access to their livelihoods, and  his father’s story, which justified return to homes, livestock, and sense of normalcy, the latter would seem to offer the most practical sense.

Batangueños’ ancient self: self-reliance, pride, and feistiness

Roces attributes the endurance of the subli and other Batangas precolonial culture and knowledge to the historical circumstance of escaping feudalism. According to her, there never had been major plantations in Batangas the size of Tarlac’s, Negros’ nor Pampanga’s. She adds that the landholdings are held by ordinary Batangueños.

“We were never peasants and we were never slaves. We were never plantation workers for big landlords. We farmed our own farms. This lack of slavery makes the Batangueño fiercely independent in spirit and must have allowed for clear survivals of precolonial culture and knowledge,” she explains.  “Kaya matatabil, mayabang, at hindi matakutin. Ang sasabihin kahit kanino ay – ‘bakit, ikaw ga ang nagpapakain sa akin?’ (That’s why we are talkative, proud, and fearless. We would tell everyone – ‘Why, are you the one who feeds me?).”

This is true—pride has always rested in the Batangueño’s ability to fend for his or her own. I saw this very disposition in the evacuation centers, when, probably more than being away from their homes, what got the Batangueño spirit down was the disbelief that they were no longer self-reliant, that they would have to rely on the good graces of donors and the government for daily survival.  The old Batangueño adage rings in mind: “Mawala na ang yaman, ‘wag lang ang yabang (Better to lose one’s wealth than to lose one’s pride).”

The 2020 Taal Volcano eruption was the first in history to have the eyes and ears of social media as close monitors. Whether through the viral Natanauan interview, or the underreported profundity of the subli ritual, there is much for everyone, Batangueños or non- Batangueños, to learn from these constant churns of news and information, if only to learn about ourselves and our rich cultural heritage. Roces sums it up so succinctly and eloquently: “Our people [have] sustained extraordinarily old cultural forms, together with the knowledge that was the context of these forms. The southern Tagalog have demonstrated the possibilities for the Filipino if unbound by feudalism and connected to an ancient self: self-reliance, pride, and feistiness.”

(Additional reporting on Jose Sandoval Sr.’s interview and Poon’s origin by Lorela Sandoval)