Saturday, February 4, 2012

№ 66. The Art of Divination in Bangaan: Orpi

Every February, when green seedlings of mountain rice have already sprouted from the nursery, the Ifugao farmers of Bangaan, Banaue in Northern Philippines begin the long ritual of transplanting them to the terraces. Water, a plentiful resource from the slopes of the mountain, flow through a network of irrigation channels carved on the sides of the terraces. Fresh water makes the fertile soil yield to the manual labor of sowing the tender roots of the grass.

On this occasion, the village, through their priest, the Mumbaki, and the elders, gathers to perform a communal ceremony of song, dance, sacrifice, prayer and hepatomancy. Hepatomancy is a form of divination also practiced by the Babylonians where the liver, the "source of blood" and the "base of life", is examined to discover the divine will. The priest is specially trained to interpret the "signs" of the liver.(1)

The liver, newly harvested  from the black boar sacrificed in the Orpi rite, will clue in the Mumbaki of future things. Things and inchoate events such as health and sicknesses, births and deaths, weather patterns, and, other cycles and milestones affecting community life. 

Not least among Bangaan's competing concerns is the yield of the crops six or seven months from the time of transplanting. Food, after all, is the lifeblood of a remote agricultural village. Bangaan, which lies in a valley, can be reached only after an hour's trip from Banaue through narrow ravine-lined roads and after another half hour by foot through a balancing act on the high walls of the massive terraces.

During the ceremony, visitors and photographers were asked to observe a respectful distance from the priests and the vessels. The bamboo mat carefully demarcated the invisible boundaries of the rituals. Many of these boundaries, which are as remote to us lowlanders as this Ifugao locality, were inherited from an unbroken chain of oral traditions.

Most of us prepared for this contingency traditions, notwithstanding. 

The zoom lenses kept us close to the unfolding scenes without violating the sacred space. Armed with Japanese technology (Canon or Nikon), we were able to observe, frame and shoot the silent dialogue between the deities and their appointed mediators. 

Minutes passed from the time Bayah, the sweet fermented rice wine, was offered and shared until the pig was gently slit open in the throat, drained of blood, singed, cut and then cleaned out from inside. The innards were carefully set aside and kept in the rattan basket. But the liver, still blood red, was placed on the lips of a small terracotta jar in front of the Mumbakis. During the entire ceremony a Mumbaki was seated like a stoic wooden Bulul, a rice god, which is often sold as wood craft and souvenir. White smoke rose from the jar containing the liver while he sat vigil for celestial signs.

Good omens, a villager finally informed us much later.

Looking back, I don't think we faithfully captured the moment when the cosmos favored the village with a bountiful smile. A rich and thick bedrock of the universe somehow chose to lie hidden from our senses. Perhaps the universe crooned and tilted on its axis while the Ifugao prophets wrestled with their gods. Or perhaps the foundations of these invisible realities shivered as their dances went on. Perhaps. But much of it did not manifest beyond the fringes of the ritual mat.

What we saw only, while the incense burned, was an old man garbed in red weave, seated, pensive and barely animated. Our senses weren't calibrated to probe, seek and hear the rumblings beyond the portals of the existential divide. We missed the punches as they rolled and sparred. It could have been a match as epic as Pacquiao versus Marquez. We can only surmise.

Although amplified by digital gizmos, the senses with their false confidence could not seize the phenomenon. A world of the hushed intensity happening within the four corners of that sacred space was lost. None of what was lost, not a single element, lent itself to the quantifiable parameters of light (f-stops and colors), space (depth of field) or time (shutter speed). Technology and its precision critters could not expose what was revealed by the reading of the smokes and the sinews. 

Metaphysics will likely remain a deep mystery. It will remain concealed to the rigid methods of science. To be sure, what is essential is still invisible to the eye, as the wise fox said.(2)

The fitting response to the experience should have been to simply lay down the digital SLR camera and to talk to the priests after the ceremony. They could have enlightened us about an art much older than photography itself. An art, as much as a tool, wrought by the generations of mountain people to build the emerald terraces they call home. It is arguably the better lens with which to view the magical landscapes of their community life: the mystical art of divination.

Light was fading and the rain began to fall again, after the afternoon ritual. So we picked up the pace, this time a different rhythm, one that we brought in from the city, and retraced back our steps along the ridges of the beautiful stairs. Quietly, we boarded the yellow Ford Fiera idling on the road. We were privileged to have been sent out on a fool’s errand armed only with blind instruments of light.

Bento Box:

(1) Wikipedia entry on Haruspex:

(2) From "The Little Prince": “On ne voit bien qu'avec le cœur. L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” ("One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye.")

(3) Bangaan, how to get there and other information: Travel Philippines


  1. thanks for sharing your musings and the great photos! i am so interested in divination as well. i always admire your photos. i would love to go on a trip with you to this place (and to other places) someday! :)

  2. Thanks! Sure, let's have that road trip with the rest of the gang (ex and current OT3s). Even Binondo can give you a ton of details to capture and blog about. Let's not forget the food!

    Sigh, too much to see, but work gets in the way often =).