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Made of the Earth

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On the rice terraces of Pasil, the tradition of earthenware pottery is kept alive by women, passed down from mothers to their daughters for generations.

Photography by
Geric Cruz
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In the beginning, Apo Kabunian, supreme deity of the sky-world, had arrived hungry in Pasil, Kalinga but found nothing to cook with, so he fashioned a pot out of soil. The village women, another of his clay designs, were so taken with what they saw that they imitated his creation. But another legend lives on: The earthenware pot was not made by a god but Maria Orosa, a food scientist from Batangas.

Despite being shrouded by history, her inventions like banana catsup and Soyalac can be found in practically every Filipino kitchen. The palayok is another of Orosa’s inventions. In the 1920s, she traveled to rural areas to demonstrate how to cook without electricity and modern appliances with the clay pot and oven. She organized rural home improvement clubs, which grew to 22,000 members by 1924, to teach women about food preservation, gardening, and poultry raising. Embedded in the humble clay pot is a body of history that fed thousands of Filipinos during times of war.

In Kalinga, the tradition of earthenware goes by another name: the banga. It persists a female craftsmanship passed down from mothers to their daughters for generations. 

Form Follows Function 

After twelve hours on the road from Manila, we arrived in a village called Dangtalan. Down past the clusters of homes, an ubiquitous church, and school basketball court is the Ilichan farm. Behind its rice paddies is an open field and a cottage that overlooks the Pasil river valley and other villages atop rice terraces. There, the manfafanga, the potters, have gathered to welcome us with a demonstration of how the banga is made.

The earthenware pot of the Ikalinga called banga, or palayok in Tagalog, concerns itself differently than other forms of tradition. Mud is made into hard ceramic, a rebirth to meet the rigors of both daily life and cultural practice. In the past, they stored water and buried their dead in these large earthenware jars. To this day, they still find such urns scattered below the village, but the ones they make today they use to cook viands and rice and to perform dances with.

The manfafanga move to an intuitive tempo. At every turn, another woman is onto a different stage of pot-making. Not knowing how to insert myself into the diorama they make, I start at the beginning of the assembly line. Sofia Agapinan, a retired health worker and one of the older potters, breaks down clay soil with a large wooden pestle called a’lo against a salsalan, a large river stone. When she lifts the al’o, her other hand darts to fold the clay and sprinkle water until it is a sticky, malleable consistency. 

The clay is then placed on a plate called chu-yas to shape the rounded bottom of the banga. With one hand moving the plate clockwise and the other pulling the clay against the rotation, the walls of the pot climb with every spin. Once the pot has dried, a pikpik or wooden paddle smacks the outside while a round stone, vuntok, pushes the inside to perfect the globular form. The rough inside of the pot is leveled with a coconut shell and smoothened with a wet piece of cloth. Sofia then inscribes her gili, a geometrical design made on the pot's surface—a kind of potter’s signature. The pot is polished with a stone called ichi-id, painted with red soil or pura, then left out to dry again. 

Instead of a kiln, the pots burn for a half hour on a metal grille covered in cogon grass, rice stalks, and chopped wood. A talin-jak or a long staff pulls the pots out from under the mound of white ash that is left. Finally, the pots are sealed in livu or resin while steaming hot. If the hands of all mothers are thickened by cooking and cleaning, then even more so are the hands of potters. 

All throughout, a number of kids were running about playing. I couldn’t tell which child was whose from the way the potters fed and wiped away sweat as if every kid was their own. The women are in constant motion, resting only when the pyre is lit. Another potter, Lovely, deposits a bale of grass for kindle, then leaves only to return with bananacue for merienda and coffee to wash down the smoke.

The women of Dangtalan are potters and dancers, but many of them are farmers too. The multitudes they contain are tantamount to their rice terraces that are laden with heritage that they have kept alive for over a century.

They tell me they usually work on their own at home but they prefer to do so as a group, gossiping and cracking jokes while they share the labor of pottery. It is also the best way to teach their daughters, an entire classroom of teachers offering a harmony of advice. 

Many have visited Pasil: local and foreign tourists, anthropologists, and potters travel far to learn from them and attempt to exchange know-how, like a potter’s wheel to help with speed and uniformity.  “Nakakahilo,” Sofia says with a chuckle when I ask why they never took to it. They stick to what they know best, to what their mothers have taught them.

But, at times throughout the pottery-making, the manfafanga substitute tools with recycled materials: an empty pen for a reed to carve their gili or a bottle cap in place of a coconut shell to scrape the insides of the pot. Sofia explains that some of the tools, like the chu-yas and the ichi-id, are family heirlooms, handed down for so long that the potters did not know where they came from or more importantly, how to obtain more.

Pasil potters, like other traditional craftsmen in the country, do not archive their craft into a written record to pass down. Beyond the stories they tell and the skills they’ve been taught, their mother’s tools and banga are all the physical ties they have to the potters who came before them. To keep their tradition alive, they learn to adapt, sourcing materials from what is available in a sustainable manner. 

Clay soil is able to regenerate with enough organic matter and time, nonetheless, potters are conscious of cycling through different plots across rice terraces, forests, and homesteads. Rice terraces follow the natural contours of mountains, its people are the same—the Ikalinga only take what they need in harmony with the environment. 

A Balancing Act

The potters danced with their freshly made banga afterward, still warm to the touch. The same terrace where they had gathered kindling transformed into an amphitheater for their dancing—balancing the stacked pots as they glide their arms through the air and move in circular motions, tiptoeing to the beat of wind chimes called gangsa.

The banga dance is a balancing act: A Kalinga maiden stacks multiple banga on her head, with only a coiled straw called jikon or a rolled cloth for support. This performance is drawn from the task of fetching water in the highlands in the past. The dance is meant for celebrations like palaunus (weddings), chom-chomog (house warming), and gabbok (baptisms). And they are, but they share their traditions freely too. They offered me the banga afterward but I could only carry the stack in my hands, too afraid of shattering a day’s worth of their labor. 

The women of Dangtalan wear many hats, both in the literal and figurative sense. They are potters and dancers, but many of them are farmers too. The multitudes they contain are tantamount to the rice terraces of Pasil that are laden with heritage—of the earthenware pottery, the banga dance, and the heirloom rice they have kept alive for over a century.

“Kailangan namin mapanatili ang dating pamumuhay ng mga ninuno, [yung itinanim at] niluto nila para matikman din ng [susunod na henerasyon]. Konting hirap [ang heirloom rice], pero dito lang siya [tumutubo]. Sinubukan namin magtanim sa lowlands ng Kalinga, pero hindi niya makuha yung aroma, hindi siya nadala sa lasa,” says Rowena Gonnay.

She is an agricultural technician and a farmer leader of the Unoy Pasil Terrace Association, wherein female farmers are the primary holders of the traditional knowledge that governs seed selection, preservation, and planting of heirloom rice. “Nakumbinsi namin ang farmers sa Pasil sa lahat ng barangays na kailangan ibalik ang heirloom rice kasi pag mawala ito, mawawala din ang ecosystem at ang aming traditional farming practices.”

The layered paddies of Pasil were once filled with hundreds of heirloom rice varieties that had adapted to the local ecology for ages. But much of this indigenous diversity has been irretrievably lost to hybrids, a result of the enormous commercial demands for rice.

The run-of-the-mill rice we consume was bred for intensive agriculture, designed to absorb chemicals and predictable volumes of water. But farmers have found that such cultivars lack resistance against pests, diseases, and unpredictable weather. Incredibly, heirloom varieties are better able to tolerate the variable conditions of climate change. 

Rice terraces follow the natural contours of mountains, its people are the same—the Ikalinga only take what they need in harmony with the environment.

Heirloom rice is slow-growing, but for those who understand that mother nature bides her time, the returns are sweet. By reviving heirloom rice with traditional farming practices, Pasil farmers are also reviving its stunning diversity in aroma, flavor, textures, and colors. The taste as well as the cultural and nutritional value of heirloom rice has incurred a demand in the local market and foreign exports at more than double the price of white rice. Thus, Rowena maintains that heirloom rice and organic agriculture are enough to sustain local biodiversity and livelihood. 

On her farm, Ilichan, she harvests a variety of crops and develops agricultural techniques to replace chemical-based approaches. Rowena plants for subsistence foremost, but also as a means of cultural preservation. As the co-founder of Pasil Slow Food, alongside her husband Lam-en, Ilichan serves as a model for local farmers transitioning to organic farming.

Slow Food is a global organization, founded in 1989 in Turin, Italy to prevent the disappearance of heritage food and traditions to the fast lifestyle. Since 2012—even prior to the “Organic Agriculture Act” RA 1068,  Rowena emphasizes—the municipality has adopted the Slow Food advocacy, the first to do so in the country.

But rather than a novel way of living, it was a return to Pasil roots, relearning organic farming and traditional cooking their parents and ancestors once practiced. 

Every meal the potters prepared, made with Ilichan's organic produce and simmered in the banga, had a taste so clean and flavorful that it had us asking for seconds. But our favorite dish had to be the ilanchila, a native kakanin topped with latik. It is made with Kalinga Unoy or Chong-ak, a red grain with a nutty flavor, sweet pandan-like aroma, and a chewiness that makes it the perfect heirloom rice for the delicacy. 

Ilanchila is steamed in a banga, and because the claypot is porous by nature, heat circulates evenly as steam escapes from the pores for a smooth simmer. Because it slowly cooks the food in its own vapors, cooking in the banga retains more nutritional value and brings out the flavors of the ingredients. It is Rowena’s vision for Pasil Slow Food to cultivate a community in which everyone has access to food that is healthy to consume, fair to the farmers, and clean for the environment. 

The Great Great-grandmother 

While the potters I had met learned to follow in their mother’s footsteps, their own children dream of greener pastures. Scores of Dangtalan youth have left home once they’re old enough in search of a different future. Out of a shortage of livelihood opportunities in Pasil, they migrate to Baguio, Manila, and abroad to work in other professions.

The continuation of Pasil pottery begins at home and the occasional cultural showcase for the city or local schools. But migration has spurred the need for more concentrated efforts. Last June, the municipality of Pasil sought to establish its own School of Living Tradition (SLT) to safeguard their cultural heritage. 

Since 1995, over 300 SLT sites have been organized by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts across the country and more than 7000 indigenous peoples have taken part in the continuance of their knowledge systems and practices. The ongoing proposal aims to establish centralized schooling for the Pasil youth to learn the traditional craft of the banga, as well as other endangered indigenous traditions and skills, as taught by living masters.

On our last day, we sought out their principal living master. As we made our way through the village, Dangtalan had almost looked unrecognizable from when we first arrived. On a sunny Sunday morning, its streets were lined with banga drying on windowsills, on benches by doorways, beside robusta coffee atop newspapers in front yards. 

There are thirty potters within the community—all of whom invited us inside for coffee in a near-endless house visit. The oldest potter of Dangtalan at 85 is Kung-As Sangga; there are decades of lived experience etched in her every wrinkle and her hands, too, had a pronounced strength to them. Her family all bore the same gaze, eyes that never left the clay as we spoke, as serious as the sureness in their grip. It was a coming together of four different generations: Kung-As, her daughter Melby, her granddaughter Lovely, and her great-granddaughters Vanessa and Shannen. 

The earthenware pot of the Ikalinga concerns itself differently than other forms of tradition. Mud is made into hard ceramic, a rebirth to meet the rigors of both daily life and cultural practice.

Each generation has come into a league of their own. Kung-As is known for her preservation of traditional techniques and her seasoned hands that make the walls of the banga so even and a stack of pots in careful increments. Meanwhile, her granddaughters are recognized for their eye for creativity, as part of a new generation experimenting with forms such as alcancias and figurines in the shapes of animals. At the age of fourteen, Vanessa is still learning how to pot and dreams of becoming a nurse.

When I asked if there were any pressures inherent in coming from a long line of potters, Lovely explained to me that none of them were made to pursue pottery, they needed to find their own commitment to the craft. “Parang nasa kamay namin mga manfafanga. Kasi madaming gusto gumawa, ngunit kulang sa [balak, sa oras]. Sinasabi nalang nila na hindi nila alam, [na hindi nila kaya.]

“Kailangan mong [hanapin yung sariling dahilan]. Hindi pwede basta-basta, ginawa mo, tapos na. Natuyo mo ng konti, hindi mo pwede iwanan [yung banga],” Rowena adds. “Babalik-balikan mo.”

In Dangtalan, why are there only female potters? Rowena repeats this question in English, Tagalog, and Kalinga in each of the house visits. It was hard to explain something that was so matter-of-fact, every potter gave the same answer: Men went outdoors to farm, women stayed inside to pot. A practical division of labor. Another answer was that something so ornate could only be made with a woman’s touch. 

But I had witnessed too many displays of a woman's strength and grace throughout our stay to accept this reasoning. Or more admittedly, for the sake of storytelling, I had been looking for an answer that belies some other cultural importance, in the same way that in pre-colonial history, the roles of the babaylan were primarily reserved for women. It would take Kung-As to put my delusions into context. 

Like every other little girl in Dangtalan, she had dug up soil and broken it down from a young age. Kung-As had grown up watching her grandmothers, aunts, and mother make pots. During the Japanese occupation, they hid from bandits in the caves they dug for clay, bringing their pots with them to continue their work veiled in the dark. After such hardship, she had set aside her pottery in her early adulthood.

Kung-As returned to pottery in her own right when she had a family of her own. In keeping her family’s traditions alive, her craft gave her the freedom to stay at home, balancing making a living while caring for her children. I felt like I was made transparent by her, in a way only a mother does. The reason for her pottery was not a matter of physical limitation, but a maternal reason so visceral I had already known it from my mom and many of the women in my life. 

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