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The Long View
An essential experience

By Manuel L. Quezon III
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 00:10:00 05/19/2008

Filed Under: Culture (general), history

MANILA, Philippines - One of the most vivid memories of my childhood was an experience I had in Santa Ana, Manila, when I was about six or seven years old. My father wanted to show me the excavations of a prehispanic burial site unearthed on the grounds of the church in the 1960s. When we arrived a friar flunky we encountered told us we were barred entry because, apparently, the priests were having their siesta although the museum was, technically, open. This led to a parental explosion. We demand that the friars to be roused from their siesta, my father said, in an increasingly loud tone of voice (as I tried to make myself disappear behind a pillar), because ?we have a right to see our ancestors!?

Eventually an exceedingly grumpy-looking Spanish friar appeared, which then led to a three- way conversation because the friar scolded the flunky, who excused himself by pointing to my father, which led to a torrent of abuse in rather ripe Spanish as my father took the friar to task for prioritizing his siesta over that of visitors to the museum and, incidentally, for using a Filipino flunky to enforce friar authority over his fellow Filipinos. In the end, the exasperated friar grumbled that we could proceed, and then he disappeared, presumably to resume his interrupted siesta.

We proceeded to look at something like a big ditch, covered by glass, with skeletons on little mounds at the bottom. My father informed me that the orientation of the graves was toward Mecca, which was my introduction to the idea that Manila and environs were once inhabited by people who followed Islam.

I then got a tongue-lashing of my own when I ventured the impertinent question, ?How are these people our ancestors? Do you have an grand-uncle down there?? The basic point of the paternal sermon I then had to endure was that we all have a common heritage, that the remains and artifacts we were viewing were the tangible signs of that heritage, that what we are today has its origins in what we were inspecting and that I should stop fidgeting and be aware just how magnificent an opportunity this was, and that, incidentally, this was something an uncouth friar would never understand.

The most lasting effect of that visit is a fascination with archeology and an awareness I?m quite grateful to possess, of how little we know of our early societies.

I recalled my Santa Ana Church experience as I toured ?Gold of Ancestors: Pre-colonial Treasures in the Philippines? at the Ayala Museum. On permanent display are over a thousand gold objects collected by the late National Artist Leandro Locsin. Together with the Central Bank?s own collection of gold artifacts, the objects on display provide a glimpse into what the ancestors of today?s Tagalogs, Visayans, Moros?that is, we Filipinos?were like. Or, to be precise, what the ancestors (literally, in many cases) of today?s ?Gucci Gang? were like. The ostentatious display of portable wealth is quite clearly a habit of great antiquity; as is the idea that you can, indeed, take it with you, so to speak. These objects have survived because they were buried with their owners and the tombs of these past notables were plundered only in recent times.

And this is a point the exhibit subtly makes but which is really quite a pointed one when you think about it. The artifacts on display were the products of a society that was ?stratified,? as the academic texts of the captions point out. The text of the Laguna Copperplate inscription, on display to provide a cultural context to the exhibits, and which is the oldest written item yet discovered in our country, bears this out. It is chock full of references to the Honorable this and the Honorable that, and reads almost like a transcript of encounters between groveling citizens and Senators of the Republic.

The exhibit is accompanied by an extremely well-done video presentation that begins with images from the Boxer Codex, a book of illustrations of costumes dating to the early era of the Spanish conquest of the Philippines. The 16th Century images of notables dripping with, literally, kilos of gold jewelry comes vividly to life when you encounter actual examples on display.

An exhibit like this has something in it for everyone: I encountered one lady whose primary interest lay in the weight of each item; when we encountered gold sash (according to the caption, possibly an Upavita, a ?sacred thread? but in appearance a kind of grand cordon worn over the left shoulder and under the right arm representing ?the 96 Tattwas, categories or constituents of the Universe,? and without which no ritual can be celebrated, according to Hindu belief), the lady?s excitement came from its weight: four kilos. On my part, it got me thinking of how we must have undergone a confrontation between Hinduism and Islam which has its most tangible sign in Indonesia, which still has Hinduism in Java while the rest of the country came under the sway of Islam. But the lady and I had identical expressions of awe and delight on our faces.

I have one major criticism of the display, and that is that the presentation of artifacts is done in such a nuanced manner that the ordinary viewer will most likely miss out on what the conscientious organizers of the exhibit set out to do: which was, to refrain from romanticizing a feudal past in which slavery, for example, was a fact of life. Very little is said, too, about the reasons why the plunder of ancient tombs are justified because it increases knowledge?but only if the remains that are disturbed are treated in a respectful manner. What happened to those remains?and what they have to teach us?is hardly tackled at all.

* * *

LINKS to related readings can be found in today?s entry in my blog, www.quezon.ph.

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