Looking Back

‘Isulat mo sa tubig, itaga mo sa bato’

/ 09:45 PM September 27, 2011

Over the years, I have always come to expect pre-Spanish artifacts to make their way from the provinces to my favorite antique dealers after a heavy rain. In most urban or urbanized areas garbage comes down with flooding, but in other areas small items like Chinese ceramics or even smaller items of gold are washed out of ancient burial sites and found by common folk in their fields. A friend who runs a beach resort in Romblon finds sherds on the shore after a storm. These pieces of Ming dynasty blue and white porcelain, as well as Thai or Sawankhalok ceramics, suggest an ancient trading vessel was shipwrecked nearby.

Fascinated by this, I set off snorkeling, ignoring the fish and searching for archaeological and historical treasure. If I had the patience, longevity, and the budget of the late H. Otley Beyer, I would probably have bodegas full of junk by now, bits and pieces of our prehistoric past found outside their original archaeological context and thus useless except as curiosities.


Once upon a time, I was shown a piece of crumpled metal with what appeared to be ancient writing etched on it. It was not very impressive, a thin copper plate measuring 20 x 30 cm. allegedly fished out of Laguna. Historians are skeptical by nature and I didn’t even give the copper plate a second look because the writing on it was not our own baybayin. I dismissed the dealer saying there are hundreds of similar copper plate inscriptions found in Indonesia. A lot are displayed in the National Museum of Indonesia in Jakarta and this was probably an imported item planted in the Philippines to fool a gullible collector. This copper plate was purchased by the National Museum in 1990 and the mysterious text deciphered by Antoon Postma, in consultation with Johan de Casparis who noted that the language was technically Sanskrit, with some words in old Javanese, but mainly in old Malay that is related to old Tagalog. Postma dubbed this the “Laguna Copper Plate Inscription” or “LCI” and narrated his findings during the First European Studies Conference in Amsterdam in 1991.

That copper plate I ignored is now a national cultural treasure, evidence of writing and civilization in pre-Spanish Philippines. LCI is said to be older than the baybayin or pre-Spanish script preserved in the 1593 Doctrina Cristiana. LCI is said to be older than the 39 controversial characters incised on the neck of the Calatagan pot, an earthen pot or palayok purchased by the National Museum in 1961, and said to have been found along with 15th century Oriental ceramics. LCI is said to be older than the 22 Sanskrit-looking characters incised on a piece of silver now known as the Butuan Paleograph. The 10 horizontal lines of text on the LCI have been dated to the 9th century, our oldest historical document. Postma’s  translation of this ancient text reads:


“(1) Hail! In the Saka-year 822; the month of March-April; according  to the astronomer; the fourth day of the dark half of the moon; on (2)  Monday. At that time Lady Angkatan together with her relative, Bukah  by name, (3) the child of His Honor Namwaran, was given as a special favor, a document of full acquittal, by the Chief and Commander of  Tundun (4) represented by the leader of Pailah, Jayadewa. This means  that His Honor Namwaran, through the Honorable Scribe (5) is totally cleared of a salary-related debt of one kati and eight suwarna, in the presence of His Honor the leader of Puliran, (6) Kasumuran: His Honor  the Leader of Pailah, represented by Ganasakti; His Honor the Leader of (7) Binwagan, represented by Bisruta. And, with his whole family,  on orders of the chief of Dewata (8) represented by the chief of Mdang, because of his loyalty as a subject of the Chief, therefore all the descendants (9) of His Honor Namwaran are cleared of the whole debt that His Honor owed the Chief of Dewata. This in case (10) there is  someone, whosoever, sometime in the future, who will state that the  debt is not yet acquitted of His Honor.”

The LCI, however, leaves us with more questions than answers. The  Saka-year given in the LCI correspond to the reign of  King Balitung who ruled East and Central Java as well as Bali around 899-511 A.D. Is the LCI Javanese? Was it a souvenir picked up by a Filipino tourist in Java and brought back to Laguna? Are the words Tundun, Puliran, Pailah, Dewata or Mdang misspelled place names? Could these be Tondo, Pulilan or Pila? While the names on the LCI sound Javanese, the title pamgat used repeatedly is Philippine and could be the 16th century pamagat or title of an exalted person shortened to magat and later gat , hence the surname Gatbonton or honorifics like Gat Jose Rizal or Gat Andres Bonifacio.

Our first recorded writing is not a poem or a novel or a piece of  literature. The first writing in the Philippines is a receipt!

Some time in 9th century Laguna, a debt of gold weighing one kati and eight suwarna was paid. It was a debt that was not to be forgotten and was not written on water (isulat mo sa tubig); it was to be permanent as if etched on stone (itaga mo sa bato) and was written on non-corrosive copper.

When will other artifacts emerge? When will long lost Philippine literature come to light? Probably with the next heavy rain or flood.

Comments are welcome in my Facebook Fan Page.

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