THE inscription on the Calatagan pot — the country’s oldest cultural artifact with pre-colonial writing — is no longer shrouded in mystery.
University of the Philippines literature professor Dr. Ramon Guillermo’s latest attempt at decoding the said script is by far the most definitive after many scholars, including National Artist Guillermo Tolentino and French linguist Jean-Paul Potet, made unsuccessful trials.
Using paleography, cryptography, and the “brute force” attack, Guillermo cracked the code and managed to decipher, though not complete, the symbols surrounding the mouth of the pot.
Guillermo’s study entitled “Ina Bisa Kata: An Experimental Decipherment of the Calatagan Pot Inscription” indicated that the writing, in modernized spelling, meant:
Ina bisa kata
Guna kita payaba
… saya …
Kita sana mabasah
(Mother can say
For you my beloved child/For our benefit beloved child
… I …
There we/you get wet
Like a flower)
Dating back between the 14th and 16th centuries, the Calatagan pot is one of the country’s most valuable cultural and anthropological artifacts. Twelve centimeters high, 20.2 centimeters wide, and weighing 872 grams, the pot was discovered by locals in an archaeological digging in Calatagan, Batangas in 1958.
The locals sold it for six pesos to an Alfredo Evangelista. The pot was then purchased by the Anthropological Foundation of the Philippines and donated to the National Museum.
Since its discovery, several experts have tried but failed to decipher the inscription. For one, Tolentino, known for his UP Oblation sculpture, used séance in interpreting the symbols, which resulted to:
Labag man nga lang (sa) aki’t (kalooban)
Kanino man, kay inaíy mag-alay,
gaano man ang kanyang kakailanganin, (sa kabila)
Aba! kanino man nga iyan galing,
labis ang ganyang ating
pakikinabangin (sa wakas) (na pagpapala ni Bathala).
(Though it may be against me and (my will)
Whoever, offer to mother
Whatever she may need (there beyond)
And from whoever that may have come from
We will benefit
Greatly from it (in the end) (with God’s grace).)
Tolentino, however, offered no explanation and his effort was ignored. Later, Potet in his doctoral dissertation, “Morphologie du Philippin,” provided a transliteration of the Calatagan writing. The symbols were identified by using familiar symbols from another script, based on the assumption that the script has the same characteristics.
Potet, together with other scholars who tried, like Juan Francisco, Antoon Postma, Harold Conklin, and Johannes de Casper, had not been able to come up with a transliteration, whether complete or partial.
Himself baffled, Guillermo started to take interest on the ancient pot when he was still an undergraduate student in UP. He recalled three problems that made it difficult to decipher the text:
- The equivalents of most of the symbols are unknown.
- The language/s composing the inscription is/are unknown, though the possibility of Tagalog or Mangyan has been posited.
- Even if the symbols were successfully identified, the difficulties in determining the start and end of words and the determination of final consonants would be difficult.
In early March, Guillermo actually did release a complete interpretation of the script, which read:
Ina bisa kata
Guna kita payaba
Dulang saya kau kain
Dada yang ‘ni manogi
Kita sana mabasah
Bagai ke bunga
Its translation in Filipino is as follows:
Sinikap sabihin ni ina
Para sa iyo mahal kong anak
Kumain ka sa aking dulang
Dibdib ko ‘tong mabango
Doon ika’y mabasa
Tulad ng bulaklak
But Guillermo had doubts — of lines three and four in particular. Two weeks later, he released an updated version of his paper, containing the latest partial interpretation.
Guillermo concluded that his present study has shown, perhaps for the first time, the appearance of certain words in more or less plausible configurations in four lines of the Calatagan pot inscription. Above all, his study may help develop a productive technique to be used in the further analysis of the writing.
“It (the study) has however not been successful in producing a complete transliteration,” Guillermo emphasized.
Historian and anthropologist Zeus Salazar acknowledged Guillermo’s efforts, saying that the methods he used were scientific and technical enough that it made sense.
Salazar further studied Guillermo’s work and made his own translation of the text:
Ina, ikaw ang aking bisa
Dumalaga nating alaga
Banga’y kanyang nasipa
Si M/manugi ang may dala
Magbabasa tayo sana
Di nga ba, ng bunga.
Salazar arrived at his translation by referring to three keywords described in Guillermo’s first interpretation:
- Dulay, a container used for fetching water
- Tugi, a rootcrop, staple food of Austronesians in early times
- Bunga, most important ingredient of nganga (chewing of betel nut)
Salazar noted that the script is a piece of poetry that may have been written to remember a loved one for whom the pot is used to fetch water. Or, the pot is used by a man when visiting the grave of his loved one in the ritual cleaning of the bones.
Through his work, Guillermo has opened a new avenue in studying Philippine history, anthropology, paleography, and prehispanic linguistics.
“For instance, the symbols will thus have been fully identified and it would thus show the various forms of the letters as they were known and used in prehistoric times,” acknowledged paleographer and Sanskrit expert Francisco. “The inscription is truly significant in the attempt to understand the many vague aspects of Philippine cultural history.”