AN ANCIENT pot of high archeological value found in Luzon may have traced its linguistic roots in the Visayas, and even as far south in Indonesia, a new study from the University of the Philippines suggests.

Ramon Guillermo, a professor of the Department of Filipino and Philippine Literature in UP Diliman, and Myfel Paluga, head of the Social Sciences Department in UP Mindanao, released in their 2010 study that the artifact excavated in Calatagan, Batangas could have been bearing Visayan inscriptions – not Tagalog – and a line of Indonesian.

Two years ago, Guillermo released a study on the pot’s inscriptions and on his work Paluga’s research took off. This time, however, the scholars considered the Visayan language in order to determine what could be a new translation of the writings that circle the rim of the pot.

Discovered in the late 1950s, the artifact was handed to Alfredo Evangelista, a member of the expedition team from the National Museum who dug for relics in Calatagan, by a farmer named Feliciano Bugtong. The Anthropological Foundation of the Philippines later purchased and donated it to the National Museum.

By basing the inscriptions on the Visayan language, the new study titled, Barang King Banga: Isang Eksperimental na Pagbasang Bisaya sa Inskripsyon sa Banga ng Calatagan gave a new perspective from the previous researches who also investigated the inscriptions.

Other scholars like Quentin Oropilla had studied the artifact and based the writings on Pangasinense, while Juan Francisco, used Tagalog as reference.

In his previous study, Guillermo used the Tagalog language as backbone while resorting to a permutation technique to decode the fifth line. What was revealed was a loving depiction of a mother-child endearment.

However, his previous study “turned out to be excessively skeptical about the current state of paleographic knowledge and almost exclusively focused on the possibilities offered by cryptographic methods,” Guillermo said.

“My efforts to discuss these preliminary results…thoroughly convinced me that some paleographic data could still be maximized and combined with cryptographic methods in order to arrive at a more complete and satisfactory reading,” he said.

The consideration of the Visayan language was at first just a thought for Guillermo.

“In the first study, Visayan was not necessarily ‘out of the picture’ but it was just common sense that the first thing one would look at was the language or languages presumed to be directly adjacent to the imputed original location of the artifact,” Guillermo said in an e-mail correspondence.

“After working on several dictionaries of Luzon languages and failing to find the posited syllable sequences according to the revised equivalences, the seemingly Visayan appearance of the da on the inscription (of Trinidad Pardo de Tavera’s table) inspired me to check out the possibility of Visayan,” he said.

This time, still using the permutation technique but different language basis, the writings revealed a rather peculiar, if not occult, message that highlights Filipino’s early animistic faith, as in:

Gana bisa kata

Duna kitay halabas

Yawa sala kakaga

Yamyam la ni manugait

Kita sana magbasa

Barang kining banga

In Filipino, the lines would read as:

Gana bisa kata [Makapangyarihan ang salita ni Gana]

Mayroon tayong halabas

Kasamaan, kahinaan, kasinungalingan

Bigkasin mo lamang ito (mga) babaylan

Basahin natin [itong mga senyas]

Kapangyarihan nitong banga!

Of the five lines, both Guillermo and Paluga said that the first has more explicit Javanese linguistic roots. The rest are Visayan, a language widely used in the Visayas and Mindanao. And if the word manugait or manugdait is correctly decoded, the specific Visayan language could be Hiligaynon that is now concentrated in Iloilo and Negros Occidental provinces.

A turning point in the research is the connection of the symbol da to the Visayan language. The symbol, which looks like a number “5” in pain, is unique in the Calatagan inscriptions, as it was never seen before in Tagalog, Tagbanua, and Mangyan early alphabets.

The magnified da inscription inspired Guillermo and Paluga to use the Visayan dictionary the Antiguos Alfabetos Filipinos shows that it is indeed a Visayan early letter. Photo from Guillermo and Paluga’s study.

But when the authors reviewed the Visayan table of early Filipino writings by Pardo de Tavera, Antiguos Alfabetos Filipinos, it is clear that the symbol was indeed the equivalent of Visayan’s da.

That exposed the exaggeration of early paleographers in transcribing ancient texts since the Visayan da of Domingo Ezguerra, who wrote Arte de la lengua Bisaya en la provincia de Leyte in 1663, is “closely matched with the Tagalog da compared to his (de Tavera’s),” the study say.

Both researchers banked on six words for them to historically ground the decoding:

  • Gana, the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh, who is invocated for the opening of beginnings and destruction of ends;
  • Halabas, a curved bolo associated as Gana’s weapon for destroying evil and the enemies of the deities;
  • Dait, a pre-Hispanic term used to refer to baybaylan (priestess) or diwatahan (those guided by fairies);
  • Kita, a Visayan word for “us” but, as the study suggests, a communal ritual headed by the dait; and,
  • Magbasa and yamyam, the use of librettos, which are passed down to generations.

According to the authors, the new translation may be a spell or a charm used by early babaylan or spiritual priestesses during a communal ritual.

“If the inscriptions will be looked at the context of communal ritual, it will be easily understood,” the research said.

The opening line, an admixture of Javanese language, may be an invocation to Gana, who originated from India and spread to Southeast Asia.

Gana was a popular diety in the country during pre-colonial Philippines. A 12th-century-old Batara Gana medallion was dug up in Mactan, Cebu in 1843 and a 12th- to 13th-century-old image of Avalokitesvara-Padmapani was also unearthened in Calatagan in 1961.

William Collins, as cited in the research, strengthened the probability of the new decoding as an incantation if the first line will be transposed to the end. In this way, it would sound like a Sumatran jampi (spell) which ends in a powerful invocation to the Hindu god Shiva: “Ghot! Batara Guru Sakti!”

But how can a pot with Visayan inscriptions land in Luzon? Guillermo and Paluga offered a historical analogy in the study by citing the work of Francisco Ignacio Alcina, author of a book on Visayan people in the Philippines.

According to Alcina, the priestess who might have owned the relic might be a diasporic, a native of Visayas who came to live in Luzon. And as tradition dictates, “remains of spiritual leaders are buried near the sea, fronting the direction of the rising run.”

The research added that, set aside fiction, the pot which might have found no rightful heir could have been buried along with the priestess’ remains, which Bugtong found fronting east before selling the pot to Evangelista.

Although the research has already achieved a sense of clarity, Guillermo said in an e-mail that “the findings are still experimental and tentative.”

“‘Visayan’ was our ‘key’ to producing a particularly interesting reading. Maybe there are other ‘keys’ and other equally interesting readings. This does not mean that no one else could produce other readings using other dictionaries. It is absolutely impossible to become dogmatic about our results or claim that we have said the final word,” Guillermo said.

After Guillermo’s 2008 study came out, other papers followed but “they are not entirely agreeable [and] that only shows how contentious the topic is.”

“All previous scholars are in agreement that the problem of determining the language of the CPI (Calatagan pot inscription) is a very thorny issue,” Guillermo said.

“There are still many things that can be straightened out, deepened, and changed. But we (him and Guillermo) tried to set a strict scientific standard in the research despite numerous limitations,” Paluga said in a separate e-mail interview.

Although the paper gave a fresh perspective into looking at the inscriptions, Guillermo emphasized that unlocking the meaning of the message is not the be-all and end-all of the story. Besides, it is “just a small pot with an inscription.”

“Our results definitely cannot be said to be final given the paucity of current knowledge. Let’s put things in perspective, it is just a small pot with an inscription. It does not necessarily contain ‘the secret’ to ‘the original matrix of ancient Philippine culture’ or whatnot. There is no ‘mystery to be revealed,’ just a couple of questions we can try to answer in the best way we can with what we have,” Guillermo said.

The study, published in the latest Social Science Diliman journal, is scheduled to see print in the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies sometime in 2011. – PCIJ, May 2010

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pot writings new twist


Global Voices in English » Philippines: Linguistic Roots of Ancient Pot

May 18th, 2010 at 11:50 pm

[…] academics retraces the linguistic roots of inscriptions etched in the rim of an ancient pot of high archeological […]

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