The Ati-Atihan and Other West Visayan Festivals

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Legend has it that, seven centuries ago, ten Bornean datus (chieftains) fleeing the collapse of the once mighty Srivijayan Empire sailed northwards with their followers and landed on the island of Panay.  They bought the coastal lands from the aboriginal Ati (Negrito) rulers who, after an initial mistrust, accepted payment in gold articles: a headdress, a necklace, and a bowl.  Overjoyed, the Borneans threw a riotous feast, blackening their faces with soot to become a shade closer to the dark pygmy complexion of their new neighbors.  Four or five centuries later, a Christianized Panay lived in constant fear of looting and slave-hunting by pirates from Mindanao.  In the chaos of one raid, the Santo Niņo (Holy Child) is said to have appeared and driven off the marauders.  A typical Spanish friar tale, this story nevertheless persuaded the Ilonggos to thenceforth time their harvest festival with the feast of the Santo Niņo.

The legendary barter between the Malay datus and the aborigines is commemorated yearly in what has become the most popular and colorful festival in the country.  On the third weekend of January, the small coastal town of Kalibo in Aklan Province plays host to thousands of Filipino and foreign visitors who join the three-day revelry known as Ati-Atihan.

Kalibo's Ati-Atihan has become so popular that similar festivities have cropped up all over Western Visayas.  Antique has launched its own Binirayan festival and Capiz its Halaran, while Iloilo has recently been staging a more lavishly choreographed version called Dinagyang.

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Ten in the morning on Panay Island in the Visayas.   A whole town turns out on the streets, mingling with boat- and planeloads of guests.  All have blackened their faces with soot.  The first layers of a drunken haze have already settled in.  Drumbeats strike the gentle morning air like a vibrating sonar field. Hala Bira! Boom pak. Puera Pasma! Boom pak. Hala Bira! Boom pak. Puera Pasma! Boom pak.

Timed to a nonsense rhyme, frenzy rises thick in the noonday heat.  Here, Congolese warriors mock battle with Spanish caballeros.  There, cowgirls wiggle a salsa with King Kong.  A Japanese lion dancer tosses his mane, as Mirror Man corners a tipsy burlesque queen.  Capiz shells rattle, horns hoot in long shrill sighs, tuba (coconut wine) is swigged and gin guzzled to the incessant hypnotic chant of Hala Bira (Keep On)!

Hala Bira! Skulls and skeletons pop up. Hala Bira!  Old ladies hug little Santo Niņos to their chests. Hala Bira! A formation of saronged maidens waltz past like an ambulant coconut grove.  Is this town going mad?   It's the Ati-Atihan, three days of soot-blackened orgy when orgiasts and pietists march through the streets of Kalibo in a frenzy, a barely clad Walpurgis.  On the third day, soot-blackened celebrants in a daisy chain of hangovers stagger into church for the patapak--a ritual in which a priest anoints all parts of the body with the Niņo, ending on the head with a magic touch that heals both body and soul.  (Source: Insight Guides-- Philippines.  1980, Apa Productions (HK) Ltd.) 

atihancrop1_roces.jpg (9528 bytes)     Iloilo city reverberates day and night to drumbeats during the festival of Dinagyang, a week-long celebration that builds up to an afternoon parade on the fourth Sunday of January.  Dinagyang is an Ilonggo term for revelry.   Costumed "tribes" dance through the streets to honor the Santo Niņo and to commemorate the pact between the Bornean datus and the aboriginal Atis.  Shouts of "Viva Seņor Santo Niņo!" mix with chants of "Hala Bira!"


atihancrop3_roces.jpg (11824 bytes)    The exuberant Binirayan festival is held in the last week of December and reenacts the founding of the Malay settlement in Antique.  The landing of ten Bornean datus, the barter of Panay, and the following riotous party are reenacted with costumes and decorated boats on the beaches of Malandog.  Some participants dress as the datus, their wives, and retinue, while others blacken their faces to portray the aboriginal Atis.   The celebration begins at Maybato with the panguyang, a ritual in which the datus pray for a safe crossing.  Budyongs (giants shells used as trumpets) announce the boarding and, after the picturesque parade of boats, the landing at Malandog, where the panguyang again takes place (this time as thanksgiving for a safe voyage).  Here the "datus" are met by the "Atis", and the barter, and celebration is acted out.  For four days, dancing and revelry fill the streets of the capital city of San Jose, where an agro-industrial fair and a beauty pageant are also held.  The real Atis are known to have come down from the hills to participate in the festival.


atihancrop2_roces.jpg (11262 bytes)     The Halaran Festival is held in the first weekend of October and features Mardi Gras-style festivities combined with harvest thanksgiving rites.  Halaran is an adaptation of the Hiligaynon word halad (gift) and is a reference to the goodwill tokens that the Bornean datus presented to the aborigines for the purchase of their coastal lands. 


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