The small town of Sagada in the Mountain Province gets overrun by local tourists during the holidays, not only because it’s a beautiful and scenic town, but also because of its unique cultural practices.
Come All Soul’s Day, Sagada would again be full of tourists because of their tradition of lighting bonfires in the cemetery on that day. Called the Panag-apoy, it is their way of remembering their departed loved ones.
Prior to the Panag-apoy, however, there’s another activity that the townspeople observe: the Begnas Festival, Sagada’s thanksgiving ritual.
I was lucky to have observed the Begnas in 2011. My friends and I were waiting for our ride to Bomod-ok Falls when somebody mentioned that the ritual was going to start. We immediately decided to forgo Bomod-ok that morning and went off to the site.
Also called the rice ritual, Begnas is held three times a year, in March, June, and November. The last one–which we had observed–was called Begnas di Yabyab, done primarily in preparation for rice planting.
During the Begnas, the people of Sagada dressed in their traditional clothes and went to one of their dap-ay (their cultural/social center), the host site for that day. They waited near it, waiting for a group of men who went to the mountains to sacrifice a pig in the place they call patpatayan, their community’s sacred ground.
Once the pig was killed, parts of it were sliced off to be carried back by the men to the dap-ay. They marched single file across rice fields with their spears and offerings, chanting all the while.
Along the way, the group was joined by other people–men, women, and children–in marching towards the dap-ay, carrying their own offerings, from rice balls and bread to bottles of gin and matches. Anyone could join, even tourists, as long as they were wearing traditional Igorot clothing.
Once they reached the dap-ay, an elder recited some prayers, asking the spirits for a bountiful harvest. All the offerings were brought to the dap-ay too, and even the old women who waited for hours for the marching men fell in line to bring their food baskets to the center.
There are no fixed dates for the Begnas Festival. It’s the tribe’s elders who decide when to hold it, given several considerations. Standing there watching the Sagada people making their offerings and praying for a bountiful harvest, I felt quite lucky I had the chance to observe a very old tradition.
Despite it being a very popular tourist destination in the Philippines, Sagada’s culture is indeed very much alive and practiced, and I’m more than glad to see it.