By Abdon M. Balde Jr.
WHY IS THE IBALONG FESTIVAL CELEBRATED IN LEGAZPI CITY?
Indeed the center of the Ibalong epic is Libmanan, Camarines Sur. Most of the sites mentioned in the epic that relates to the exploits of Baltog, Handiong, and Bantong were around Libmanan which in ancient times was called Ligbanan. These include: the seat of the kingdom of Handyong now a simple barangay called Andong; Ponong where lived the one-eyed and three-throated monster called Buring; Malbogong where the witches Hilang and Lariong lived; Aslong the enchanted hill; Kulasi where the fierce Sarimao was exiled; Hantik, the serpent’s lair; Cotmong where the Dinagats lived, and the Bikol River where the Pongos and Urangutangs were drowned.
Now the big question is: Why is the IBALONG FESTIVAL being celebrated in Legazpi City?
Answer: Professor Merito B. Espinas, one of the many who translated the 60 stanzas of the epic into English, conceptualized the epic as the main basis for a festival that would celebrate the exploits of the heroes who cleared Bikol of the monsters that plagued the land and the people. Prof Espinas in fact wrote essays about the epic, one of which was the “Ibalong as a Pageant”. Prof Espinas submitted his concept to then Mayor Mely Crisol Roces in 1991 and indeed it was adapted as a festival, probably one of the few if not the only city festival based on an epic.
I was a close friend of Professor Espinas; I have illustrated some of his writings which he published in the school paper of Legazpi College in late 1960s. In 1996 his wife Mrs. Odilia Espinas brought to my house the manuscripts of Prof. Espinas and I formed a non-profit organization called “Pagturugang Ibalnong” to edit and publish his book: “Ibalong: the Bikol Folk Epic Fragment”. The founders of Pagturugang Ibalnong included Rene Lawenko, Daniel Pinto, Marne L. Kilates and my wife Fe Balde. The UST Publishing House published and launched it through the courtesy of then UST Rev Rector Rolando De La Rosa OP in October 9, 1996. I was with Prof Espinas to the last days of his life, probing his mind about all he knew of the olden tales, legends and myths of Bikol. I compiled many stories and have bought old maps that could help me better understand the tales in Ibalong.
There is a folk tale that says that persons with supernatural “gifts” must pass on that “gift” to someone near to ensure a peaceful death. The “gift” often comes in the form of an embryo—which in Bikol is called siwo-siwo—which must be transferred mouth to mouth. The joke among our small circle of friends in Bikol is that Prof Espinas must have passed on his “gift” to me when I visited him in his sick bed in the Lung Center in Quezon City very shortly before he passed away. It is of course a joke which I often laugh off and treat as a compliment.
The only site mentioned in the epic that belongs to the jurisdiction of Legazpi City is Lignon Hill, where the Tandayag na Opon came from. Next nearest to Legazpi is the place where Baltog planted linza, which was destroyed by the Opon: it was called Tondol in ancient times, it is now Tagaytay in Camalig, Albay. Mount Masaraga, near Ligao and Polangui, was mentioned as “a still young” mountain. Libong (now Libon) was also mentioned as the place where Sural invented writing on stones polished by Gapon. Nothing else in Albay. The clay used by Dinahong to invent the earthen pots may have come from Tiwi, but in olden times there was also a thriving pottery industry in Sabang, Oas; unfortunately, the source in Oas was exhausted sometime in the 1970s. Of course, from Prof Espinas I learned many other things including the place in Legazpi called Maningkarog, the Sinikaran in Camalig and the place where Baltog died in Masbate.
It could be asked: Why is there no such festival in Libmanan? The simple, sad reply is that the tale and the epic has been erased in the collective memory of the residents of Libmanan. I researched the tales in the epic and have gone to almost all the sites mentioned in the epic for over 4 years. When I first went to the municipal hall of Libmanan to inquire about the epic, nobody could give me a direct answer. When I mentioned the name of Handiong, the shy reply was to direct me to a sitio named Handong or Andong, but no one knew who Handyong was. I mentioned Ponong, Aslong and the Inarihan River and they knew where these were but no stories could connect these places in their memory. When I asked about the serpents’ lairs in Hantik, they gave me directions to go to the Culapnitan Cave in Sigamot, near the boundary of Sipocot. A few months after, I returned to Libmanan to look for Malbogong, the islet in the middle of the plains, where two witches lived: Hilang and Lariong. I had to walk for over a kilometer of ricefield paddies before I reached the hanging bridge (colgante) that lead to the wooded barangay of Malbogong. My wife was so worried I might encounter witches in the island. It felt so sad to know that the old and young people of Libmanan have lost the memories of this tale. Had there been such a terrible trauma in the minds of their ancestors that they chose to completely forget the exploits of the early heroes of Bikol?
These incursions into the settings of the epic called Ibalong has brought me to remote places in almost all of the six provinces of the Bikol Region. I went to explore the banks of the huge Bikol River and other obscure streams. I entered remote caves in search of the lair of Oryol, looking for the magical places where Handiong and Oryol migh have met and possibly fallen in love with each other. I inspected old maps in search of what I believed to be the Bikol underworld where the monsters of Asuang would come out from Gagamban and prowl for victims. I climbed mountains looking for ruins or old trails. I searched for the marble mines of Libon where Sural and Gapon might possibly have invented the art of writing. I descended down waterfalls where the Tandayag creatures might have chosen to float undisturbed. For four long years I went to places where ordinary writers. would not dare to go, searching for validations to the possible stories between the gaps in the narrative of the unfinished epic.