By Abdon M. Balde Jr.
Cagsawa or Kagsawa was a settlement near the town of Camalig. Its name came from “KAG”-which means “an owner of”; and “SAWA”- the local name for a large snake of the python family. Folktales told of an early settler in the area who tamed large snakes for good luck and to prey on rats. The parish in Cagsawa was founded in 1587 as a visita of Camalig. A visita is a satellite or extension of a parish visited (thus visita) by a priest only when there is a request from the villagers or when an important event needed a priest.
The visita of Cagsawa was founded by the Franciscan head, Fray Pedro Bautista, who was later sent to Japan in May 30, 1593 to head a mission, was martyred by Emperor Hideyosi on Febuary 5, 1597, and became a saint in 1862. The first church was consecrated to St. James the Great.
The arrival of traders and entrepreneurs in the settlement caused the initial flourishing of trade and industry in Cagsawa. Unfortunately, tragedy came in February 1, 1814 when the whole settlement was destroyed by the eruption of Mayon Volcano. The Cagsawa survivors transferred to the nearby settlement of Daraga and some to the area of Putiao, now under the jurisdiction of Sorsogon. The areas of Cagsawa and Budiao, another settlement at the foot of Mayon Volcano, was left unattended for over 120 years.
Today, only 3 group of ruins mark the place of the old Pueblo de Cagsawa: The Iglesia which include the bell tower, the church and the convento; the Casa Real where social functions were held and the Ayuntamiento which was the government house.
The Cagsawa Ruins became a symbol of the resilience of the Albayanos as the survivors of the tragedy in 1814 was able to migrate in Daraga, which later became a very prosperous town. The Ruins became one of the most visited tourist site in Albay, with a daily average of over one thousand visitors before the outbreak of the Corona virus pandemic in March 2020. The Cagsawa bell tower became the most photographed structure in Albay. On December 23, 2015 the National Museum declared the Cagsawa Ruins Park as a National Cultural Treasure.
There are no records of activity in the area for over 100 years, except for some residents who tilled the land between scattered huge boulders that came from Mayon. Fortunately, lava did not reach the area when it was destroyed by the 1814 eruption of Mayon Volcano. In mid 1930s, the Cagsawa ruins were cleaned up. The photographic images of the ruins began to appear in the journals of the Americans who came to colonize our country.
Later, visitors became interested to know what really happened in Cagsawa. In the early 1960s, there were speculations that treasures might have been buried under the ruins. Some attempted to mine the area but failed to find any. The reason was that the lava flow in 1814 did not reach Cagsawa. Some areas buried under mud and earth brought by flooding were soon levelled by tillers who planted rice in the area.
Contrary to popular beliefs, Cagsawa and its church were not buried under lava, because the flow did not reach the town proper. The town of Cagsawa lies beyond the ten kilometers radius of Mayon. Studies show that during the 1814 eruptions the flow of lava did not go beyond the 8 kilometers extended danger zone. Many parts of the town however were flooded, lahar buried some low portions, ash covered the whole town, and large flying fragments of lava solidified in the air, fell as huge rocks and damaged houses and structures in many areas.
A major controversy was created by my declaration in 2014, during the bi-centennial commemoration of the destruction of Cagsawa that the church was not buried by lava during the 1814 Mayon eruption. However, there were incontestable evidences such as the photographs taken by in 1934 by Robert Larimore Pendleton (1890-1957) and photographs in the John Tewell collection showing the Cagsawa Church with its bell tower, façade and walls still standing. I first visited the Cagsawa Ruins in 1963 and saw the tall walls still standing, attesting that the church never went under the ground.