Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Mysterious Shrine, Toke’Alfo

[I wrote this piece from out of a sketchy piece contributed by my friend Patrick for the SARANGGANI SPACE Magazine]

While everybody else is probably still in bed, or just waking up, my friends and I are already on the road headed toward Maasim municipality in Sarangani where we intend to meet Pastor Isla who has promised to guide us to Tampat Shrine. It is a huge pile of rocks left as tribute by people of long ago. But tribute to whom? This is what my friends and I intend to find out.

We arrive at Pastor Isla’s house near the beach in Tinoto at around 6:30 a.m. and after a quick round of introductions, he gets in the car with us. A couple of minutes later he tells Triple, our guide from the governor’s office, to stop the car at a rusty padlocked gate along the General Santos-Sarangani highway.

Pastor Isla points to the other side of the highway where mountains border a ranch as far as the eye can see. Looking closely at the cliffs, we spot the biggest clam in the world, which from our point of view, has become just a speck in the distance but is still clearly visible. Pastor Isla tells us that the clam has been featured several times on national television. He then gets out of the car and calls out loudly to the caretakers of the property on our side of the highway to let us in, because he says in Blaan, “We have come to take a look at Tampat Shrine!”

A boy comes and opens the gate to a vast ranch of thin trees and lots of thorny bushes, but no cattle. The pathway is so uneven that we decide to leave the car some 200 meters away from the gate. In single file, we go down the rocky lane strewn with limestone, and by the time we reach the shore of the Celebes Sea, we are all sweating and thirsty.

We walk along the sandy road with the open sea on our right and on the left, huge slabs of shale lining the shore. Finally, we reach the edge of the shoreline where, behind a cluster of houses, is the strangest pile of rocks I have ever seen. It stands more than three meters high, and we are told, each rock got to this spot through the years as homage to Sultan Falalisan. He was a legendary Blaan who had the ability to navigate the seas on a large kawa or cooking pot. (It is a figurative way of saying that he was such a good navigator that he could sail in any contraption—even a cooking pot.)

From where we are standing beside Tampat Shrine, we see a cove with deep blue waters. Three fishers, each in his own banca or boat, sit motionless waiting for fish to take bait. Triple informs us the area is Sigil Cove, where South Point, a popular diving spot, is located. Tampat Shrine happens to be at the very corner of shoreline where the Celebes Sea meets Saranggani Bay.The Shrine’s location is so ideal that it has become the starting point of the annual swimming competition held during the Sarangani Bay Festival every May. Pointing across the sea, Triple says we are facing the Municipality of Glan, the final destination of the swimming competition, and the southernmost municipality of Sarangani.

Pastor Isla tells us that the piled rocks marking the grave of Sultan Falalisan is called Toke’Alfo, a Blaan phrase meaning, One Coconut Tree. This is strange because I have not seen a single coconut growing along the shore. Pastor Isla explains that according to legend, Al Ma’bat, a Blaan forebear of Sultan Falalisan, planted a coconut tree on the spot where the Shrine now stands.

Just like an improvised light tower, I muse. A coconut or shrine located at the point where the Celebes Sea meets Sarangani Bay could serve as a practical navigational marker! Was the Shrine a navigational marker for seafarers looking for protected deep anchorage for their sea vessels? The South Point area of Sigil Cove looks like an ideal spot.

A salty smell from the rocks permeates Tampat Shrine and I decide to walk around to investigate. Some rocks have pieces of nylon rope or string tied through holes. They are probably anchor weights brought by fishers. Carefully circling the Shrine clockwise, I notice slabs of shale in upright position forming 11 rectangles which are clear of rocks and shrubs. A ramp with a north-to-south orientation leads to the top of the Shrine.

It seems to me that Tampat Shrine is consistent with records of burial practices by seafarers of the Indo-Pacific region. When I studied at University, I remember reading that it was not unusual to build the burial ground of a seafarer with a ramp oriented in a north– south direction leading to the top of the burial ground. In fact, ship captains were buried facing the pole star. Were Sultan Falalisan’s shipmates buried around the Shrine as indicated by these shale-lined rectangles? The women in the hut of the family designated as the Shrine’s caretakers confirm my guess that people have been buried here but they do not know who.

Also interesting are the white banners placed at the top of Tampat Shrine which are clearly mourning flags of Muslim influence. In fact, the family in charge of the Shrine are of Blaan descent but practice Islam. This is quite extraordinary because over the centuries, Lumad tribes have steadfastly stuck to their belief systems despite foreigners settling down and introducing Islam and Christianity. This sense of self-preservation of Mindanao’s Lumads is precisely why the Spanish colonizers failed to convert them.

For a moment I become still, moved by the history of the place. Standing under the tree that is growing beside the Shrine, I face the sea and sense the dead seafarers’ spirits around me. I take some pictures and try to capture the serenity of it all. As we trace our steps back to the car, Pastor Isla begins to tell us the story of Tampat Shrine told to him by his late grandfather:

"A long time ago, a Maguidanaoan merchant, Sultan Falasab, reached the shores of Tinoto. Because his ship needed some repairs, he sent his men to the forest to get rattan vines. On the way to the forest, the men saw a tree house, which was the customary house of Blaans at that time. In the tree house was a small boy and a beautiful girl with very long hair that reached the ground. The men took the girl and brought her to the Sultan.”

“The girl’s name was Foi’Ble and she had four older brothers, Fo’n Bong, Fo’n Tukay, Foi’ Talaot, and Al Ma’bat. The brothers were out hunting in the forest and when they returned to their tree house, they found their sister was gone. Following the footprints leading away from their house, the brothers arrived at the beach where they saw their sister on the Sultan’s ship. Very angry, the brothers shot a volley of arrows towards the ship. When Sultan Falasab saw the brothers, he asked for peace and then asked to marry Foi’Ble because he loved her deeply. The brothers agreed but only after Sultan Falasab paid a dowry equivalent to the number of strands in Foi’Ble’s hair. The Sultan then brought Foi’Ble to Maguindanao where they lived from then on.”

“Sultan Falalisan, who is buried in Tampat Shrine, is the descendant of Foi’Ble and Sultan Falasab. Born out of their union, Sultan Falalisan became a Blaan–Maguindanaon who practiced Islam. He was also a navigator like Sultan Falasab and since Foi’Ble came from Tinoto, Sultan Falalisan had a reason to visit the place time and again. As a navigator, he probably anchored his ship at Sigil Cove, and used the lone coconut tree as his navigational marker. When he died, he was probably buried beneath the coconut tree.”

I can very well imagine that because Sultan Falalisan was highly respected due to his royal lineage and his being an excellent navigator, seafarers visited his grave and lay rocks as tokens of respect. And possibly to also ask for still waters in the coasts they were headed.

Incredibly, the story of Tampat Shrine reveals the intermingling of Blaan and Maguindanaon culture; of the Lumad and Muslim beliefs. The hero, Sultan Falalisan, is the intrepid navigator who charted peace and harmony amidst the currents of cultural diversity. Although Tampat Shrine’s significance may have been lost in our history, its presence reminds us that before we even existed, other people existed. Who knows, this area around the Shrine might have been a bustling harbor once upon a time. I imagine the mountains in the distance full of deer and the shore full of high trees where people used to live. I gaze at the rocky hill formations looming over Tampat Shrine and wonder where the weary seafarers went to rest and sleep.

Time changes many things; people come and go, changing the environment with them. Yet some things resist the change of time, like great men who died but whose stories continue to be told.

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