Balaráw: dagger, word, and clues

Two daggers of stunning beauty, in storage at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, propose one entry into the work of reassembling the the possible coherence of materiality within indigenous knowledge systems among Philippine peoples.

Called badayaw (or bayadaw) or badáw in the minority language known as Mandaya — also the name of the ethnolinguistic group — the dagger’s name is that of its form. The Mandaya term is a cognate of the Tagalog and Cebuano balaráw. The form — and the word — invariably refers to the short weapon with the leaf-shaped blade.

This specifically Mandaya version of the lethal and beautiful weapon form were made in the provinces of Davao Oriental and Davao del Norte, Mindanao. Their makers construed themselves, as a distinct people, spatially: as “first people upstream.” This spatiality signals to the Philippine Studies scholar to be keen to the importance of upstream-downstream formulations of identity.

Within such formulations, beautiful weapons such as these, wielded by Mandaya datus until about a century ago, would have been signals of “upstream” identity vis à vis their others.

However, the balaráw name-and-form is widespread in the Philippine archipelago.

Sixteenth to eighteenth century archival sources show up the leaf-shaped dagger in many locations. It can be seen in the small paintings of "Zambals" (of Zambales, whose language exists), "Cagayanes" (of the Cagayan Valley), and "Tagals" (Tagalogs) from the Boxer Codex of 1590.

Use of the balarao in the Visayas is clear. It shows up in a miniscule detail, a vignette with the caption “Bisaya con balarao” of the famous Carta Hydrographica y Chorographica de las Islas Filipinas by the Jesuit cartographer Pedro Murillo, engraved by Nicolás de la Cruz Bagay and Francisco Suarez.

These elusive traceries also call up the scattered fragments of the Mandaya clothing assemblage.

This example of the Mandaya hat called sakop (spelled sacop in Madrid, a remnant of record keeping a century ago), has lost its feathers. It has also lost its living links with the Mandaya themselves. The hat lives in Spain, the Netherlands, and Clark Green City.The word is cognate to the Tagalog sakop, which today is widely understood in Pilipino to be the people ruled by a leader. The essence is the same: that/those beneath an overarching shade.

The feathered sakop shown in this early twentieth century Dean Conant Worcester photograph of a Mandaya male, tops his ensemble of loose trousers and upper garment, shield (kasag or kalasag) and spear.

A rare example of the same Mandaya male trousers and upper garment are with the Nayong Pilipino Museum (formerly PANAMIN Museum, which has moved to Clark Green City.

Just like the mute figures painted on the sakop front, the system of meaning that used to be embodied in the entire assemblage on the Mandaya male body may have slipped entirely from cultural memory.

However these are entry points into a Mandaya universe through what is known of the bagani, the male leader to the female counterpart, the baylán. These old examples of their leaf-bladed dagger and peaked sakop call up the bagani.

On the part of the pandáy (smith), the breathtaking mastery of intent — creating for aerodynamically efficient kill, and for an aesthetic outcome that is simultaneously subtle and compelling — was a profound partnership with the bagani.

We know enough — that the bagani figure (badly translated as the English term warrior) was possessed of unusual spiritual power, which was not, like kings, buttressed by an aristocratic hierarchy — to simplify them into the Orang Besár that fascinated historians of island Southeast Asia.

With this form of leadership recalled, it may also be possible to imagine the word sakop to indicate much more about leadership than we have reduced it to the too simple: to conquer, the conquered.

The bagani undertook raids, yes; for slaves, yes. But allegiance was accorded him by followers on the basis of that spiritual power; that which is matched in aesthetic/spiritual subtlety by his dagger, shield, spear, and the rest.

In any case, there is much more to divine, even if quite late in the day, than the retrieval of memory for and by the Mandaya.

A huge dimension of what can grasped from picking up pieces scattered around the world, are signs of a shared core culture across the archipelago (and indeed including Indonesia). Austronesian cultures and languages that endured for 4000 years—which include all 175+/- languages from Ivatan to Sama—preserved words like sakop and balaraw until the present.

The material forms that expressed the Austronesian concepts of leadership and refinement indeed travelled so far away from the Philippines to seem to matter now. But we might do well to think about things and words, and how they could be part of political analysis today.

The Boxer Codex

Professor Charles R. Boxer purchased this manuscript volume in 1947 from the sale of books and manuscripts from Lord Ilchester's library at Holland House. It dates from the late sixteenth century and contains about 270 pages of text, written probably…

Pedro Murillo Velarde/ Nicolás de la Cruz Bagay Map

Relief shown pictorially. Shows names of coastal towns and historical sailing routes. In lower portion of map: Le esculpio Nicolas de la Cruz Bagay ... 1734. Includes text, descriptive notes, ancillary maps of Guam, cities of Manila, Cavite, and…

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