Image by Erwin Cabarles
Growing up in a culture-conscious high school, we were taught and tasked to perform the traditional legends of our country. Since I graduated from the Western Visayas Campus of Philippine Science High School, our higher-year Filipino subjects had lessons of our local historic folklore.

In High School, we performed an excerpt of the Hinilawod. Hinilawod is a treasured epic of the Visayas, especially to Panay Island. It is the story of how Panay came to be. It is as captivating as the Ramayana, only, it wasn't glorified as much.

Though I never really understood the story, it was through our exposure of the epic that we learned about the existence of the Binukot.

In the ethnic tribes in the Panay hinterlands, there is a family tradition of setting apart one girl to be a Binukot. A Binukot is a woman who, from childhood, is not allowed to work, not allowed to be seen by other people, is waited on hand and foot, given only the choicest of food, carried around in a hammock because her feet should never touch the ground, is basically treated like a princess, but whose could never be seen by people other than her immediate family, could never go to school, and couldn't even be allowed sun exposure.

The role of the Binukot is to memorize all the traditional folklore, which is handed down from generation to generation only by the spoken word. What makes the Binukots even more important is that they are the only ones who will ever have the honor of memorizing and retelling the epics and the stories.

What is more, the Binukot is also the tribe's witch doctor. So more than learning the tribe's history, they also get to be the tribe's medicine women, rain whisperers, and all-around supernaturally powerful beings.

Thus, the Binukot seems to be a mix of both princess, sage and scribe, only there is nothing to write. They themselves are the living parchment, the keys to their tribes' precious history.

The Binukot was thus a crucial part of tribal history for Iloilo's tribes. It is sad, then, that when the Japanese invaded these shores, they were among the first to be violated, because they lacked the skills and the strength to fight and survive. Not only that, since a Binukot is selected because of her exceptional beauty, you do not need to guess why they were among the first victims of the cruel invaders of World War II.

Before we go on, let me say that the Japanese of today are a beautiful, highly respected and respectful people. The Japanese of the era when the nations were so into imperialism are, as we are discussing, history.

There are still some remaining Binukots who have accepted the "calling" in order to continue tradition. Others were "forced" to accept, and others were willing. But young ladies like Lola Elena Gardoce's granddaughter Emily no longer want to accept the call to be a Binukot. Though the royal treatment is tempting, the chance to go to school is more important to them.

Lola Elena is dubbed as Panay's most famous Binukot because of an award she received from the Cultural Center of the Philippines for her work in reciting the Sugidanon.

Efforts to teach the epic chanters to transmit their traditions into recordable means have since been launched. Audio of the epics have been recorded, and a good number of them have been written into books. When we had our high school plays, our sources were books.

Such is the rich culture of these islands. Surely, not only Panay boasts of these cultural treasures, but also the rest of the country. Take time to scratch the surface and get to know our people.

-The Scribbler

Negros Island.  The SWEET Spot of the Philippines.