Two weeks ago, we prepared and feasted on a dish that I had never tasted since maybe 30 years ago. It was ordinary paksiw na bangus, but cooked as it should be: in a clay pot, called banga in many Philippine languages. I didn’t know if it was just my imagination, but my taste buds told me it was a lot different when food is cooked in a banga, set over wood fire.
Writing about pots, at first I thought, would be one of the dullest chores I ever did. But since I had started this streak of writing about fireplaces anyway, I might as well continue with its logical extension: to write about the endangered craft of native pottery. I don’t think I’ve succeeded.
When I sat down to read the few materials that I had, I realized one could invent a new profession just researching, writing about, and collecting native pottery. (I remember a friend, the late writer Pete Daroy, who had dabbled along these lines.) There is so much accumulated material on the subject.
But reading about pots is different from writing about them, especially for a short column piece. So I’ll merely throw into my own journalist’s pot the few nice tidbits of pottery lore that I gathered, mix them and boil them up like pinakbet stew, and hope the reader finds the dish appealing enough.
A quick scan of wordlists will clearly show that our ancestors, once they shifted to settled village life, greatly relied on a wide variety of earthen vessels to store, cook, and process their food and drink.
It took me a whole day to extract a list (still incomplete) from three sources: Kankanaey Furniture, Implements and Animal Names by Fr. Morice Vanoverbergh, the Iloco-English Dictionary by Gregorio Laconsay, and the Diksyunaryo Tesauro Pilipino-Ingles by Jose Villa Panganiban. The great diversity of native pottery terms is amazing.
In most Philippine languages, the most common term for earthenware cooking pot was (and remains) banga. But there were many variations on the theme. Using just Kankanaey-Bontoc terms: nasayumut and tayabotob were kinds of banga with small openings; ngilinan was a type of banga used only when ritual sacrifices are offered; lutuan was a large banga; paya and sakayang were great, shallow banga with wide openings. Very small banga, used by children at play, were called okkaok, tingab, or ug-uggating. Saong or saw-eng was a ring-shaped tool, with a handle, made of rattan, used to lift up the steaming-hot banga from the stove; in short, it was a nifty pot holder.
The Northern Luzon generic term for earthenware jar, which would usually be used as containers for water, wine, vinegar, or preserved foods, was burnay or talaagum (tapayan is the Tagalog equivalent). Among the Iloko, a small burnay was called maabaga (literally, “shoulder-carried”) and a very small burnay for storing bugguong (salted fish paste) was called putik. Tibur was a much larger type of burnay. My grandmother used all three types at home.
A large jar for storing drinking water was called pananuman. Buyaw (or buyog) was a small jar with handles. Lagangan or paliken are small hoops of rattan on which jars are placed.
Gusi or kuli remains the generic term for earthen jars, glazed or polished and variously colored, of antique Chinese or Thai origin, and ultimately traceable to specific dynastic periods such as Sung, Ming, etc. As highly valued heirloom, these jars were (and are still) used by Cordillera indigenous communities mostly for storing wine. The passig and dalay were locally made copies, while the pannakilo was similar to passig but smaller.
The karamba (also kalamba, in several Philippine languages) is a wide-mouthed earthen jar, while the gambong is a large karamba. The libeng is a jar placed near the top of each of a granary’s four posts (singit), not far from the floor, to prevent rats from climbing up the posts to get at the stored rice.
Damili remains the most generic Northern Luzon term for earthenware and the process of making them. Linang is Iloko for red clay used in damili, while the Kankanaey equivalents are diwin and oknit. Anus is a kind of natural earth pigment used to speckle jars with spots of red color.
Such a wide diversity of terms indicates a long history of extensive use.
The earliest samples of Philippine pottery yet found—intact pots circa 1,000 BC in Palawan, and potsherds from a Masbate cave dated about 2,700 BC by carbon-dating—show that they were made through a technique that is still employed among some indigenous communities today. This method, called “paddle-and-anvil,” is described in William Henry Scott’s Prehispanic Source Materials.
“The potter begins by pressing her thumbs down into the center of a lump of clay to spread it out into a pliable hollow hemispher.” After that, “paddling” begins: “The walls of the pot are made thin, smooth, and even by beating the soft clay with a paddle on the outside opposite a smooth stone ‘anvil’ held inside.” Our ancient ancestors were thus able to produce, through this seemingly simple and crude method, “vessels with thin walls, a sophisticated shape and near-perfect symmetry.”
Scott noted that ancient Philippine pots were apparently “fired at low, uneven temperatures with no control over the draft, probably by piling up the fuel around the pots as is still done in rural potteries today.”
Scott went on to describe the various methods of decorating the pottery before firing, to produce an impressive range of forms. “From the Kalanay caves on Masbate alone,” he noted, “come 16 distinctive forms of jars, jarlets, bowls, plates, lids, pots and cups…”
As in the case of using a native fireplace, using native pottery for daily kitchen needs—if not actually making pottery at home—helps restore our intimate connections with our ancestors’ distant past.
Pottery is perhaps 3,000 years old in the country, and yet remains very useful today. That is why we can still find stalls selling them in nearly every public market around the country. And I don’t simply mean those play pots for children, or those decorative pots for garden plants and indoor display. I mean, we can still find jars, pots and bowls in which we can cook, store food and drink, and dine.
We assume that the clay crockery being sold in public markets is locally made. But how many of us have ever stopped to consider and actually investigate where and how they are made? Where do the potters get their seemingly endless supply of clay? Do they use big potter’s wheels, and is there a standard wheel design? Do they still use the ancestral terms for specific pot or jar designs? Are the potters mostly men or women? Do children have a role? How are the drying, glazing, and firing processes done nowadays?
It’s a great shame that the simple technology of making clay pots—so simple in fact that children could learn it with proper supervision—is not being taught in most public schools. There are pottery classes, but these are offered by special, art, or summer schools or private tutors often charging high tuition fees.
Leaf through the standard social-science and history textbooks and technical how-to manuals of our schools today, and you will hardly find any effort to document and present these crafts to such an extent as to give the students a more lasting appreciation of our ancestral legacies—if not a practical guide to actually learn them.
More and more urban children are now learning to use computers, cell phones, and other gizmos of high-tech living. They spend so much on school projects that often require expensive materials. My son, to be resplendent as I proudly tie his kerchief around his neck, has to don a full Boy Scout uniform running up to more than 500 pesos. For what? So he can spend a few Scouting days learning to tie knots, cleaning school grounds, and joining parades?
I don’t have anything against kids learning to use computers or tie Boy Scout knots. These all have their uses. And yet, here is a centuries-old craft that grade-school children can learn and immediately put to good use, using materials found within the neighborhood (or at least not too far away) at minimal cost. It shouldn’t be hard to teach them how to find clay in the backyard, or in some empty lot, or down by the riverbank. Molding the clay into useful containers or decorative shapes is almost second nature to children. The only difficult part, firing, can be done in a special community facility or on the school grounds, with the proper supervision.
At the very least, the school curricula should ensure that our children, if only vicariously, should become familiar with out country’s pottery and other native crafts as practiced by our ancestors and even by the present generation to some extent. #
Author’s note: This article was originally published as my column piece for Northern Dispatch Weekly for its Oct. 17, 2004 issue (Vol. 16 No. 41). When I wrote this piece, Youtube was not yet around. Twelve years later, fortunately, so much textual, photo and video material on Philippine pottery making are already available online. Some examples are about Lezo, the pottery capital of Aklan (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PxLLs1Z6SY4) and Vigan, the damili center of Ilocos Sur (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fYzheLO1vJA). Many of my questions have been answered, at least to some extent. Researchers need only to continue in-depth studies and more thorough documentation of the process, both the technical and socio-economic aspects.