Revisiting the past and the present in the city of balanghais

Even in ancient times, we Filipinos have a rich maritime culture. Our ancestors travel for so many different reasons – to discover new trade routes, to find new settlements, or simply, to chart a new course.

The former capital of Agusan in Northern Mindanao, Butuan, was an ancient sea-faring kingdom by the river and a major center of commerce in pre-colonial Philippines.

Today, Butuan is dubbed as the “Timber Capital of the Philippines” and is now a highly urbanized city that lies at the heart of the province, bounded by mountainous terrain along its northeastern and western parts, with flat, rolling lands in its center, particularly where the Agusan River cuts through as it empties into Butuan Bay.

Butuan’s unique geography of gentle rolling hills of tropical rainforest, fascinating rock formations and mysterious caves, enchanting beaches with crystal-clear water teeming with marine life, and magnificent waterfalls leaves one with wonder and awe in the vibrant and timeless hues of nature.

But Butuan’s claim to fame lies in its ancient past.

Butuan City has been known here and abroad, particularly in Southeast Asia, as a city of antiques and archaeological finds – a treasure throve of knowledge and discovery of cultural relics from ancient Philippines. The discovery of nine balanghais or balangays – wooden sailing vessels of pre-Spanish Butuanons – in Ambangan, Libertad  is unprecedented across the world and has no parallel in SE Asian prehistoric archeology. These finds gave experts, and us, a glimpse of the maritime history of the early Asians, particularly, the pre-colonial Filipinos.

Walking through Butuan’s glorious past

The Balangay Shrine Museum is built in the actual excavation area in Brgy. Ambangan, Libertad of what is now known as the Butuan Boat No. 1. The museum houses the more than 1,650-year old balanghai or “mother boat” excavated in 1976, the oldest of the nine balanghais dug in and around Butuan City. Declared as a National Cultural Treasure in 1986, this wooden boat averages 15 meters long and 3 meters wide across the beam and is the same type and construction as those recovered in Sumatra and Pontian in Malaysia, apparently of the same period.

Also on display here is Boat No. 5 (discovered in 1986 and carbon dated to about 990AD) and several 14th- to 15th-century relics – skulls of anient Butuanons, coffins, pots, jewelries, hunting tools, and ceramics.

Located inside Luna Compound in Brgy. Bading is the balanghai building site where one can marvel at the huge Masawa Hong Butuan – one of three boats recreated only with materials available during the time period and faithfully adhered to the craftsmanship of the early Butuanons. The 40-man crew Masawa completed in December 2010 a 15-month journey through seven countries in SE Asia, retracing ancient Filipino trade routes.

To maximize your trip to this site, head off to the Banza Church Ruins just across Agusan river. You can hire one of several bancas moored near the balanghai building site for the 2-minute ride to the ruins.  This once magnificent stone structure was burned by Moro pirates in 1753. A centuries-old banyan tree engulfed in its huge trunk parts of the ruins, making for some unique formation.

The Butuan Regional Museum of History showcases Butuan’s prehistoric existence and rich cultural heritage. It comprised of two galleries – the Archaeological Hall and the Ethnological Hall – where specimens of stone crafts, metal crafts, woodcrafts, potteries, goldsmithing tools and products, burial coffins, and other archaeological diggings, as well as various contemporary Butuanon implements used for everyday living are exhibited.

Located in Doongan Road near the city hall, the museum is about a 10-minute walk from the city center.

The Magellan landing (or anchorage) monument is found along the beach of Masao (Masawa, which means “bright” in Butuanon), a 30-minute tricycle ride from the museum. Common folk lore says that Magellan landed here in and made blood compact with the Butuanon chieftains, the brothers Rajah Siatu and Rajah Colambu.

Another 30-minute tricycle ride from Masao Beach, nestled in the cooler hills of Brgy. Poblacion in Magallanes town (which is formerly part of Butuan City), is the Bood Promontory. Found here is the historic marker commemorating the celebration of the first Catholic Mass in Mindanao held on April 8, 1521.


CONTACTS: BUTUAN CITY TOURISM OFFICE | Butuan City Hall Complex, J. Rosales Avenue, Doongan, Butuan City | Phone: (085) 225 4041

BED FOR THE NIGHT: FLOR-AL MANSION | J. C. Aquino Ave., Butuan City | Phone: 0922 360 5664 | Cozy budget hotel at the heart of the city
DOTTIE’S PLACE | #26 J. C. Aquino Ave., Butuan City | Phone: 960 777 8841
BUTUAN MANSION HOUSE & RESTAURANT | R. Calo St., Butuan City | Phone: 085 341 5313

WHERE TO EAT:
LANGIHAN PUBLIC MARKET | Langihan Road, Butuan City | Sample Butuan’s very own palagsing! This local delicacy, usually sells at PHP10 per bundle of four, is as a brown, sticky suman, made of sago starch or unaw, young coconut meat and sugar.

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About Seeing with Brahmin eyes
My sense of humor can be keen, sarcastic, silly or corny -- sometimes all at once. I enjoy meeting new people with no preconceived ideas about what or what is not possible. You get much more out of life by being open minded and willing. I'm an easy going, good-natured person who loves life and loves people. I'm both optimistic and realistic and pretty objective when it comes to assessing situations, events, etc. In general I am a very positive person and you'll usually find we with a smile on my face.

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