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The Ifugao People of the Philippines: History, Culture, Customs and Tradition [Cordillera Indigenous People | Ethnic Group]

Ifugao People of the Philippines: History, Culture, Customs and Tradition [Cordillera Indigenous People | Ethnic Group]

The Ifugao people inhabit the most rugged and mountainous part of the country, high up in the central Cordillera in northern Luzon.

The term “Ifugao” is composed of the prefix i meaning “people of” and pugaw meaning “the cosmic earth.” It could also have been derived from the term ipugo, which means “from the hill.” Ifugao mythology, however, says that ipugo is a type of rice grain given to the people by Matungulan, the god of grains.

Ifugao is also the name of a province, one among six of the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR). It covers about 251,778 hectares of territory, 81.77% of which has a slope of over 18 degrees. It consists of 11 municipalities—Banaue, Hungduan, Kiangan, Lagawe, Lamut, Mayoyao (Mayaoyao), Alfonso Lista (Potia), Aguinaldo, Hingyon, Tinoc, and Asipulo—with Lagawe as the provincial capital. The province is known for its rice terraces that are found in nine upland municipalities.

Its highest elevation is at 2,523 meters, and its waters flow toward Magat River, a tributary of the Cagayan River. The neighbors of the Ifugao to the north are the Bontok; to the west, the Kankanaey and Ibaloy; to the east, the Gaddang; and to the south, the Ikalahan and Iwak. In 1918, Ifugao province had a total of 175 barangays and a total population of 126,000. By 2010, the population had grown to 191,078.

The major Ifugao languages are Tuwali in Kiangan and Lagawe; Ayangan or Adyangan in Banaue; Henanga in Mayoyao and Aguinaldo; Hingyon; and Hungduan. Linguistic boundaries, however, are not quite as clearly delineated. In Asipulo, for instance, there are least three Ifugao subgroups speaking different Ifugao languages: Tuwali, Hanlulo, and Adyangan. Among the Ifugao, Tuwali is the lingua franca, and Ilocano is the second language, used particularly for trading and travel.

History of Ifugao Province

For two centuries even as the lowlanders were under Spanish domination, Ifugao life remained undisturbed. Then in 1741, the towns of Bayombong and Bagabag were established in Nueva Vizcaya as a base for Spanish operations. The Spanish used converts like Juan Lumawig of Bagabag to convince the Ifugao to settle in the Spanish towns. Many Ifugao, however, either refused to submit themselves or continued to attack Christian towns. In response, the Spanish military employed other tactics. In 1832, Colonel Guillermo Galvey pillaged Kiangan, using Ilocano and Pangasinan troops to retaliate against Ifugao attacks on Nueva Vizcaya and Cagayan towns.

Banaue Rice Terraces, circa 1990
Banaue Rice Terraces, circa 1990 (CCP Collections)

In 1847, the military governor Mariano Oscariz carried out expeditions in Mayoyao, Alimit, and Kiangan, burning crops, destroying terrace walls, and executing three Ifugao for every Spaniard killed. By January 1949, the Spaniards had subdued Kiangan, enough to compel 1,076 families to pay a tribute of three or four gantas of rice each. In 1850, Oscariz used another tactic—that of divide-and-rule—by using Mayoyao ang Bunhian recruits to attack Kambalo. In 1889, Governor-General Valeriano Weyler fomented division by underscoring lowland and highland differences.

Ifugao relations with friars were based on the military’s strength in the area. For as long as there was military presence, the Ifugao welcomed the protection of the friars, who were aiming to convert them. In 1849, for instance, the Ifugao in Mayoyao asked for a priest and built a church in their village. Five years later, however, when the Spanish forces were transferred elsewhere and the villagers had by then become disillusioned with the friars, they burned down the church.

At the end of the century, although the Spanish had made inroads into Ifugao country, they were unable to effectively control the native population. The Spaniards could not end the Ifugao practice of headhunting completely despite attempts to do so, and the Ifugao continually attacked Spanish garrisons and troops. Even the Ifugao, who lived in Spanish garrison towns and sought protection from the Spanish military against their own Ifugao enemies, rebelled against Spanish colonial taxes and military abuse.

In late 1899, General Emilio Aguinaldo, called “Miliyu” by the Ifugao, penetrated the Cordilleras, with the Americans in pursuit. The Ifugao willingly shared with Aguinaldo and his troops their camote, which was abundant in the region, but the troops demanded chicken and rice, which were not as readily available. The Ifugao were also paid too little for their goods; hence, they stopped selling these altogether. Soon Aguinaldo’s men resorted to outright confiscation of food supplies, which earned for them the title “black hawks” or “chicken-stealing fowl.” This made the Ifugao desire not only the rifles but even more so the heads of the soldiers.

Ifugao men with rifles
Ifugao men with rifles (National Geographic, 1913, Mario Feir Filipiniana Library)

When the American troops came, the Ifugao were astonished at the difference between them and Aguinaldo’s troops. The Americans had their own food supplies and paid the Ifugao well for the goods they bought from them. Ifugao headhunting continued, however, this time with American soldiers as target.

After Aguinaldo’s capture in Palanan, Isabela, in 1901, American troops continued to explore the Cordillera mountains. They were usually met with spears by the ferocious Ifugao warriors. Despite their continuous battles with the Ifugao, the American troops spent much effort in learning the people’s culture, and they did not meddle with Ifugao beliefs—an important factor for the Ifugao. As a result, the Ifugao people had a fairly positive perception of the Americans. The Americans made friends with the people and appointed them to positions of leadership in the community. Thus, in the history of Ifugao-American relations, several soldiers and government officials became apo (ancestor), including Lieutenant Levi Case and Captain Lewis Patstone, who conducted the initial negotiations with the town leaders of Ifugao. Researchers and nonmilitary personnel, like Dean Worcester of the Philippine Commission of 1900, went to the mountains to study the indigenous tribes in the Philippines. Other governors and government officials intermarried with Ifugao women during their stay. One officer, Lieutenant Jeff Gallman, was considered by the Ifugao as their greatest apo because of his bravery and gallantry.

American presence in the Ifugao province initiated gradual adaptation to new realities. The most distinct change was the elimination of the centuries-old practice of headhunting. This was resisted at first. But American superiority in battle and the respect they afforded the Ifugao in these battles made these changes more acceptable. The Americans gave the leaders of the community silver-topped canes, which were gifts that added prestige to the latter. The fiery energy of the Ifugao men was channeled to Constabulary service. Ifugao soldiers were trained in the military arts and soon became marksmen. They replaced lowland troops. The Constabulary uniform was adopted to the Ifugao manner of dressing: a khaki shirt with sleeve insignia, cartridge belt, a specially designed loincloth, the traditional hip bag for the men, a padang worn around both legs, and a single-shot Springfield rifle.

Trail building helped break down the isolation of communities created by years of tribal warfare. Employment opportunities were created. Stores were allowed to sell local goods and produce. In Kiangan and Banaue, the Ifugao were exposed to formal American education, although only children of the prominent Ifugao could avail of it. Ifugao workers improved their economic condition, and disparities in wealth were not very significant. However, American pacification efforts made no distinct dent on the Ifugao identity. The pacification did pave the way for foreign missionaries to enter the Ifugao heartland. Among these were members of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (CICM) composed of Roman Catholic priests, nuns, and lay workers from Belgium. The Saint Joseph’s School was founded by CICM missionary Father Jerome Moerman at Kiangan in 1934. Similar schools at Banaue, Lamut, Lagawe, and Mayoyao were built soon after. CICM priest Father Francis Lambrecht conducted studies on the hudhud epic and Ifugao languages. Myrtle Matzger, an American Protestant missionary founded the Ifugao Academy in 1930.

There were important bills passed during the American occupation, such as the creation of the Bureau of Non-Christian Tribes, the Jones Law of 1916, and the election of local officials. The Philippine Commission headed by Dean Worcester created Mountain Province, composed of seven sub-provinces, namely, Benguet, Amburayan, Bontoc, Ifugao, Lepanto, Apayao, and Kalinga.

During World War II, schools were operated by Japanese teachers and Nihonggo was taught. The Ifugao, however, sheltered Filipino guerrillas, keeping silent on their presence, despite the brutal methods with which the Japanese tried to extract information from them. Ifugao was also the scene of Yamashita’s final stand in 1945. After the war, Ifugao families went back to their fields while roads were being repaired.

In 1966, Ifugao became a province through Republic Act No. 4695. In 1973, President Ferdinand Marcos issued a decree declaring the Ifugao rice terraces a national landmark. Two years later, Marcos issued a provision on the decree, penalizing modification, alteration, repair, or destruction of the original features of the terraces. The Banaue Hotel and Youth Hostel was soon constructed in the municipality of Banaue. Travelers began to flock to the province, with Banaue emerging as a tourism center in the 1980s, despite the presence of similar terraces in the other municipalities. In 1995, because of its rice terrace clusters, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared Banaue, Hungduan, Kiangan, and Mayoyao as World Heritage Sites.

Soon after the ouster of Marcos in 1986, the new president Corazon Aquino signed a peace pact with the Cordillera People’s Liberation Army (CPLA), an armed group that aimed for regional autonomy founded on the peace pact institution of the bodong. Negotiations between the government and the CPLA led to the formation of the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) in July 1987. CAR also reunited the former mountain provinces, including Abra as a special region. But in the January 1990 plebiscite, the Organic Act for the Cordillera Autonomous Region was much opposed, with only the Ifugao province voting in favor of it with a margin of 2,000. The second Organic Act enacted by Congress was also rejected in the March 1998 plebiscite.

In politics, warlord rule emerged. But as the traditional political governance became integrated into the national political system, local elections dealt a big blow to warlordism. This was reflected by the victory of independent candidates for mayoral positions.

The traditional kinship system of the Ifugao has also been manipulated by traditional politicians. Government programs have had little impact on the economic conditions of the people. Regular military operations in the region have slowed down development work.

Ifugao Way of Life

Agriculture—both wet and dry—is the main source of livelihood among the Ifugao. Rice is grown mainly on the terraces, while sweet potatoes and other tubers are grown on the mountainsides that they have cleared. Rice is the chief staple; sweet potatoes rank high in consumption but low in prestige. Only rice is served during rites and feasts.

Since rice production is dependent on rainwater, an irrigation system has been developed, requiring the building of pipelines, conveyors, and sluices. Hence, the Ifugao have had to regulate the distribution and use of water in their custom law.

Rice pounding in Mayoyao, Ifugao,
Rice pounding in Mayoyao, Ifugao, circa 1980 (SIL International)

The initial work of preparing the paddies is strenuous. Since animals cannot be used because of the steep terraces, men upturn the soil with wooden spades after soaking the paddy. At harvest, workers are paid in shares of sheaves of rice plus meals. Rice bundles are dried under the sun and stored in granaries watched over by carved bulol (rice gods). The rice fields may also be planted with legumes or vegetables after the harvest, so even the embankments are useful. The paddies nourish snails and fish that complement the Ifugao’s diet. The women gather all sorts of weeds, roots, and decaying matter in piles on the paddies and plant legumes on them. These materials serve as fertilizer for the next crop, in addition to whatever humus can be gathered from the forested areas.

The Ifugao practice a centuries-old forest management system called pinugo or muyong. It consists of small patches of forest usually tended by adult males in each family. The system ensures conservation of the forest for fuel, housing, and irrigation for the terraces. The pinugo is part of a strict tribal law designed to protect the environment. Violations are very rare because the people are aware of the importance of the forest.

Their domesticated animals are chickens, pigs, and ducks. Carabaos butchered in prestigious feasts are bought from the lowlands. They use bird traps and nets for catching bats. The hunting yield, though, has been declining. Other economic activities include fishing in the streams and ponds, pottery making, basketry, and wood carving.

Video: Soar Over the Lush Rice Terraces of the Philippines

The rice terraces have created a tourist industry that has resulted in improvements in the infrastructure such as roads, electric grids, and buildings. This has opened up opportunities for the Ifugao to participate in both the national and global cash economy. Many enterprising Ifugao living near the area have turned away from rice cultivation on the terraces to provide goods and services to visitors, such as the making and selling of handicraft items for souvenirs. By 2001, worm infestation, the lack of water, and neglect had caused the terraces to be added to the UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger. The Ifugao people’s response to the public outcry was this: While non-Ifugao Filipinos look upon these terraces as a national symbol and hold them responsible for the maintenance and preservation of these, they, on the other hand, must go where economic security beckons.

Additionally, more opportunities for wage labor in nearby provinces, such as in the logging areas of Isabela and of Maddela, Quirino, and in the citrus orchards of Didipio, Nueva Vizcaya, besides those in urban centers like Baguio City and Manila, and overseas like Hong Kong, Singapore, and Dubai have led to an increase in Ifugao outmigration.

Ifugao Culture

Social classes exist in Ifugao society, and these are based on wealth, indicated by the possession of heirloom objects such as antique porcelain; sacrificial animals like carabaos, pigs, and chickens; other household items of value; and a considerable amount of money. The hagabi lounge chair is a status symbol, indicating that the family belongs to the kadangyan (aristocracy). Those who were captured during head-taking excursions belong to the nawotwot (lower class). To this group also belong the field workers who do not own land but serve the kadangyan either as servants or tenants. In between the two classes are the natumok, who may own small pieces of land, but these are not sufficient to give them a year-round harvest. The rich Ifugao usually command authority, although fair treatment is accorded to all. Ordinarily, the rich belong to the mombaki (shaman) clan who perform marriages, recite myths during marriages and victory feasts, and offer animal sacrifices and prayers for the recovery of sick people.

Ifugao warrior
Ifugao warrior (National Geographic, 1913, Mario Feir Filipiniana Library)

In the Kiangan district, the rich are composed of three groups: the kadangyan, ordinary rich; the ballihung or immuyya-uy, the middle elite; and the himagabi, the wealthiest.

Feasts are a measure of an Ifugao’s prestige or rank. Reasons for holding them are “abundance in life; a miraculous increase in rice, pigs and chickens; and quick growth of children” (Barton 1946, 126), all perceived as divine gifts. There are five occasions for the holding of prestige feasts: the uyuawe or baiyah, in which chickens’ bile sacs are examined for omens; the balog, in which the host indicates his rank with a wooden stick to which is attached hanging leaves and knives; the kolat or lotob, which marks the male heir’s first haircut; the hagabi, when the hagabi bench is made or taken into the owner’s house; and the kamalig, when a wooden floor, instead of the cheaper runo mat, is laid underneath the house on which the priest could hold rituals.

Kinship is of primary importance in traditional Ifugao life. The success of one is the success of all, and the burden of one is the burden of all. Members of the family are advised to marry within the region or if they marry an outsider, to settle near the parents’ residence. The father has the final say in family activities such as work in the fields, children’s care and training, and feasts. The wife closely assists the husband, and she takes his place as head of the family when he dies. Once the fields have been planted and there is sufficient firewood stored, the father can enjoy himself attending feasts, drinking, and gambling, or he may choose to help with the household chores. Women are expected to plant and harvest rice, weed the rice paddies, cook, keep house, weave, and sew the family clothes. The wife is allowed to accompany the husband in feasts and ceremonies.

Children are well attended to, especially when still very young. They are expected to obey and respect their parents at all times and help them with work. Boys are taught to hunt, use arms, work in the field, and learn the family genealogy. Boys from the mombaki bloodline are trained to recite the baki (myths). The knowledge of pedigrees is of paramount importance to the Ifugao. This helps in determining who to invite to feasts and gatherings that require the presence of relatives. Children are expected to be present at ceremonies and rituals when the kindred or the lineage is called on to participate. On the other hand, girls are taught to manage the home, work in the fields, and recite numerous ballads, especially the hudhud and the liwliwa (love song).

Chastity is of prime importance. Children of the opposite sex, including siblings, are not supposed to hold each other or talk about sex. This is considered highly indecent. Incest is strictly forbidden in Ifugao law. Marriage between cousins up to the fourth degree is looked upon with disdain. In the past, brothers and sisters slept in separate houses as soon as they reached the age of six or seven. They stayed in dormitories called agamang under the care of an old man, a widow, or an elderly unmarried woman. When a man decided to settle down, he sought his partner in the agamang. He was expected to bring a fair amount of betel nuts and the chewing instruments so that everybody could share in the chewing session. This practice was scorned by the Belgian missionaries, who introduced a Catholic education system that led to several changes in the Ifugao’s traditional lifeway.

By tradition, children follow the choice of their parents. Matchmaking is made on the basis of wealth and social status. Sons are encouraged to marry young so that their parents may see their grandchildren before they die. A traditional engagement requires the boy to serve at the girl’s home by performing domestic tasks. Three to six months later, the wedding ceremony is performed by the mombaki in the girl’s home. Newly married couples live separately from their parents to ensure mutual respect and cooperation.

Certain omens at the wedding, such as the bride slipping or dropping something, can void a marriage. Divorce is permitted if the couple remains childless or if the wife is proven unfaithful. If the couple is childless, it is the husband’s prerogative to opt for divorce. Divorce ceremonies are performed by the mombaki with an animal offering in the couple’s house. The husband must move out and the wife keeps the house. Both the husband and wife can reclaim the wealth and property they owned before their marriage.

The traditional practices related to engagement, marriage, and divorce have waned as the Ifugao have adapted to Christian ways. Since the late 1990s, the Ifugao have observed and practiced aspects of both traditional and Christian marriage.

An elaborate and expensive ceremony is given to the dead, whether rich or poor. Animals, particularly cows, carabaos, and pigs, must be slaughtered daily to feed those who come to the wake. Portions of the uncooked meat—known as watwat in Tuwali and togma in Henanga—are given to the relatives of the dead to take home. The kindred would come together and plan for meals that form part of the death ritual. Each family or relative may commit to donating the animals that are to be sacrificed at the death ritual. Despite attempts by the government to regulate it, the Ifugao death ritual has persisted. Families still perform the ritual even if it would mean mortgaging their property or even incurring a lifetime of debt. The Henanga Ifugao practice the cholar, the death ritual performed in the houses specified by the kindred. In the late 1990s in Mayoyao, death rituals could last up to a month.

Burial methods depend on the age, social status of the deceased, and cause of death. Children and babies are buried after three days without too much ceremony. Adults who die a natural death are given five days of vigil, sometimes nine, depending on their social status. Animals are sacrificed during the wake. If the dead were rich, there is gong playing and dancing. Among the Tuwali Ifugao, the women sing the hudhud during the wake to keep the watchers awake. Among the Henanga Ifugao, instead of the hudhud, a man may sing the epfer or a woman the iha, both of which are dirges that narrate the life story of the dead.

The good deeds of the dead are extolled in elaborate ceremonies. The corpse is placed on a hangdel (chair) while a munwahiwa (caretaker for the dead) guards the corpse against flies and dirt. Murder victims are allowed a three-day vigil with only the relatives present. The corpse is placed in a sitting position in front of the house. The women of the family shake the corpse, swear vengeance, and curse the murderers. On the third day, a ceremonial war dance is performed.

Custom law provides the Ifugao people with a political system that governs all aspects of their relationships. The rugged terrain acts as a barrier to close interaction between members of different hamlets, and so it is difficult for a political hierarchical system to develop. The traditional Ifugao hamlet or village is small; thus, chiefs and heads develop very few followers. The Ifugao family is responsible for its affairs as long as every family member follows custom law. But when a custom or law is violated, the victim must seek justice.

For every type of crime, there is a corresponding punishment. Justice may be considered by the victim’s relative. A victim’s relatives will consider justice done if their loss matches that of the offender’s kin. Revenge is a firm Ifugao tradition. Headhunting, for example, was a ritualized means of attaining vengeance and glory. Heads were proudly displayed in the Ifugao home as a sign of prestige and gallantry. When the Americans outlawed beheading, the Ifugao argued that they should at least be allowed to cut off a finger of the person killed in battle, to be used in a feast for the gods.

The mombaki was the head of the Ifugao village. He was the political and religious authority who had acquired wealth and distinction. Because of his exceptional knowledge of custom law, his word was law. He decided what action to take against erring villagers. With the help of older village members, he imposed damages and fines.

The death penalty was rarely imposed, even for crimes as grave as murder. Disputes were settled by one of three main methods: ug-gub (dart throwing); bultong (wrestling); and the boiling water ordeal, now obsolete. A ritual invoking the gods was performed before the start of ug-gub or the bultong. Through the years, the political authority of the mombaki has weakened due to the increasing intervention of the national governance system. Since the 1960s, the mombaki’s role has had to compete with that of the government authorities.

Ifugao Religious Beliefs and Practices

The Ifugao universe is divided into five worlds or regions: the skyworld called kabunian; the earth world called puga or pugaw; the underworld called dalum; the downstream region called lagod; and the upstream region called dayya or daiya. Beneath the underworld is a substream called dagah-na. All the regions of the universe are inhabited by thousands of deities and spirits; yet, there is no supreme deity.

Deities are Matungulan, gods and goddesses of plenty or the god of all worlds; Dimapon, god of fortune: Manahaot, god of sorcery and deception; Bagob, god of harvest; Bulul, god of the idols; Montalong, god of humans; Bibiyo, fairy gods; and Mabaki, gods and goddesses of war. These deities are known only to the mombaki, whose training and preparation for this position take a number of years.

Ifugao ritual in Batad
Ifugao ritual in Batad, circa 1980 (SIL International)

Baki or rituals express the Ifugao’s religious beliefs and are led by the mombaki. A ritual may consist of the following steps: the gonod or invocation to the deities or ancestors by name; the dayum or prayer to the deities; the aiyag, in which the mombaki invites the ancestors to come and possess him; the hikkop, in which an ancestor or deity possesses the mombaki; and the tobal, in which the mombaki exhorts the possessing deity or ancestor by expressing the purpose of the feast and the will of the people. Offerings are always part of the rites performed. These consist of betel nut, chicken claw, feathers, rice wine, pigs, dogs, and chickens. In minor rites, the dried skin and inner layer of the pig’s jowls are offered. It is taboo for the people, even for the mombaki, to eat this part of the pig.

The more important rites involve stages in the Ifugao life cycle: rice planting, rice harvesting, sickness, weaving, hunting, acquisition of prestige, marriage, and death and burial. Nearly all rites are performed underneath the house or granary, except for hunting, headhunting, and aiyag, which are performed in the forest. Each of these rites is addressed to a special deity and ancestor.


The more important Ifugao rituals include those related to their daily subsistence. The rice ritual consists of the following steps, in succession: the lukat, which is the weeding of the fields; the pudung, in which the runo stalks are stuck to the ground and spread over the field in a standing position; the loka sacrifice, when the rice seedling is taken from the granary; the ugwidd, which is performed just before the turning of the soil with a spade; the bolnat, when seedlings are taken from the seed bed; the kulpe, which is after the transplanting of the rice seedlings; the hagophop, just before the women weed the crops; the paad, just before the terrace banks are weeded to prevent rice from wilting; the hanglag, when the rice is first eaten; and the ingngilin, performed by the owner during the day of the harvest.

The takdag involve the whole community and mark the end of the harvest for the rice year. Hikgut is the ritual sweeping of the house when the rice that is kept in the attic is first used. When all this stored rice has been consumed, the apui is performed. Then the rice granary is opened, and new bundles of rice are taken out.

In wedding rituals, the mombaki inspects the bile of the sacrificial animals to read the wishes of the gods. It is inspected for its color and its position relative to the animal’s intestines and liver. If the bile shows a bad omen, the ceremony is repeated until a favorable signal is finally made.

Bulul, Tuwali, Ifugao,
Bulul, Tuwali, Ifugao, circa 1980 (SIL International)

During rituals, ancestors are invoked, with the bulol being a central figure, especially in rice rituals. Every stage of production requires a meticulous ceremony lasting for about six weeks. Deities are called upon in the forest to approve of the type of tree to be used for the carving. A ceremony is held upon the bulol’s arrival at the owner’s house. Myths concerning the origin of the bulol are recited. The bulol is bathed in pig’s blood before it is placed at the house or granary. The mombaki must abstain from any sexual activity for about three months. An offering of rice cakes at the foot of the bulol marks the end of its consecration cycle.

The rite against sickness is called agba, which determines which deity is causing a person’s sickness. The agba comes in two forms: the spanning of the stick, where the name of the right deity or class of deity is mentioned, during which the stick is believed to grow longer, and the buyun or the balancing of the egg, bean, or any oval-shaped object on a knife blade.

In some barangays in Banaue, the Ifugao believe that there are five causes of illnesses: when the anito (spirit) snatches the soul from one’s body; when spirits of those who were beheaded or killed violently snatch the soul of a living person; when a supernatural power called funi or buni causes the sickness; when illness is caused by a dead relative; or when a mombaki performs black magic to cause the sickness. “Funi” or “buni” derives from kabunian or abniyan (skyworld).

Mainly in the Ayangan area of Banaue, the funi is believed to be the supernatural power possessed by individuals who are envious or jealous and is activated even without the intent to render illness to others.

Certain rituals are performed to counter the causes of sickness. The halag (women’s ritual) is performed when a child is sick or when a woman suffers from hysteria or insanity. The rite is performed by women who utter incantations to deities and engage in dialogue with the possessing spirit.

The Ifugao’s woven textiles are associated with religious belief and rituals. The rainbow, they say, is the G-string of Attibungallon ya wanoh Puwok, the typhoon deity. The gods enjoin the Ifugao to offer them blankets, skirts, and G-strings. Weaving is traced to a certain deity called Punholda’yan. It is said that the cultural heroes Bugan and Balitok, or Bugan and Wigan, bought the first ablan (weaving loom) from Punholda’yan. It may be said that the Ifugao have deified their weaving process because for every step in the weaving process, there is a deity named after it. The weaving ritual invokes these deities by their names.

Hunting plays a major part in the people’s subsistence; thus, there are many ritual myths about hunting. The first ritual preceding a hunt is called pahang di amaiyu, which involves sacrificing a chicken and spending ceremonial days of idleness until omens are found favorable. Hunting begins with Ifugao rules being strictly followed by the hunters. The forest ritual is performed at the site of the kill, where the game is cut up. The pinading (place spirit) is invited to partake of the game. When the hunter arrives home after the first kill of the season, he performs the dalulag. Recitation of hunting myths follows the rites.

The death and burial rituals involve several steps: the vigil over the corpse, which is tied to a chair; the cutting of the string tied to the finger of the widow and the finger of the corpse; the procession to the place of burial; the walling up of the corpse in the burial place; and the ceremonies to send off the dead person’s soul. Invocations to the gods and the telling of myths accompany most of these steps.

The conversion of recent generations of Ifugao to institutional religions, such as the Pentecostal movement and Iglesia ni Cristo, has diminished the importance of these indigenous beliefs and the practice of their rituals. The mombaki’s authority has been challenged by these new institutions. However, many Ifugao still find the ritual authority of mombaki as complementary to the evolving cultural needs of Ifugao communities in contemporary times.

Ifugao Village and Traditional House

Ifugao villages consist of 12 to 30 houses, usually near the terraces that they cultivate and near water sources and clumps of trees. Houses may be in clusters, as in Banaue, or scattered in irregular rows, such as those in the Mayoyao area.

Betel nut trees are planted and grown on the edge of the terraces to provide shade. Owners of pigs surround their houses with fences called runo, which are made of plants, stones, or sticks planted on the ground. The kadangyan build their houses in the central terraces. Houses are arranged according to the shape of the terraces. They may be standing on narrow terraces, spread out, or grouped around an open space in wide terraces. House entrances usually face away from the slope of a terrace.

Ifugao house bale with rat guards
Ifugao house bale with rat guards (National Geographic, 1913, Mario Feir Filipiniana Library)

The Ifugao house consists of three levels: the stone pavement, the main building, which stands on the pavement, and the roof. The pavement is as wide as that of the main building. Four posts support the main building, which consists of one room that is framed by a wall and topped by a roof. Attached to each post is a wooden disk to prevent rats from climbing up the house. When a person stands on the ground, the floor is about shoulder height.

The posts support the one-room house, which in turn supports the roof. The house is divided into two vertical parts. The lower part is about chest- or waist-high from the floor. The upper part reaches to a little above the head. The steeply sloping roof extends from the upper part of the house to floor level.

The interior of an Ifugao house is more round than cube-shaped and is windowless. But air circulates freely through two doors, one in front and the other at the back. One of these doors is provided with a removable ladder. Underneath the roof is a platform that is positioned so that it forms a recess.

There are two types of Ifugao houses: the abong and the bale. The abong are temporary dwellings with pyramidal roofs. They serve as old people’s homes, as dwellings of poor people, or as the children’s dormitories. Simple abong huts are also used as shelter in the rice fields. The bale are small houses with a floor area of around 12 to 15 square meters, raised above the ground on four posts. The huts are made of timber cut and polished by hand. The poorer Ifugao use bamboo for their walls.

The Ifugao builder attaches or connects all the parts of the Ifugao house by fitting them to each other instead of nailing them together. Thus, the house can be disassembled, transferred to another site, and reassembled within a day. The roof is steep and covered with thatch. The thatch prevents the sun’s heat from penetrating but also allows the rain to slide down. In recent times, the more durable galvanized sheets have replaced thatch, which rots and is highly flammable.

The house posts are trunks of the amugawan tree. One end is buried 50 centimeters into the ground, along with stones firmly placed around the posts to steady them. Rat guards 25 x 25 square centimeters thick and 1.5 to 2 meters in length also serve as large pegs or tenons to secure the beams which support the walls.

The house is windowless so as to keep the cold out. A fire is kept going in one of the corners of the house. The heat and smoke serve to dry the interior as well as the grain stored in the upper part of the house. Hence, the baskets and wooden utensils kept in the house are blackened by the smoke. At the right hand corner of the house, a few inches lower than the floor, is a fireplace under and around which soil is spread out. Over this, three big stones are arranged in a triangle, over which a pot may be placed for cooking. Nearby are displayed the jawbones of sacrificial animals. A platform supported by the beams or rafters underneath the roof is where palay (unhusked rice) is stored. Jars and plates are placed on a shelf attached to a wall.

The typical residents of the house are a family consisting of the couple and their small child. Older children sleep in the village dormitories. Furniture, if any, consists of a square wooden bench and a bed made of a thick wooden slab. In the yard is a wood or stone mortar, which may be carved like an animal head.

A smaller replica of the house serves as the storehouse for rice. However, its roof is made of tightly fitted wooden planks to ensure that rats cannot get in.

Ifugao Traditional Attire

Weaving is the exclusive task of Ifugao women. Traditionally, weaving is done for the family’s needs, but it is also done for commercial purposes. Girls learn to weave by helping their mother or elder sister, and by actual practice under elder women. Weaving instruments, such as the loom sticks, the spindle, and the apparatus for fluffing, skeining, and winding are made by the menfolk.

Ifugao woman using a traditional loom
Ifugao woman using a traditional loom, 1990 (CCP Collections)

Weaving entails a long process, beginning with the preparation of the raw material to be used; spinning; the iwalangan (winding or skeining); dyeing; warping the cotton threads; and finally the actual weaving, which involves two women or girls who operate the weaving loom. Weavers from Kiangan classify their works into textiles either with or without dyed designs. They weave blankets, G-strings, skirts, upper garments, belts, and hip and hand bags. Each type of textile reflects particular social functions. Textiles with blue, red, and black dye designs are made into blankets, skirts, and G-strings. The Tuwali and the Henanga’s weaving designs and colors differ. The Tuwali use white, black, and red, with the last being the dominant color. The Henanga of Mayoyao use white, red, and blue, with blue dominating, and green and yellow threads are incorporated into the design at the middle.

Blankets have several pieces: The adolna (body of the blanket) is composed of the middle pieces and the balingbing is composed of the side pieces. Talungtung (narrow band with fringes) runs along the edges of the width of the blanket. Adogna, the blanket’s right-side up, is considered its “back”; and putuna, its reverse side, is its “stomach.” There are several types of blankets. The gamong is for the dead and has several designs: mortar, men, python, lizard, snake, ladder, and shuttle. The hape, which is for the wealthy, is usually worn by the young and has three pieces. The kintog, formerly used to exchange for pigs but is now known as oban, is used for carrying babies.

Ifugao Indigenous Attire
Ifugao Indigenous Attire (Jme Foronda: Pananamit: An Illustrated Guide) 

Men wear the binuhlan or wanno (G-string), which is long enough to be wound around the body two or three times. Its two ends hang loose in front and at the back, and reach down to the knees. The loose end in front is called the dayude and the one at the back is called the iwitan (tail). Several decorative designs are stitched in the dayude, such as the zigzag, frog, man, shuttle, basket, and knot.

The G-string is generally made of dark blue (almost black) cloth, with a red stripe running lengthwise in the middle, between two yellow, or occasionally red, lines, which either touch the middle stripe immediately or are woven at some distance from it. Talungatung (fringes) at both ends are generally of the same color as the rest, and they are crowned with the tiniku (red broken line) or the kudilap (alternating red, yellow, and dark blue broken lines). The hangbo are red and yellow designs, woven at both ends of the G-string. Another ornament may be a small shell attached to the middle stripe at the front end of the G-string (Vanoverbergh 1929, 201).

The Kiangan Ifugao weave six types of G-strings. The ones without designs, often described as infra, can be further classified into subtypes. A binuhlan G-string has a large red stripe called habak in its middle and literally means “the be-enemy-ed.” The use of the color red, the color of blood, refers to the sun deity, who is the god of war.

The poor man’s G-string is the plain white tinannong, about 2 meters long and 15 centimeters wide. The piniwaan nilihha G-string is the richer version of the binuhlan G-string. Its dayude and iwitan have designs similar to those of the balingbing of a bayaong (blanket). The piniwa G-string is different from the piniwaan nilihha only because the former’s design is made through dyeing.

The bayaong, if worn, covers the upper torso from the neck to the waistline. It is dark blue with narrow, plain, red stripes and broad white bands. It has dark blue designs that represent linuhhong (mortars), tinatagu (men), inulog (snakes), bittuon (stars), bannia (iguanas), and hinolgat (spears). A blanket may also be worn around a man’s head like a turban. The men’s hair is cut so that it resembles a tight cap around the head.

The men’s effects, such as a betelnut container, kottiwong (small knife), spoon, and amulets are carried in a butong (hip bag), which is a triangular cloth pouch. Copper rings are attached to its top part so that the G-string can be passed through these to secure the bag to the man’s side. The bottom of the bag is heavily fringed. The larger bag is the pinuhha, which is made of white thread; the smaller bag is the ambayong of double block thread.

The Ifugao’s artistry is also reflected in what they wear. Batok is the male practice of tattooing, commonly done on the chest, shoulders, and arms. Less common are tattoos on the face, buttocks, and legs. Younger men tattoo only their necks and the chest. Some tattoo designs are the tinagu (man), drawn on the chest; kinahu (dog), on the chest and cheeks; ginawang (eagle), on the chest and shoulders; ginayaman (centipede), anywhere; kinilat (lightning), on the chest, shoulders, or lower chest; and pongo (bracelet).

Ifugao headgear with kalaw beak
Ifugao headgear with kalaw beak, 1990 (CCP Collections)

The men’s necklaces are the balitok, a C-shaped string worn tight at the base of the neck that has two to eight pieces of gold, silver, or copper; the pang-o (amber beads), which are added to the balitok but hang lower; and a tight necklace of trapezoidal shells. They may also wear the hingat (earring), of which there are seven kinds: first, a large copper ring; second, a string of small beads; third, the same kind of copper ring from which dangles a ring; fourth, a piece of copper wire, which is rolled up so as to form a small disk; fifth, a heavy piece of gold, silver (from a 50-centavo coin) or copper, in the shape of a C with much enlarged points that almost meet, sometimes flanked on both sides (top and bottom of C) with a variously shaped, comparatively large projection; sixth, one or two long and narrow, more or less spatulate pieces of white or brownish shell, dangling from a small ring of stringed beads or of copper wire; seventh, a piece of white shell in the shape of a topped clover leaf with two leaflets, which dangles from a small ring of stringed beads or of copper wire (Vanoverbergh 1929, 206-207).

The men wear copper wire leglets coiled around 20 to 40 times beginning from just above the calf and gradually widening downward to follow the contour of the calf. Pongo (armlets) are also made of copper, with the coils decreasing in width to follow the contour of the arm. Another kind of armlet is made of a pair of boar tusks that are tied at the broader ends with rattan string, with the pointed ends touching to form a circle. A ginuttu (belt), worn on special occasions, is made of small, round, white shells strung together with a dyed red rattan string. A centerpiece of this belt may be a large white shell with a smaller red shell attached to its center. The headdress may be made of three or four kung-kung (feathers), a rooster’s tail feather, or a bird-shaped piece of white-and-blue porcelain. Kadangyan males wear the kango or yang ngoh during weddings and funerals. This headdress consists of the skull of a scarlet hornbill supported by rattan, which is covered by a ceremonial sash. Thin projections of brass or horn also extend from the sides, resembling the horns of a water buffalo.

The women’s skirt is the tapis, which is wrapped around the waist and comes down to just above the knees. It consists of three pieces of “blue cloth, with narrow, horizontal, white stripes, and two broken double lines of red triangles or squares” (Vanoverbergh 1929, 209). The colors of the tapis can range from all white to a very dark blue with hape (white stripes). The tapis called bayaong has the same colors as the bayaong blanket. Among the Tuwali, the tapis is called ampuyo or tolge, and among the Henanga Ifugao, lamuy.

There are five kinds of tapis. The inggalgaletget, made of two pieces joined together, is for working in the rice paddies. The intinlu is made of three pieces of cloth, joined together by a takdog or takdang and other stitches, which are made using a black thread alternating with white. The indinwa, which is less commonly woven, is shorter than the intinlu but longer than the working skirt. The gamit, worn by the affluent, is made of two equal pieces of cloth joined together by a takdang stitch, consisting of red and white threads alternating with white and yellow. Gamit skirts are characterized by elaborate border designs, which vary according to the type and color of alternating threads woven into the textile.

The tapis is wide enough to cover the thighs, whether the woman is walking, squatting, or sitting. However, the upper portion of the skirt usually reveals the navel, so a balko (belt) secures the skirt around her stomach. Any woven band may be used as a balko as long as it is wide and long enough to be wound twice around the waist, with the two ends being knotted at the back. Red, red-and-yellow, or dark blue tassels may be attached to these ends. The woman’s lamma (upper garment) is a short, white, sleeveless shirt, very similar to the sando, the generic Philippine undershirt. A cloth pouch, very similar to that of the men’s, serves like a pocket, either tucked in the tapis or held by the hand.

A woman may wind a string of beads several times around her hair bun or around her neck. The atake is a string of small red, white, or red-and-white beads, whereas the inipul is a string of large agate beads. The more striking necklace worn by women is the pangapalang made of six to eight trapezoidal pieces of mother-of-pearl and connected by finely braided rattan.

Women wear tattoos, with designs similar to those of the men, on the whole length of their arms. They wear earrings and pendants like those worn by men. The giniling is a bracelet made of heavy copper wire coiled like a spring 20 to 40 times, gradually increasing in width. It is worn by both men and women.

Ifugao Handicrafts and Sculptures

The Ifugao produce baskets for household needs as well as other purposes. They have baskets for winnowing, catching pests, domesticating animals, storing grains and cooked food, keeping household utensils, clothes and personal belongings, and performing rituals and religious ceremonies. Carrying baskets have been so designed as to leave a person’s hands free to carry other loads.

Rattan is the material used for household baskets. The split rattan produces a fluted or grooved appearance. All baskets have a natural resilience due to the nature of rattan. In Kiangan and Lagawe villages, the split-rattan material is used for household baskets like the labba (farm bowl), ligao (winnowing tray), and plaited storage jars.

Another commonly used material is the kokolongkoy vine, which is naturally shiny and elastic, and woven with a twill technique. The split kokolongkoy can be used for the butit (locust jar).

The ulbong, a rice storage basket
The ulbong, a rice storage basket, circa 1970 (UP Diliman Anthropology Museum)

Bamboo is another material for Ifugao baskets. The huop, a square-covered bamboo basket with a tight-fitting cover used to store cooked rice, is placed over the fire to help preserve the freshness of the rice. Meat is also stored in these baskets. In central Ifugao, the ulbong (rice storage basket) is made using the coiling method.

Ifugao idos (spoon)
Ifugao idos (spoon) (CCP Collections)

Ifugao idos (spoon)
Ifugao idos (spoon) (CCP Collections)

Ifugao hakong (laddle)
Ifugao hakong (laddle) (CCP Collections)

Ifugao ceremonial container
Ifugao ceremonial container (CCP Collections)

A very popular form of Ifugao art is sculpture. Most Ifugao sculptures are carved from wood, although a few use metal. The Henanga Ifugao carve their mortars from stone.

The Ifugao mark stages of their life cycle with rituals and ceremonies invoking the gods and deities. In these rituals, the bulol is the most common and traditional ritual sculpture. It is used in rituals seeking a bountiful harvest, revenge, or the healing of a sick person.

The bulol, commonly known as the “Igorot rice god” (Baradas 1991, 10-11), assumes central importance among Ifugao ritual objects. They are usually made in pairs, but there seems to be no rule with regard to sex and posture. Breasts are rarely indicated, although nipples are visible in both sexes. The bulol are carved as seated or standing human figures, although in some areas, figures of pigs are also carved. Stylistic variations range from the cubist to the realistic. The Kiangan “dancing bulol” have separately carved and pegged arms. Bulol height usually ranges from 30-60 centimeters .

The bulol is characterized by a distinct facial expression evoking some inner spiritual force; it is believed to be alive and capable of speaking. While it resembles a human figure, the proportions of the arms and legs are always unrealistic and express the carver’s religious zeal. Styles vary among Ifugao living in different places: The sitting types are found in Banaue and Mayoyao; the standing types with hands resting on thighs in Hungduan; the flat or uncarved backs in Lagawe; and the dancing type with hands stretched sideways in Kiangan.

Cordillera bulul
Cordillera bulul (David Baradas Collection)

Bulol wood is usually of narra, a symbol of wealth, happiness, and well-being. When bathed in pig’s blood, it is believed to assume new powers and will grant the owner wealth and prosperity. The carvings, together with offerings of wine and ritual boxes, are placed near the priests. The bulol is again bathed in the blood of a sacrificial pig. Later, it is placed next to the first bundles of rice harvest.

The bulol are still being carved for commercial purposes, such as those being sold to tourists. While the carving of the ritual bulol has stopped, the Ifugao continue to use these few remaining images in their rice rituals and in guarding their rice granaries. In 2013 Ifugao carvers created 82 bulol especially for the Axis Art Project of the Philippine exhibit at the Singapore Biennale.

Another ritual sculpture is the komis (fern tree figure), which has a protective function. These have shields, spears, and jewelry of whitewood, and are placed at the entrances and boundaries of villages. Fern tree figures were used in ceremonies before headhunting and in construction of arches along trails as protection from evil spirits. The pili carving represents a class of deities responsible for guarding property. They are represented as small, human figures with spirit dogs carved from a fern tree or soapstone, and are placed in small grass-roofed shrines. Large spoons and animal-shaped containers are also carved for local use and as souvenir items.

The hipag are minor war deities. They are represented as humans, cocks, boar, or ducks that serve as the medium of the deities. These hipag are ritually smeared with the blood of a sacrificial animal and are stored in baskets with other granary figures. They differ from the bulol in the size, shape, and detail of the base. Containers are placed alongside the figures during ceremonies. Food and ceremonial offerings to the gods are placed inside and the animal’s blood poured over these boxes. On one or both sides of the containers, animal heads protrude. Surfaces are often decorated with repetitive concave waves.

The hagabi is a huge, long sloping bench carved out of a single piece of wood. It is a sign of wealth and prestige and is found only underneath the rich Ifugao’s house. Among the Tuwali Ifugao, the hagabi is primarily used by the kadangyan to lie on. It is constructed by skilled men in the forest interior and carried by several men to the house of the kadangyan. This long bench made of hardwood is constructed with ritualized feasting called hagabi performed during the tialgo or the lean period of the year, April and May, that is, when rice is scarce. The performance of the hagabi therefore showcases the wealth of the kadangyan. The hagabi is an improved version of its precursor called guinulgulding, a bench with goat-like heads at its two ends. Each of the hagabi’s extremities, called ngiwit, resembles the head of an animal with a long snout and two big ears.

Ifugao Literary Arts

The Ifugao do not have a systematic form of writing, but their oral literature—recorded traditions, beliefs, and rituals—attest to the vast wealth of literary arts in the region.

Ifugao riddles serve to entertain and at the same time educate the young (Lodriguito 1978):

Waday ohan makaphod an babai an kanona di


(A beautiful lady eats her body. [Candle])

Patayom nih-an di inana ahim ta alan nan


(Kill first the mother, before you get the child.


Dapa-om ke nan balena ya mumbuttikan nan


(Touch the house and the owner runs about.


When in groups, the Ifugao use proverbs to give advice to the young. Proverbs are also used to stress a point even in ordinary conversations. Those who have gone to formal school use proverbs in their lectures before large gatherings or meetings. Some Ifugao proverbs are:

Hay mahlu ya adi maagangan.

(The industrious will never go hungry.)

Hay “uya-uy” di puntupong hi kinadangyan di ohan


(The feast is the yardstick of a person’s wealth.)

Hay itanum mo, ya hidiyeh aniyom.

(What you have planted is what you will reap.)

Hin pinhod takun munhida itlog, munpaptok hi


(If you want to eat eggs, raise chickens.)

Myths relate incidents that happened at a time when the world had not yet been created and man had not yet taken full control of its material possession, arts, and culture. Ifugao myths tell of hero-ancestors or gods who managed to solve problems similar to those faced by the modern Ifugao. Myths are generally told in the present tense although the narratives take place in the past.

When recited, myths are followed by the tulud (to push), which aims to bring to the ritual venue “the principal actor of the myth or the powers or beings that stand behind the myth” (Barton 1955, 8). In Kiangan, the priest’s tulud is a recitation of the myth while moving from one place to another. In central Ifugao, instead of myth characters being taken from place to place, a ritual object, such as a bulol, is carried from the ritual venue to the setting of the myth narrative in a relay system: One person takes the ritual object home, where it is believed to give benefits to the residents of that home, then another person borrows the object and takes it to his own home, and so on, until it is brought to the home of the person for whom the ritual is performed. The myth or tulud recitation ends with the word, “Kalidi.” The priest then enumerates the benefits to be obtained from the recitation, ending with the phrase, “because thou art being mythed” (Barton, 7-9).

An origin myth about the peopling of the earth takes pains to justify incest, which is shown to be the only way in which the human race could have multiplied. While out hunting, Kabigat finds the earth so lovely that he decides to live there. His father Wigan sends his daughter Bugan to look after her brother Kabigat. Soon, Bugan becomes pregnant by Kabigat. Weeping, she walks along the river until she reaches the sea. When Kabigat comes for her, she plunges into the sea and finds herself at Ngilin Mangongol’s rice granary. She tells him of her predicament and is inconsolable. Ngilin takes her to Ambummabbakal, who, hearing her story, is merely amused. He then takes her to his father Muntalog, who assures her that she and Kabigat have committed no wrongdoing.

“The Great Flood” is the story of Kabigat and Bugan, as told by the Kiangan Ifugao. The creator god, Wigan of the skyworld, puts his children, Kabigat and Bugan, on earth to become the ancestors of the human race. Being brother and sister, Kabigat and Bugan leave earth for “the downstream region” and here bear three children who are deities: Ampuwal, the ancestor of all evil spirits; Ngilin, the ancestor of jealous spirits; and Ambummabbakal, ancestor of all Matangulan gods. Kabigat and Bugan return to earth and continue to have many children who intermarry and populate the earth. Wigan of the skyworld sends a great flood that drowns all life on earth except the brother and sister, Balitok and Bugan, who survive on a raft. Ten days later, their raft lands on Mount Napulawan, 20 to 30 kilometers north of Kiangan. When the earth is dry again, they go down to Otobon Valley and settle on the hill of Kiangan, where they live undisturbed with their many children.

The Mayoyao region’s version of the lubu (great flood) explains that Wigan of the skyworld caused the lubu so that it would erode and flatten the surface of the earth, hence enabling him to hunt more successfully for stag with his dogs.

Other Ifugao legends that have been recorded include “The Legend of the Ambuwaya Lake,” “The Origin of the Pitpit or Bird of Omen,” “Why the Dead Come Back No More,” and “How Lagawe Got its Name.”

Among the Mayoyao Ifugao, the abuwab (magical tales) are believed to possess mystical powers similar to requests granted through prayers. Examples are the poho-phod and chiloh tales usually recited in death and sickness rituals among the Mayoyao Ifugao. The recitation of these tales begins with an invocation to the ancestors who were also priests and who are always called upon during the rituals. The abuwab are usually about the husband and wife Bugan and Wigan, said to live in Chuligan (also Dukligan) or Bayukan. Antalaw represents the father of Bugan and also the living father of either husband or wife for whom the rites are being held. Sometimes the tale is about another Wigan, a brother of Bugan who represents the relative of either husband or wife.

Tales about Pangulchihon and Angudyawon are about fights. Pangulchihon and Angudyawon are the descendants of Bugan, daughter of Amtalaw. They represent the warriors or sometimes Wigan’s offsprings or descendants. Sometimes these magical tales begin in Chuligan, the legendary house of Bugan and Wigan, and end at the house of the husband and wife for whom the rites are being performed.

Ifugao epic hero Aliguyon commanding crocodiles to form a bridge for him
Ifugao epic hero Aliguyon commanding crocodiles to form a bridge for him (Illustration by Benedict Reyna)

Ifugao epics are chanted romances recounting the origins of the people, the life and adventure of Ifugao heroes, the valor of men and the beauty of women, as well as ancient customs and traditions. The hudhud is chanted while the Ifugao work in the field or attend funeral wakes. A soloist does the narration, and a group choruses its affirmation of the narrative at regular intervals. The Hudhud Pumbakhayon ad Daligdigan (Hudhud of Pumbakhayon at Daligdigan) is believed to be the first hudhud. In the story, the hero Aliguyon arrives at the bank of the Lobong ad Lagud (Lake of the Downstream Region) to which the water of all rivers flow. He calls the crocodiles inhabiting the lake, and they emerge and follow his command, forming a line that stretches toward the mysterious island, which is the hero’s destination. The crocodiles let him walk on their scaly back, and he dives headlong into the deep waters, arriving safely afterward in the abode of the underworld gods.

The Hudhud hi Aliguyon (Hudhud of Aliguyon) is about the battle lasting several years between Aliguyon from the village of Hannanga and Pumbakhayon from the village of Daligdigan. The two men are equally skillful warriors. Their duel ends only when Aliguyon asks his comrades to take his hip bag to Pumbakhayon’s house as a sign that he wants Pumbakhayon’s sister, Bugan, for his wife. When Pumbakhayon accepts his proposal, the wedding is held at once, and Pumbakhayon prays that the gods bless the couple with children and that they become rich Ifugao aristocrats. Pumbakhayon returns to his village with Aginaya to celebrate their own marriage. The Hudhud of Dinulawan and Bugan at Gonhadan, on the other hand, narrates Bugan’s search for a husband, her marriage to Daulayan, Aliguyon’s long-lost brother, and the courtship and wedding of Aginaya, Aliguyun’s sister, and Dinulawan, Bugan’s brother.

A pregnant Bugan diving into the sea in search of Ngilin Mangongol’s rice granary
A pregnant Bugan diving into the sea in search of Ngilin Mangongol’s rice granary (Illustration by Benedict Reyna)

The alim is a narrative chanted by the rich during prestige rituals or the funeral of a prominent person. Chanted by two groups of male singers representing male and female personae, the alim sings of the virtues of the rich, and when performed at wakes, narrates the life and achievements of the dead person.

A historical novel about an Ifugao hero named Kalatong is The Half Way Sun: A Tale of the Philippine Islands by Australian T. Inglis Moore, an English and creative writing teacher at the University of the Philippines from 1928 to 1931. It was first serialized in Philippine Magazine and then published in Sydney in 1935. It is based on a study with a similar title— The Half-way Sun: Life among the Headhunters of the Philippines by American anthropologist Roy Franklin Barton.

Ifugao Musical Instruments

The Ifugao have various types of musical instruments and songs for different occasions, particularly during village rituals and social gatherings. In general, Ifugao music can be classified into instrumental and vocal, with vocal music often performed without musical accompaniment.

Among the percussion instruments, the gangsa or gangha (gongs) are the most popular. The gangsa is an ensemble of three or four flat gongs played in special rhythms, while the gangha is made of brass or bronze. The individual gongs are called tobob, hibat, or ahhot. Unique to the Ifugao is the manner in which they play the tobob—with a clenched fist.

The other gongs are played with sticks that strike the inner surface of the gong. The hibat produces resonant tones, and the ahhot produces the damped sounds. During harvest rituals, the libbit, a small conical drum, is added to the ensemble. The sound of gongs summons villagers to a feast, which can last for several nights.

Another percussion instrument is the bangibang or pattong. It is a pair made of straight or boomerang-shaped wood. Sound is produced by striking or banging the instrument. The langitang is generally used during burial rituals to drive away spirits and revenge rituals for a slain Ifugao.

The bikkung is a mouth instrument made of brass or bamboo. It is played by men and women during courtship sessions or at night. The brass bikkung is slightly thinner than the bamboo bikkung but serves the same purpose.

The ayyuding and babbong are string instruments. The ayyuding is made of a whole bamboo node, with the strings carved out of the bamboo’s skin. It is played by striking the strings with a stick. The babbong is a rattan strip instrument usually played by children before harvest time. It is believed to hasten the ripening of the rice grains. The tadcheng is a similar instrument with four strings strummed with the fingers. This guitar has recently become popular for accompanying songs.

Wind instruments include the ungiyong (bamboo nose flute); the tongali (mouth flute), which has six holes and can be blown from both ends of the flute; and the hupip (mouth flute), which is made of runo reed as thin as a pen. All these different types of instruments are used to express personal feelings.

Ifugao Traditional Songs and Chants

Vocal music covers a variety of forms. Men and women, young and old alike, sing. There are trained chanters for rituals and other social gatherings, and the people feel free to critique the chanting. Chanting or singing can be done either by one individual, such as when putting a child to sleep, or, more often, by a group, which may have a lead chanter or singer. Songs learned from other tribes or lands are usually sung individually.

Ifugao children singing the Hudhud
Ifugao children singing the Hudhud, 1993 (Museo Pambata)

Ifugao songs can be classified into ritual songs and non-ritual songs. Ritual songs are sung during religious occasions. Some songs require responses while others are extemporaneous. Alim is a ritual song. Non-ritual songs include the hudhud, the liwliwa, and the salidummay. The liwliwa, used to express love, protest, and other personal emotions, is sung in debate form by groups of men and women and their leaders. The salidummay, which can express ideas or emotions, is usually sung antiphonally by groups of men and women.

Songs are also known according to the historical period they represent. One song which is about the introduction of land transportation in 1930 narrates what happens to a husband and wife who traveled by automobile. Songs about World War II are easily recognized because of their themes and characters. Songs about love became popular during the American occupation, and some have adopted common tunes like the “Leron, Leron Sinta.”

Ifugao Ritual dance, Imelda Park, Baguio City
Ritual dance, Imelda Park, Baguio City, circa 1990 (CCP Collections)

Ifugao Folk Dances

Dancing, meanwhile, takes center stage during rituals, religious activities, and special occasions. When they dance, their eyes are focused on one point on the ground, about 90 centimeters from where they are standing, their knees bent down a little, their left foot in front, their hands outstretched with their fingers joined, right hand akimbo behind their right hip. The dance steps follow a slow shuffle with slow turns and twists of the left hand and a fast up-and-down movement of the right hand. While kneeling in front of the dancers, the gong players hold the gangsa on top of their thighs with the convex side held up. They beat the gongs with their hands, the right hand giving the downward stroke, the left hand serving to dampen the sound. Speeches are made in between these dances, with the resounding “whoooo-o-eee” serving to silence those present so that the speech may be delivered (Wilcox 1912, 109-112).

Dances are also performed as part of rituals. The Ifugao dance batad is performed during village feasts and religious rituals involving sacrificial animals. During wedding feasts, the iteneg is performed to announce to the whole village the union of the man and woman. There are incantations, prayers, and animal sacrifices. As soon as the pig’s bile shows signs favorable to the couple being married, the native rice wine tapoy is passed around and the imbajah dance begins. More incantations and bile examination are conducted before the couple is asked to dance. The groom sports a hornbill headdress while the bride wears a headdress with a brass female figure called dudong.

Video: Tadek In-Daya Ethnic Dance

The couple then performs the tadek, depicting a rooster and hen a-courting. They carry a half-dead chicken with their left hand and offer these to the gods. In the cañao, which is a prestige feast that can last three to four days, all those who eat at the feast are obliged to dance (Obusan 1989).

After the farmers have worked on the fields all day, they may dance the paypayto to the beat of the gangsa. The paypayto is an imitation of the high-flying birds who are disturbed by the hunters and fly away to safer places. The paypayto is an all-male dance, which allows the dancers to show off their skill at jumping in and out of striking sticks. This thrilling dance could last until the wee hours of the night (Obusan 1991).

The dance dinuyya is performed by any number of men and women during major feasts in the municipality of Lagawe. Although there are basic movement patterns to follow, they are free to move as they please, forming a line, for instance, or dance individually. Different types of gongs or gangsa are played. A low-pitched gong is the tobob, about 25 centimeters in diameter, which is beaten either with the open palms or clenched fists. Another type is the hibat, which is hit in its inner surface with a stick of softwood (Orosa-Goquingco 1980, 72).

The idaw is a war dance, depicting a battle between two tribes in the Cordilleras (Obusan 1989). The headhunting dance is performed by a long line of men, accompanied by a slow cadenced sound. The warriors, armed with shields and spears, continually walk backward, lunging at the next man. A pig tied by its hooves to a pole follows the warriors. The men beat curved instruments with sticks and make resonant sounds. Musicians march along with the warriors and lean in unison, first to the right and then to the left, striking one end of their instrument and then the other. As soon as the dancers reach the hilltop, the pig is laid down in the middle of a big circle made by the warriors, and the actual dance begins. Two or three men chant, march around, and spear the pig. The dance is repeated, and an old man runs out to remove the spears. Then a man, chanting, without looking at the pig, and without stopping his speech, suddenly thrusts his spear into the pig’s heart, withdrawing the spear so quickly that the blade remains free of the pig’s blood (Wilcox 1912, 112).

When a warrior is killed, the bangibang (funeral, war, or revenge dance), is performed during his burial rites. It is danced to the rhythmic beat of wood against wood, also called the bangibang. The male dancers shake their spears and shields as they dance toward the deceased person’s house. The mourners, men and women alike, wear the red leaves of the dongla plant, asymbol of war (Orosa-Goquingco 1980, 72).

Ifugao Rituals

Aside from dances, the rituals constitute the forms of drama among the Ifugao. Every ritual follows a general pattern. It begins with an invocation to the ancestors. This is followed by the possession of the priest by the ancestors. The ancestors may sip wine through the priest. The mamonghal (leader priest) assigns the different deities to the priests present. The makalun (messenger) is asked to intercede with the deities according to the purpose of the rite. Possession by the deities occurs after the pig or other sacrificial animal has been offered. The priest commands the deity to come, and through the priest, the deity makes his or her presence felt through the possession note “tsay-ay-ay” (Kiangan) or “Ki-ye-e-e-eh” (Central Ifugao). The deity declares its habitat, expresses satisfaction in the feast and wine, and goes home. The sacrifice of animals, usually chickens, is done after the deity has left. While this goes on, the priest mentions the names of the deities to whom the offerings are made. Then, myth recitation related to the rite is performed. A quenching rite, performed by throwing boiling water from the cauldron into the coals, is done and an invocation is again performed.

In 2001, the hudhud chants were recognized by the UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Ifugao in Media and Films

Ifugao province has two FM radio stations. Radyo Kiphodan DZNC-FM 99.1 is run by the National Nutrition Council (NCC) for its Nutriskwela Radio Network Program. This radio station based in Lagawe is part of the NCC’s program to provide long-term and cost-efficient ways to address the problem of hunger and malnutrition (NNC 2014). Radyo Natin DZVK-FM 101.7, based in Banaue, is run by the Manila Broadcasting Company.

A number of films have been made about the Ifugao and the Banaue Rice Terraces. During the First Golden Age of Philippine Cinema, Gerardo de Leon made Ifugao, 1954, an adaptation of a series in Hiwaga Komiks. The film dramatizes the struggles of the Ifugao against the American colonizers. The film won major awards in the 1955 Asian Film Festival in Singapore. During that time, the Philippines was becoming the center of filmmaking in Asia, and showcasing ethnic groups was a festival trend.

In Luis Nepomuceno’s Igorota, 1968, Charito Solis plays the role of an Ifugao maiden who falls in love with a man from the city. When the two marry, they move to the city and have a child. Cultural differences and the city people’s prejudices cause them to move back to the Ifugao community at the rice terraces. Igorota’s script is all in English for international marketing and distribution.

Another Gerardo de Leon film, Banaue: Stairway to the Sky, 1975, is the story of how the Ifugao build the Banaue Rice Terraces and protect them from invaders in the region. The film, which stars Nora Aunor and Christopher de Leon, competed in the 1975 Bacolod Film Festival and was the festival’s top earner.

In 1979, several hundreds of Ifugao natives were recruited to play Montagnard Indians in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. In the film’s narrative, Ifugao rituals such as the slaughter of a carabao, a mumbaki’s dance and chants, and the sacrifice of chickens were presented simultaneously.

Poster of Benjie Garcia’s Batad: Sa Paang Palay
Poster of Benjie Garcia’s Batad: Sa Paang Palay, 2006 (Vic Acedillo, photo courtesy of Benjamin Garcia)

The conflict of tradition and modernization has become a prominent topic in most of the films about the Ifugao. Butch Perez’s Mumbaki, 1996, narrates the story of an Ifugao chieftain’s son who is torn between leaving the country to work as a doctor and staying in their homeland to fulfill his responsibilities. In Benjie Garcia’s Batad: Sa Paang Palay, 2006, an out-of-school Ifugao boy works as a tour guide to help his family and buy his dream rubber shoes. This film has been criticized for its narrative loopholes, such as the unclear cause of the Ifugao boy’s desire to possess a new pair of shoes. But the film won Special Jury Prize at the 2006 Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival.

Other independent films about the Ifugao are Cyrus Dan Cañares’s Ifugao Homecoming, 2004; Chris Reyes’s Batang Ifugao (Ifugao Youth), 2011; and Robert Martin’s Banaue Boy, 2014.


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This article is from the CCP Encyclopedia of Philippine Art Digital Edition.

Title: Ifugao

Author/s: Glecy Atienza (1994) / Updated by Gonzalo A. Campoamor II, and Leah Abayao, with additional notes from Jay Jomar F. Quintos, and Rosario Cruz-Lucero (2018)


Publication Date: November 18, 2020

Access Date: August 31, 2022

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