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The Jama Mapun Tribe of the Philippines: History, Culture, Customs and Tradition [Indigenous People | Bangsamoro Ethnic Tribes]

The Jama Mapun Tribe of the Philippines: History, Culture, Customs and Tradition [Indigenous People | Bangsamoro Ethnic Tribes]

The Jama Mapun, literally, “people of Mapun,” are the indigenous people from the municipality of Mapun. The Jama Mapun are closely related to the Samal or Sama, and they are often referred to as the Samal Kagayan by the Tausug of Sulu or as the Sama Dilaut, also called Badjao, or the Orang Cagayan by the coastal Muslims of Borneo (Casiño 1976, 8).

Mapun in Sulu Archipelago is classified as a fourth-class municipality. It was called Cagayan de Sulu by Spanish colonialists and later named Cagayan de Tawi-Tawi upon the establishment of Tawi-Tawi province in 1973. But no matter what outsiders called their homeland, the Jama Mapun always refer to their native territory as Tanah Mapun or Land of Mapun. In 1988, President Corazon Aquino signed Republic Act (RA) 6672 to officially allow the municipality to revert to its ancient name Mapun, which means “you forgive” in their native language.

The Mapun municipality is located on the farthest part of Tawi-Tawi province in the northwest. Its distance from Bongao, the capital of Tawi-Tawi, is about 262 kilometers. This isolated municipality is 354 kilometers west of Zamboanga City and about 111 kilometers north of Sandakan, Sabah. Therefore, it is easier to reach Mapun from Sabah than from Zamboanga. Northwest of Mapun is Palawan and south is Sabah, Malaysia. The municipality has 15 barangays and a total land area of 28,129 hectares or 281.29 square kilometers.

The municipality, consisting of a main island and 17 islets, is of volcanic origin. Some of its more prominent islets are Kinapusan, Pambelikan, Bisu Bintut, Bohan, Manda, Bulisuan, Muligi, and Mambahenawan. The highlands of the main island are composed of 26 mountains, with Mount Liran as the highest, rising up to 1,105 feet from sea level. Its varied topography includes hills, valleys, small plains, marshes, and white sand beaches. Lakes Danao and Singuwang are two freshwater crater lakes about 40 feet above sea level. Marshlike Sapah Lake at the center of the island was formed by rainwater and measures 69 hectares. Jurata Bay was created when a crater bay’s wall opened to the sea (“Socio-Economic Profile” 2007, 9-11).

In 2000, the population of the Jama Mapun in Tawi-Tawi province was 18,823, which was 5.84% of the provincial population. This excluded those who live in the Turtle Islands composed of Taganak, Baguan, Boan, Leheman, Sibaung, and Great Bakungan. In 2010, the total population of Mapun was 24,168 (Philippine Statistics Authority 2002 and 2013). But there is the opinion that government statistics do not consider the population variable arising from the people’s periodic migration to and from Sabah due to seasonal economic opportunities. Some 15,000 Jama Mapun can be found in Malaysia. About 10,000 Jama Mapun settled in the islands of Bugsuk and Balabac in southern Palawan in the southern towns of the Palawan peninsula such as Sofronio Española and Bataraza. A small population of Jama Mapun live in Zamboanga City and in Manila. Total population in the Philippines was estimated at 43,000 in 2011 by the SIL International (Ethnologue 2016; Casiño 1967, 2).

Their language is Pullun Mapun, which belongs to the Austronesian language family. It is closely related to the Borneo Coast Badjao and Indonesia Badjao languages and a bit similar to the Central Sama, Southern Sama and Balangingi Sama languages of the Sulu Archipelago (Collins and Collins 2001, 1).

History of the Jama Mapun People

History and legend suggest that Arab trader-missionaries visited Cagayan de Sulu as early as the 13th century. The Jama Mapun considered the Arabs as belonging to a higher culture; hence, conversion to Islam was equated with cultural advancement (Casiño 1976, 117). Islam and its institutions gave rise to the strengthening of the sultanate as a political system. Thus emerged two powerful political centers—the Sultanate of Sulu and the Sultanate of Maguindanao and Buayan. The Sulu Sultanate is based on the tiny islands that look deceptively insignificant on the map. However, these islands are along the borders of the Pacific Ocean, Celebes Sea, Malacca Strait, and the West Philippine Sea, which used to be the routes of international trade and commerce. By the 15th century, the economic and political power of the Sulu Sultanate gained control over Kalimantan, Indonesia with capital at Balikpapan. Meanwhile, Sabah or North Borneo became part of the Sulu Sultanate in 1675 when the sultan of Brunei gave the territory to the sultan of Sulu because the latter helped in pacifying a revolt in Brunei. Sandakan and Marudu were the seats of power in Sabah (Yuchengco Museum 2008, 8, 19; Wadi 2008, 31).

Jama Mapun mat weavers
Jama Mapun mat weavers with master weaver Janeth Hanapi, second from right (Edgar Alan Zeta-Yap,

From the 15th century onward, the principal Muslim groups realigned according to emergent power alliances. The Maguindanaon, Maranao, and Sangil were oriented toward the Maguindanao Sultanate, while the Tausug, Samal, Badjao, Yakan, Molbog, Palawan, and the Jama Mapun were more oriented toward the Sulu Sultanate. This geopolitical setup helped shape the economic and political institutions of the Jama Mapun (Casiño 1976, 11).

The Jama Mapun profited from the flourishing trade between China and the Sulu Sultanate from as early as the 15th century. The Sulu Sultanate dispatched diplomatic missions to China in the 15th and 18th centuries. The Chinese traded their goods in exchange for pearls, wax, tortoise shell, and the mats of the Jama Mapun and the Samal (Yuchengco Museum 2008, 19). In the 19th century, the trading of mats triggered a network of economic and power connections (Warren 1985, 136).

The earliest known European to have visited Mapun was the Italian scholar Antonio Pigafetta. When he set for Borneo in 1521 after Magellan’s demise in Mactan, Pigafetta arrived at an island he called “Caghaian.” He described it as full of large trees inhabited by naked “Moros” who were armed with blowpipes, arrows, and poisonous herbs. As early as the 1500s, the documentation of Pigafetta demonstrated the rich material culture of the Jama Mapun. He narrated that the natives sported knives with handles decorated with gold and precious stones, and possessed “spears, bucklers, and small cuirasses of buffalo horn” (Casiño 1967, 6-7).

The history of the Jama Mapun during the Spanish era can be told in terms of the hostility between the Spanish colonial government and the Sulu Sultanate. The Sulu Sultanate escaped colonial dominance at the onset of Spanish rule, for total conquest was not a goal of early colonial policies. In the mid-19th century, the colonial government sought to conquer the Muslim sultanates, especially that of Sulu. By then the British and the Dutch were extending their influence over the Southeast Asian world, and the Spaniards felt they had to secure their rapidly deteriorating empire. Spanish authorities explained their new policy as a reaction to the piratical activities of the Samal group. Thus, the Spaniards launched their campaign of 1851 to devastate the Samal settlement of Tungkil, as well as to punish the Sulu Sultanate. The campaign ended in 1876 when the Spaniards launched an offensive against the Sulu Sultanate to finally settle the issue of Spanish sovereignty over Sulu. In 1878, the beleaguered sultan, Jama ul-Azam, entered into a peace treaty with the Spaniards. The treaty made Sulu a protectorate of Spain but guaranteed the sultanate autonomy over internal matters and commercial activities (Majul 1973, 283-299).

In 1884, a struggle for power within the Sulu Sultanate escalated with the death of Sultan Badarud Din II. Among the contenders were the crown prince, Raja Muda; the half-brother of the deceased, Amirul Kiram; and eligible second liners, Datu Alipud Din and Datu Harun Narrazid, also known as Harun al Rashid. The Spanish colonial government mediated by ordering the aspirants to go to Manila to resolve the power struggle. Only Datu Harun heeded this order and was subsequently proclaimed Sultan of Sulu in 1884 by Governor-General Joaquin Jovellar. Many of the Tausug hated the Spanish colonial rule so they denounced Harun and considered Amirul Kiram as their legitimate sultan, proclaiming him as Sultan Jamalul Kiram II. A bloody conflict erupted due to the rivalry between Sultan Harun and Sultan Jamalul Kiram II. Sultan Harun won in the struggle but was outmaneuvered in 1892 by the Kiram family. Sultan Harun was exiled in Palawan, and Jamalul Kiram was formally proclaimed Sultan of Sulu in 1894.

The Spanish colonial government bestowed on Sultan Harun the power to rule over the Muslims in Balabac and nearby islands, as well as in the southern areas of the Palawan peninsula, which include the present towns of Brooke’s Point, Rizal, Bataraza, Quezon, and Sofronio Española. Such favorable political situation could be a major pull factor for the migration of the Jama Mapun into the Palawan peninsula and its southern islands. The sultan’s respectable leadership promoted the welfare of his subjects and earned him the loyalty and trust of the Muslims as well as the indigenous Palawan. Sultan Harun was succeeded by his son Datu Bataraza Narrazid, whose rule was recognized by the American colonial government. The colonialists appointed the datu as vice governor of Palawan province and then as the supreme leader of the Muslims in Palawan (Acosta 2016).

Meanwhile, in the Sulu Archipelago, the Americans intruded into the core of the Jama Mapun political system. Guns were confiscated, and slavery, the source of Jama Mapun power and prestige, was abolished. Villages and districts were reduced to the status of barrios; headmen and chiefs became mere barrio captains. The visible agent of this transformation was Guy Stratton, who was appointed deputy governor after Cagayan de Sulu was “pacified” by American troops in 1905. In 1910, he appointed the presidente (mayor), which was directly under his control. The first three presidentes were local chieftains called datu (Casiño 1976, 40-42). The colonial strategy to control the local nobility was important to gain control of the economic resources of the Jama Mapun’s ancient territory. In the last quarter of the 19th century, the world demand for coconut oil began to rise. Guy Stratton promoted the copra industry. He encouraged, sometimes coerced, the islanders to plant coconut trees. This was in 1910, and by 1920, Stratton’s company began to harvest and sell copra. By 1932, more than 50% of the island was planted with coconut (Casiño 1967, 21-23).

With the outbreak of World War II, American warships and vessels utilized Jurata Bay, which had an area of 35 hectares and depth of 70 (“Socio-Economic Profile” 2007, 26). The Jama Mapun aristocrats sided with the Japanese invaders. One of the nobles assumed de facto rule over Cagayan de Sulu under the Japanese regime, as attested by the Japanese based in North Borneo (Casiño 1976, 43).

After the war, the Philippines gained independence in 1946. Under the Philippine Republic, the appointive presidente gave way to the elected mayor. The period also witnessed the rise of the notable commoner. A battle for political dominance started between the notable commoner and the nobility. The situation was made more complex when district politics found themselves having to refer to provincial and national power centers for the much-needed funds to implement electoral promises. A new development arose with the entry of non-Jama Mapun personalities into the political picture (Casiño 1976, 42-43, 45).

The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), established in 1969, called for self-determination and secession of the Bangsamoro from the Philippine Republic. This political goal attracted some of the Jama Mapun youth to become MNLF members and sympathizers. When armed hostilities between the MNLF and government forces erupted in various islands in the Sulu Archipelago in the 1970s, Cagayan de Sulu was not affected due to its isolated location. The social and economic life of the Jama Mapun went on without disturbance. Local governance continued, although delivery of basic services was sometimes disrupted due to the unstable peace and order situation in Jolo at the time.

Under martial law, Tawi-Tawi became a separate province in 1973 by virtue of Presidential Decree 302. Cagayan de Sulu was renamed as Cagayan de Tawi-Tawi. After the 1986 EDSA Revolt, the new dispensation that deposed the Marcos dictatorship called for local elections as part of the move to restore the democratic process. Abdulpatta Jumlang, a high school teacher, became the first elected mayor of Mapun after EDSA. In 1988, Corazon Aquino signed RA 6672, which changed the name of Cagayan de Tawi-Tawi to the ancient name Mapun.

In 1989, President Corazon Aquino signed RA 6734, known as the Organic Act for the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Its creation was the result of the spadework done by Muslim delegates of the 1986 Constitutional Commission who worked for the provision of a Muslim autonomous region in the 1987 Constitution. Maguindanao, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi provinces voted in a plebiscite to join the ARMM in November 1989 (Official Website of the ARMM 2017).

Way of Life of the Jama Mapun People

The Jama Mapun at the turn of the 20th century and in the early 1900s were somewhat nomadic and largely dependent on the natural environment. Before the widespread planting of cash crops such as coconut in agricultural areas, the Jama Mapun relied on subsistence farming, gathering from the sea and the forest, and trading. These activities had specific names: padilaut (earning a living from the sea), ngusaha (all kinds of economic activities), lomeh (trading), and huma (multicrop subsistence agriculture), the basic economic activity. Produce from the huma included dry or upland rice, corn, cassava, camote (sweet potato), various root crops and vegetables, and fruit trees. It also consisted of various types of beans, watermelon, eggplants, lara (small pepper), tomatoes, and aromatic lemongrass (Casiño 1967, 7-8).

Jama Mapun men husking coconuts
Jama Mapun men husking coconuts, 1992 (SIL International)

A Jama Mapun family adapted to this huma culture by adjusting its planting activities to the annual cycle of two rainy seasons. The first rainy season called uwan taun began around June and lasted for about three months. The second rainy season, uwan pulian, began sometime in November. The Jama Mapun planted their main crops during the uwan taun and the minor crops during the uwan pulian. Other economic activities were the ngusaha, which includes fishing, shell gathering, and hunting for turtle eggs, seagull eggs, collecting birds’ nest, and other marine resources (Casiño 1967, 10-12).

The introduction of coconut as a commercial plant and the development of the kumpit (motorboat) as a technological innovation in sea trade shifted the ecosystem of the Jama Mapun from one typified by the huma to the kabbun niyug or monocrop market economy involving copra production (Casiño 1967, 4).

The kabbun was imposed by the Americans and was stimulated by Chinese trading. The Chinese began to purchase whole nuts and encouraged the islanders to cultivate them. After converting most of the volcanic island into copra plantations, the kabbun system encouraged the mass migration of Jama Mapun families to nearby Palawan for new lands on which to plant coconuts (21-23).

Jama Mapun women cooking jaa out of rice flour, brown sugar, and water
Jama Mapun women cooking jaa out of rice flour, brown sugar, and water, 2014 (Goldweene Quetulio,

The Jama Mapun have always been traders. In the past, they did not completely depend on their huma-produced rice. They traded their vegetables, fruits, root crops, and marine products for rice from Palawan. They also acted as intermediaries between the inhabitants of Palawan, Muslim merchants, and the Chinese. In Borneo, products from the Muslim merchants were bartered for Chinese products such as cloth, iron implements, porcelainware, brass gongs, and other commodities. Some of these products were retained for their own use, and others were exchanged for rice from Palawan (Casiño 1976, 70-71). The introduction of the kumpit changed the Jama Mapun trade system. Whereas bartering for staple food was the core of early Jama Mapun trade, modern trade has now become basically a complex of profit-oriented cash transactions for the exportation of copra, which is produced by the whole island population. The produce is sold to the Chinese or rich copra traders, who then export the same to Jolo, Zamboanga, Sandakan, and Labuan in North Borneo (Casiño 1976, 79).

The Jama Mapun are adept in fishing. Some engage in line fishing or trapping fish with nets or cages along shallow coastal waters. Others endure fishing in the high seas through a kelle, a wooden boat about 12 feet in length that accommodates only one person. The kelle was invented by a Jama Mapun from the island of Boan. It resembles the Alaskan kayak and has no outriggers. It is not clear whether its inventor copied it from a prototype that might have been washed ashore or made it using his own imagination. The kelle became so popular that by 1988, almost every fisherman in the northwest side of Mapun owned one (Collins and Collins 2001, 2).

In the 2000s, fishing and farming were still the major sources of livelihood. The staple food of the Jama Mapun was rice and cassava, but rice was imported from Palawan, Zamboanga, and Sabah. In 2007, the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries in Mapun Municipality counted 1,438 families engaged in farming and 1,756 families in fishing. Copra, which was planted in 90% of Mapun’s total land area, was the top earner estimated at 14,000 metric tons in 2007. Next to copra were banana, cassava, mangoes, and coffee.

The estimated annual fish catch in the aquatic waters of Mapun is around 5,000 tons. Fishing boats from Palawan, Cebu, and Manila come to catch fish in the area, but the Jama Mapun do not profit from these fishing activities.

The trading of basic commodities to and from Zamboanga and Malaysia is still an important economic activity. Commodities from these external sources are sugar, rice, coffee, instant noodles, and liquefied petroleum gas. Outgoing goods to Malaysia are sea products (“Socio-Economic Profile” 2007, 20-25).

Jama Mapun Political System

The traditional Jama Mapun political system consisted of three levels: the state, where the sultan, invariably a Tausug, the council of state, and prominent members of the Tausug nobility engaged in politics; the district, where the noble chiefs or notable commoners ruled; and the village, where the authority of the headperson was supreme. Theoretically, the village headperson should be subordinate to the sultan, but practically, the political functions which divided the village headperson from the district chief were not substantial. Their administration of public affairs was often nothing more than conducting kin-group affairs (Casiño 1976, 24).

Today, the Jama Mapun have been assimilated into the mainstream political system of the Philippine Government. The traditional levels of their political system have been subsumed under the national level. In effect, the sultanate has been reduced to a province, the district to a municipality, and the village to a barangay. However, a distinction can be drawn between the concepts of politics and administration. While administration may now have passed to a modern bureaucracy, the power aspect of the system has been retained by the sultanates (Casiño 1976, 24).

As a municipality of Tawi-Tawi, Mapun’s elected leaders are under the jurisdiction of the ARMM which was created in 1989. However, the traditional council of elders still exists, with members such as respected individuals, elders, and customary leaders like the panglima. At the barrio level, the administration of justice involving sara agama, which is now popularly referred to as the Shariah (religious customary law), is made by the village headperson. Traditions are usually consulted when settling disputes. There are times, however, when decisions are made contrary to what custom has always dictated. It seems that law experts have discretion to follow the sara agama as the following case illustrates: Tirna, Jose’s daughter, went to Bondot’s house and confessed that she was in love with Jangle, Bondot’s son. Upon learning this, Jangle’s sister immediately reported the matter to the barrio captain, Abirin, who quickly summoned Bundot to bring the girl to his house as a security measure. The sara agama allows the girl’s parents to harm her and the boy should she be caught in the boy’s house. Moreover, taking her back would disgrace the boy’s family. When Abirin was sure of Tirna’s safety, he sent a go-between to report the situation to Tirna’s parents, who arrived the next day demanding 500 pesos as bride-price for their daughter. Jangle’s parents refused, citing the sara agama principle that when a girl initiates an action toward a boy by going to his mowe (home), the bride-price should only be half the customary dowry. Abirin failed to make a decision and referred the case to another law expert, who ruled against the sara agama and required Jangle’s parents to give the usual bride-price of 500 pesos (Casiño 1976, 48-49).

Jama Mapun Social Organization, Customs and Traditions

The Jama Mapun distinguish dampahanakan or “family,” literally “from the same womb,” from dambua luma or “household,” literally “of the same house.” The former consists of husband and wife, their children, and their children’s children. The household composition depends on the response to agricultural cycles. This is especially true during the planting and harvest seasons, when relatives come to help (Casiño 1976, 21-22).

Jama Mapun traditional garments
Jama Mapun traditional garments, 1998 (Felicidad A. Prudente Photo Collection)

The Jama Mapun life is shaped by family and community, from birth to death. Islam influences their human career through the paki (religious intermediaries), who represent the unifying structure of the community.

The Jama Mapun are highly child-centered. To ensure ease of delivery, the pregnant wife is enjoined to avoid sewing and to unlock all containers; the husband is enjoined not to participate in funeral activities nor wear anything around his neck for fear of harm to the child. Food normally forbidden to the wife is allowed, the belief being that the desire for such food springs from the child.

During maddi (labor), a baliyan (midwife) is called. As soon as the child is born, the baliyan cleans the batang ponsot (umbilical cord) and cuts off a portion of the cord from the placenta. The remaining section is then tied into seven portions of approximately 2.5 centimeters each. Normally, the batang ponsot drops off after three days; if it takes more than three days, it is believed that the child will become hardheaded. The child is then bathed in cold water and then wrapped in a barung (swaddle) from head to foot with pink or yellow cloth. The swaddling continues for a month or so; first the head is freed, then the rest of the body. It is believed that the body swaddle keeps the child’s legs straight. All swaddling is removed if the child can turn over on his or her stomach by himself or herself (Casiño 1967, 36-37). If born in the morning, the paki is called on the same day to bless the child. If born at night or at dusk, the paki must be called early the next morning. The paki performs a ritual in which the Islamic call to prayer is whispered into the child’s ears. This is officially known as the bahng for male offsprings or kamat for female offsprings (Casiño 1967, 37).

The paggunting is a community ceremony involving the cutting of some of the infant’s hair and weighing it against an equal amount of timbang (weight). Several paki are invited to pray and perform the ceremony.

After the paggunting, the Jama Mapun child undergoes the pag-Islam, also called pag-sunat, which isa physical initiation accompanied with prayers.

When a boy is 10 years of age or older, a group of male paki performs a traditional method of circumcision on him. The initiation is earlier for a girl, who goes through this at seven years of age, when she is still quite free from feeling embarrassed. The female pag-sunat is done by scratching the clitoris with a bamboo knife, performed by several female paki with the presence of one male paki. After experiencing pag-sunat, the child immediately goes through pag-tammat. The psychological initiation is likened to a graduation ceremony of children who have mastered the reading of the 30 chapters of the Quran. Dressed in formal clothes, the child sits on a mat to read, chant, and sing the lessons she or he learned under the tutelage of a teacher in the madrasa (religious school). Around the recitalist are the child’s parents and relatives, who proudly but silently watch as the child chants the Quran and sings the muhd (celebratory songs sung during the prophet Muhammad’s birthday). The community celebrates after the child successfully passes the pagtammat (Casino 1967, 39-40).

There is no particular ritual that commemorates adolescence, although the community provides a forum for the interaction of young Jama Mapun men and women. This is the lunsay, a community song and dance performed during weddings where young men and women can interact. In a way, lunsay can be considered a courtship song and dance through which single men and women may meet their future husband or wife. Lunsay can also be performed by all members of the community, young and old, married or unmarried (Casiño 1967, 40-41).

The ngawin (wedding) is one of their most important ceremonies. There are two steps before the marriage proper. First, there is the nuruk-nuruk (exploration) to find out if the young woman is negotiable. A third party is often used in these negotiations. If successful, some token amount is left with her parents. After a few weeks, the groom-to-be’s party returns to negotiate on the bride-price and to work out the details concerning the wedding. During the wedding day, preparations are made concurrently at three houses—the groom’s, the bride’s, and a third party’s. While a jubilant procession leads the groom to the bride’s house, the bride hides in another home. Later, a second procession is formed to conduct the bride from this house to the groom’s. There is much festivity involved: the sound of the kulintang gongs, the explosion of firecrackers or actual guns, the accordion music accompanied by drumbeats, and the parade of colorful flags (Casiño 1967, 41).

The religious significance of the event is stressed by the presence of many paki who lead the prayers before and after the central and symbolic part of the ceremony. The event consists of two parts: when the groom is confronted by the imam (priest) and answers the official questions on whether he is willing and ready to take a bride; and when the groom walks over to the bride and removes the veil partly covering her face. He then presses his thumb against her forehead (Casiño 1967, 41).

The Jama Mapun believe that the dead should be buried at once. If they die in the morning, they should be buried before evening; if they die in the evening, they should be buried before noon the next day. The Jama Mapun show their reverence for the dead by carefully washing the corpse, and this act is performed by the paki or imam. After the washing, the corpse is wrapped in koko poteh (a new white linen cloth). The Jama Mapun do not use coffins but make sure that the covering earth never touches the face and the body of the corpse. To accomplish this, the corpse is first inserted into a niche that is then covered with seven pieces of wood. Only then is the main grave covered with soil. The kubo or top of the grave is marked by stones; the sunduk or carved wooden markers (see logo of this article) are raised on two points, one corresponding to a point above the shoulder, and the other, to a point above the knees of the corpse (Casiño 1967, 42).

The Jama Mapun never refer to the dead by their names; they are assigned special terms, (e.g., a dead datu is referred to as “lindung,” a dead salip or hadji as “wapat,” a dead commoner as “imua”). Death ceremonies are performed for religious and social reasons. The doaa alua (prayers for the dead) are offered by the paki, and the feasts given to the neighbors are features found in the death rituals. These are repeated several times during the first 100 days, and thence, once a year during the death anniversary (Casiño 1967, 42-43).

Jama Mapun Religious Beliefs and Practices

The Jama Mapun believe in one God whom they call Tuhan or Allah. The latter is used in daily prayers and in the official Friday liturgy, while the former is used in discussions of philosophy, morality, and ethics. Tuhan is believed to be the creator of heaven and earth and of men through the first man Adam and the first woman, Eve, called Hawa (Casiño 1976, 111).

An imam’s burial in Pawan, Mapun Tawi-Tawi, The Philippines
An imam’s burial in Pawan, Mapun (Tawi-Tawi, The Philippines’ Southernmost Frontier by Samuel K. Tan and Bona Elisa O. Resurreccion, Sahaya Development Center Foundation, Inc., 2001.)

An imam’s burial in Pawan, Mapun Tawi-Tawi, The Philippines
An imam’s burial in Pawan, Mapun (Tawi-Tawi, The Philippines’ Southernmost Frontier by Samuel K. Tan and Bona Elisa O. Resurreccion, Sahaya Development Center Foundation, Inc., 2001.)

Under the Tuhan are many spirit beings, both Judaeo-Muslim and folk animist in nature. Some of these are seytan (evil spirit), malaikat (angels), and jin (bodies of air or fire capable of assuming different forms and carrying out difficult tasks). Certain pre-Islamic spirits also enter the Jama Mapun mythology: hantu (evil spirits behind natural phenomena, equivalent to jin); semanget or sumangat (life force, soul); souls of inanimate objects such as rice soul; pananggalan or pananggahan (birth spirit which preys on infants and pregnant women, equivalent to the Tagalog manananggal); and tubangkit (a person who dies in sin and returns to haunt the living). Other creatures feared by the Jama Mapun are the babah (witch); galap (sea devils); kokok (a malevolent creature that leads people astray); and gargasi (giant) (Casiño 1976, 113-114).

The Jama Mapun believe in two orders of existence: the hal diunya (this world or this life) and the hal ahirat (the next world or the next life). God’s existence justifies these orders and provides a foundation for the moral code which can be grouped into three categories: the zakat, sadaka, and pitlah or pitrah (good acts), which are those associated with giving and sharing; the barakat, rezeki, pahala, and sukud mahap (rewards), whether material or immaterial, in this life or the next; and the sah, dusa, bala, and busung (punishments), which are also from God. The ultimate reward for obedience is happiness with God in heaven (Casiño 1976, 114-115).

The overall metaphysics can be summed up as follows: God and man are related through command and obedience. Man can try to influence God’s will, to seek God’s blessing, and to avoid God’s punishments through prayers and rituals. But God is in overall command, through the magbaya (divine will). This concept of God’s will as fate is expressed as takdir man Tuhan (Casiño 1976, 115-116).

Traditional Houses and Community of the Jama Mapun People

The traditional architecture of the Jama Mapun is a simple, one-story rectangular structure with walls and a floor of bamboo, and roofs of nipa palm or thatch. Traditional furniture consists of colorful pandanus mats laid over coarser rattan matting with painted designs. At one end of the room, on top of the mats, are piles of red pillows that serve as cushions during the day and pillows during the night. There is an occasional chest for storing valuables in a corner of the room. Sometimes, a baby’s cradle hangs from a bamboo pole.

Traditional Jama Mapun houses in Barangay Kumpang
Traditional Jama Mapun houses in Barangay Kumpang, 1998 (Felicidad A. Prudente Photo Collection)

The more affluent construct two-story houses made from wood with corrugated iron for roofing and glass for windowpanes. In the early days, the rich were distinguished from the poor with items such as better kris (swords), brassware, porcelain jars, and trinkets captured or bought through trade. In the 1970s, the more affluent Jama Mapun owned more items like trucks, radios, cassette recorders, tables, chairs, beds, and motorcycles (Casiño 1976, 91-92).

Jama Mapun Weaving Tradition

A Jama Mapun mat using the tepo mat design
A Jama Mapun mat using the tepo mat design (Melissa Enderle)

Mat weaving is a means of artistic expression and a source of pride for the Jama Mapun. They make mats for selling or bartering. They weave to create mats for home use. Whether for selling or for personal use, the native mat weavers produce mats with excellent workmanship and artistry.

A Jama Mapun mat using the tepo mat design
A Jama Mapun mat using the tepo mat design (Felicidad A. Prudente Photo Collection)

The Jama Mapun mat weavers of Kagayan Sulu were known to create exquisite mats called buras, believed to be the mat given by the Sultan of Sulu to the Chinese emperor in the 18th century. This special rattan mat measures as big as 4.5 meters x 6.5 meters. The production of the buras is distinctly divided between the women and men: The latter weave and stitch the rattan, and the former paint on the mats. The women draw inspiration from the intricate designs of handwoven cloths. They replicate the patterns and images of the fabrics on the huge mats that are used as wall or floor covers.

A Jama Mapun mat using the tepo mat design
A Jama Mapun mat using the tepo mat design (Felicidad A. Prudente Photo Collection)

Another Jama Mapun product coveted by traders in the 19th century is the tepo or baluy (sleeping mat) made from pangdan leaves (Amilbangsa 2006, 64-69). The outstanding qualities of the Jama Mapun’s tepo have survived in the 21st century through the determination of cultural masters to continue their artistry and craft. Janeth Hanapi and Kamaria Sabturani of Sofronio Española, Palawan are two master weavers duly recognized by National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA). They impart their skills and expertise by teaching the young Jama Mapun. Their efforts are supported by people’s organizations such as the Jama Mapun Tribal Council and the Kalibunan Jama Mapun Association. In 2011, the NCCA supported the establishment of a School of Living Tradition to train and educate the young generation on traditional weaving. Among the teachers was Hanapi who started weaving at age nine. She designed and created handwoven mats for the 38th International Arts and Crafts Festival held in Tel Aviv in 2013 (NCCA 2015; DFA 2013).

Finely painted buras or bamboo screen seen behind a young girl
Finely painted buras or bamboo screen seen behind a young girl (Ukkil: Visual Arts of the Sulu Archipelago by Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa. Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2005.)

The dexterity and the high aesthetics of Jama Mapun master weavers are the subject of academic research. As exemplified by Hanapi, the Jama Mapun possess the ability to create beautiful designs from their imagination that they execute by hand weaving. Though their method may seem to be improvisational, they are able to produce intricate designs that reveal a deep grasp of geometry and mathematics (De Las Peñas, Garciano and Verzosa 2014, 357-60).

There is another kind of mat used mainly for dancing. This is the lakapan lapis, which is unique to the Jama Mapun. It is a floor matting made of bamboo strips fitted together by rattan or strong vine. It is used in the community performance of the song-dance called lunsay. The effect of the stamping feet on the lakapan lapis creates clapping sounds that serve as percussive accompaniment of the group dance (Amilbangsa 2006, 42).

Jama Mapun Stories and Folktales

Jama Mapun literary arts can be divided into three broad categories: those associated with agriculture; the tarsila or salsila or silasilah —those associated with historical events; and religious-inspired literature.

Examples of the first include stories like the origin of rice and rice planting, of ubi (yam) and tubbo (sugarcane). The origin myth of rice is especially significant since rice is the most important component of the huma.

Tohng’s magical bolo cutting trees for him as he sleeps
Tohng’s magical bolo cutting trees for him as he sleeps (Illustration by Ray Sunga)

Once there were only three people—Tohng and his two wives, Masikla and Mayuyu. One day Masikla took some grass and placed it in a pot that was on top of a fire. She then asked Mayuyu to look after the pot but instructed her not to open it. Mayuyu was curious and did not follow Masikla’s instructions. She discovered that half of the pot contained grass, the other half, rice. When Masikla returned she was angry; had Mayuyu followed instructions, people would not need to plant rice. All they would need to do is to cook grass into rice.

On another day, Tohng left for the fields. Neither wife knew what he would be doing. Mayuyu, curious as ever, followed Tohng in order to spy on him. She was surprised and angry to see Tohng sitting under a tree doing nothing, while his bolo (long knife) and axe were cutting down trees and slashing the underbush by themselves. Mayuyu came out of hiding and reprimanded Tohng for his laziness. Because of this disturbance, the bolo and axe fell to the ground and never again worked by themselves. Tohng was angry; had Mayuyu not interfered, people would not need to work with their hands. Because of what transpired, Masikla left for the heavens, followed by Tohng, then Mayuyu. They now appear as a constellation of three stars called tonggong, the appearance of which signifies the start of the huma season (Casiño 1976, 108-109).

The Origin of the Rooster
“The Origin of the Rooster” (Illustration by Ray Sunga)

Another Jama Mapun story is the origin of the rooster. There was once an alim who was also a great teacher. His origins were unknown but he was said to have first taught in Cagayan de Sulu. There he married and begot children. After his mulit (students) had completed their studies, he was requested to teach in another place. Thus began a cycle of teaching, marrying, and begetting children. Years passed, and he finally returned to the first place where he taught. Without his knowledge, the budjang (young maiden) he chose for his wife was in fact his own daughter. He had lost count of the number of his children. So for a couple of years, father and daughter lived as husband and wife. One day, while the daughter-wife was combing the hair of her father-husband, she discovered a kebas (bald patch) at one side of his head near the ear. She then remembered her mother’s words that her father could be recognized by that patch. The discovery horrified both the girl and her father-husband. They sought for hukuman (judgment) from Allah. As punishment, they were asked to jump from their house to the ground. The daughter-wife went first and became a hen; the father-husband jumped and became a rooster. That is why today the rooster runs after its own daughter and sports a bald patch near its ear.

One of the more popular tarsila concerns the seven holy men who propagated Islam in Sulu. The Jama Mapun have their own version (Casiño 1976, 117). The first alim was called Abubakar; he lived in Tawi-Tawi, later in Jolo. He traveled in a lumpang bassi, an iron vessel resembling a tub or basin. His grave is in Tawi-Tawi. The second alim lived and died in Pandukan Island, near the island of Pangutaran, north of Jolo. The third alim has his grave in Tahaw Island, located west of Sibutu off the coast of northeastern Borneo. The fourth alim has his grave in Leheman, a small island west of the Turtle Islands. It is near a geyser that spouts rocks and mud like a baby volcano. The fifth alim was buried in Parang-parang, a cogon or lallang grass field near Pulot, southeastern Palawan. The sixth alim died in Bakungan Diki (small Bakungan), an islet on the Borneo side of the Malaysian-Philippine boundary near the Turtle Islands. The seventh alim lived and taught in Tana Mapun (Cagayan de Sulu). He was buried in Bulissuan near the village of Tanduan and Sikub. The Jama Mapun call his grave tampat layag-layag (burial place marked by white flags).

The main sources of religious literature are the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad. One example is the story entitled “Allah and the Creation of the World,” which is similar to the biblical Genesis account but which is liberally sprinkled with indigenous elements.

The creation story narrates that in the beginning, there was only the sea called Baharun Nur, literally, “great waters light,” and on it was a thing that looked like a ball. This thing was actually the abode of God who decided to split the ball into two to allow his preconceived creations to come forth. One half of the ball became heaven, and the other half became the earth. From God’s radiance, Nur Muhammad—a term designating the preexistence of the soul of the prophet—appeared. Seeing that he was alone, Nur Muhammad pronounced himself god. He said, “Arastum Murabbikum,” which means “I am God.” Hardly had the words been uttered when a sound from heaven came: “Kahal Bala” (Blasphemy). And Nur Muhammad disappeared.

Carla Pacis wrote a children’s story titled Mapun, translated by Randy Bustamante and illustrated by Jose T. Gamboa and Herbert Consunji. Published by Bookmark in cooperation with the World Wide Fund for Nature, Mapun is one of five children’s stories in the collection called A Sea of Stories. The story is about the fictive ancestors of the Jama Mapun. A huge wave capsizes the boat of Jamil and his wife. She sinks under the sea, but a sea turtle saves her from drowning. Back on the boat, husband and wife are stunned by the presence of a jin or spirit who question them if they eat turtles or turtle’s eggs. The jin is happy to know that Jamil and his wife do not eat turtles or their eggs. The jin blesses the couple who soon lands on an island which they call Mapun. They raise a family, and their children and grandchildren are said to be the ancestors of the Jama Mapun.

Folk Dances and Songs of the Jama Mapun People

Mapun Island is the habitat for endangered turtles and birds, and home to endemic flora and fauna. Such endemicity can also be found in its island culture which has bred unique artistic forms such as lunsay. As a community song-dance with no instrumental accompaniment, the Jama Mapun’s lunsay is borne perhaps from the isolation of the people who need to create entertaining modes of artistic expression.

Jama Mapun tagunggo, gong drum ensemble in Barangay Tandu-an
Jama Mapun tagunggo, gong drum ensemble in Barangay Tandu-an, 1998 (Felicidad A. Prudente Photo Collection)

This is performed by young men and women forming two separate lines. In order to form a circle, the linking pairs at the end of the line hold either a handkerchief or a piece of wood to keep the men and women from touching each other’s hands. The lunsay is also a courtship dance, an occasion to see and to be seen. In metaphoric language, the male performers sing of the charms of the girls they fancy, and the girls sing the appropriate responses. The singing is accompanied by the sound of stamping feet on the lakapan lapis. The direction of the dance changes from clockwise to counterclockwise. The tempo progresses from slow, plaintive singing in a clockwise direction, to vigorous steps and accelerated singing in a counterclockwise direction. The song and dance can go on all night with the participants falling in and out of line to rest. It is through the lunsay that young people often meet their future mates (Casiño 1976, 99-100).

The lunsay has eight melodic patterns with alternating tempo and direction of movement. These are tugilah, slow, clockwise step-left; tinggayon, fast, counterclockwise step-right; nilabos, slow, clockwise step-left; halin taroh, counterclockwise step-right; palubu-labu, counterclockwise step-right; tinggayon, clockwise step-left; and moleh, clockwise step-left (Amilbangsa 1983, 25). Sample lyrics from the lunsay songs follow (Casiño 1966, 319-23).

Tugila’ is characterized by a back and forth step:

Nilabuan tugilah

Lunsay na ba dumagsah

Nilabuan tugilah

Nilabuan na kakasi

Lunsay maglamilami

Nilabuan tugilah

Tagnaan ta na ba lunsay

kaam siga ba malumbay

Lamilami na ba nagnah

kaam jama dambilah.

(Let us do the back and forth step

and start the lunsay

Let us give love

and have fun with the lunsay

Let’s start the lunsay

you who are kind and considerate

Let start the fun,

you people of the other side of the barrio.)

Tinggayon is the slow step accompanied by singing:

Tinggayon tinggayon doh battis pinaguyon doh

Kaam takka bahau paantan nakam pitu.

(Let’s do the slow step and let’s synchronize our steps

[feet] Those who just arrived, come hold our hands)

Nilabbos is the part with fast and energetic singing and dancing, usually done when the performers and spectators are sleepy and tired.

Halin taroh ba tunis na kaam siga gambina

Tattoh pakiyukiyum na

Mangkin ba sinaglitan na.

(Let us change the tune you beautiful ladies

Let us laugh and smile

Especially when you are praised.)

Video: PANGALAY Folk Dance | Philippines Cultural Heritage [Filipino Muslim Tausug Tribal Music]

Lunsay is a dance style that demonstrates the diversity of dances in the Sulu Archipelago. The Jama Mapun also perform the pangalay, also known as igal, which is a tradition they share with the Sama/Samal, Badjao, and Tausug.

During the pag-Islam, the child learns to sing the muhd or commemorative songs, celebrating the mauluden Nabi (month of the Prophet’s birthday). The muhd are sung solo; their tone is plaintive and melancholy; they are long and high pitched. Four types of muhd are learned: the janitla, jikil, a-sarakal, and tammat. During the closing ceremonies of the pag-Islam, the four muhd are sung by the child.The occasion is very festive. The heart of the ceremony is the recital and performance of the young graduate who is colorfully attired and sits cross-legged on a colorful mat. The parents, relatives, and paki sit around and listen as the young graduate proves his reading skill and sings the muhd (Casiño 1976, 99).

Media Arts

There are two local radio stations reaching the Jama Mapun in Southwestern Philippines. DXGD (549 AM) is owned and operated by the Sulu-Tawi-Tawi Broadcasting Foundation under the Apostolic Vicariate of Jolo. Operated from Bongao, DXGD primarily reaches Tawi-Tawi and secondarily reaches South Siasi, Sulu Province, Palawan, and Sabah. With the tagline “Radio for Peace,” it began as the media apostolic work of the Missionary Oblates of the Mary Immaculate with news, public affairs, talk, and religious programs. DXAS Tawi-Tawi (104.7 FM) Radyo Pilipinas Tawi-Tawi is a government radio station under the Philippine Broadcasting Service with news and talkback radio programs.

Nganom Tipo (Mat Weaving), 2017, written and directed by Jaimee Dejelo Bernardo, is a short film about the endangered art of mat weaving among the Jama Mapun in Palawan and how the endangered art was promoted among the youth. In 2008, there were only eight mat weavers in Barangay Isumbo, Española, Palawan. The most skilled among them is Janeth Hanapi. The film depicts how Hanapi, with some Jama Mapun children, gather the giant thorny pandan leaves which are cut into long strips, bound, boiled, then exposed carefully to dry under the sun. The weathered strips are boiled in dyes of red, green, violet, and yellow. Hanapi and the children painstakingly weave the colored pandan strips into mats. As of 2017, Barangay Isumbo has 13 female weavers and one male weaver. The film was chosen in the Viddsee Juree Awards for new storytellers in Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines (Nganom Tipo 2017).

Video: [Mapun] 🇵🇭 Top 11 Best Tourist Spots in Mapun Town (Tawi-Tawi)

“Top 11 Best Tourist Spots in Mapun Town” allows online audiences to see the geological wonders of Mapun island: the Masjid Buud and Lagoon near a cold spring and an ancestral house; the Umus Mataha public beach; a sinkhole called Boheh Loang; the Lake Singuang crater lake; the Bohan Island surrounded by shallow waters; the Jurata Bay that connects to the Sulu Sea; the top of Mount Nanggoy overlooking Sappah Lake, Mount Liran, and the island’s beaches; the Sapah Lake and Marshland; the Sitio Takot-Takot, a village on shallow waters; Tanduk Taung and Buli Taung peninsula with mountains and white sand beaches; and the Manda Island with its rock formations and white sand beaches (edmarationTV 2020).

The Jama Mapun’s territories are important marine sanctuaries and natural habitats, particularly the Turtle Islands, home to the pawikan green sea turtle and the hawksbill turtle species. Watching Turtles in Turtle Islands is a travelogue which starts with the 16-hour journey via naval boat from Bongao to Taganak, the main island of Turtle Islands. The latter is the center of the ecological conservation program within the protected area under Presidential Proclamation 171 declaring the marine area closed to all human activities except for research purposes. The video documents the pawikan’s nestling spot. Tiny turtle hatchlings are later freed to the sea (PIA Western Mindanao 2014).

Video: Green Sea Turtles in Tawi-Tawi | Beauty and Bounty of Mindanao

Another documentary about marine ecology produced by the Mindanao Development Authority is Green Sea Turtles in Tawi-Tawi. It features Baguan Island, a revered site believed to be where a brother of Sheik Makhdum is buried. Aside from documenting how sea turtles lay eggs, it also shows underwater shots of one hatchling struggling to swim out into the open sea. One sea turtle lay 80 to 100 eggs but perhaps only one or two survive. The documentary illustrates the disturbing problem of plastics coming from Sandakan, Sabah. Plastic bags, mistaken as seaweeds, are accidentally eaten by the pawikan (Mindanao Development Authority 2020).

Video documentation of the Jama Mapun dances and festivals are common in YouTube. One such video documents the dance competition during the Agal-Agal Festival in 2016. The event is significant to the Jama Mapun because ever since the provincial festival began in 2001, it was only in 2016 that Mapun hosted it. Contingents from all municipalities travelled to the remote island to celebrate the Kamahardikaan or the commemoration of the establishment of Tawi-Tawi Province. The documentary presents dance entries that utilize the pangalay/igal tradition and langka or martial arts. Sadly, the indigenous dance of the Jama Mapun, the song-dance lunsay, was not represented in the festival (Mussah Productions 2019).


Kultura at Tradisyon ng mga BADJAO: Kulintangan at Tradisyunal na Laro [Pangkat Etniko - Mindanao]


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

Title: Jama Mapun

Author/s: Gary P. Cheng (1994) / Updated by Rosalie Matilac, with notes from Jay Jomar F. Quintos, and Filemon G. Romero (2018) / Updated by Rosalie Matilac (2021)


Publication Date: November 18, 2020

Access Date: September 07, 2022


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