Batad, rightfully deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site, lies in the Banaue rice terraces, nine hours north of Manila. Only accessible on foot this remote village escaped the Spanish invasion and therefore maintained its heritage with traditions dating back thousands of years.
The origin of Batad, according to the oral history of the Ifugao people, told to me by Ulyssis Binalit, the youngest of eight, began when a single hunter arrived to the area in search of pigs. Ulyssis showed me a small stream where wild pigs used to come to drink water.
Perhaps on the hunter’s recommendation, others came to the area and eventually settled, creating the first rice terrace next to the stream. Today these terraces extend almost to the very top of the mountain and pigs have remained a predominant part of the culture. For example, it is tradition to slaughter and eat pigs at weddings.
After pointing out two large stones very near to the pig stream…
Ulyssis told me that they used to be located at the top of the mountain. He then told me the story, that his grandfather had told him, of how these boulders got from up there to down there.
It is reported that during the night a long time ago the two large stones started rolling down the mountain through the rice terraces. When they reached the center village, the two stones separated rolling past either side. They came together again at the bottom and rested where they lay today.
“Here is the amazing thing,” Ulyssis said as if it weren’t already amazing enough that the stones had avoided people’s homes, “none of the terraces were destroyed.” Ulyssis paused, seemingly searching my expression for signs of skepticism. After asking how this was possible, he exclaimed “the hobbits”, saying it is believed that hobbits carried the stones down the mountain and through the terraces.
With the introduction of something as fascinating as hobbits, the conversation shifted solely to them. Sounding like a character out of Lord of the Rings, I wondered if it was the choice of translated word that made the whole idea sound “Hollywood”. Answering each question I had in turn, Ulyssis described the hobbits as short, perhaps waist-high. A childhood friend of his had played with one but he had only ever seen them at night, as lights bouncing through the forest. And I understood them to be neither good nor evil, instead existing solely for themselves. No one has seen them since 1995 and it is said that they left in search of a purer forest. I couldn’t help but realize this was also around the time that tourism had picked up a bit in that area and I felt a few pangs of guilt.
During WWII, Japan’s General Yamashita came to the Banaue rice terraces in search of gold. Ulyssis matter of factly stated, perhaps with a little pride too, that this was the general’s last mistake because the people of Banaue were fierce head-hunters. There now stands a Yamashita Shrine to commemorate where he was killed. Ulyssis added that even if the Spanish had made it to Batad, they would not have succeeded in colonizing for this same reason.
I asked about the two churches in the center village and wondered how Christianity made it to Batad and when. After WWII several groups of missionaries came. The Spanish brought Catholicism and the US-Americans and South Koreans brought Protestantism and in the end the center village of Batad acquired two new buildings: a green church and a red church. Ulyssis quickly followed this part of the lesson up with, “But we have maintained our pagan rituals”. He cited the Imbayah (rice) Festival as an example and encouraged me to look online for clips of this event, which I have.
In the short time we spent in Batad it was evident that community is an extremely important aspect to the Ifugao people as it is emphasized in all aspects of life. Weddings, for example, is an entire village affair. Ulyssis joked about this by adding, “Everyone is invited. Even if you are not invited, you are invited.”
We left Batad and the Banaue Rice Terraces wishing we had planned more time there. The one word that sums up Batad for me is “Napintas”, meaning “beautiful” in Ifugao. Thank you to Ulyssis for the history lesson and for sharing parts of your culture with me.