This is the 7th installment of my Semana Santa series where I feature rituals and traditions observed in certain places during this most solemn week in the Catholic calendar. Click on the image at the right to check the rest of the articles.
The ritual is akin to ancient death rites where the body of the village chief is bathed, smoked and prepared for the afterlife. Paete, a lakeshore town in Laguna is famed for its woodcarving industry even before the Spanish era. The town’s woodcarvers have graced the various grand churches, houses and museums here and abroad.
During Holy Week, the town becomes one of Filipino Catholic folk religion’s pilgrimage areas, although not many know it, with its wooden and jointed image of the Santo Sepulcro undergoing an age old ritual that is pre-Spanish. A ritual that is akin to ancient death rites where the body of the village chief is bathed, smoked and prepared for the afterlife. This only means one thing, before the Spanish colonization, what we know of being practiced by the mountain tribes in the Cordillera before were also practiced in other parts of the archipelago.
The image, believed to have come from Mexico and brought by the Spanish friars in the town, is an amazing piece of work. The entire sculpture is jointed that enables it to be moved like a human being. Even the eyelids can be closed. At the back of its neck is said to be a date inscribed: 1516.
After the Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday) mass in the morning, the townspeople transports the image of the dead Christ from its altar niche in a procession to the house of Chie Afuang, the current recamadora whose family has been tasked to care for the image for generations. From Sunday to the morning of Wednesday, a vigil is held and the house opens its doors to devotees.
Holy Wednesday and the ritual starts. Devotees gather with their blankets. Bottles of lambanog (coconut vodka) is emptied into a basin and mixed with an aromatic oil, agua de coloña. One by one, white blankets are folded and set at a corner. The bed where the image is lain is moved to one side, leaving a space at the room’s center where a native mat is set. A big wooden chair is then placed at the middle.
When all is ready, family, kin and relatives start to undress the image leaving a cloth to cover the pelvic area. The wig is taken off and a bandana replaces it. From its repose, it is now transferred to its chair, seated, and eyes closed with the folded blankets acting as cushion and support. The lambanog mixture is then daubed on the surface with pieces of cotton (topmost photo) while some women sing prayers at the sides. After a while, men then come bearing wooden frames where a makeshift tent, the kubol, is set up. Cloth and blankets then cover the frame. Incense is prepared and placed under the chair.
The image is smoked for 5 hours from 1000H – 1500H with the incense being replaced from time to time. Devotees slide in their legs and feet inside the kubol, encircling it and chanting prayers and devotional supplications. I tried it and the sensation is wonderful. The heat inside makes for a relaxing feeling to the feet. In some instances, a devotee would go behind the kubol, enters inside and stay there for a few seconds. They believe that it cleanses them spiritually.
At 1500H, the smoking stops. The kubol is disassembled and the image transferred back to the bed. A new set of clothes, usually donated by a devotee, dresses the image. The blankets are now returned to their owners who will treasure it believing that it is blessed in the process. The devotees come and go. They venerate the image, kiss its hand and feet. Take photos with their camera phones. Once the crowd thins out, the recamadora then applies aciete de balsamo, another aromatic oil but usually it is essence of rose. These blackened parts, including the face is testament to centuries of being touched and kissed and applied with the oil.
On Good Friday, after lunch, the faithful again gathers outside the house. In a few minutes, the image, is carried out into its glass processional casket borne on the shoulders of male devotees dressed in white. The people line up when the procession is about to start, prayers are said, songs are chanted and the matraka (a wooden contraption with metal parts) makes its loud and discomforting sound. Along the narrow streets of Paete, it winds its way to the church accompanied by other processional images.
The Paete ritual pagsusuob is one of a kind in the country. Its a death rite that we know of as being practiced by ancient tribes for a fallen leader, a village chief or someone of stature in the community before eventually being suppressed and stamped out by the Spanish missionaries in the name of Christianity. But here in this town, the ritual hasn’t been gone but adapted into Catholic folk belief. Or was it incorporated or tolerated by the lone Spanish parish priest to appease or make the people be accepting of the new religion?