Tribal divination ritual in Batad

Nineteen year-old Greek American Eleftherios Hetelekides joins a tribal divination ritual in Batad, Ifugao province, and experiences the local people's way of life

Photos by Eleftherios Hetelekides

The rice terraces of Batad

While visiting family in Manila, I decided to take a trip to Batad, a village in Banaue, Ifugao province, north of Luzon. I’ve always been fascinated with the tribal peoples’ way of life. Coming from New York, I wanted to experience a culture at opposite poles to mine. So one morning after New Year’s Day, my friend Ali Christophers and I, along with his seven-year-old son Dimitri, found ourselves drinking coffee at Kuya Ramon’s restaurant and homestay — the owner Kuya Ramon is Ali’s adopted father — after completing a grueling yet visually stunning journey to the remote mountain village of the once-headhunting Ifugao tribe in Batad. An eight-hour overnight bus ride took us from Baguio to Banaue, from where we took an hour-and-a-half jeepney ride to Batad.

Rice paddies surrounding the village in Batad

In Batad, we stopped by Kuya Ramon’s for some delicious chicken adobo (chicken stewed in vinegar and garlic). The view from where we were seated was breathtakingly beautiful. The tips of the mountain ranges of the whole of Batad seemed to create an elevated horizon. Batad’s stone-walled rice terraces, one of the five terraces in the area listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, was sculpted by hand by ancient tribal people using primitive tools some 2,000 years ago. It stretches for countless kilometers under the sky with an elevation of 1,100 meters, and to this day continues to be a living farm, a testament to the ingenuity of the Ifugaos.

At about 1pm, we moved from the dining area to a nearby Ifugao hut, a traditional home which Ali built, for a nap. The huts are built entirely from wood with no nails holding the pieces together and sit on stilts, with steps leading to the entrance door. The Ifugaos like their homes elevated from the ground, protecting them from dangerous animals and other headhunting tribes.

Writer Eleftherios Hetelekides (right) with the shaman the locals call puya

We woke up at about 4:40pm and after enjoying another cup of locally grown coffee, Kuya Ramon asked us to come along with him to fetch the local elder Puya, one of the Ifugao shamans, from his home. The sun was going down, but there was enough light for us to see our way. With Puya in his traditional Ifugao G-string garb, two live chickens and three bottles of rice wine, we walked back to Ali’s house. The locals were to show us their traditional spiritual ritual of offering sacrificial chickens to ask favors from the gods. I wasn’t told what the divination ritual was called, but like the traditional Baki ritual, it was an expression of gratitude to the gods for the harvest and to the ancestors for bequeathing the rice fields to the present generation. Rituals such as the one we were about to see and participate in were usually performed during the planting season. It was January when we visited, an off season for planting, but for a small fee and donation the locals were happy to perform and allow us to take part in their sacred ceremony.

Inside the hut where the ritual has taken place. From left, Hetelekides' friend Ali Christophers, a local villager, Hetelekides, and Christophers' son Dimitri

At Ali’s house, we sat cross-legged forming a circle around ceremonial bowls and ceramic pots used by the shamans for sacred rice wine fermentation. Puya started chanting in ancient Ifugao language, which I’m told nobody knew except the shamans. This continued for two hours and in between we meditated, smoked, and drank rice wine while the shaman and locals chewed moma, a betel nut chew said to have medicinal properties. Puya asked one of the locals to get the two live chickens. One was handed to me and the other to the local guy who grabbed the chicken's wings and legs.

He then proceeded to tip its head down over the sacred bowl, while Puya chanted and swiftly slit the chicken’s neck with a specially decorated knife. It struggled and made some noises before bleeding out into the bowl, causing the chicken I’m holding to tremble in fear, now understanding its fate. I involuntarily squeezed the chicken and felt a sudden connection to the animal and its terror. When Puya instructed me, I held its head over the bowl and tightened my grip. The blood dripped from the wound of the almost severed head of the chicken, to the sacred blade, to the bowl. The chicken continued struggling for its life, dislocating its own wings in an attempt to escape. It had gone lifeless but my grip didn’t loosen. The shaman took the chicken from me and plucked two feathers from it, dipping them in blood, then handed one each to Dimitri and myself. We took a break, drank more rice wine and waited while the chickens were cooked into a traditional soup. After an hour and a half, we were served the soupy chicken dish, but I was not hungry at all. The sight of the cooked meat from the chicken that just died in my hands made me feel nauseated. After everyone had begun to eat the meal, I decided to take one bite and somehow a raw, savage appetite came over me. The meal capped the ceremony, and the locals including Puya all went back home.

Christophers with the Tappiya Falls in the backdrop

On the second day of our Batad visit, I started mentally preparing for our long journey home. We were to leave on Tuesday. I had been struck by the peoples’ amazing hospitality, the breathtaking views, the esoteric ambience of Batad, and promised myself that someday ‘I would be back.’

How to get there
Florida Bus Company (Lacson Avenue cor. Earnshaw St., Sampaloc, Manila) has daily trips from Manila to Banaue. Book Batad tours at Gafa Tours & Events.

Originally published in InFlight Traveller January to March 2015