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Preserving Heritages: The Mindoro-Palawan Bamboo Collection

(The following is a post by Tien Doan, Special Assistant to the Chief, Asian Division.)

Among of the unique collections from Southeast Asia in the holdings of the Asian Division at the Library of Congress is a set of bamboo “books” that came from the Mindoro island and the Palawan island, two islands of the Philippines.

Prior to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the Philippines in 1521, depending of methods of classifications, there were 120 to 175 languages spoken on the various Philippine islands. The various written languages were mostly based on Baybayin, an ancient Philippine script that derived from the Brahmic scripts of India. The Brahmic script’s origin dates back to the 6th century BC.

Detail of “Philippines, principal vernacular languages.” Washington: Central Intelligence Agency, 1964.

With the eventual colonization of the Philippines by the Spaniards, and subsequently by the Americans, the Latin-based alphabet began to replace the Indic-based scripts. By 1947, Harold Conklin, a renowned anthropologist, found the Indic scripts were still in use only among three indigenous cultures: the Hanunóo (or Hampangan) and the Buhid of Mindoro, and the Tagbanua (or Tagbanwa) of Palawan. Eight-Five percent of these writings as various studies indicate, are love songs, while the rest are normal correspondence.

The indigenous groups typically used a knife point to etch their writings onto bows and arrows, traditional musical instruments, bamboo containers, bamboo posts and walls of their homes, and on bamboo plants along trails. Because of bamboo’s perishable nature, artifacts with these Indic scripts found today are mostly less than a century old.

The Library’s Mindoro-Palawan bamboo collection is part of a collection of Hanunóo and Tagbanua scripts assembled by Major Fletcher Gardner (born in 1869), an American doctor stationed in the Philippines from 1904 to 1905. Acquired by the Library in 1938, the collection consists of 70 slats of half bamboo and 6 full bamboo tubes. The slats, written in the Hanunóo script, are mostly the work of a woman identified only as Luyon, wife of Yagao. Luyon writes about life under the Spanish occupation of the Philippines, love songs, the trial of a case of wife stealing, the preparation of arrow poison, the rite of blood brotherhood, as well as other Hanunóo daily rituals, such as wedding and death festival. The bamboo tubes are in prose etched with the Tagbanua script, and offer a glimpse into Tagbanua society, kinship relations, traditional foods, hunting methods, and burial customs.

The Mindoro –Palawan Bamboo Collection. Asian Division.

Accompanying the bamboo collection are: a pamphlet titled “Tagbanwa alphabet,” by Norberto Romualdez (1875-1941), published by Cultura Filipina in Manila in 1914; a set of typed transliterations of 34 of Luyon’s writings; a set of hand-written transliterations of 14 of Luyon’s writings; and a book, “Indic Writings of the Mindoro-Palawan Axis,” by Fletcher Gardner and Ildefonso Maliwanag, published in 1939. The book by Gardner and Maliwanag is especially useful as it includes instructions on Hanunóo grammar and a list of Hanunóo vocabulary.

Although the whole bamboo collection has undergone preservation treatment, the Library has digitized the collection to further protect it from the risk of damages by frequent physical contacts. In 2014, the entire collection was scanned at a high resolution, with color accuracy and fidelity, and the images are now stored in the Library’s digital repository. Going forward, the digitized bamboo collection can be accessed in the the Library’s Asian Reading Room. In view of the fact that according to the Philippines’ 2000 census, the Hanunóo population is estimated at 18,000 and the Tagbanua population is estimated at 10,000, this rare bamboo collection is even more important in the preservation and research of the disappearing languages and cultures of the native people of the Philippines.

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