Monday, April 23, 2012

Agusan del Sur's Golden Tara

The Golden Tara, photographed by Jojo de los Reyes
I think there are three things that lately put my province, Agusan del Sur on the map. One is Lolong, the world's longest crocodile in captivity, the next one is the Agusan Marsh and the third is the Golden Tara.

Ironically, like the Agusan Marshlands, we only learned about the Golden Tara's existence recently when the image was shown on TV last year.  Since 1920, the Golden Tara's home has been the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.  There at the Grangier Hall of Gems, the 21 carat gold, close to 4 lb in weight, approximately 6 to 7 inches tall Golden Tara sits almost unnoticed together with other precious and historical gems.  There, it is known as the Agusan Gold Image; that is because when she was found in Agusan in 1917, Agusan was one province, no Norte, no Sur.

At the Grangier Hall of Gems, nobody really realizes the significance of the diminutive Agusan Gold Image.  The people are more drawn to the other precious gems.  The blue figure on the right is a Tiffany's stained glass of a mermaid.
The Asia Collections of the Field Museum of Chicago

To this day, I am left wondering why my mother never mentioned the Golden Tara to me, not even once.  In 1953, while some of her classmates after college decided to cross the Pacific Ocean, my mother opted not only to stay but go up the Agusan River, leaving her mother and sisters behind in Butuan City.  Like a salmon swimming against the current so it may breed, my mother made the unpopular decision to go upstream so she may plant the seeds of education;  unpopular  because my grandmother felt my mother was sailing in uncharted waters then.  She became a teacher in the town of Esperanza, and what a way to start a career, full of "esperanza," the Spanish word for "hope."  Coincidentally, this is the same place where thirty six years before, another woman made history by finding the Golden Tara by the banks of the Wawa River.

My mother at the front of the boat.  I assume this must be the Wawa River because it is less wider than the Agusan River.  The waters of the Wawa joins the Agusan River at Esperanza.  This is around the place where the Golden Tara was found by a Manobo woman.  This picture was taken in 1953.
This is the Wawa River taken on the Wawa Bridge at the Philippine Japan Friendship Highway.  I took this picture on a trip to Butuan Airport.  The river you see is on my right, and to the left which is not visible on the picture is where the water current is flowing and the Wawa waters end in Esperanza, merging with the larger Agusan River.

Just to tell you a little about my province's geography, Esperanza is a town situated along the corner of the Agusan River on its right, and Wawa River on its left.  The Wawa River is perpendicular to the massive Agusan River.   Wawa is short for Wala-Wala; over the years, this river is notorious  for changing its course every time when the waters from the mountains overflow, killing people and livestock along its deadly chosen path.  "Wawa"  therefore means "Now you see, now you don't."  Until the early 50's,  the Agusan River served as the highway ferrying people and their goods up and down the river.  When the Philippine Japan Friendship Highway was completed in the '70s, the highway shifted from water to land, leaving the river towns isolated.

Talking about the Agusan River, not many people know that it is actually shared by three provinces.  It starts from Compostela Valley, then it goes to the Agusan Marsh of Agusn del Sur, flow through the river towns of the rest of Agusan del Sur then through Agusan del Norte and exits into the Mindanao Sea in its mouth in Butuan City; that's a total of 350kms.   I think to be fair to all the three provinces, the river should be renamed the Comval-Agusan River.

From Barangay Ampayon in Agusan del Norte, the road to Agusan del Sur is a 7km uphill climb.  This is a portion of the Philippine Japan Friendship Highway.
In 1967, the leaders of Agusan decided that it was too big to handle the province so they split it into two, Agusan del Norte and Agusan del Sur, separating the highlands (south)  from the lowlands (north), the Manobos of the South and the Mamanwas of the North.  They were the ancestral settlers of the land until the "civilized" people came and took their lands.

The towns of Agusan del Norte are either along the sea or the Lake Mainit and  Butuan City became independent.  The towns of Agusan del Sur are divided into two, the river towns (older towns along the Agusan River) or the highway towns (younger towns), located along the Philippine Japan Friendship Highway.   The River towns arranged going upstream are Esperanza, San Luis, Talacogon, Veruela and Sta. Josefa.  The Highway towns arranged from the border of Agusan del Norte towards the Davao provinces are Sibagat (formerly a barrio of Bayugan), Bayugan, San Francisco, Rosario, Bunawan (Lolong's home) and Trento.

My hometown Bayugan which was once a forest, was a sitio under Barangay Maygatasan of the town of Esperanza in the '50s.  Because the Philippine Japan Friendship Highway traversed Bayugan, in 1961, it became a town and today, Bayugan is a city, and Maygatasan a barangay under the city.   When this friendship highway was under construction, the center of commerce moved towards the highway towns and so did my mother and most of her co-teachers; they were reassigned in Bayugan.  The town rapidly progressed due to logging activities and  people from all over the Philippines came over to see what the Land of Promise had to offer.  That was how my mother met my father who came from Bicol.  Of course, this has nothing to do with the Golden Tara but I just want to say the Bayugan was a melting pot then.  If you really think about it, there are no native Bayuganons except the Manobos.  The distance between Bayugan and Esperanza is only 15 kilometers, very near yet so far; far because when the highway in the land was finished, there was no need to transit Esperanza anymore unless you live there.  Business has slowed down in Esperanza, once a very important hub dating back as early as the 13th century as proven by the Golden Tara.

You can just imagine that before the Philippine Japan Friendship Highway was built, this was once was a forest.

When I was little, every time we visit our cousins in Butuan, they used to joke "Ni-bahar ang mga taga "upper."  "Ni-bahar," comes from the Spanish word "bajar" which means to descend and "upper," because while Butuan is below sea level, protected by dikes so it won't be engulfed by the river and the sea, Agusan del Sur is much higher in altitude where the mountains reach the skies.  Of course, we knew that "upper Agusan" was and is a derogatory remark but how can we blame our cousins when that was the popular impression of the people from the north.  Due to the mountainous terrain of Agusan del Sur, the people from the south are categorized primitive and less civilized than the people from the North.

When the Golden Tara rose to fame, I can not help but smile when the very people who do not want to be associated with the South have claimed that she (the Tara) is theirs and even erected a replica statue in Butuan City and her image is included in the website  for inviting tourists to visit the city of Butuan.

If I may quote from the website above about the Butuan Museum where the replica of the Golden Tara is a star: " BUTUAN NATIONAL MUSEUM:  This museum is the repository of historical and cultural materials and artifacts that proves Butuan's prehistoric existence and rich cultural heritage. There are two exhibit galleries. The Archaeological Hall and Ethnological Hall Specimens of stone crafts, metal crafts, woodcrafts, poteries, goldsmithing, burial coffins, and other archaeological diggings are exhibited. At the Ethnological Hall are exhibits of contemporary cultural materials the Butuanon or every Filipino for matter used for a living."

Nothing is ever mentioned about Esperanza nor Agusan.  I think proper recognition should have been accorded to the places where these artifacts were found.  It should have been written "...that proves Butuan's and Agusan's prehistoric existence and rich cultural heritage.  Although the museum describes the Golden Tara was found by the banks of the Wawa River, to someone who is not familiar with the geography of the land it would appear that Wawa River is actually in Butuan.  Agusan del Sur should also build its own museum.

Discrimination is everywhere all over the world.  The Tagalogs feel superior to the others because they speak the  national language.  When I went to Saudi Arabia, I also found out that the people in  Riyadh are proud of their accent because they are in the capital city.   The same holds true in both Agusans but  for me, although the province has been split into two, I still feel that it is one body.  If the Agusan Marsh is the uterus, the Agusan River is the birth canal and babies come out in the mouth of the river in Butuan.  Indeed around 1982, the children of the Norte and Sur take the boats in the pier of Butuan so they may sail into the horizon to find their place in society.  Both the residents of Agusan del Norte and Agusan del Sur have a responsibility to keep the river ecologically healthy for posterity.  The two provinces are still interdependent with each other. 

The word "Tara" is a Sanskrit word which is a name of a Goddess of the Valjrayana Buddhism.  H. Otley Beyer, the pioneering pre-historian of the Philippines, described the Golden Tara  in 1917 as “the most  spectacular find yet made in Philippine archeology.”   He even suggested that the Philippine government  repurchase the Golden Tara from Fields Museum of Natural History in Chicago. 

Archeologists and scholars believe that Agusan was part of the Majapahit Empire based in the island of Java (modern day Indonesia) which existed from  1293 to around 1500AD.  With all due respect to them,  if Agusan was part of this empire, where are the rest of the artifacts?  Does this mean that as early as the13th century, the Javanese were mining in Agusan?  Why would Filipinos create a statue that doesn't look like them?  If Buddhism was the religion in the 13th century, where are the Buddhists now?  Did the Spaniards kill them in the guise of conversion?  Who created the Golden Tara?  Were they Filipinos or Javanese?  Was it created in Esperanza or a Javanese sailed from Java, into the mouth of the Agusan River to Esperanza?  Did a Javanese fall in love with a Manobo woman and gave the Golden Tara sa a gift?  The discovery of the Golden Tara is like finding Alladin's magic lamp; when rubbed  a genie who has been in deep slumber for centuries is awakened and we are left in awe, asking a thousand of questions, wondering what could have happened to her in the past. How I wish the Golden Tara could speak so she can answer all these questions but that would be rather scary, so she better keep her mouth shut and remain a mystery forever.

Where did that nose come from?  The eyes and nose are not Filipino.

The Golden Tara is bare from the waist up.  The obsession for  breast augmentation therefore existed in the 13th century long before Dolly Parton and Pamela Anderson were born.

To satisfy my curiosity about the gold mining in Agusan in the pre Spanish era, I visited the Ayala Museum in Makati.  While there are thousands of people in the malls, I was alone in the museum.  This just shows no one bothers to learn about our rich history anymore.  I was surprised with what I found in particular the works of art in Gold in Agusan and Surigao.   There are even gold masks to cover the face of the departed in their death chambers.  There are thousands of things that prove that we were not "indios" before the "conquistadores" came.

A work of Art outside the museum.  Somehow it reminds me of Jack and the Beanstalk.

There have been suggestions that the Philippines must get back the Golden Tara from the Fields Museum of Chicago.  As a friend of mine said, the Fields museum is like an "adoptive" parent to the Golden Tara who takes care of her like her own child.  For this reason, I would rather keep it there because her security is not guaranteed in the hands of her "biological" parents.  The last thing the Philippines need is another Rogelio Roxas.


Greg said...

Indeed, such great things can be found also in Agusan Sur. This artifact is a great cultural heritage and the U.S. should return this to us.

Anonymous said...

This is a wiki entry but it is a good start.

Oneistoone said...

Very easy to read Jack and so well written. I'm a huge fan!

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