, FEBRUARY 7, 2007 (STAR) RENDEZVOUS By Christine S. Dayrit - When I was a curious child, my mom would read me bedtime stories about how a diamond comes to be. Mountain ranges of rough carbon are painstakingly blasted and mined to unearth the most scintillating, resplendent gems of all. Through man’s ingenuity and passion for discovery, something as beautiful and pure is obtained from the rough. Perhaps mom’s storytelling awakened the wanderlust in me as I learned to look beyond the surface to witness real beauty and riches. I am an explorer who yearns for unique adventure, the feeling of discovering the unknown even as it entails leaving the comfort and security of home. Change is exhilarating and a journey into a land of mystery and isolation is an epiphany. As I travel the world and unleash the archeologist in me, the experience propels more exploration.

It is true the God-given iridescent beauty of Cotabato lies deeply ingrained in its culture, history, tradition and natural resources. Cotabato was immortalized in the song Ang Bayan Kong Sinilangan (Timog Cotabato) and popularized by the Filipino pop group Asin during the ’70s. This poignant song that tells of a place that is war-torn made Cotabato infamous, yet there is much sensitivity and beauty of love and lore beneath.

The recently concluded Shariff Kabunsuan Festival, led by Datu Muslimi Sema, Mayor of Cotabato City, and UNESCO Commissioner Bai Sandra Sema, First Lady of Cotabato City and executive chairman of the festival organizing committee, and the participation of both government and private sectors, is a resounding testament to Cotabato City as a progressive center of trade and culture.

Cotabato City has witnessed more history than any other place in Mindanao. Its history dates back to the 15th century when Shariff Kabunsuan, an Arab missionary from Johore, Malaysia, landed along the banks of Rio Grande de Mindanao and introduced Islam to the lumads. Islam is the faith that moved the early settlers to communal life, and established the Sultanate of Maguindanao with its golden age ushered in by Sultan Dipatuan Kudarat during the 17th century, the time when Cotabato City developed as a capital town of Maguindanao.

Today, Cotabato City, the only Tagalog-speaking city in Mindanao, is a place where both seeds of Islam and Christianity grew and flourished. It is also the seat of two administrative regions: Region XII, and the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). The city currently serves as the center of economic, education, social, political, cultural and other basic services of South Central Mindanao and the ARMM.

Last December, the city government, the tourism sector and the private sector worked hand-in-hand for the success of one of the country’s most colorful traditional festivals, the Shariff Kabunsuan Festival.

The grand festival commemorates the arrival of Shariff Kabunsuan, an Arab-Malay missionary from Johore, Malay Peninsula, along the banks of Masia Pulangi, now known as Rio Grande de Mindanao, to propagate Islam in mainland Mindanao. The weeklong festivity was marked by the ecstatic and exciting beats of drums and gongs as people celebrated in the streets and graceful flags swayed with the gentle winds of the Pulangi as gaily decorated boats traced the route of Shariff Kabunsuan’s triumphant arrival. The highlights of the festival were the Kuyog Street Dancing, the Guinakit and reenactment of the arrival of Shariff Kabunsuan, the colorful parade of intricate inaul malongs as guests partook of the sumptuous dinner in the Pagana Maguindanao.

"Kuyog" is a Maguindanao term that denotes a "grand royal parade." Appropriately, the street-dancing segment of the Shariff Kabunsuan festival was called Kuyog Field Demonstration and held at the Cotabato City Polytechnic College. Nine groups performed various traditional dances with various themes from planting to harvesting and thanksgiving rituals. These also included the reenactment of the arrival of Shariff Kabunsuan in the late 1400s.

One of the most memorable dances represented the symbol of abundance and livelihood in the royal courts of Sultan Kudarat, the seventh ruler of the Maguindanao Sultanate. This is called the tudong dance. "Tudong" is the Maguindanao food cover. Other groups performed rituals of the Manobo, one of the lumad groups still present in Central Mindanao. The Samayaan, a Manobo ritual in which omens are read in connection with all the stages of the farming cycle: clearing, planting, growing and harvesting. It is also the same ritual during the Manobo New Year to celebrate the start of clearing for the planting season, which signals the beginning of the planting season.

Unlike other festivals, the Kuyog of the Shariff Kabunsuan festival represents a rich mélange of cultural tradition. It is not a Mardi Gras but a cultural presentation. Which made us stop and think about the 14th and 15th centuries: that while Manila and Cebu were being Hispanized, Maguindanao was being Islamized and the lumads, who were neither Christian nor Muslim, were fending for themselves.

Now in its fifth year, the Inaul Fashion Show is one of the best parts of the festival as it promotes the city’s local hand-woven fabric. Inaul (pronounced "inol") is a Maguindanao term meaning fabric woven from a backstrap loom with the two sides sewn together to form a tubular piece of cloth. This is commonly known as malong. However, not all malongs are inaul. But all inauls are malongs. Initially, this is confusing. Let’s put it this way. Malongs can be bought for less than P200; this is cotton material and is machine made. The inaul material is hand-woven with either cotton or silk threads. Some have intricate designs interwoven with real gold threads. An authentic inaul can cost from P500 to P2,500 a piece depending on the intricacy of its design and color.

An interesting portion of the show was the baro’t saya collection in inaul. Cotabato City-based fashion designers Jose Pepe, Quitco, Cely Nicholas, Cora Lim, Melissa Ajadi, Bu Barlaan, Shalimar Candao, Haris Glang, Paul Lim, Andrew Patao, Joy Porro, Rolando Caños and Marlon Samaria proudly showcased the versatility of this fabric.

"Guinakit" is a Maguindanao term referring to a convoy of bancas used by early Muslim leaders when they traveled. It denotes royalty, solidarity and cooperation. The Guinakit festival is held every Dec. 19 and was made into one of the major components of the Shariff Kabunsuan Festival. For the festivities, at least 14 riverside barangays participated, with their boats and motor launches decked with traditional Maguindanao adornments, like pandalas, pasandalan, baguintays in solid colors of red, green and yellow, and other Maguindanao artwork paraded along the Rio Grande de Mindanao. The fluvial parade started from the Cotabato City wharf located at the mouth of the Rio Grande, which is believed to have been the starting point of Shariff Kabunsuan’s route to propagate the Moslem religion in Mindanao.

The colorful royal boats carried cultural performers, dancing to the beat of kulintangs while men and women in traditional Maguindanao costume reenacted the arrival of Shariff Kabunsuan as they cruised along the riverbanks of the Rio Grande de Mindanao, the country’s second longest river in the country, which traverses as far as Agusan Province. Participants and guests onboard feasted on pastil, rice rolls with shredded spicy chicken wrapped in banana leaves; dudol, sweetened and blackened ground glutinous rice; and tinagtag, fried sweetened rolled noodles.

Kanduli, a Maguindanao term for thanksgiving, was held with a Pagana (feast). The feast was held in the lobby of the City Hall. Native mats were strewn on the floor; silver food trays laden with rice, sotanghon, sinina or spicy goat or beef, pineapples, bananas and ripe mangoes were laid down on the mats. The food is covered by tudong, native Maguindanao food covers made with palm leaves. The feast was attended by males only. Women guests were feted to the same feast in a separate venue.

Our days in Cotabato City were captivating. It was an exhilarating cultural overload that left us with a hangover of colorful hues dancing in our minds: images of inaul in royal colors of gold, green, crimson and violet; colorful tudongs in wine colors of magenta, lavender and rose; dazzling guinakits decked in colorful traditional Maguindanao ornaments.

Apart from its colorful culture and tradition, Cotabato is also a foodie haven. Head off to Victor Villa’s Mang Gorio for the best lechon manok, durian, pie and choco cake with custard filling. Dubbed the Land of Crabs, the city boasts some of the best chili crabs at Ramon Chua’s Chingla Restaurant.

Indeed, choice declares freedom – the freedom to embrace new insights, new places, new epiphanies. If I had allowed preconceived assumptions of fear and negative publicity to hinder my discovery of Cotabato City, I would have remained in the ignominy of defeat. I would not have experienced the real beauty and radiance of this haven. I would only remember the mountain ranges of black, sooty carbon. Thank God, I learned from mom. I found the diamond because I chose to unearth it.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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