Editor's Pick

Notes on Maguindanao

A datu goes to his hometown with food history on his mind, and returns with more.


It took the worst massacre of Philippine journalists to bring Maguindanao to popular consciousness. Otherwise, it’s a place distant in proximity and pathos from outsiders. Apart from the rare political scandal (initiated, one would hasten to add, by ministrations from Manila; i.e., the “Hello, Garci” incident), it was largely forgettable in its isolation.
So let’s face it: Say “Maguindanao,” and all that comes up are the unforgettable images of bloodied, brutalized bodies dumped into the ground. In 2009, the news, the outrage took over the national conversation. The idea of Maguindanao from then on was ingrained in people’s minds as nightmarish photographs that showcased a bizarre pageant of barbarity, greed, gore, and power in the Muslim South.
What lies beneath this veneer?


A glimpse into the soul of a place may be caught by looking into history; and to look into the history of Maguindanao is to look into the history of its families.
All Maguindanaon datus today claim to be direct descendants of the first Sultan of Maguindanao, who is also the originator of Islam in the island, Shariff Muhammad Kabungsuwan. It is said that Kabungsuwan was the youngest son of Shariff Zainul Abidin and a Putri Josol Asikin. According to the family tree known as the tarsilan, Kabungsuwan’s kin also founded the adjacent Sultanates of Sulu and Brunei.
Putri Josol Asikin was a descendant of Iskandar, first Sultan of Malacca. Prior to his conversion from Hinduism to Islam, Iskandar was known as Parameswara, one of the names of the Hindu Shiva. Parameswara, a prince of the Srivijaya empire, was great-grandson of the majestically styled Sri Maharaja Sang Utama Parameswara Batara Sri Tri Buwana, or “The Lord Central King Batara of the Three World Realm (Palembang, Bintan, and Singapura).” On the other hand, Kabungsuwan’s father, the Yemeni Arab Shariff Zainul Abidin is believed to be a descendant of the Muslim prophet Muhammad through the prophet’s grandson Husain bin Ali. One of Husain bin Ali’s titles was Sayyidu Shababi Ahlul Jannah, Master of the Youth of Paradise.
Kabungsuwan was thus a convergence of two grandiose and divergent genealogies; two distinct mythologies. By coming to Mindanao and lording over her people, he brought pride to the people, who saw in him a connection to ancient powers both regal and divine. And through their connection to Shariff Kabungsuwan, the lords, by virtue of their birth, wielded power over the people for centuries.
Throughout the years, wars shifted power from one to another of Kabungsuwan’s descendants. In the 17th century, that power was threatened by the appearance of the Spaniards in the landscape. One of Kabungsuwan’s successors, Sultan Muhammad Dipatuan Kudarat, thwarted Spain’s colonial advances. His war against Spain, the first recorded call for jihad in the islands, was an act to preserve their sovereignty and resist foreign rule.
Further outside, impositions planted the seeds of resistance among the Maguidanaon. Early in the 20th century, Datu Ali of Salunayan fought off the Americans to the death to keep his way of life unburdened by the bondage of American benevolence. The Maguindanaon-led Moro Bolo Battalion likewise resisted Japan’s imperial plunder during the second World War. A few decades after the war, the upriver Datus Salipada and Udtog organised the Bangsamoro Liberation Organisation and Mindanao Independence Movement, precursor organisations of both MNLF and MILF. They did so, because of the rape—literal and otherwise—committed by land-grabbing settlers from Luzon and the Visayas. The spirit of resistance in order to preserve their own order of things allows the Maguindanoan to keep his traditions.


Kabungsuwan’s arrival as Muslim missionary also ushered in an era of syncretic practices. Rituals and other aspects of religious life, though seemingly purely Islamic, are punctuated with animist nuances and Hindu-Buddhist influence.
The Maguindanao dikil is an example of the junction of these three. Zikr is a mystical Islamic practice, during which salutations and prayers are chanted by initiates. Whirling dervishes drunk with the divine serve as popular examples of mystics performing zikr. Local dikil also features chanting, but the padidikil, performers of the rite, do so in a high-pitched primordial manner reminiscent of wailing in animist rituals—certainly non-Islamic. The Hindu-Buddhist element is evident in the designation of the chanters. The padidikil are a kind of pandita, men learned in traditional practices. (Pandita found their way to Mindanao from India; the word is derived from the Sanskrit “pandit,” referring to a wise and learned man.)
A contemporary example of unique cultural mix is the Moro Islamic Liberation Front flag. The flag has the ubiquitous Ottoman crescent and the green associated with Islam. The kris emblazoned at centre right provides its pre-Islamic feature. The wave edged sword, ubiquitously used among the Moro peoples and known in Maguindanao as sundang, has become a symbol of the Moros’ struggle for self-determination. The sundang or its dagger version, the gulok, are the Maguindanaon iterations of the Indo-Malay keris. The belief that the keris are Hindu-Buddhist in origin are based on bas relief sculptures featuring keris found in the Prambanan and Borobudur temples in Java.
The existence of pre-Islamic influences provides a perspective that there is more to Maguindanaon spirituality beyond obvious onion domes and awkward accented Arabisms.


The most articulate ritual expositions of their spirituality is the kanduli. The kanduli may be as simple as snacks or light meals served to guests upon their arrival as an expression of hospitality. A more complex form is the kanduli as offering to ancestral spirits thanksgiving and appeasement.
Kanduli in this sense has shared similarity with other Moro and Indo-Malay customs such as the kenduri and the slametan. Although each tradition contains their own different sets of elements; most have rice of different colors, hardboiled eggs, and incense as indispensable components. An interesting constituent of the Maguindanaon is the tinagtag. Called tiyatug in neighbouring Lanao and jah in distant Sulu, the onomatopoeic tinagtag is a crisp confection of convoluted strands of sugared rice batter rhythmically extruded from a pierced coconut shell into boiling oil. It then is formed into half-round shapes after it is fried.
Another variation on the kanduli is the kanduli as component of celebration. Birth, circumcision, marriage, peace pacts, and other joyful events call for kanduli. Even commemoration rituals to mark three, seven, twenty, forty, a hundred, and a thousand days after death warrants the practice. Kanduli of the celebratory sort also has prescribed food as facets. Integral parts of it are sets of dulang, food spreads traditionally laid on circular brass trays with intricate motifs called talam.
Some of the requisite dulang viands are the frequently limp ampalaya with egg, charcoal-grilled snakehead fish, pancit of the bihon or sotanghon sort, and the meat of whatever animal slaughtered for the occasion. Complementary components are steamed white rice and salt; never toyo, patis, or other saline condiments.
A condiment that commands universal allure is palapa, which is also known as tinu. Warm and flavorsome, palapa is ground roasted coconut, with only rock salt and sili in its most modest make. Optional additions of blue ginger, ginger, and onion boost the base flavor of the coconut. The spice-laden palapa is sprinkled over and mixed into steamed rice. It is also a requisite ingredient in the kanduli dishes called lininggil and sinina. Both recipes are redolent with the muted hum of fresh spices: lemongrass, ginger, onion, garlic, and turmeric. Meat used is relative to the relevance of the occasion, or the benefactor’s budget and preference. Goat and beef are preferred; however, beef is surprisingly polarising for a Muslim community (perhaps avoidance of beef for some is another vestige of ancient Hindu-Buddhist persuasion).
As one of Mindanao’s pervasive plants, the perennial coconut is also prominent in pinamilit preparations consumed either as quotidian or festive fare. Pinamilit is the local form of the Tagalog or Visayan guinataan; a cooking method wherein meat, fish, or vegetable is simmered in coconut milk. The pinamilit however is oftentimes a thinner and more timid variation. Coconut milk also serves as the base for the Maguindanaon sindul analogous to the Tagalog guinataang bilo bilo and Visayan benignit.
The effort in making sindul is an onerous one. Apart from cutting up the usual yam or saba banana, another component that requires processing is natek, starch from the nipa palm trunk. The brownish starch is extracted, dried, and winnowed.
The rustic natek turns claret in colour when cooked in boiling water. It may be inferred that the red of cooked natek is reference for the artificial red of commercial sago used in the different guises of guinataans today. Sindul, the dish normally taken as the first meal following the diurnal fast during Ramadan, is made more desirable with a dollop of durian in season.
Another seasonal specialty are the migratory wild ducks that pass through the area. Known locally as tanepul, their gamey quality is highly favoured by the native epicures. After drawing out blood from the birds, they are slowly smoked over burning wood or charcoal to dry and preserve. The process lends a soft smoky dimension to the tanepul’s already elaborate flavor. An apex of palatable pleasure is reached when the smoked slices of wild duck are simmered in coconut milk and turmeric to become tanepul pinamilit.
Swarms of locusts are suggestive of the Egyptian plague and punishment, but to the Maguindanaon mind, they are evocative of enjoyable breakfasts. The locusts or tapudi are trimmed off their sharp and unwholesome parts before they are deep-fried in oil.
When it comes to breakfasting, they’ve stuck to staples like pastil and tapay. In its simplest state, pastil is steamed white rice topped with chicken flakes sautéed in oil and tucked inside a banana leaf. Tapay is a rice combined with local yeastlike starter made of ground rice and sili. The tapay mixture is wrapped in leaves locally called alem, and is left to ferment for some time. The resulting ferment is slightly tart and pleasantly sweet.
The cuisine of the Maguindanaon however is not impervious to innovation affected by outside influence. Contemporary introductions to culinary practices are exactly that: introductions, not impositions. The propensity for modernising modes of preparing alimentary elements of life are borne out of choice and preference. An example is the Ilocano papait or papaitan, made from entrails that were previously discarded and relegated as waste. The dish, terrific in its acerbity, has found its way into the repertoire and is a welcome innovation to both butchery and gastronomy. Same goes for the ambiguous adobos and beefsteaks that’ve become kanduli canon for some.


The concept of innovation out of choice, of course, is not limited to cuisine. It permeates all aspects of culture.
Muslimin Dagadas, who likes to be called “Mus,” uses a helmet with the standard-issue tiger camouflage when he patrols the area surrounding Liguasan Marsh. Among all the hundreds of fighters that belong to the National Guard Front, the vanguard group of the MILF’s Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces, he is the only one who wears a helmet. The helmet is a trophy from one of the first battles he participated in during the Philippine military’s campaign to overrun the MILF Islamic Centre in Buliok. He was around fifteen years old then.
Today, his dress when not in uniform is plain and were he to walk on any street anywhere else in the islands, his demeanor will make him blend in. Surely, his mother tongue is Maguindanaon, but his Tagalog is fluid and unaffected. The food he partakes in doesn’t always hark of parochial provenance; in fact, he sometimes hankers for canned goods. Thanks to technology, even his awareness is far beyond the confines of his domicile.
Yet, under his modern posture rests a belligerent temper. Near the tip of M-14 rifle hanging around his body is a red piece of cloth that signifies his willingness to fight to the death when necessary. He is not alone. Mus and other countless sons of Kabungsuwan are ready to protect and preserve the traditions passed onto them. They are likewise there to nourish new traditions—that are being crafted on their own terms, of course.
There is indeed something beneath the violent and fierce history. Maguindanaons were more than the ignorant finagling philistines some perceive them to be. The fictitious Code of Kalantiaw that was fabricated to conjure precolonial pride among Filipinos, was real and true among the Maguindanaon in the form of the Luwaran. Maguindanaons had literature in the form of the epics, and people turned to the stories of the Rajahs Bantugan, Sulayman, and Indarapatra for paradigms of heroism. Music was played for entertainment and ritual using the kulintang, other percussive instruments in the kulintang ensemble, and two-stringed lutes called kutyapi. Their society also had cosmogonists and astrologers in the form of the pabibituun, another class of the cultured pandita. Things do go beyond perceptions and views.
The massacre gave the world a view of a world different in wit and wisdom. It is true that Maguindanao is a world inured to the immorality of violence and immured in its own version of history. It is also true that her people are resigned to the intransigence of death, but with this resignation also comes the realization about the transience of life. They try to make that life erstwhile, not without effort, by living it the way they want to live it.

Originally published in Volume 3.