Sunday, December 5, 2010

Taal: A Marian heritage site like no other

NO OTHER town in Batangas is like Taal. Walking down its streets is like walking down through history.

Declared a heritage town by the National Historical Commission, Taal offers many come-ons.
There is the basilica of Saint Martin of Tours, known to be the biggest in Southeast Asia; the Spanish-era structures and homes of great Filipinos; the lake and its active volcano; the exquisite calado embroidery on piña and jusi that has become world-famous.

Choose from an array of heritage museum-homes, among them the homes of Marcella Agoncillo (she sewed the first Philippine flag), Gliceria Marella de Villavicencio (the forgotten heroine of the revolution), the Apacible and Goco homes and the grand mansion of Leon Agoncillo.

Huge basilica

The imposing Basilica of St. Martin of Tours is Taal’s centerpiece. Declared a national shrine in 1974, its façade bears a resemblance to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Its tabernacle is made of silver and is said to be the only one of its kind in the Philippines.

The original structure was built in 1575, in the place now known as San Nicolas. In 1754 the basilica was destroyed by the Taal volcano eruption.

Rebuilding of the current structure took nine years (1856-1865) under parish priest Fray Marcos Anton and Spanish architect Luciano Oliver.

Intricate designs, many in chiaroscuro style, adorn the church ceilings and walls. Painted images of the four evangelists (Sts. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) occupy the lower portion of the dome. Sts. Peter and Paul have special places on the ground level. The basilica has been undergoing a vigorous clean-up and restoration in preparation for this month’s Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

Rare maliputo

Delightful are Taal’s culinary offerings—bulalo, suman, panocha nilupak, tapa, adobong dilaw, tawilis from the lake and, most of all, the rare and expensive freshwater fish maliputo found only in the Pansipit River.

In the market you find both the wet and the dry, the latter housing the rows of shops showcasing Taal’s expertise in calado embroidery and beading. If you’re fond of bladed weapons, take home a balisong (fan knife) or two.

But the gentle drawing force, the Taaleños will tell you, is the Virgin of Caysasay herself. The rough Marian statue, barely a foot tall, has had a spiritual influence on the life of the town and its neighbors. Unbelievers might dismiss the devotion as idolatry, but believers would argue that it is not the weather-beaten piece of wood that is being venerated but the great woman it represents.

The Virgin is a rich kayumanggi (brown), overwhelmed by a conical robe that goes up to her neck. Long artificial hair has been placed over her head. She is adorned with a gold crown with precious stones.

The story of the Virgin of Caysasay is the stuff many Marian stories are made of, as fascinating as that of Mexico’s famous Lady of Guadalupe.

Fished from Pansipit River

One day in 1603, the story goes, a fisherman named Juan Maningkad cast his net into the Pansipit River and found among his catch a piece of flotsam carved in the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The prior of Taal, Fray Juan de Bautista, took this as an auspicious sign, a divine favor worthy of a religious celebration.

After Maningkad found the image, the prior of Taal gave it to Maria Espiritu, the widow of a judge, for safekeeping. Soon the woman noticed the strange disappearance and reappearance of the statue. A priest named Fray de Montoya decided to have the statue transferred to the church, but the strange occurrence continued until the statue completely disappeared one day.

A few days later, two other Marias—Maria Baguhin and Maria Talain—claimed they knew where the image could be found. They said they were gathering firewood in a place seven kilometers from the town when they stopped to drink from a well. They saw the image reflected on the water and when they looked up, there was the wooden image on a branch of a sampaga tree. Perched on a branch beside it was a casay-casay bird. (Thus the name Our Lady of Caysasay.)

The women eventually persuaded the priest to check out the place. The image was found and brought back to the church. Again the statue disappeared. Again it was found in the same place.

The people took this to mean as the Virgin’s desire for a permanent abode. (Augustinian friars ran the churches in many places at that time, and were noted for their building prowess.) A temporary chapel was built until a permanent structure made of corals and marble was erected.

Santa Lucia’s well

An arch made of corals was built over the well whose water had reflected the Virgin’s image. The arch with bas relief designs, known as Santa Lucia’s miraculous well, still stands there today, a short distance from the church. It is not clear how the place got to be named after the saint of lights.

The Virgin of Caysasay’s canonical coronation was held on Dec. 8, 1954, with Pope Pius XII’s representative Fernando Cardinal Quiroga y Palacio present. The devotion to Our Lady of Caysasay marks its 407th anniversary this year.

Replicas of the original statue are in both the small Immaculate Conception Church in Labac, the image’s original home, and the huge basilica of St. Martin of Tours. The original is kept in Labac and brought out on special days.

Transferring the image from the village church in Labac to the basilica (since its completion in 1857) and returning it on certain days to its village home used to be a custom. Taaleños recall the controversy that erupted in the 1950s when Bishop Rufino Santos (later the first Filipino cardinal) proposed that the Virgin be permanently enshrined in Labac.

The people of the town center were adamant and afraid to lose the Virgin forever, should Labac become a separate municipality. They were polarized into two camps and the bishop was forced to get out of the way when an irate citizen shouted, “Gapusin ang obispo! (Hogtie the bishop!)” The church official was no match for the Taaleños’ attachment to the Virgin.

Fluvial procession

During the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the original image of Our Lady of Caysasay is taken from the Labac church and brought to the basilica via a fluvial procession on the Pansipit River and brought home again after the two-day celebration (Dec. 8 and 9) .

No longer a castaway and an itinerant, vanishing lady, the Virgin is peacefully enshrined in the hearts of generations of Taaleños and many Filipinos.

For more on Taal, read “The Mysteries of Taal: A Philippine volcano and lake, her sea life and lost towns” by Taal-lover Thomas R. Hargrove (Bookmark, 1991).