LIBAD
By Robby Tantingco
Peanut Gallery
Friday, June 15, 2012

WHERE IT IS STILL PRACTICED: Apalit, Sasmuan, Minalin, Macabebe

WHEN IT OCCURS: In Apalit, where the biggest and most elaborate celebration occurs on the Rio Grande (Pampanga River), the first libad begins on June 28 and the last one occurs on June 30. In Sasmuan, small libad are held by the barangays and sitios located along the whole stretch of the river Dalan Bapor (Guagua-Pasac River) during the irrespective fiesta; in Minalin, the libad is held during the town’s fiesta on the second Sunday of May, along the San Francisco River; and in Macabebe, specifically on the river island of Pulu, a libad around the two-kilometer island is held on the feast of Nuestra Señora de Candelaria.

WHAT IT IS: Libad is the generic term that refers to a fluvial procession held in honor of a patron saint; in Apalit, it is in honor of St. Peter, whom locals intimately refer to as Apung Iru. Two big libad are held to accompany the passage of the venerated image of Apung Iru, which is an Arnedo family heirloom but which is lent to the parish church on the feast of St. Peter on June29. The first libad is held the day before, when the image “travels” to the Apalit church; the second, more boisterous, libad occurs the day after the fiesta, when the image “returns home.” On June 28, after the 9 AM Mass, the ivory-faced image of Apung Iru leaves its chapel in Brgy. Capalangan, and is borne in procession by the Knights of St. Peter, who wear bright orange shirts. After the procession on land, the image is brought to the banks of a tributary leading to the Pampanga River in Brgy. Sulipan and put on a pituya (two or three small boats tied together), which takes it to the pagoda (barge decorated and made to look like a multi-tiered house). The Pampanga River Control System (PRCS) and later, the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) regularly lent the barges on which the pagoda is mounted to prevent a repeat of the tragedy in a similar festival in Bocaue, Bulacan. Meanwhile, hundreds of boats, many of which are festooned with images associated with St. Peter(cock, fish, etc.) and bearing brass bands and wildly cheering revelers, accompany the barge as it negotiates a seven-kilometer stretch of the Pampanga River. Organizers have instituted an inter-barangay competition of boat decorations to liven up the celebration. The barge lands in Brgy. San Juan, in a port under the North Expressway bridge, from where Apung Iru is led in procession again towards the Apalit parish church, where it stays during the town fiesta .On June 30, the image of Apung Iru is taken from the church after a Mass at 8 AM, to the same port in San Juan where another Mass is held; then, another libad commences as the saint is returned to Capalangan. It is in this last libad where thousands of devotees on both sides of the Pampanga River keep pace with the progress of the pagoda; there are groups who wave leaves and flowers as they dance to the strains of kuraldal from another brass band on land. There are also those who climb up the roof of their houses so they can throw apples, canned goods, boiled eggs, etc. on the people on the pagoda or on the boats accompanying the pagoda, presumably to ease the hunger pangs of devotees who have skipped lunch to follow the image, or, as a local superstition goes, to feed St. Peter who comes disguised as a hungry old fisherman during his feast day. The shower of food is both breathtaking and environmentally unsound, because the stuff that doesn’t land on the boats stays on the water for days. The Knights of St. Peter, swimming in the river’s murky water, pull the barge with a thick abaca rope to make sure it doesn’t tilt and also to guide it towards the river banks where clusters of devotees wave and splash in the water. Somewhere in Brgy. Tabuyoc, where the pagoda has been assembled earlier, two sets of Knights perform a push-and-pull ritual with the pagoda, so that the image stays longer in the vicinity. In Brgy. Sulipan, the image is taken from the barge and borne on the shoulders of another set of the Knights of St. Peter, for a procession to bring it back to its chapel in Capalangan where it will stay until the next fiesta. Thousands of devotees, many of them dancing the kuraldal, follow Apung Iruin this last leg of the procession, many of them shouting “Viva Apung Iru!”

HOW IT BEGAN: Kapampangans in southern towns like Apalit used to celebrate bayung danum (new water), the early floods of the season, which may have been the pre-Hispanic equivalent of New Year. The Spanish friars probably Christianized this pagan practice by introducing saints like St. Peter and St. John the Baptist, whose feast days in June coincide with the ancient holidays. The ivory image of Apung Iru, said to be300 years old, is a family heirloom of Macario Arnedo, governor of Pampanga in 1904-1912.Don Pedro Armayan (or Umayan) is credited to have brought the image from Spain in 1844. In 2002, the family’s mansion in Capalangan mysteriously burned down, which necessitated the transfer of the image to the barangay chapel. According to old folks, the early years of the libad saw only a few boats, none of which was motorized, accompanying the image on its trip to and from the Apalit church. One of the local legends is that fish leaped out of the water in the duration of the libad. Another is that one reveler drowned every year as a sacrifice to the river.

WHAT IT MEANS: Fluvial processions are common in regions that are awashed with river networks, but the libad of Pampanga is unique because of the intense devotion, the elaborate celebrations, and the mystical connection between the people and the river. The Apalit libad, according to former UNESCO Commissioner Prof. Felipe de Leon, Jr., is a combination of Naga’s Peñafrancia fluvial procession and Tayabas’ hagisan during which devotees throw foodstuff from their houses in the wake of the San Isidro procession on the street. It is also a hodge-podge of Christian and pagan elements so fused over decades of repeated occurrence that it is impossible to tell one from the other. Is the throwing of food meant for the Knights of St. Peter or for the river itself? Are the devotees thanking the saint or the river whose cyclic floods replenish their farmlands and lead fish to their very doorstep? Kapampangans seem to nurture their spirit by returning regularly to the cradle of their civilization— the river after which their land was named—in the same manner that the Hindus, for example, make regular pilgrimages to the Ganges and bathe in its banks at least once a year for spiritual renewal.

WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS: Locals believe each libad always claims one fatality; while this may only be a superstition, cases of drowning have indeed occurred during the frenzy of the river celebrations—although nothing in the same magnitude as the tragedy in Bocaue, Bulacan. Local organizers should increase the number of patrols and lifeguards during the libad and if it can be helped, ban politicians from using the participating boats as vehicles for their campaign streamers. The festival can also be a launch pad for the proposed river cruises of the Department of Tourism.(R. Tantingco with additional notes by Tonette Orejas)

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LIBAD
June 15, 2012

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