Saving Begnas


Commodification with its new scope and power has encroached almost every aspect of life.  With the core of the character of life these days becoming more consumeristic and commercial, goods in shelves of stores are not the only commodities anymore. For many years, indigenous communities in particular have been pristine without any intrusion from tourism activities, but these communities in the last decades have not been spared from tourism ventures. Sagada in particular, having kept its pristine environment and culture and traditions intact for many years, has thought of cashing in on the trend of a variant of tourism called eco-tourism. And due to this trend, being unprepared with no plan still up to now, mass tourism has found its way in every nook and cranny of Sagada even into its people’s psyche, thus resulting to its culture and heritage to face a foreboding threat of being exploited.

In a World Tourism Update in the late 1990s, Sagada is already one of the examples cited, wherein other than its environmental degradation, its traditions and practices have also been disrupted due to the arrival of tourists. Man’s curiosity though it is natural, it is still  unavoidable for the presence of curious tourists to affect the solemnity and sacredness of the rituals in Sagada such as the Begnas. Not only the rituals but places deemed to be sacred such as burial caves have not been spared from graffiti and vandalism, worse, cases of the ancestors’ bones being stolen have also been reported.


Women and children on their way to Demang to attend the Begnas. 2015

The recently concluded Begnas has sparked discussions regarding  the rules that were imposed on both tourists and locals. Would you like to observe the Sagada Begnas?  It is good in a way that concerns about it have been coming up which pose the immediacy to address it. I checked it again the following day with a barangay official of Dagdag, who said that the rules have been reviewed and confirmed by Lakay Jaime Dugao before they were posted around Sagada. And yes, the rules are meant to be followed by both locals and tourists. NO ONE IS EXEMPTED.

People are aware that traditions and practices in Sagada have been fading away.Young people when asked about Begnas would reply with an ashamed look or a grunt. Some people say, the elders are getting old and we will be in dire need of replacements in the future and practices like the lablabi are not being practiced the way it was before. I completely understand and empathize with these sentiments but to say that taking of pictures of the ritual should not be questioned with the premise that by doing so it helps in the “preservation of culture”, it doesn’t kill culture, is disturbing. It is problematic especially nowadays because what these people claim as “acts of documentation” have become acts of reflex, bereft of conscious thoughts in this age of smart phones and Instagram or Facebook.How does it help in the preservation, when most of the time there is no comprehension of what’s going on? We tend to forget that tourists by definition are consumers, sometimes devoid of commitment and real knowledge of what he is looking at, a recreational outsider who by the pressure of the social media needs to get as many pictures as possible and take that perfect selfie shot. And what is even more problematic in allowing such intrusion of tourists is that it  poses risks of culture being commoditized as some people could see the whole process of the ritual to be a great economic opportunity. For all we know, tour agencies could have already been including Begnas in their tour packages.

So they ask, why was it not regulated before? Why only now? Tourists in the past were allowed to wear the wanes and  join the men in Patpatayan anyway. Culture won’t be destroyed by just taking pictures as long as they do not obstruct the ceremony. It is a way of promoting the culture we are proud of  so it won’t die away.  But why did Begnas become the subject of preservation efforts of the community? May we all be aware that the rules have been implemented since the last Begnas before this latest one because the community has felt the need to do so. Some say that this whole thing of prohibiting cameras during the ceremony and not allowing tourists to participate in the Tuling  were just merely concoctions of several individuals who do not know what they are talking about. I am sorry but it is a collective effort of a proactive and vigilant community to prevent the encroachment of mass and irresponsible tourism into the deeper recesses of life in Sagada as well as to ward off further desecration of its culture and traditions. This reaction of the community  is inevitable since it is natural for  campaigns to preserve and protect culture to arise when there is already a sense of danger of losing it.

Every Begnas, I would hear complaints most especially from women about how uncomfortable they feel with tourists shoving the cameras into their faces, stealthily taking a selfie shot with them in the background, and aggressively finding their way through the throng of locals just to get a shot of what’s going on in the dap-ay. I think instead of being critical about the rules imposed, we should be happy and appreciative instead of the efforts of the community in finally taking control of tourism in their own terms and not just only by those who are engaged in tourism who always see great economic opportunities in this industry. We have to understand that although mass tourism has engulfed this town, there are still people who live here who would want to carry on with their lives free from the shackles of tourism and perform spiritual obligations with reverence. Let’s give it to them.


Tapey as offering

Imposing those rules is not a matter of being selfish, it is a matter of preventing the culture from being abused. The community is becoming more aware of the necessity to protect its ownership of its heritage while it does the preventive measures to mitigate the impacts of mass tourism. If tourists wish to pledge their love for the culture of Sagada, they can do so by respecting and learning more about it and not just by donning the traditional garb or joining the men in Patpatayan or dap-ay. Grab a book about Sagada, research about Begnas, yes, come and observe the begnas but please follow the rules set by the community. We have already opened the burial caves for adventure among many other points of interests here in Sagada, let us keep other sacred things left to ourselves.  A ritual is a ritual and this is not a cultural show or a plain festival. Begnas is NOT A FORM OF ENTERTAINMENT or even something that should be a part of packaged tours.Let us remember that it has spiritual obligations and even a timetable to follow, respectful of the agricultural cycle of the land. As people of Sagada, let us be one in keeping the heritage alive not for tourists but for the next generations to come. The journey is long but we are already having a good start. Let us keep educating most especially the young people about Sagada’s  culture and traditions. This is one of the many ways to show how proud we are of our culture and by doing so it can help in preventing the culture and pracitices from completely ebbing away. May we keep the flame alive. Kudos and more power to the umili! Matago-tago kayo am-in!