In the T’boli language, the word for “water” and the word for “yes” are the same – el. For “water,” it is pronounced with a short E sound, the lips parted, mouth open, sound flowing outwards. “Yes” sounds more like “uhl” – drinking in the syllable, the word travels down the throat, lodges in the gut.
That these two words be linked as linguistic twins for the T’bolis is no surprise. Like every great civilization, the T’bolis emerged on the banks of a great body of water – the magnificent Lake Sebu in South Cotabato. The importance of water is reflected in its association with the positive “yes.”
Water for the ancient culture meant survival, meant cleansing, meant life itself. When crossing a river for the first time, the T’bolis ask permission from the gods by picking up a wet stone from the banks and touching it to their forehead. To appease the irate gods, they throw coins into the lake.
Lake Sebu is a grand, picturesque stretch of water dotted gently with pink lotus flowers, its expanse splitting into a crossroad called Three Fingers.
Today, the people of South Cotabato (T’boli or otherwise) get their livelihood from Lake Sebu’s bounty of tilapia.
But it is not only in the lake that one can find water in the T’boli culture. It flows in the voice of Yegas as she sings – sometimes calm as a quiet pond, sometimes raging. Her chants are improvised. You cannot step into the same river twice, doesn’t the saying go?
Water is in the music of Luming Faan as she plucks her hegalong, a two-stringed guitar – raindrops falling in sequence, merging into puddles. It is in the fire-forged brass gongs, their sound rippling, growing, until it disappears, the lake smooth and silent once more.
The bells on the T’boli women’s belts and anklets are a bubbling brook, their movements fluid as they dance.
The t’nalak weaver’s fingers are stones skipping straight and true across the still water of the loom.
Lang Dulay is perhaps the most well-known of the T’boli weavers, being recognized as a National Living Treasure or Manlilikha ng Bayan by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.
In the T’boli tradition, while any woman can weave, only few are chosen by the abaca god, Fu Dalu, to dream of the patterns that are to be made into the t’nalak fabric.
Lang Dulay was only 12 years old when she first started dreamweaving. Her patterns, which are now woven by her daughters and granddaughters, depict waves, palm fronds, clouds, arrows, and eagle’s wings.
The best quality t’nalak (which takes months to produce) is smooth and fine. The abaca fibers are tautly woven, the patterns of white, black, and red vibrant and shining after being polished repeatedly with a cowrie shell.
The most fascinating part of making t’nalak is the ikat, or dye-resist process, where the abaca fibers are tied so as to create a pattern when dyed. The skillful dreamweaver must be able to see the pattern on the blank canvas of the abaca fibers and tie first the parts that should be white, then those that are to be red, leaving exposed the areas meant to be black.
Essentially, the dreamweaver must work both backwards and forwards, reconstructing on the abaca fibers the finished pattern she sees in her mind’s eye – a true visionary.
Then, once the dyed fibers are dry, the T’boli women weave them together, not on a conventional, free-standing loom, but on a backstrap loom, bearing the weight of their creation with their own bodies.
When I met Lang Dulay for the first time two years ago, she was dreaming of more than just patterns. In an age when the young T’boli women are modern and many leave for the big city, the dreamweaver said her hope was that the art of t’nalak weaving lives on and that the younger generation sees the beauty and significance of their traditions.
She was on the cusp of 90 then, still feisty as she talked in her native tongue, directing the activity around her as she sat in the middle of her weaving hut – the dreamweaver holding court.
Now, Lang Dulay is in Koronadal, the capital of South Cotabato, away from the soothing waters of Lake Sebu. At the time of writing, she has been in a coma for some three months already.
When she wakes from this extended slumber, Lang Dulay’s fingertips must be flowing with new designs and stories. Imagine the places she has been, the wonders she has seen in her sleep.
But, if it is in the gods’ design that she shall not wake, I would whisper to the heavens: “Dream on Lang Dulay, dream in peace. A world of beckoning waves, of pounding falls, awaits. May your spirit be quenched in a world of eternal ‘yes’.”
How to Get There
Airlines that offer flights from Manila to General Santos:
From General Santos City Airport, go to the bus terminal and take the bus bound for Koronadal (Marbel). From the bus station at Koronadal, take another bus to Surrallah. Once in Surallah, hire a van, habal-habal, or take a jeep bound for Lake Sebu.
Editor’s note: Lang Dulay passed away on April 30, shortly after this essay was published. We send our deepest condolences to her family.
Photos by George Tapan.