Photo essay: Mud people of the Philippines


The National

It is well before dawn in Bibiclat, a village in the northern Philippines surrounded by rice fields. Using their smartphones as torches, Catholic worshippers from the area venture into the fields. If they are fortunate, they will find places where carabaos bathe, since the mud is softer there.

When they are find a suitable spot, the villagers smear mud over their bodies and cover dried banana leaves with it. After dressing themselves with the leaves, they walk on to the church of St John the Baptist.

Entire families, as well as solitary worshippers, line the road. The crowd swells outside the church yard as people light candles and wait for the priest to lead a Mass.

This event, referred to as Taong Putik, or the Mud People Festival, has been passed on from generation to generation in the community, as a way of showing devotion to their patron saint, St John the Baptist.

Church leader Regil dela Cruz says the tradition started in 1836, when poor Filipino farmers went to the church to give thanks on the saint's feast day. He says they smeared themselves with mud as a gesture of faith and humility.

"They covered themselves with dried banana leaves or vines so they were not recognised, as there was a lot of discrimination against the poor during that time," Mr dela Cruz adds.

Only men practised the tradition until 1944. That is when a "miracle" happened, he says.

That year, some Japanese soldiers were killed by Filipino guerrilla fighters in the village. In response, the Japanese military gathered villagers for execution. "Rain poured and the killings were cancelled because the Japanese soldiers believed this was a sign of disapproval from their gods," Mr dela Cruz says.

A sign inside the church compound reads: "For the Japanese who worship the sun, the rain is a sign of their gods' disapproval of the killing of the men of Bibiclat."

The villagers believed St John the Baptist sent the rain and entire families then joined the tradition of smearing themselves with mud and wearing banana leaves on his feast day, celebrated on June 24.

Emotions were high among some of gathered at the church this year. Teacher Leonila Arucan, 64, accompanied her father to the festival while she was at school, and she now attends with her children and grandchildren.

Her father-in-law was among those who survived the planned execution and his name is carved on a relief on a church wall. "This tradition makes my faith stronger and I feel closer to God," Ms Arucan says.

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Courtesy: Carol Glynn

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Updated: June 29, 2024, 3:07 PM