By Rhea B. Peñaflor
“Binukot” (Visayan: literally, kept in a closed place), is Panay Bukidnon’s beautiful woman who is kept isolated from the public eye since early childhood.
Lola Conchita, whose real name is Conchita Gilbaliga is Panay Bukidnon’s binukot from Nayawan, upland Tapaz, Capiz.
According to 83 year-old Lola Conchita, a “binukot” is kept isolated in a room so that her family can then demand a high bride price when she is of marrying age. Because of this isolation, she learned and mastered the Panubok, Panay Bukidnon’s traditional hand embroidery. Bangkaw or spear made of pilak (gold), money or properties as dowry to the highest bidder and consent by the bride’s father are among the requirements for a man to be assured that he could marry the binukot, Lola Conchita shares.
A binukot is not exposed to the sun, not allowed to work in the farm, and certainly not allowed to be seen by others apart from her immediate family. She is treated like a princess in a fairy tale with her long hair being combed by servants. She is only allowed to wear the best clothes and given only the best food in the mountains. When she comes of marrying age, she is auctioned to the highest bidder; her husband, however, may not fully see her until after their wedding. Originally, that was the idea but as generation from generation passed by, there have also been changes in the life of a binukot.
Lola Conchita shares that during her time she was able to see the faces of the men who courted her through a small hole from her room, but she knew deep in her heart that the man she wanted to marry is already written by fate and that was her husband. There was also consent by her father and so there was no hindrance to their marriage.
She vividly recalls that it was “gugma” (Gugma is a hiligaynon word for “love”) that she felt when she first saw her husband through that small hole from her room. Her first husband who was a lieutenant during the World War II was assigned in Nayawan, the barangay where Lola Conchita resided at that time. When he heard that there was a binukot in that place, he was interested to see the face of Lola Conchita and when he saw her in that small hole in her room, he knew that he was going to marry her. And he did so after complying with all the requirements of their traditional customs and rituals, he having been the highest public bidder and after the Lola Conchita’s father gave his consent to their marriage. Fate though is not at all on their side because when her husband went back to Baguio City where he was then assigned, he got killed in the line of duty.
Lola Conchita got married again, this time she bore two children but they both died at the ages of three and one when their house was raided and ransacked during the war. The 3-year old son was nowhere to be found when they escaped, it was only later that they found him nearby but he was already lifeless. The other son also died because he was not able to be fed during the course of their escape. In 2006, Lola Conchita’s second and last husband also passed away because of a recurring ailment. She is presently staying with her niece, Egly Gilbaliga in Brgy. Garangan, upland Calinog, Iloilo.
Lola Conchita adds that the binukot were prized not only for their exceptional beauty but because of their infallible wisdom. She shares too, that she has already mastered her skills in embroidery for she was still a child when her mother was teaching her, and that was what she does every day in her room. The isolation did her an advantage in being a master embroiderer. She proudly shares that not all embroiderers can do the difficult designs without tracing or using a tailor’s pencil but that she can, like designs including the shrimp (orang), crab (kagang), turtle (bao), mermaid (kataw), men (tawo), chicken (manok), fish (isda), deer (usa), among others.
Among the many designs that she embroidered, the mermaid (kataw) has the most interesting story. The other designs which Lola Conchita embroiders were those which she only sees in her surroundings, in the mountains or in nature. The “kataw” story was told to her by her father. She said that her father saw a kataw when he went fishing. He saw it with his own eyes, and he described it to her as a beautiful half-woman and half-fish creature with golden hair. When he saw the kataw, he instinctively dove into the water and followed her but he was not able to see it again. He then told the community about it and they named that river where he saw the mermaid as the “Kataw River” in Nayawan. Until now, the legend is still a favorite story being told to their children. It is a very interesting story, indeed. And Lola Conchita’s favorite embroidery is the kataw because the same was just described to her by her father and of which she made a beautiful piece out of her own imagination with the mermaid’s long, golden hair.
Lola Conchita though is worried that the younger generation now seem not to want to study hand embroidery, instead they just want to look at how she does it. As her eyes are suffering from cataract, she finds it more difficult to embroider as she used to when she was younger. That is why she wanted to teach the younger generation, her people, as the same was also handed to her for the past generations.
She has been training her niece, Egly and grand-nieces to embroider so that in the event she would leave this world, she wants to leave them this skill for fear that it might be lost and she does not want that to happen because she believes that they are among the few left who are rare and distinct people.
True enough, Egly is an embroiderer herself and she is also training her daughters to live and practice this traditional craft, “Panubok”. Indeed, there is no other way to continue the indigenous people’s customs and traditions but knowing that what is best for them is by supporting their exceptional culture.
As urban people, respecting what they do as their way of life is what we can do and helping them maintain and live what they are as a people, and not change them. Their culture may be way too different from ours, but that is what makes them a priceless, unique beauty.
That is what makes these indigenous people a living, national treasure.
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