One of the major assumptions even Filipinos make is that the Philippines has had no major artistic traditions before the Spanish colonial period and its a favorite subject of Filipino students (particularly Filipino-Americans students) to ask “What is Filipino culture?” It is true the Philippines does not have a Borobudur or Angkor Watt. It has no Great Pyramid of Giza or Great Wall. But then again, these monuments were often built by toiling masses of people who were told to build them for the pleasure and vanity of their rulers. Perhaps that is something that Filipinos can be proud of–having been a free people with no oppressive central government up until colonial rule. But the other thing that Filipinos can be proud of is that yes the Philippines has had a very long artistic tradition, particularly in pottery and gold going back to at least 6,000 years.
As far as gold is concerned (I will touch upon pottery in another article), the Philippines was and is a gold producing country. The early Spanish such as Fr. Pedro Chirino recounted how “even slaves wore gold” and Filipinos generally only admired gold for decoration. They placed more value on other things such as pottery, silks and jade. In the 1900s, a gold statue of the Bodhisattva, Tara, was unearthed in Butuan, northern Mindanao in the southern region of the Philippines (see red insert from the picture above). This statue was dated to the 10th century AD and due to the decorative elements, it seems to have been locally produced meaning made by Filipino artisans. This confirmed that Filipinos were influenced by the Hindu-Buddhist empires in what is now Indonesia and that that religions were making in-roads with Filipinos. In 1981, another major discovery was made in Surigao, not that far from Butuan, and was nearly melted but was saved by archeologists and today is part of the “Gold of Our Ancestors” Collection at the Ayala Museum–a bit ironic considering that Ayalas are Philippine-born Spaniards and that the ticket price is cost prohibitive for ordinary Filipinos to actually see the gold of their ancestors but its probably safer there than at a government owned museum but that’s another story–in Metropolitan Manila. It consisted of several golden objects including the wardrobe of a high ranking noble, possibly a king, and dated in the 10 to 11th century AD. The decorative elements included the naga (snake), the garuda (a half man half bird that the Hindu God Vishnu rides upon, see picture below), and geometric designs that can still be seen in textiles in Mindanao. Again, this points to the strong Hindu-Buddhist influence in the southern part of the Philippines and again points to the artistry of Filipino goldsmiths. Experts today say that even with our modern technology, it would be difficult to duplicate these pieces because of the intricate details.
One of the more unusual objects found were golden sashes. Sashes made of gold so far are only found in the Philippines and these particular sashes are the same type worn by Hindu deities in artistic depictions. This is quite unusual because no where else so far in South East Asia have these types of pieces of sacred wardrobe were actually physically created.
Normally, one simply sees them in drawings or in temple reliefs. So to have these pieces created from these images shows not a great deal of creative skill but also a great admiration to the power and semiotics of the ideas being presented in these philosophies. Due to the sheer weight of these objects, it probably that they were only worn during important state and religious ceremonies and/or were placed on a religious statue as part of veneration.
What is important about these objects outside of their form and their historical function is their function today. They are a testament to the creativity, industry, and pride of the ancestors. These objects refute what many Filipinos were brought up with–that Filipinos have no history prior to Magellan and that the Filipino has no achievements prior to the Spanish. It signifies the influence of Hindu-Buddhism in the Philippines and the deep connection to those ideas that Filipinos of that era felt–so much so they took the time to give form to these religious beliefs. It answers the questions “What is Filipino culture” by saying–in gold no less–“Look at us, remember us, you are from us”.