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Banahaw Beckons
Sketches from a pilgrim’s notebook

From her book A Pilgrim's Diary: Passages and Inner Landscapes (published 2005), edited by Susan A. de Guzman and Giselle P. Kasilag. Reprint permission from the author and the publisher.

Mysterious as it is majestic, Mount Banahaw is undisputedly the most potent bastion of psychic energy in the Philippines, and perhaps even one of the strongest psychic centers in the world. No Filipino student of the preternatural would be worth his salt if he has not gone on a pilgrimage to this holy mountain.

The sheer beauty and serenity of Mount Banahaw is worth the arduous trip even for the unbeliever, as the healing effect it has on one’s composure will surely leave even the most callous cynic feeling refreshed and rejuvenated.

Mount Banahaw, all 7,100 feet of lush verdant foliage, shoots up to the sky like a towering pagoda of emerald and gold, crowned at the apex by a coronet of white and azure mist. For over a hundred years, its innumerable caves have become the dwelling place of hermits and devotees of indigenous religious cults who have left the outside world in order to seek spiritual perfection within the tranquil terrain of the sacred mountain.

Each year, Banahaw also plays host to thousands of pilgrims—spiritists, healers, and plain seekers of enlightenment—who momentarily cast asunder the concerns of daily life to scale its slopes, meditate, explore its caves and commune with the nature spirits residing there. The sheer beauty and serenity of Mount Banahaw is worth the arduous trip even for the unbeliever, as the healing effect it has on one’s composure will surely leave even the most callous cynic feeling refreshed and rejuvenated.

It was with great expectations that I embarked on a full day’s pilgrimage to Mount Banahaw. I had read so much about this mountain and had heard so many inspiring stories from friends who have been there that I felt the mountain was no longer alien to me. The desire to seek out its wonders for myself nagged me for quite some time and it was only recently that the opportunity to discover Banahaw firsthand came my way. Or should I say that it was only now that the spirits bade me to come.

The invitation came from renowned psychic researcher Jaime Licauco, who decided to spend his 51 st birthday at Mount Banahaw along with a chosen number of “kindred spirits”. He did the same thing eight years ago, with much success. Given the current situation, where there is so much natural, political and spiritual chaos going on, Licauco felt it was time to take the healing trek once more in the company of like-minded individuals who shared the same vision of universal harmony.

Tales of the ‘New Jerusalem’

We left Manila on a chilly, drizzling morning en route to Quezon province, a good 2-1/2-hour ride away. The rain and flashfloods made the journey a little more difficult as the roads were slippery and we had to stop several times at the highway to wait for the rest of the convoy.

Along the way, Licauco reminded us about certain rules we had to follow at Banahaw so as not to raise the ire of its guardian spirits. Don’t urinate or expectorate anywhere. Do not pick flowers and plants without asking permission from the spirits. Never hurt or taunt birds, butterflies or any other creatures. Ask for the spirits’ approval before taking photographs or no images will come out. I took particular notice of the last warning and made a mental note that I had to be extra-persistent in convincing the spirits I needed good photos for my article. (Curiously though, when the contact prints came out, many shots were completely blacked out without any apparent technical cause. Maybe I wasn’t convincing enough.)

He also related to us the legend of Mount Banahaw: A long time ago, God became furious at the Middle Eastern people because they had turned their backs on the Law, so He instructed four angels to take up the city of Jerusalem and bring it to the Far East. When the angels reached the island of Luzon in the Philippines, they found the perfect place to “transplant” the holy city—except that it accidentally landed upside down. Thus, Jerusalem became a mountain, which has since been known as Mount Banahaw.

All the caves in Mount Banahaw are considered sacred (sagradong lugar), representing important Biblical locations. Devotees of the mountain say these grottos have been named and designated by the spirits through their communication with Agripino Lontok, the first inhabitant of Mount Banahaw. According to legend, Lontok—who was being pursued by the Spanish guardia civil for rebelling against the colonial government—sought refuge in the mysterious mountain.

While in hiding, a host of supernatural events were said to have manifested before the fugitive. For instance, a cloud would descend and he would hear voices. Birds would alight on his shoulder and talk to him, guiding him through the caves and revealing their names. He would submerge himself in one of Banahaw’s many springs and find himself surfacing in a different dimension. He didn’t have to work for a living, for all his material needs were provided by a gargantuan boulder, the Kaban ni San Isidro (San Isidro’s storehouse), which would open to a well-laden cave upon reciting a secret password.

At the bottom of the steps was a huge rock called Batong Ilawan, where each pilgrim had to light a candle and say a silent prayer as offerings before being allowed entrance into Banahaw’s spirit world.

Fascinated by these many strange experiences, Lontok never left the mountain. He became the Keeper of Banahaw’s secrets—an honor which has become a legacy for his descendants who continue to reside in the mountain.

Whether or not these tales are factual, Licauco stressed that there is reason to believe that Banahaw is, indeed, a mystical mountain. It is considered one of the established “energy centers” in the world, in the same league as Stonehenge in England, Mount Shasta in California, Mount Fuji in Japan, and other revered sites in Australia, Peru, Hawaii and Arizona—“power places” where psychic energies are believed to converge.

The trek is on

Upon reaching the mountain, our group established home base at the simple but spacious abode of Boy Montelibano, nestled right at the foot of Banahaw. A dyed-in-the-wool urban businessman who admitted to being a cynic when he first came to the place, he now spends most weekends at this rustic homestead to know more about the mountain, which enchanted him from the very first moment he set foot on it.

Our pator, or guide, for the trip was Ruben Blanco, a wiry, soft-spoken fellow whose whole upper torso bore intricate tattoo marks—a wide array of anting-anting (talisman) and sacred symbols that bear witness to his enchanted nature, thus his nickname “Ruben Encantado”.

We were instructed to change into light clothing that would easily dry on our bodies, as our first stop would be at the Santa Lucia Falls. To get there, our group had to descend into a steep canyon, straining our legs on the narrow cement steps with only raw abaca or synthetic nylon ropes to hold on for dear life. At the bottom of the steps was a huge rock called Batong Ilawan, where each pilgrim had to light a candle and say a silent prayer as offerings before being allowed entrance into Banahaw’s spirit world. A few feet away lies another gargantuan rock, the Piedra Mental, which is believed to house a “cathedral” inside, accessible only through astral projection.

Further ahead were two waterfalls, the Paliguan ng Nunong Lalaki and Paliguan ng Nunong Babae. No nuances of sexism here; the falls are for everyone regardless of gender. A pilgrim bathes under the former to cleanse one’s spirit, while the latter is for cleansing one’s body. No one can continue the journey to the sacred spots without dipping into these falls and drinking from the their crystal clear waters.

I no longer feared the cramped, narrow space, the unknown depth of the water, or the almost pitch-black darkness that covered me. I surrendered to the unknown and survived the unfamiliar.

As it was still drizzling, the water in the falls was icy cold. I felt more and more hesitant as my turn to take a dip came nearer, for fear of turning into a human ice block! But once enveloped by the rushing waterfalls, I felt increasingly warm instead. The experience was inexplicable, yet exhilarating. The sparkling waters seemed to flush way all the ill feelings and negative vibes lurking in the deepest crevices of my being. If not for the long queue behind me, I could have stayed under the falls for hours.

After the back-breaking climb back, we headed towards the Balon ni Santo Hakob (Saint Jacob’s Well), a small fissure located inside a dark and musty cave with a very, very narrow entrance. One had to literally slide down sideways to get to the deep pool beneath it. How deep was the well, I asked our pator. He said nobody knew exactly, but the last time a pilgrim slipped from the rickety railing at the side of the well, that person was next found floating in a nearby river, alive but for the grace of God. I almost choked on my own heart. I didn’t know how to swim! Mang Ruben must have read my mind and offered to accompany me in the descent. As I held on to his hand, I disappeared completely into the gray, sulfuric water for minutes at a time, coming up for a few seconds to gasp for breath then dunking my head deeper underwater with each try. By the fourth attempt, I thought my chest would explode. But it was also then that I felt an overwhelming sense of calm and detachment. I no longer feared the cramped, narrow space, the unknown depth of the water, or the almost pitch-black darkness that covered me. I surrendered to the unknown and survived the unfamiliar. I came out of the cavern with a broad grin on my face. I did it. I really did.

From the well, towels wrapped tightly around our shivering bodies, we headed for the Twin Caves of the Presentation. It was actually a single cavern with two separate chambers. The one on the left was dedicated to Saint Peter; the other to Saint Paul. Here, pilgrims “presented” themselves to the two saints, who would then enter their names in the heavenly records. Taking turns, we lit candles and offered prayers in both caves, whose makeshift altars were strewn with flowers, candles and folded pieces of paper bearing prayer requests from more ardent devotees.

Smoke rising from the waxen torches mingled with the strong scent of roses and sampaguita blooms in varying degrees of both freshness and decay. Everyone spoke in murmurs, as though in awed deference to the unseen beings residing there. Unlike the invigorating effects of the Santa Lucia Falls and Saint Jacob’s Well, the visit to the twin caves left us more sober and introspective, but nonetheless riding the wave of a spiritual high.

We took a long walk around the nearby forests and shared myths and stories about Banahaw that were handed down by generations of devotees and pilgrims who came before us. From a distance, we heard the haunting voice of a female healer chanting an oracion from her small nipa home. There are many such huts all over the forest, where families or hermits have chosen to live in order to benefit from the bounty of their New Jerusalem.

The sun was setting by this time, and much as we would have wanted to explore more caves, we knew we had to be back in Manila by nightfall. As we traced the dirt road back to our base, we marveled at the pristine beauty surrounding us. Mist was falling on the landscape like a veil of silk, slowly concealing the mountain’s peak. The chirping of birds was joined by the shrill voices of brown-skinned children, chasing each other in the open fields on their way home. The blue horizon was now painted red, orange and yellow, slowly fading into purple. One by one, stars began to sparkle and dance in their own laughter.

Clearly it was time for us to take our leave and let Banahaw’s invisible guardians bless and energize the mountain for the evening.

The magic of Banahaw, I learned, was in its very nature. Its healing powers lay in its innate beauty. Belief in the supernatural was an option, for even a skeptic would find solace amidst the fresh air, clean waters and lush splendor. The mountain enfolds you and leaves you with peace as a parting gift.

Lost in the serenity of a gentle drizzle, the melodious chirping of crickets, and the vast open space that lay before me, lined with ancient trees and crevices, I felt sure that even for a fleeting moment, I was indeed resting in the bosom of God.

© Angela Blardony Ureta

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