The ambahan and its uses

Photo of four tall, cylindrical bamboo containers of various sizes, each inscrib
Hanunuo-Mangyan poems in the Mangyan syllabic script inscribed on betel nut containers made of bamboo

The ambahans are very common among the Hanunuo-Mangyans. About thirty percent of the Hanunuo-Mangyans do not read or write the pre-Spanish Hanunuo-Mangyan script, but it would be rare indeed for a Mangyan not to know the art of the ambahan. Of course, a Mangyan will quickly deny any knowledge of the ambahan, but this is only a polite way of refusing to demostrate such knowledge. People who have tried to collect ambahans will be the first to admit the difficulty of making the Mangyans recite the ambahans outside of the proper occasion for doing it.

Aside from the Hanunuo-Mangyans, the neighboring Mangyan tribes also know about the ambahan. Though the actual extent to which the ambahan is known by these other tribes has not been fully investigated, it is certain that this type of poetry is also common among the Buhid-Mangyans. The language of the Buhid is completely different from that of the Hanunuo-Mangyans, but one may still partly understand the literary products of the other. The ambahan can also be found among the tribes living deep in the mountains of Mindoro. These natives go down to the lowlands very rarely, and on one of these occassions I was lucky enough to acquire some copies of their ambahans. The Hanunuo-Mangyans do not understand much of it, except when exclusive ambahan words are used. However, before anything more authoritative can be said on this matter, one must explore the field further. The verse of the Iraya-Mangyans (in the north of Mindoro) is also very similar to the ambahan-type, i.e. they also have the characteristic heptasyllabic meter and rhyming end-syllables.

Ambahans are known and recited by Hanunuo-Mangyans, both old and young. Of course, different ambahans will be appropriate for different age groups.

The children definitely have their own kind of ambahans, something which might be considered as the equivalent of our nursery rhymes. However, even in these rhymes all the elements of the ambahan are present; the main distinction lies in the simplicity of the language used. The ambahans for children, however, are short, most of them containing not more than six lines.

A boy (kan-akan) and a girl (daraga) would be familiar with the ambahans fit for them, but once they are married, they would acquaint themselves with the ones that are appropriate for their new state of life.

Like all poetry, the ambahan is an expression of an idea or feeling in a beautiful and harmonious language. Unlike other forms of poetry , however, the ambahan is not poetry for its own sake or for the poet's satisfaction. The ambahan is primarily a poem of social character; it finds its true existence in society. It is created by the Mangyans to serve practical purposes within the community. It is used by the parents in educating their children, by young people in courting each other, by a visitor in asking for food and by a relative bidding goodbye or farewell. Of course, it would be a mistake to think that the Mangyans converse with each other only by the ambahan. If a man comes from his field, he would not use an ambahan to tell his wife that he is hungry; he will express the feeling of his stomach in plain and clear language. But generally speaking, the ambahan is used on those occasions when something embarrassing, unpleasant, delicate or even precious (as love) has to be said. For instance, a boy may tell a girl in plain language that he will never forget her, but it would sound so much nicer if he were to do so in an ambahan.

The social nature of the ambahan has given rise to a kind of verbal contest. Whenever Mangyans are together, a few of them (often the older generation) will eagerly compete with each other in the ability to recite the ambahan called for by the place and the occasion. Among these occasions are festivities held in connection with reburial. One Mangyan might challenge another with an ambahan, for example. This starts the contest. The people gather around the two contestants (without agreement, without rules, without bets), listening intently to the ambahans recited alternately by the two opponents. Each ambahan recited is an answer to the problem or theme propounded in the ambahan preceeding it. Both contestants are lustily cheered and encouraged by their supporters. In most cases, the one who recites last is declared the winner. The contest may go deep into the night. Whether one or the other wins is unimportant; what matters most is the entertainment derived from the contest.

A few final remarks about the translation of the ambahan may still be of interest. A researcher who happens to be in the mountains of Mansalay and becomes acquainted with the ambahan will become enthusiastic about it and may even want to translate some of them into his own language. But before he can translate the ambahan, he must study the ancient Indic script. After having mastered it well, he will find out to his dismay, that he still cannot read everything written on the bamboo. This is due to the fact that the script itself does not show the final consonant of each syllable. When he has overcome the disappointment, he will probably try to get an ambahan written down in clear, readable letters. Tape-recording the ambahan would take away the initial difficulties of copying from script. However, even then he will not understand all the implications of the ambahan unless the Mangyan can explain it.

In translating an ambahan, we find a special difficulty arising from the symbolic meaning of the words used. The Mangyan may supply the applied allegorical meaning but he might not understand the literal meanings of certain words. The meanings of these words can often be discovered because of the frequent use of repetition of ideas. Sometimes complete lines may be repetitions of the same idea in synonymous words.

Before the ambahan can be completely understood, it is imperative to collect as many samples of the ambahan as possible. This is the main work being done at present in this field. A detailed comparison of specimens, sifting and classifying words, and careful experiments in translating the words into another context have to be done by experts in this field of research. Only then will the ambahan emerge in the fullness of its beauty and signification.

The present anthology of ambahans is selected from a collection that started in 1958. In preparing this selection, it was not an easy task to decide on the best way of grouping or arranging these ambahans. It was finally decided to observe a dual system in classifying these Mangyan poems. The first system is to take the obvious and literal meaning as expressed by the poem. The second is the allegorical or applied meaning that can be gleaned from the ambahan. With this dual system in mind, the ambahans in this collection have been arranged according tot he life-cycle of the Hanunuo-Mangyans. Hence, this collection of ambahans starts with the cradle and ends with the grave. It is believed that this arrangement is the most satisfactory.

[Postma, Antoon SVD. Treasure of a Minority. Manila: Arnoldus Press, Inc., 1981.]