Going for the Gold

Article excerpt

Byline: Jessica Zafra

A new permanent exhibit offers tantalizing hints to the Philippines' precolonial history.

The Philippines has long been regarded as an interesting sideshow in Southeast Asia. A former colony of Spain, then the United States, it seems to have more in common with Latin America than with its Asian neighbors. There are few existing written records of its precolonial history and culture. It has no temples like Indonesia's Borobodur or Cambodia's Angkor Wat to indicate what civilizations existed on the 7,107 islands before their Western conquest. Artifacts on display at the National Museum and at the Central Bank Museum in Manila offer clues as to the islands' original inhabitants, but the available scholarship leaves too many questions unanswered. More than a century after the Philippines became an independent republic, the debate over the Filipino identity continues.

A new permanent exhibition at the privately owned Ayala Museum in the financial capital, Makati City, only heightens the mystery. "Gold of Ancestors" features 1,059 precious objects that are believed to date back as far as the 10th century. Most were acquired by a private collector, and have never been seen in public. Among the pieces on display are cutwork diadems, funerary masks, ornaments and ritual containers. Their quality and scope suggest that ancient Filipinos had closer links to their Southeast Asian neighbors than is currently supposed. There is a gold vessel in the shape of a creature that is half-bird, half-woman: the "kimnari" of Hindu mythology. A plaque depicts a female figure in an elaborate headdress with a tree-of-life motif, her hands raised as if in worship. The centerpiece of the exhibition is an intricately crafted gold halter, weighing almost four kilograms, that is believed to be the Upavita, or Sacred Thread, of the sort worn by the elite Brahmin class in traditional Hindu society.

Hindu influences can be seen all over Southeast Asia, but the exhibit raises the burning question: who made these objects? Were they created by the inhabitants of the islands now known as the Philippines, or were they brought in by foreign traders? "The answer is, 'We don't know'," says Florina H. Capistrano-Baker, curator in charge of the exhibition. "One of the reasons the collection is so important is that it provides a large body of works for comparative study with similar objects from Southeast Asia, such as those found in Oc-Eo in Vietnam and the Wonoboyo hoard in Indonesia. We assume that they are locally made until proven otherwise."

To be sure, gold is abundant in the Philippines. When Spanish conquistadors first arrived in the islands, they noted that the natives were bedecked in gold ornaments from head to foot. According to colonial accounts, the Filipinos were so knowledgeable about gold that even children could accurately determine the purity of gold alloys. …