During my research of Baybayin (ancient Filipino script) I ran into ancient Filipino poetry which fascinated me! While information is scarce on the internet on this subject matter— primary sources are even scarcer. What I did manage to find was a certain Dutch anthropologist, Antoon Postma, who did significant research into Filipino poetry. He lived amongst and married into the Hanunoo, a Mangyan sub-tribe in the island of Mindoro in the Philippines. He most famously deciphered the Laguna Copperplate Inscription and did further work documenting the Hanunoo script (which is related to Baybayin) that the Mangyan people still use in the Philippines today.
The ambahan is a traditional poetic form of the Hanunoo Mangyans. Antoon Postma recorded hundreds of these poems— many of which were about nature, life and death, love and relationships. Hanunoo Mangyans would memorize and create ambahans according to their own age level. Children would memorize ambahans fit for children but would use ambahans appropriate for an adult when they grew up and married. Even the elderly have ambahans to share the experiences of old age and death.
Ambahans poems are expressed in two forms:
- Chanted or recited in social circles: During social gatherings (ie. festivals, burials) people would compete with each other in reciting ambahans appropriate for the occasion. People would intently listen, laugh, and cheer the informal contest of wit into the deep night.
- Inscribed on bamboo tubes or slates to be sent as letters to their recipient: A person would write the ambahan, leave it on the side of the road, and a passerby would bring it as close to the destination as possible. This would take as many people as necessary to get to the recipient. Anecdotally, they say that a village had no secrets and a lover’s love letter was an enamor already well known!
The social aspect of an ambahan is an essential characteristic. According to Postma, “the ambahan is different. It is primarily of social character. It does not stand alone, it is not for one man, but finds its true existence in the company of others. It is a social art, created by the Mangyan to enrich and enliven the community.”
Ambahan poetic form
Like the Tanaga, each line of the ambahan contained seven syllables. Length is variable— from a few line to a dozen or so. I could not find a full online text of Postma’s collection of ambahans. However, I did find some examples on a few websites that had the English and Tagalog translations of the Hanunoo-Mangyan language. Of what I saw— beautiful, humble poems of haiku-like imagery and Dickinson-like simplicity.
I was eventually able to get ahold of an old copy of Postma’s “Treasure of a Minority.” In a literary paper, Postma defines the ambahan as:
- “a verse with seven-syllable lines,
- that is chanted, almost recited, with an undefined musical pitch, and without the accompaniment of musical instruments,
- has rhyming end-syllables,
- contains many words that do not occur in the spoken Hanunoo language, whereas it is generally lacking in loanwords from Spanish, Tagalog or Bisaya, and
- finally, uses a symbolic language to convey the idea expressed.”
One of the ambahans struck me as so creative I decided to exercise my calligraphy with it— featured below. Of note, this would traditionally be done in Hanunoo script, not Baybayin.
Ambahan number 237 from Postma’s “Treasure of a Minority”:
|Hanunoo-Mangyan:||Tagalog:||English (Antoon Postma’s translation):|
Kita una magkaban
Babaw apnig bariwan
Saruray no humagan
Kiblagan yi kuramwan
Sulbadan yi suudan
Magkabta araw uman
Pamidkan dimlisig wan
Patlay saghaya yi man
|Sa sandaling karimlan
Kahit kita magtipan
Sa banig na higaan
Pagsikat nitong araw
Buklod nati’y bibigay;
Paningi’y mapawi man
May bagong kaanyuan.
|At this hour of the dark night
we are still together now
on the woven sleeping-mat.
But when the sun rises soon,
and the stars become detached,
our bond might break up too.
When we’ll ever meet again,
it is not with mortal eyes,
but the eye-sight of the soul.
Translating Filipino Poetry
In addition, as part of my exercise, I took some time to dwell on the poetic language used in the ambahan. Of my readings, I came upon a Tagalog dictionary that included archaic and obsolete words that Google translate or Tagalog-Dictionary.com did not have. A few words caught my interest:
- Magtipan (ᜋᜆᜒᜉ): translates to “covenant.”
- Mapawi (ᜋᜉᜏᜒ): can mean “vanish”; in addition to “disappear, die, pass”
- Kaanyuan (ᜃᜀᜌᜓᜀ): can mean “condition of being, manner of being”; in addition to “form, structure, appearance”
One can say the last few lines are the “kireji” of the haiku, the “caesura” of western poetry, or the “volta” of the sonnet. I can’t have enough of Postma’s translation as it captures the spirit of the text: “kaanyuan” transcends from “creation” or “beginning” into what that really means in the context of love, old age, and death— the “eye-sight of the soul.”
I’ll be posting more Baybayin calligraphy as I learn more. Moreover, I am looking into ways I can incorporate medicine and health into this!
- Jacob Maentz is a photographer who has fantastic photos documenting the Hanunoo people:
- Popular writing system website:
- Mangyan heritage center of the Philippines:
- Paper by Antoon Postma about ambahan poetry:
- See more calligraphy and art on my Instagram: