Ambahan Poetry & Baybayin Calligraphy

Hanunoo woman inscribing on a bamboo tube. Photo reproduced here with permission from Jacob Maentz of

Ambahan Poetry

During my research of Baybayin (ancient Filipino script) I ran into an ancient Filipino poetic form called the ambahan. While information is scarce on the internet on this subject matter— primary sources are even scarcer. Most of my information comes from the Mangyan Heritage Center in the Philippines and a 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). Antoon Postma recorded hundreds of these poems and most famously collected some of them in his book: Treasure of a Minority

The ambahan is a traditional poetic form of the Hanunoo Mangyans. Like the Filipino tanaga, each line of the ambahan contains seven syllables. Many ambahans are about nature, life and death, love and relationships. As you read them, you get a feeling of humility and beauty—  haiku-like imagery, Dickinson-like simplicity. 

An example from a collection by Mangyan Heritage Center in the Philippines:

Hanunoo-Mangyan: Tagalog: English:
Ako nangos babayan
Saludan bansanayan
Hog banhiwan man di wan
Sis gubay-gubay lingban
Hog linong was baaynan
Ako nama’y iduyan
Binibining marilag
Mahimbing sa kandungan
Sa gilid, sa dingdingan
Tahimik na tahanan
In my hammock, rests my love
My wife, my sweet, so tender
Quietly we lay, side by side
In this yard, a tranquil den
Our home, O calming delight!

In a literary paper by Postma, he defines the ambahan as:

  1. “a verse with seven-syllable lines,
  2. that is chanted, almost recited, with an undefined musical pitch, and without the accompaniment of musical instruments,
  3. has rhyming end-syllables,
  4. 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
  5. finally, uses a symbolic language to convey the idea expressed.”

Ambahans Are Social

Ambahans poems are expressed in two forms:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”

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.

Hanunoo woman inscribing on a bamboo tube. Photo reproduced here with permission from Jacob Maentz of

Photo of bamboo writing from Postma’s “Treasure of a Minority” 1972, p. 57.

If you’d like to read more ambahans, I would follow these links!


Baybayin Calligraphy

One of the ambahans struck me as so creative that I decided to exercise my calligraphy with it— featured below. Of note, this would traditionally be done in Hanunoo script, not Baybayin.

Ambahan 237 in traditional Baybayin script (Calligraphy © 2017 Henry Del Rosario)

Ambahan number 237 from Postma’s “Treasure of a Minority”:

Hanunoo-Mangyan: Tagalog: English (Antoon Postma’s translation):
Katpungan pagsudungan
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
Talang maghihiwalay;
Buklod nati’y bibigay;
Pagkikita’y daratal
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 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.”

My Baybayin calligraphy interpretation of “kaanyuan” (creation, ᜃᜀᜌᜓᜀ) (© 2017 Henry Del Rosario)

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! 


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