NOTE: A week before the historic signing of a peace pact that aims to end decades-old conflict in Mindanao, I found myself in Lamitan, Basilan in the house of a Princess. Currently part of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), Basilan is expected to become part of a new political entity called Bangsamoro. Hopefully this framework agreement will bring lasting peace and encourage more people to visit places like Basilan, which offers a wealth of natural beauty and culture.
The Princess welcomed us to her home warmly, apologizing and shooing off several barking dogs who came running to greet us at the gate. As we entered, I was overwhelmed by the contrast of colors and items in her house.
The walls were covered in red curtains and vivid tapestries of Yakan fabrics, the traditional weaving of the Yakan Tribe, the original inhabitants of Basilan. The ceiling rafters were lined with smaller pieces of fabric while gold kulintang gongs adorned a small staircase leading up. A surprising assortment of stuffed toys and figurines were displayed side by side with traditional brassware. Musical instruments and vases sat on a brightly patterned Mickey Mouse mat.
Princess Lily Cuevas is the daughter of the last recognized Sultan of Basilan, Datu Kalun (Pedro Cuevas Jr.). She resides in her hometown of Lamitan and remains an active civic leader and peace-builder.
As we marveled at the items displayed around the house, she brought out even more beautiful Yakan woven fabrics from her private collection, laying them out proudly on her dining table.
“The Yakan tribe is fond of using very bright colors,” she told us. “The patterns on the fabrics are drawn from nature. This one echoes the patterns of a snake. This one symbolizes fishes,” she added as she displayed the different designs. Most had bright geometric patterns of diamonds and flowers. To me, one piece resembled the pattern of leaves falling from trees.
The members of the Yakan tribe are known for their excellent craftsmanship and are considered among the finest weavers in the country. The fabrics they weave using traditional looms are so detailed that it takes a week or so to finish a meter of cloth . A standard wall hanging of geometric designs 3-4 meters long can take almost a month to finish. The woven striped fabric using finer threads can take even longer to make.
Traditionally, they are said to use plants like pineapple and abaca fibers to weave their fabrics. Similar to how the T’boli tribe make t’nalak, the fibers used to be dyed with natural materials such as leaves, roots or barks to make colorful combinations and intricate designs.
However, nowadays commercial thread is widely used. Weaving table runners, placemats, wall decors, coin purses, wallets, and other items for souvenirs has become a livelihood venture of the remaining Yakan members of the Yakan tribe whose main market are tourists in Zamboanga City. In fact, many families have relocated to Zamboanga City and reside in the Yakan Weaving Village where they sell these items as souvenirs.
There was something mesmerizing about the complexity of the threads woven together that made up the patterns. Each color stood out from the plain cloth, forming part of a perfect picture like a mosaic. According to Princess Lily, most weavers don’t even follow a fixed pattern, so each piece is unique.
Though the Yakan fabrics she showed from her collection were not for sale, there were a few items set aside to be shipped to the Yakan Weaving Village in Zamboanga City. I ended up buying a bright red piece with the words Lamitan, Basilan on it and one cut section of an unfinished piece with frayed edges, which bore a very fine intricate design.
Before we left, Princess Lily showed us one of her regal costumes, a long-sleeved black blouse bearing elaborate embroidery and gold buttons, which she said she dons only during special occasions.
“You should come back during the Lami-Lamihan Festival,” she urged us, so we could see more of the Yakan weaving and take part in the festivities. The festival, which is held every June 23-27 highlights the preservation of the Yakan heritage, customs and traditions though cultural presentations. I might have to do just that.
My brief visit to Basilan showed me a side of the province that you don’t often read about in the news. Hopefully, the signing of the peace pact is one step closer to peace, and will encourage more tourists to visit and experience the place for themselves.