The Sinulog Festival




The Sinulog Festival is an event that has come down from history as an enduring indigenous expression of prayer. It is one which bridges the pagan years and the Christian era today in the Philippines. Its role as one of the top festivals cele brated in this Southeast Asian country is inextricably linked with the history of a particular wooden image no larger than a 3-month old baby. And baby it is be cause the devotees pay annual homage to it during the feast of the Señor Santo Niño in the City of Cebu in a very grand, lively and colourful way. So one asks, how did all this start?


On a bright April morning in 1521 AD three small wooden ships – the flagship Tri nidad, Concepcion and Victoria are seen inching inward towards land from over the horizon. They have spent months traversing the vast Pacific Ocean in a journey of exploration. On board the flagship, the Portuguese explorer Ferdi nand Magellan has arrived in the midst of an archipelago dotted with thousands of forested islands. In one of these, he plants a wooden cross on the cream-coloured sands of a calm beach claiming the territory for Spain. That single act alone would usher in from start to end nearly 400-years of Spanish colonial rule over some 7,107 islands. It would eventually be described in the cartographic charts of European explorers as Las Islas Filipinas.


Magellan and his crew were not the first people to set eyes on this verdant col lection of islands. Others came before him. Soon after he established a bivouac as base camp before gathering what food and water he could find to replenish his ships’ depleted stores, a gathering of olive-skinned people appeared to investi gate the scene of his arrival. Magellan observed their appearance as being stri kingly similar to one member of his crew – Enrique of Malacca, a Malay who served as the expedition’s navigation assistant and interpreter.


These people were well-clothed, adorned with gold ornaments, bore a regal bear ing and armed. As they approached the bivouac, what appeared to be their leader came forward to take a much closer look. It was at this point that Magellan instructed Enrique to meet him.




When asked by Enrique who this person was, the man responded in his native tongue saying he was Ra jah Humabon of “Kota raya kita” meaning, “we are of the great fort ress”. This was in reference to his and his own people’s origin, line age and their connection to the Srivijaya Empire, a powerful and ancient sea-faring Malay empire based on the island of Sumatra in modern day Indonesia, which in fluenced much of Southeast Asia.


The word ‘Rajah’ means ‘King’. Hu mabon (also known as Sri Hama bar) was a direct descendant of Sri Lumay, a migrant Malay nobleman who es tablished the kingdom of ‘Singhapala’ (a variation of the Sanskrit ‘SinghaPura’ meaning ‘City of the Lion’ – the same root for the name of Singapore), in a region which is now part of Cebu City on the island of Zebu (Cebu) in the Philippines. The language which Enrique employed to converse with Humabon was Old Malay, being the indigenous language that was generally spoken in the Philippines at the time.


Having established their peaceful intentions, the parties found enough common ground to form an alliance sealed by a blood compact. It was an old ritual where tribes in these islands would cut their wrists and pour their blood into a cup filled with some liquid and drink it to mark a friendship, a pact or treaty validating an agreement. In this case, Humabon and his party agreed to be baptized into the Roman Catholic faith. In exchange, Magellan would provide military favours required to put down a rebellious vassal called Datu Lapu-lapu who dwelled in a nearby smaller island within sight’s view called Mactan with his fierce band of fol lowers. It would spell the end of Magellan a few days later.


After the ceremony was dispensed with, Magellan presented a wooden image of the child Jesus – the Santo Niño, as baptismal gift to Hara Amihan (also called Hara Humamay), wife of Rajah Humabon. Hara Amihan was later given the Christian name ‘Juana’ in honor of the House of Hapsburg’s Queen Joanna, co-ruler and mother of Carlos I, King of Spain at the time. Along with a coterie con sisting of several members of Humabon’s royal household in Zebu, some 800 other natives were also baptized. At the moment of receiving the holy image, it was said that Queen ‘Juana’ danced with joy bearing this image of the child Jesus. With the other natives following her example, this moment was regarded as the first performance of ‘Sinulog’.


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The Sinulog dance steps are believed to originate from Rajah Humabon’s adviser, Baladhay, who was driven seriously into sickness one day. Humabon ordered his lieutenants to bring Baladhay into a room where the Santo Niño was enthroned, along with the other pagan gods of the native ‘Zebuanos’. After a few days passed, Baladhay was heard shouting loudly and found dancing with utmost vigour. Baladhay was questioned as to why he was awake and dancing about. Pointing to the image of the Santo Niño, Baladhay explained that while in recline he had found on top of him a small child trying furiously to wake him and tickling him. Astonished, he began to shoo the child away by shouting but the little child got up instead and started making fun of him. Amused, Baladhay began to dance with the child and explained that he was doing so following the movement of the old Pahina River’s strong water current. The term ‘Sinulog’ is derived from the Cebuano adverb ’sulog’ which means ’water current’. Folklore also says that these steps were the same ones used by Queen ‘Juana’, when she danced after receiving the image of the Sto. Niño as her baptismal gift. Another related story explain that she would occasionally dance up in joy around the community bringing about the image asking for graces such as rain, or the cure of a sick person. To this day, the two-steps forward, one-step backward movement all done to the sound of drums, is still used by Santo Niño devotees who believe that it was the Santo Niño’s prodding to have Baladhay dance in that manner as an expression of joy for being healed.




According to both Spanish and Philip pine historical accounts, Zebu’s Rajah Humabon was the first indigenous king of the Philippines to convert to Christian ity. Celebrating this milestone each year was the people of Zebu’s way of express ing acceptance of Roman Catholicism symbolized through the image of the Ho ly Child Jesus.


Over the centuries, its observance had been a holy feast day organized by the Augustinian order of friars and marked purely as a solemn procession on the eve of the feast. It was basically performed much in the same manner as those of other religious processions of the Catho lic Church in other countries around the world – it begins in a church and ends in the same church.


In 1981, the feast was modified by Cebu City officials to include a small socio-cultural parade on the Sunday following the traditional procession on the eve. However, when Sinulog Festival founder David Odilao transformed the annual religious observance as a project into a full-blown 9-day festival in 1983, he incorporated the tradition-passed 2-less-1 dance movement as its official step but also gave it greater dimension by adding more events and features. This included incorporating the Sinulog musical beat to the sound of drums. Next, groups of people called ‘contingents’ from around the community would flock to the main streets all garbed in wild and riotously-splashed colourful costumes of their own designs dancing to the beat in unison. It is a continuous undulating wave of colours splashing down upon you.


Amplified by modern electronics which pervades the air throughout the city, the beat of drums is unmistakably a unifying and vibrating sound that calls upon all city residents who upon hearing its mantra-like allure are drawn in to participate in the festivities. It also builds up the joyful mood which holds together the thousands (now millions) of other residents, local guests from other islands and tourists watching the flow of events as they unfold.


In 1984, and largely because of its success the previous year, the Sinulog Project was fortified with more weight (and heftier resources) when Odilao and his troupe of organisers transferred their responsibilities over to the newly-formed Sinulog Foundation, Inc. It was entrusted with the objective of perpetuating the cultural heritage of the people of Cebu through this grand annual festival.




The Sinulog Festival in Cebu City which starts every 3rd weekend of January has always been fast-paced. Dancers bounce and step more often then they sway. Peo ple traverse from hotspot to hotspot more often than they would normally lin ger. Lights pulse more wildly than they stay on. News develops more often than it travels. It is an exceptionally thrilling experience and in the midst of all this you also find thousands of professional photographers immortalizing its magical moments with the staccato-like clicks of their wide-angle lens cameras.


The parade and pageantry of the Sinulog Festival celebrates ingenuity and creati vity in a rainbow of colour, music and dance using the cultural stories and traditions of the early Filipinos of Zebu and the history of Christianization of the country. It has helped galvanize a shared passion, a collective identity not forgotten but vigorously celebrated.


A festival refreshes us physically and mentally. Each year in the Philippines with the involvement of national and local government agencies, the private sector, creative arts and civic organisations, commercial and industrial establishments and academic institutions in the cities, towns and barangays (villages) spread throughout the counties all pit their skills in organising festivals as annual pro jects adding to an already long list of festivals. They all compete energetically with each other in terms of which one can conjure up the best attractions and draw in the most number of participants, crowds and applause. The quality of participation definitely gets better year after year.


In the case of the Sinulog Festival, contest participants used to be sourced solely from Cebu City. But starting in the early 1990s, the Festival brought forth some dramatic performances (and eventual winners) from all over the Philippines. It now adds into its mix a variety of contingents from other towns, cities, provinces and even whole islands in the Philippines that include Surigao, San Carlos, Southern Leyte, Agusan del Sur, Camiguin, Iligan, Tangub, Tacloban, Iloilo, Para ñaque, Naga, Masbate, Sultan Kudarat, Iligan and Butuan among others. This inclusiveness has made the Sinulog Festival one of the country’s biggest and grandest cultural festival with crowd numbers swelling each year by the millions.


It’s no wonder why the country-side economy of the Philippines is perking up largely from intake of receipts generated from these festivals. The country’s growing cultural reputation as being the place in Southeast Asia where it’s fun to be in is gaining more solid ground. What’s more, the contest prizes are also growing in-step each year. This year in January, the pot of prize money that was set aside for winning entries of Sinulog Festival contingents reached NZ$ 300-thousand (or approx. Php. 10-million) – a percentage undersized in comparison with the total gross receipts earned in the event from all sources. Of course, the tax man gets it share which keeps officials keenly interested in providing their unqualified support and encouragement. Contest winners or not, everybody ob viously are still smiling.


Now that folks, is what the Filipino fiesta spirit is all about!


| Part-1 | Part-2 | Part-3 | Part 4 |




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Filed under Arts and Culture, Filipinos in Hamilton, Filipinos in New Zealand, Historical Events, Special Feature

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