The Ati-Atihan Festival

by Reuben Domingo
© 1996 by Reuben Domingo and PHGLA
All rights reserved

Ati-Atihan Participant 3 The Ati-Atihan, held every January in the town of Kalibo in the province of Aklan on the island of Panay, is the wildest among Philippine fiestas. Celebrants paint their faces with black soot and wear bright, outlandish costumes as they dance in revelry during the last three days of this week-long festival.

The Ati-Atihan, a feast in honor of the Santo Niņo, is celebrated on the second Sunday after Epiphany. Catholics observe this special day with processions, parades, dancing, and merrymaking. The Santo Niņo has long been the favorite of Filipinos and devotion to it has been intense ever since an image was first presented to Juana, Queen of Cebu, in 1521.

Although the Ati-Atihan seems to show only revelry, a closer look shows that it has historic origins.

The pounding of bass drums and the rhythmic tinkling of metal and stone on bottles reverberate in the air during the celebration. Monotonous and pulsating, the music blasts a while then stops to wait for a response from others. Drums beat continuously and everyone talks and shouts,

By midmorning, small groups gather in their respective neighborhoods. They are prodded by drums as they dance their way to the town center. They grow in numbers as different groups from outlying areas merge into one as they get closer to the center of town. Sometimes the crowd thins as a few drop out to worship in silence and offer themselves to their own gods. But they always come back to rejoin the group to disappear in the gyrating mob. The dancing never stops.

All week long, celebrants arrive by land, sea, and air. As inter-island boats dock, they are greeted by pseudo-New Guinea tribal drummers. Tourists are ferried across rice fields and coconut plantations to Kalibo hotels while others are accommodated in private homes and public buildings. Others camp on the beach. By weekend all accommodations are gone although there seems to be no need for them as nobody bothers to sleep anyway. There is music everywhere and the rowdy crowd often finds itself inside improvised halls dancing all night long.

The steady beat of drums can sometimes be heard late in the night as a lone drummer is suddenly inspired to pick up the rhythm. Or perhaps it is only the drum in his own head that one hears as alcohol begins to numb the senses.

Celebrants ape the dance of the Atis, hence the name Ati-Atihan which means "make-believe Atis." This ritual is said to be the result of the sale of land in Panay by the Ati chieftain Marikudo to Datu Puti and the Borneans so that they can have a place to settle.

How did the Santo Niņo come into this pagan celebration? Is this a Christian feast or a pagan ritual where devil-outfitted participants dance hand-in-hand with old ladies in sarongs and young colegialas, arm-in-arm with dirty naked men, swig San Miguel beer and White Castle whiskey as their fathers in miniskirts and their mothers in elaborate headdresses watch? An uncle in a World War II guerilla uniform and a brother wearing a rubber Nixon mask may also be watching, unconcerned.

Ati-Atihan Participant 4 The celebration uncontrollably builds to the "bedlam of its climax-- the torch-lit Sunday procession," says Gabriel Casal, O.S.B., in his article in Filipino Heritage. Casal observes that the unyielding street dancers never fail to enter the Kalibo church every time they pass by. Repeated shouts of "Viva kay Santo Niņo!" and placards carried around with the same slogan make it known to everybody that this profane merriment is the participants' raucous way of honoring the Santo Niņo.

Casal said that the coming of the Santo Niņo into the fiesta started with the intervention of the first encomiendero of Aklan, Don Antonio Flores. He made arrangements with Datu Malanga and Datu Madayog to have their then existing native celebration be dedicated to the Santo Niņo.

When strong rains wiped out hillside crops in the distant past, the Atis came down to ask for food. The lowlanders who had a good harvest shared their blessings with the black, kinky-haired people. The Atis danced and sang in gratitude for the helping hand. Every year since then, the mountain people have come down to ritually solicit food though song and dance. The "lighter-skinned Maraynon, as the Borneans came to be called, got into the spirit of the newly-established friendship by daubing their faces with soot and danced with the Atis." (Casal, 2320)

Sometime in the 13th century, ten datus from Borneo fleeing the tyranny of Datu Makatunaw purchased some land in Panay from the Ati Marikudo, son of the old chief Populan. The price agreed upon was a solid gold hat and a basin. In addition, the Ati chief's wife wanted an ankle-length necklace for which the natives gave a bushel of live crabs, a long-tusked boar, and full-antlered white deer. Datu Puti, leader of the expedition and a relative of Makatunaw, established the Panay settlement and left Datu Sumakwel in charge.

Datu Puti went on farther north to the island of Luzon and left Datu Balensuela and Datu Dumangsil in a settlement in Taal. Datu Puti later returned to Borneo. These we gather from Maragtas, a book written by Pedro Monteclaro in 1907 and supposedly based on an ancient manuscript that nobody has ever seen.

Ati-Atihan Participant 1 Ati-Atihan Participant 2

Among the Visayans, the Spaniards wrote, it is not quite proper to drink alone or to appear drunk in public. Drinking is done in small groups or in "gatherings where men as well as women sat on opposite sides of the room, and any passerby was welcome to join in." Father Loarca admired their control for they rarely got angry when drunk and Alcina relates that the Visayans could decide disputes in the "best, quickest and most equitable way" when wine was used to enliven the discussion. "After drinking something, he who proposes does it with eloquence, those who respond, with discretion, those who decide, with attention, and all with fairness." (Blair & Robertson, v1)

One of the first things the Spaniards learned about the Visayans was that they were good drinkers. Magellan had no sooner landed in Homonhon, when people from nearby Suluan presented him a jarful of what Pigafetta recorded as uraca--that is, arak, the Malay-Arabic word for distilled liquor. In Limasawa, Pigafetta drank from the same cup as Rajah Kolambu, and his translator, Enrique de Malacca, got so drunk he wasn't of much use; a few days later, the local harvest was delayed while Kolambu and his brother Awi slept off a hangover. In Cebu, Pigafetta drank palm wine, tuba nga nipa, straight from the jar with reed straws together with Rajah Humabon, but in Quipit he excused himself after one draught when Rajah Kalanaw and his companions finished a whole jar withour eating anything.

Looking for the Prehispanic Filipino
William Henry Scott, 152

The early acceptance of Catholic rituals had much to do with the eventual suppression of the natives' ritual drinking. The Spanish clergy did not oppose moderate drinking but were able to attack excessive indulgence as a threat to public morality. What aroused the friars was that drinking was tightly bound to pagan celebrations of betrothals, weddings, and funerals. These activities would eventually be eliminated among Christianized Filipinos. (Phelan, 76-7)

However, this did not happen with the Ati-Atihan.

In spite of the remoteness of some native settlements, the fiesta enabled the religious orders to reach out to their scattered flock. "There were three fiestas of consequence to the Filipinos, namely, Holy Week, Corpus Christi, and the feast in honor of the patron saint of the locality." The natives would flock to the cabecera and it was also an opportunity to indoctrinate them in Christianity. Fiestas offered religious processions, dances, music, and theatrical presentations to the people. Although it may be "sacred or profane blended is highly doubtful that the Filipino were aware of the ceremony's elaborate liturgical symbolism, but they evidently relished the pageantry involved." (Phelan, 73) This statement seems particularly appropriate for the Ati-Atihan. Wherever the flock may be, they can hear the drumbeats from far-away Kalibo calling them at the start of every year.

Kalibo's Ati-Atihan has become so popular that similar festivals have cropped up all over Western Visayas. Antique has its Binirayan and Handugan festivals while Iloilo City has a more lavish and choreographed edition called Dinagyang. Bacolod, not one to be left behind, has also started its own version. (Hoefer, 255) In Cebu, it comes as Pit Senyor, a hopping dance to drums, (Joaquin, 18) or Sinulog. Today, Ati-Atihan is celebrated in the Aklan towns of Makato, Altavas, and Ibajay, a small town northeast of Kalibo which claims to be the original site where the Negritos came down from the hills to celebrate with the lowlanders. Of course, this claim is recounted in various towns along the northeast coast of Panay but through the years, Kalibo has established itself as the Ati-Atihan center.

Ati-Atihan Participant 5 The original commemoration of a land barter and gratefulness to the Provider for the post-monsoon harvest has turned into a feast day for the Santo Niņo. He is the direct link to the Father, the God of all, the Redeemer from infamy, the Absolver of all sins, the Deliverer to a better life. That is why Filipinos carry Him close to their hearts as a talisman, or anting-anting, and as protection from the unholy. (Ileto, 16)

HALA BIRA! Boom pak. PUERA PASMA! Boom pak.
HALA BIRA! Boom pak. PUERA PASMA! Boom pak.
There is so much to be thankful for. It could be the completion of a good trade, a bountiful harvest, deliverance from famine and storm, a peace pact between warring peoples, a prayer answered, a vow reaffirmed, or just plain ecstasy for life. The beat goes on and frenzy builds up in the noonday heat as sweat and brew eats up the senses. Icons of history, pop characters, and political personages dance with Congolese warriors in mock battle with caballeros. The celebrants' dreams are reinforced by rosaries and prayers which absolve them from their sins and resurrect them as new persons, maybe with a hangover, but definitely saved again.

Once inside the church these costumed revelers would kneel along the communion rail to have their heads, shoulders, and backs rubbed by the now exhausted sacristan, priest, or church helper with a small statue of the Santo Niņo. (Casal, 2320) And just as the Ati-Atihan is an outward display of revelry and exaltation, the devotee is in search of something which is missing from within. That which was empty is now filled, probably as much with spirit from the bottle as much as anything else. The celebrant becomes at peace with himself, the world, and his god. The loob is once again purified by the performance of the ritual of the panlabas.

With church bells pealing to the rhythm of HALA BIRA! PUERA PASMA! a now cleansed assembly of revelers stumble back to the streets of the Ati-Atihan climax, the end of a long precession where muggers, gropers and thieves have rubbed elbows with schoolgirls and church ladies tearfully singing religious hymns. The twin lights of media and tourism have done their bit in egging the frenzy on, but at the core, it is only the Filipino tugging two polar ends of his soul together.

Philippines Insight Guide
Hoefner, 54

Today, tourists enjoy little children dressed in Ati-Atihan tribal costumes with blackened faces as they dance in their annual pageantry. They cheer and urge them on without understanding the Ati-Atihan's origin. They hide smirks and contempt in their smiles at them-- the Visayans, rural Filipinos, tribal. But those who know are torn between the two "polar ends" of their souls. Or is it between the two ends of their whisky bottles?

Further reading:

  1. Blair, Emma Helen and James Alexander Robinson. The Philippine Islands. Cleveland, 1903-9.
  2. Casal, Gabriel. "Ati-Atihan" in Filipino Heritage. Manila, 19xx.
  3. Hoefer, Hans Johannes, ed. Philippines, Insight Guide. Hong Kong, 1989.
  4. Ileto, Reynaldo C. Pasyon and revolution. Quezon City, 1979.
  5. Joaquin, Nick. Almanac for Manileņos. Manila, 1979.
  6. Jocano, F. Landa. The Philippines at the Spanish Contact. Quezon City, 1975.
  7. Morga, Antonio de. Historical Events of the Philippine Islands, translation. Manila, 1962.
  8. Phelan, John Leddy. The Hispanization of the Philippines. Madison, 1959.
  9. Rafael, Vicente L. Contracting colonialism. Quezon City, 1988.
  10. Scott, William Henry. Looking for the preshispanic Filipino. Quezon City, 1992.
  11. Scott, William Henry. Prehispanic source materials for the study of Philippine history. Quezon City, 1984.
(This article was originally presented by the author to PHGLA on 1/13/96.)

To cite:
Domingo, Reuben. "The Ati-Atihan Festival" in Hector Santos, ed., Philippine History and Culture Series; at US, 25 September 1996.

PHGLA Logo The Philippine History Group of Los Angeles invites you to send your comments to the author, Reuben Domingo, or the editor of this Philippine History and Culture Series, Hector Santos.

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