Monday, July 17, 2006

Time concepts (Glossary)

Concepts of time as found in Austronesian societies are closely linked with place/space. In Bergano's 18th century dictionary of the Kapampangan language, he lists sucu as meaning "tiempo y lugar" or "time and place."

If someone traces back their genealogy to an important ancestor, they reckon back to a specific time and place where that ancestor was born. From that point in time/space, like the Biblical Adam and Eve, there is movement in time and possibly also in place as the family tree branches out through multiplication and migration.

Time and place also intersect with nature and thus with the cycles of agriculture, fishing, hunting, traveling, etc.

The earliest forms of calendars probably were those utilizing natural means of intercalation which did not require advanced mathematical calculations, record-keeping, etc.

Nature calendars

Farming, fishing and similar activities require observation of both solar and lunar cycles. However, these cycles do not coincide exactly, so at some point in history intercalation was developed to bring the lunar and solar calendars into harmony.

The earliest forms of intercalation likely involved observation of natural phenomenon based on circadian/circannual rhythms.

One of the best-known forms of natural intercalation in this part of the world is the observation of the swarming of multi-hued, phosphorescent sea worms by peoples such as the Kodi of Sumba, the Trobriand Islanders and the Torres Islanders.

The sea worms swarm at the same time every year and enable the calendar-keepers to correct their observations of the luni-solar year.

The Igorot peoples of northern Luzon also used a solar year based on observation of the Sun's declination together with months or seasons corresponding roughly to the lunar phases. These celestial observation were brought into alignment by watching for certain signs connected with migratory birds, flowering plants or some other natural phenomenon.

About half of all the Igorot months/seasons were named after some migratory bird that appeared during the respective period.

Following circadian rhythms allowed peoples like the Kodi and Igorots to easily maintain highly accurate calendars.

Longer cycles

Circadian rhythms can also allow the tracking of cycles longer than the solar year.

Most important for the Austronesian region in this regard is the cyclic flowering of bamboo plants.

Many bamboo species have protracted flowering cycles. Moreover some species have synchronzied or "gregarious" flowerings in which plants of the same species over a wide geographical area flower simultaneously, and die shortly after flowering.

A Japanese study in 1927 using local reocrds and folklore traced flowerings of the Japanese timber bamboo Phyllostachys bambusoides back to 800 CE, and found that the plant had a flowering cycle of 120 years. Using the last record of a great flowering in 1840, the study predicted the next one would start in 1960, and in fact such a flowering started one year earlier in 1959.

The flowering cycles of the following species have been determined:


Arundinaria falcata


Bambusa arundinacea


Chusquea abietifolia


Dendrocalamus strictus


Bambusa tulda


Melocanna bambusoides


Bambusa polymorpha


Phyllostachys nigra


Japanese studies suggest that many Sasa species also have 60 year flowering cycles. These 60-year cycles remind us of the astronomical sexagenary cycle so conspicuous in the regions of bamboo distribution.

Bamboo flowering and famine

In cultures of Northeast India, Myanmar and South China, there are beliefs that bamboo flowering presages famine, excessive flooding and other hardships.

The connection with famine may have some scientific backing as the bamboo flowers are believed to attract rats which then help themselves to available crops.

There are other scientific reasons that can explain how bamboo flowering can have bad consequences. For example, some animals that depend on bamboo as a food source, like pandas, can suffer greatly when bamboo forests are decimated after a flowering event. Also there is an hypothesis of a "bamboo fire cycle" in which large stands of dead bamboo increases the risk of dangerous forest fires.

In some areas though, bamboo flowering was seen as a positive response to disaster. In Fukien, for example, a compassionate god is thought to cause bamboo to flower during a famine to provide a stable source of food. In the northern Philippines, a belief that bamboo flowers after an earthquake may have similar connotations.

Generally bamboo is considered auspicious. In the Philippines there is a myth of the first man and woman being born from a bamboo split open by a bird. Similar myths are found in the Andaman Islands and in Malaysia.

The root for the word for "bamboo" in Proto-Austronesian may be related also to other words for "descent group" and "nation."

The Wheel of Time

We have discussed the Kalacakra philosophy earlier in this blog -- the idea that great cycles of time, including the celestial cycles, also have their mirror in a scaled form in our own bodies. This, of course, is verified in a way by the existence of circadian rhythms, which synchronize our bodily functions with celestial, mainly diurnal, cycles.

The earth too can also be seen as having such rhythms and cycles.

In relation to this we can examine the names for the dual volcanoes: Pinatubo and Arayat.

Arayat is also known as Sinukuan (Sinucuan) after the sun god Apung Sinukuan who is also known as Apung Sucu (Suku).

Sinukuan is derived from sucu which has the general meaning "termination or end of something." In general, this directly relates to time as we have mentioned above sucu can also mean "time and place." An old person, for example, near or at the end of the term of life can be described with the word "suku."

So, "Sinukuan" can refer to things that are coming to their end with regard to a specific term or cycle of time.

Pinatubo however, which sits a bit south of west of Arayat/Sinukuan, is derived from the word tubo (tubu). The primary meaning of tubu is "to be born, or to grow."

Tubu thus refers to the beginning of the term of life. It can also refer to the time of conception of an animal. The word tibuan which is derived from "tubu" can mean the place and time of birth, and also death. In this sense, tubu is somewhat similar to suku, except it signifies completion as the start of something new, i.e. death as the beginning of a new life in the world beyond.

Tibuan can also mean one's lineage or descent, as this is tied into the place and time of birth.

The god of Pinatubo is Apung Mallari (Apo Namalyari), the moon god, whose name signifies also something that is finished for the start of a cycle. Thus, the baby that becomes fully-formed in the womb from the time of conception is "done" and ready for birth, or the start of a new life.

Thus, while Arayat/Sinukuan refers to the end of a term or cycle, Pinatubo/Malyari signifies the beginning of the cycle.

Now a word related to "sucu" is sucsuc which can describe the rising or setting of the Sun or Moon. Sucsuc generally means "to pierce." I believe that this comes from an original conception of the Sun and Moon piercing through the earth during a volcanic eruption at the "birth" of a new era. It is the Sun and Moon's tunneling through the earth which creates the legendary hollow known as yatu.

However, Pinatubo is located in the West, where the Sun and Moon symbolically enters the Earth, not in the East, where one would normally think of the "beginning" of things.

Folklore in the region tells of Apung Sinukuan/Suku on Mt. Arayat having recurring battles with the god of Pinatubo, or some long-forgotten mountain in the Sambal range. These battles don't resemble allusions to the waxing/waning relations of Sun or Moon, or to the Sun's annual change in declination. They recur only after long dormant periods that span many generations of human lives.

Yet at the same time, the two gods are portrayed as siblings, as having spouses from the other mountain, and having children that court and marry spouses from the opposing mountain often after fiery courtships. More often than not, the two deities have friendly relations. All of these examples are indications of the dual characteristics of attraction and opposition inherent to polar relationships such as that which exists between Pinatubo and Arayat.

Geography, natural/celestial/linear time and genetic lineage all interlace through these myths in classic Austronesian fashion.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Kawamura, S. "On the periodical flowering of the bamboo," Jpn. J. Bot. 3:335-349, 1927.

Mondragón, Carlos. "Of Winds, Worms and Mana: the Traditional Calendar of the Torres Islands, Vanuatu," Oceania, June 2004.

Scott, William Henry. "Some calendars of northern Luzon," American Anthropologist Vol. 60, no. 3, 1958.