Saturday, December 27, 2008

Notes on place names in Zambales and Pampanga

In various parts of the world, we come across a type of sacred geography that views geographical locations as corresponding to the body parts of a deity or deities.

Among Hindus, for example, the Sakta-pithas are considered sacred pilgrimage sites that each correspond with a specific body part of the goddess Sakti. The Buddhists have a similar system.

In the regions of Zambales and Pampanga in the Philippines that have been of major focus in this blog, there are some indications of a similar type of sacred geography. The town known as Betis, once the largest population center in Luzon but now absorbed into the municipality of Lubao, was originally known as Bitis, for example by Gov. Francisco de Sande in 1576. The latter word means "foot" in the local Kapampangan language.

Bitis is in fact located at the foothills of Mt. Pinatubo where the elevation begins to rise from the flat plains of Pampanga. Therefore, the name might indicate the foot or bottom of the mountain. Another nearby district of Lubao is known as Pasbul, which means "gate" possibly indicating this area was a thoroughfare to the mountain area.

Taking into account the common Austronesian practice of quadripartite division, there are some indications that this general area may have been conceived of as consisting of four "bodies." From Bitis toward the South, there are two placenames indicating parts near the top of the body. At the southern end of the Zambales range, of which Mt. Pinatubo is a part, sits Olongapo, the name derived from the Ulo ng Apo "Head of the Lord/Elder." To the southeast, across the Manila Bay and at the southern end of pampang-style agricultural system that runs from Lower Pampanga and through Bulacan is the ancient city of Tondo.

Tondo is believed to be derived from the Kapampangan word tundun which means "nape" or "back of the neck."

So from Bitis at the feet of the mountains of Pinatubo and Arayat going southwest, you have Olongapo "Head of the Lord," along the coast of Subic Bay, and to the southeast Tondo "Back of the Neck" along the Manila Bay.

Now in the opposite direction from Bitis are again the mountains of Pinatubo to the northwest and Arayat to the northeast. This area around the mountains is generally considered "central" as the directional word paralaya "toward Arayat" for "East" indicates. The Kapampangan word for "North" is ulu or pang-ulu. The ulu in this name is related to the ulo in "Ulo ng Apo" above with both words derived from Proto-Austronesian *ulu "head."

In Kapampangan the meaning of "head" for ulu and pangulu has been lost and the words now mean either "North" or "headwater," i.e. the origin of a river or stream. However, when the words were originally derived to indicate "North," ulu and pangulu still may have retained at least a secondary meaning of "head." Thus, the northern direction would have been associated with some place to the north that was thought of again in terms of the "head" body part.

So, there were four bodies in this hypothesis, all with their feet coming together in Bitis. The two bodies extending to the north had their central parts located apart at the east and west in Mts. Arayat and Pinatubo respectively with the heads again coming together in the north i.e. ulu or pangulu. The top parts of the two bodies extending to the South were Olongapo and Tondo both locations offering access to the open sea through the Subic and Manila bays respectively.

Now, the midsection of the southern bodies is also possibly indicated by a secondary directional system associated with the winds and used by fishermen. In this system, "South" is indicated by the word malaut "on the sea," while "North" is balas or "sand" meaning the type of sand common in the estuarine areas of Lower Pampanga. The south wind is also known as kalautan indicating the wind blowing off the ocean. This would indicate that this southern "center" was located along the northern beach line of the Pampanga Bay, probably at the mouth of the Pampanga River. The names for the directions "southwest" or abagat, the wind that blows in the high tide, and for south-by-southeast or ikat-aldo panlaut "sunrise by the sea" also strengthen this location of the southern center.

Click image for larger version

If this suggested sacred geography is correct, we can only guess at what bodies may have been suggested by the ancients. Possibly the two northern bodies could have been those of the deities Apung Mallari and Apung Sinukuan, associated with Mts. Pinatubo and Arayat respectively, but sufficient clues are lacking.

That the ancient peoples in this region may have seen their country as a type of the world in microcosm may be seen in their making Pinatubo and Arayat as the homes of the Moon and Sun respectively. As skilled mariners, they knew that the perceptions of the rising and setting luminaries was relative and could be expanded to all locations. Therefore the four bodies of the country could represent a smaller version of the four corners of the world in Austronesian quadripartite thinking.

Land of sacred earth and pottery

The region of Zambales (Sambali) and Pampanga were linked with the sacred earth of the volcanoes, and the pottery made from this earth I have suggested in this blog.

Many place names link up with these two themes. Joel Pabustan Mallari has noted that the capitals of Zambales and of Bataan to the south (where Olongapo is located) both have names that denote ancient types of pots i.e., Iba and Balanga respectively. Iba is also the former name of a village in Mabalacat near the Pampanga-Zambales border.

Pottery-making continues to this day in locations like Apalit in Pampanga, Calumpit in Bulacan, Victoria in Tarlac and San Leonardo in Nueva Ecija. However, older testimony indicates that pottery-making was once more widespread.

Many geographical names or terms indicate features or resources connected with the earth and soil. For example, as already mentioned, one term for the northern direction is balas, which means simply "sand" with a secondary connotation of sand specifically associated with estuarine areas. Diego Bergaño in the 18th century mentions a type of ancient earthenware known as balasini which he describes as:

"Loza antigua, que parece está hendida, no lo estando: hay poco, ya." ('Ancient earthenware, it appears to crack, no longer made: very few are left.')

-- Diego Bergaño (1732), Vocabulario de la lengua Pampangan en romance.

The word balasini may be derived from balas, and indeed modern potters still use balas-type sand as a temper in making certain types of pots. These antique wares that were still present in Bergaño's time may be related to the valuable earthenware Ruson-tsubo that were traded to Japan in earlier times.

Mallari mentions a number of places that appear to indicate some link with ancient quarrying:

Balas (sand) common name for barangays in Bacolor, Mexico and Concepcion; Sapangbato (lake of stones) in Angeles; Mabatu-batu (rocky) in [S]an Francisco, Magalang; Banlic (sand or mud after a flood) in Cabalantian, Bacolor; Planas (coral stones) in Porac.

The name Porac itself has a difficult etymology. It could be related to purac "pandan tree," burak "mud/lahar," or other similar words. I would not be surprised if it is a corruption of the word pila or pilac "clay." The archaeologist Robert Fox had reported that he saw what he thought were ancient quarries in Porac. Today, Porac is a major quarrying site, which may be one reason that archaeological finds are rather frequent in this area. Possibly in ancient times, Porac was a source of clay used for pottery and other uses.

In concluding, one last indication of the link with pottery and geography comes from ancient Kapampangan cosmology. The words suclub and sicluban are drawn from the same root meaning lid or cover and particularly referring to the lid of an earthenware pot. Suclub also means "horizon," and the phrase meto sicluban banua means vault or mantle of the sky. The ancients apparently viewed the world as a great pot with the sky as the lid or cover, which reminds us of the Penglai pot (hu) heaven in Chinese mythology.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Mallari, Joel Pabustan. "Adobe and Pumice: Upon these rocks," Singsing vol. 3, no. 1, 17-19.

__, "Ancient quarrying in Pampanga," Singsing vol. 3, no. 1, 18.

__, "Tracing the early Kapampangan boat people," Singsing vol. 3, no. 2, 58-9.

__, "The dying kuran technology of Capalangan," Singsing vol. 5, no. 1, 45-50.

Tantingco, Robby. "Time and space according to ancient Kapampangans," Singsing vol. 2, no. 4, 19-21.