Buwaya: Crocodile in Philippine Symbolism and Beliefs, 1 of 3

Posted on Nov 11, 2011 in ancient symbols, history, interpretations


Part 1 of 3: Buwaya In Our Dreams, Baybayin, Weavings, Tattoos and more!

Images courtesy of Baybayin.com and PinoyTravelBlog
I found out only in the past couple of years, that the crocodile is a significant symbol to indigenous Filipinos and to our ancestors. Then I met a baybayin artist who sees, among other things, the shape of the buwaya in one of the baybayin symbols! 
Because of a series of crocodile revelations that have come my way in the past couple of years I would like to share with you the imagery and meanings of the crocodile in the Philippines in this blogpost. 

Crocodile is “buwaya” or “buaya” in Filipino. Throughout the Philippine islands the buwaya evokes fear and awe. Unfortunately, many contemporary Philippine references to buwaya today are negative, pertaining to greedy politicians. The coming of European ideals and thinking rendered the buwaya to its narrow depiction of predators and killers and, Western rationalism relegated the beliefs of being connected to the buwaya in spirit or Life to the realm of superstition and ignorance. Colonized, “civilized” and re-educated Filipinos began to be ashamed of their native beliefs, hid them and then forgot them. But if we are to dig deeper into ancient beliefs from around the Philippine islands, we will find that the buwaya is a symbol of power, courage, fertility and strength and indigenous beliefs enabled the natives of pre-modern times to live in peace and respect with the crocodiles that were prolific in the islands.

Buwaya in my dreams

I learned the crocodile is a significant symbol by talking about dreams with my kapwa Filipino… The buwaya began to appear in my dreams and the dreams of my friends at around the same time a couple of years ago. 

In January 2010, when preparing for the First International Babaylan Conference of 2010, CFBS organizers were in retreat and while in an evening meditation given with healing music and rose tea, given by my dear friend Lizae, I had a waking dream. This type of experience has happened to me only a few times before during deep meditation in the past. The vision first showed a very vibrant blue lizard with vivid yellow spots, very close to my face. Then the dream revealed a small baby crocodile wrapping its small body around the tray of rose water tea that was on the coffee table—it was showing off its jagged spine and curling its tail upwards. I took note of the vision and shared it with my companions saying that when I figured out its meaning I would share it. In the ensuing weeks my friends sent me notes and their own findings on the deeper meanings of crocodile around the world. I’ll share these with you later in 3rd and last part of this series…

Varanus bitatawa – blue with yellow spots.

What were the significance of these creatures that appeared to me in a dream, or as the ancients believed— from beyond the veil? First, I need to talk about the colorful lizard before I begin to talk about the crocodile. The vibrant blue and yellow lizard later became known to me a couple of months later, and just a few weeks before the conference. The lizard was the varanus bitatawa, a species of vegetarian monitor lizard, that can grow as large as a man, located in northern Philippines and recently identified and catalogued into books by Western scientists. I realized that the lizard of my dreams was of this very species when the lizard’s coloration was described and I finally saw it’s photo — blue with yellow spots. The lizard in my dream had highly vivid colors and larger spots, but the coloration was the same.

In the 4 weeks that followed the baby crocodile dream, I had attended a sacred drum making workshop headed by Ed Buresh in Austin, TX. A drumming with meditation was held each day. There, during the final dream journey, where we introduced and blessed our elk skin drums, I had a dream of a large white mother crocodile walking down a path of pale sand downwards towards a tree-lined river beyond. Then, as weeks continued to roll by and as I went about my daily life, the appearance of the buwaya was accompanied by a deep unexplainable grief and in private moments I shed tears for women deep into my family tree from years and centuries ago—women that I never met but whose grief and pain I felt vividly. I kept these to myself at first.

Then a couple of weeks just before the conference, Venus Herbito, graduate of the Indigenous Mind Master’s program at Naropa University, spoke about the Varanus bitatawa saying: 

“Interesting for this spectacular relative of ours to appear a week before the opening of the Babaylan conference… anyone taking note of these synchronicities? Here’s a quote in the Philippine Daily Inquirer: “It is an important species for the Philippines, especially since it is a forest species. It highlights the need for us to preserve its habitat. Otherwise, we might lose it as well as the other species. It highlights the fact that the Philippines has a very unique and very complex biodiversity.” Lizard/Buwaya=Sacred Ancestors=Forest=Life (emergence of New Life)

And with her words, the message of the colorful varanus bitatawa who visited our little group was made complete —  Lizard/Buwaya=Sacred Ancestors=Forest=Life (emergence of New Life). It was necessary to uncover that which is ours, our ancestral beliefs, our traditional symbolism, in order for New Life to emerge, for the cycle of Life to go on. So baybayin symbols are important for the modern day Filipinos who are looking to be connected to their heritage. And the crocodile is another one of the symbols we need to work with. 

I learned this when Virgil Mayor Apostol, a keynote speaker at the conference and author of Way of the Ancient Healer, gave me the final key when he explained to us who have dreamed of the crocodile (and wondered at its symbolism) that the buwaya is considered, in indigenous Philippine traditions, to be our ancestor. 

And this sequence of events was the beginnings of discovering the messages and spiritual significance of these ferocious and mostly-feared creatures of the Philippines… the buwaya.

In the past year and months since that time, and as friends continued to send stories, myths and scholarly papers my way, I learned that a few tribes in the Philippines, the Kalingas and the Maguindanaons, call themselves the “buwaya” and continue to believe that the crocodiles are their ancestors. A tradition that continued from generations and generations beyond.

Over a year after the conference, I and close friends continued to ponder upon the meaning of the crocodile/buwaya, Letecia Layson my close friend, colleague at Center for Babaylan Studies (CFBS) and a Sacred Feminine leader and spokeswoman at international conferences, said: 

Buwaya are returning into view everywhere! I feel they are here to remind us of the resistance that is vital for our humanity… all of humanity… And for you my dear sister…the way in which you bring wisdom through beauty so we can hear difficult truths is so important! 

Funny enough, a few days after I started writing this blog, Lolong, the largest crocodile (21 feet, 6.4-meter,  1 ton) ever to be caught in known history made the news and became an overnight internet sensation.
News lines around the world shared videos and pictures of this truly gargantuan creature that had managed to live for decades (or more?) in the rivers of Agusan del Sur in the southern Philippines. It makes you a bit curious doesn’t it? What did this grandfather of crocs live on? Large fish? Other crocs? People? A bit stomach turning isn’t it. 

But, the crocodile has been a fearsome and powerful symbol in mythology throughout humanity’s existence and it is the same in the Philippines. Buwaya  is a significant symbol in  among indigenous people in the Philippines and just might have made its appearance in one of the baybayin symbols.

Buwaya in the baybayin
One of my first blog posts was about seeing the linglingo fertility symbols in the version of the BA rendered with a cleft at the bottom.  Although the belief by contemporary folk, that BA represents the Female Principle, might be a point of doubt among many, I and a few other people still believe that some of our baybayin symbols really do have real life inspiration and are symbolic and also from pre-recorded, pre-historic life and beliefs.
Now in this case, I am talking about the NGA baybayin symbol. The baybayin symbol of NGA is a simplified set of lines that when examined further actually might be interpreted to be the crocodile or buwaya – rendered in baybayin as creature with its mouth wide open and a curled up tail.
Courtesy of Akopito
Images courtesy of Baybayin.com and PinoyTravelBlog
When I first saw Akopito’s baybayin symbol chart above at his blog, I was immediately taken by how closely the sulat bisaya baybayin of NGA resembles the wide open crocodile mouth as he was demonstrating. Akopito’s artist’s eye and sketching caught the similarities of the shape of NGA with the shape of a crocodile with its mouth wide open and its body and tail behind curving behind. Just a quick language lesson necessary to understand why it is very possible that there is reference to an open mouth in the NGA symbol—NGA refers to “opening.” In various regions around the Philippine islands, Bunganga means mouth, and naka- or naga-nganga means open. Bunga means blossom that is opening. [And Paul Kekai Manansala posted in response to this blogpost that “nganib” means danger from crocodiles and enemies.”]
If we look at other forms of NGA around the islands, they also look like the wide-open mouth of the buwaya or a creature with a stylized body and a tail.

The above sources in order of appearance:
Christian Cabuay, Eagle’s Corner. Sushidog
Father Francisco Lopez, Doctrina Christiana, 1621
excerpt from a chart created by by Frederick Victor Paredes Añana found at his blog

One of the symbols above, the Kabena’o and Bagoyin (numbers 5 and 6) ones, look like the open mouth and with something in the back of the opening like a tongue sticking out or a morsel of food.

But wait—there’s more! The symbols of the buwaya are found throughout Philippine art, crafts, ritual, music and weaponry.
Kinarayan fabric
From the collection of Virgil Mayor Apostol.
Page 233 of Way the Ancient Healer.
Buwaya in weaving
To the right is a photo of a Philippine traditional weaving.
“An old sinan-karayan textile with a series of triangles that appear like the spiny back of the crocodile. Included in the theme are crabs (sinan-kappi) and the Morning Star (baggak).” (Page 233 of Way of the Ancient Healer by Virgil Mayor Apostol.)
In the Philippines, it is believed that only those with special designation from the spirit-world could weave fabric with the magical symbols that would imbue the wearer with special character and noble traits.
Dagmay Cloth
Sinaunang Habi: Philippine Ancestral Weave
by Marian Pastor-Roces. Pg. 86.
In the legend of the Dagmay, the dagmay cloth belonged to Tagamaling, a diwata (spirit) or goddess of the art of weaving. Fabric long ago was believed to be a special possession of the spirit world or that weaving knowledge and abilities were a gift given by the diwata.
The dagmay cloth includes river and buwaya patterns in the weaving that are symbols of good luck. Follow this link for legend in Baganing Balyan’s martial arts blog.
To the right is an image of the dagmay cloth 
described as “Figure 47. Tubular garment… Mandaya (Davao and Davao Oriental Provinces). Ramon Villegas Collection. In Mandaya usage, the word dagmay refers specifically to reserve-dye cloth. Dagmay however, is used as the generic word for “cloth” by the Tawsug, among other Mindanao peoples. The visual protocol of Mandaya poyopok demands the exact number of buwaya and u-taw (crocodiles and people), separated by u-wang (spaces) magunlaypan (geometic fields), exhibited by this specimen.
The fabric below is described as Bagobo: ine, B’laan, yeq…panapisan… tabi) of a tubular garment cum blanket… This specimen exhibits the large diamond reptiles… confined within the lozenge-shaped area populated by hook-like [which] are collectively called kumang… The idea of confining powerful, in fact, dangerous imagery (e.g. crocodiles), within specific visual spaces, is a significant aspect of image-making conventions in the Mindanao bé-béd heartland.”
If you you click on the image below and view the enlarged photo of the Bagobo fabic, you might be able to see the buwaya shape, as if look at its whole body from tail to mouth. You can see an impression of its legs, and its open mouth devouring another shape.
Bagobo fabric with imagery of the crocodile as if seeing it from above.
Sinaunang Habi: Philippine Ancestral Weave
by Marian Pastor-Roces. Pg. 284.
“The Kalinga, known as the “peacocks of the mountains” because of their elaborate clothing and ornaments, dress their hero in the beaded G-string and plumed headdress of a renowned headhunter:
Lo! Kanu, he put on / his rich apparel / his finest wearings. / All of them he put on: / scales of a crocodile / a tuft of yellow plumes./ How fear-inspiring he now was! / All of them he did tuck in / green feathers of kulasisi-birds / with nacre discs of cicada wings. / How fear-inspiring he now was! / Lo! Kanu, he took / his kumbawa-shield / his finger-cursing spear / his sharpened ax…
The refrain, “How fear-inspiring he now was!” is meant to terrify the Kalinga’s enemies as well as to impress them with his wealth and social status. Banna, the Kalinga ullalim hero, is “of beauty exquisite” but also “a terrible crocodile” with frightening tattoos all over his chest..
In fact, the Kalinga call themselves the Buwaya—the Crocodile People—after the animal that inspires the greatest fear among mountaineers.”
Buwaya in Tattoos
Sketch of pre-hispanic, Philippine “Langi”
tattoo by Lane Wilcken. Page 60
in Filipino Tattoos: Ancient to Modern
A pre-hispanic, Philippine “Langi” tattoo was recorded by the Spanish as meaning “gaping like a crocodile or bird of prey.”  
In Lane Wilcken’s sketch to the right, you can see very much how this particular langi tattoo evokes the sharp teeth and open jaws of the crocodile and also the buwaya’s jagged back and tail.
Face tattoos from ear to chin to eyes were limited to the boldest and toughest of men.
Permanent skin markings, tattoos or tatak in the Philippines, were given to the wearer for actual actions performed in earthly life, such as war killings, bearing children, and for other very specific reasons, according to gender, status, roles within a tribe or family. In days long gone, these tattoo symbolisms and significances were not shared carelessly with strangers or outsiders.  Today they are now being shared in order to create understanding and connection on many levels.
Buwaya in Weapons
The Kampilan is a heavy double pointed sword with a rich history in the Philippines.
The kampílan is a type of single-edged long sword of the Filipino people. Being ancient origin, it has been used in the Philippine islands of Mindanao, Visayas, and Luzon for centuries, used for head-chopping. (Wikipedia)
As maintained by tradition, the Kampilan is about 40″ to 44″ with a carved hilt with a single edge. Kampilans were widely used as “head-hunting” swords on enemies in the southern Philippines. The handle is shaped like a jaw of reptile lizards and alligator makes this sword unique in appearance. In the past, strands of hair are attached to the pommel of the handle for a more appealing and intimidating look. (Traditional Filipino Weapons)
…the “kampilan,” the weapon most favored by the Moros (Muslims) of Mindanao, Philippines is solely meant for battle… It is a two-handed, single-edged sword, about 42 inches long, noted for its fearsome look. The hilt is quite long to counterbalance the weight and length of the blade. Most hilts are made of various native hardwood, invariably with a pommel shaped in an animal’s wide-open mouth, like a crocodile, or the tail of a bird… the “kampilans” cut a wide swath of death and destruction in many raids and battles waged by the Moros of Mindanao. (The Fighting Weapons of Filipino Martial Arts by Jay de Leon)
Filhistory.com kampilan image.
Filipino weapons at Macao exhibit
The place-name “Buayan,” located in Maguindanao, is believed to have derived from buaya (crocodile) due to its great population of crocodiles in the river and estuaries of the past. Because many great datus (chieftains) were descended from Buaya, it is said that early artisans selected the crocodile form for the kampilan [sword] hilt as a tribute to the proud warriors of this territory.  (Moro Swords,  by Robert Cato; Way of the Ancient Healer by Virgil Mayor Apostol.))
…warriors, for example, show a reverential attitude toward their weapons; it is not simply the physical object of a metal weapon but a blade that possesses the soul of a blade. The soul of that object is what makes it hard and strong, whose strength would be revealed during battle. Thus, warriors give names to their personal weapons[6] not as ownership of the object but in recognition of its animism. Forging the weapon then becomes not an ordinary, but a sacred, activity in order that the soul of the blade may not depart from it. (The Soul Boat and the Boat-Soul: An Inquiry into the Indigenous “Soul” by Maria Bernadette L. Abrera, Ph.D. )
Buwaya in our Ancestry and Belief Systems

I want to make something clear. Westerners, Christians and even Muslim clerics will term the following indigenous practices crocodile “worship” and pagan. Thus many modernized or pious Filipinos will hide or have come to be ashamed of these practices. I myself don’t consider these Philippine practices superstitious, evil worship, but rather a practice of communicating respect and connection to a fellow living being within the Universe (pakikipagkapwa), which is a Philippine indigenous spiritual outlook. 

So if you, as the reader, can attempt to shift your point of view momentarily too, then you too might get a glimpse of how within an indigenous worldview people, creatures, the elements and the Earth are connected to each other and that all Life is sacred and you might then get a glimpse of how indigenous people, who have not been influenced by outside religions and beliefs, will continue to commune with nature and give all Life respect.

When the Spanish colonizers observed and chronicled Philippine life they could not comprehend how the natives could live side by side with crocodiles, even swim in the waters while crocodiles were nearby. Thus they called the natives indolent and complacent. What these outsiders could not comprehend were the perspective of the natives that knew the behavior of the crocodiles, knew that they would eat when hungry, attack when provoked. The indigenous believed in village rituals whereby they offered a pig to the crocodiles, to keep them fed, but also believed that all things happened for a reason and if it was your time to die there was a reason and cause for it. What outsiders did not also comprehend about the indigenous was why the natives would talk to the crocodiles and ask them, with respect, to let them be. I’ll post more about these behaviors in part 3 of this series.
So when asked Virgil M. Apostol first told me “The buwaya is our Ancestor!” Initially, my intellect wondered “how could the crocodile be our ancestor?” But the answer does not come from the realm of reason. It comes from the realm of ancestral belief.

The research of findings of Gutierrez “Teng” Mangasakan II can help answer this:
In the Philippines, indigenous communities still believe they are intimately related to crocodiles. The Maguindanaon in the Ligauasan Marsh, for example narrate that “after the datu (male royal) was born a small crocodile emerged from the mother’s womb to the surprises of the couple. Believing that the creature was their son’s twin, they kept it in a separate cradle besides that of the infant datu. As the datu grew so did the crocodile. The couple showered it with the same care as the did with their son. When the datu was an adolescent, the crocodile was so enormous it could no longer fit in a cage in the house. After much thought, the couple decided to free the crocodile in the river.”
Also the Manobo, the indigenous tribe inhabiting the Agusan Marsh, think people are born with a spirit crocodile twin. The Tagbanua on Palawan believe crocodiles will aid their human relatives in times of distress. And the Kalinga in the northern Sierra Madre on Luzon tell stories of enchanted crocodiles “A mother gave birth to a girl and a crocodile. They grew up together. But one day the father got angy with the crocodile and tried to kill it. The crocodile escaped but his tail was chopped off. You can still see this twin crocodile without tail in the river. We call him putol. The crocodile regularly visits and protects his sister.
Mangasakan II, Gutierrez. (2008). “Crocodile symbolism in Maguindanaon culture.” National Museum Papers 14: 133-139.
Mangansakan’s words are the closest to how I can explain why for me, the buwaya visions have become revealing and even empowering to me as a human being who was born a Filipino.

Buwaya: Crocodile in Philippine Symbolism and Beliefs comes in 3 parts:
Part 1: Buwaya In Our Dreams, Baybayin, Weavings, Tattoos and more!
Part 2: Buwaya In Canoes, Rituals and other Ancestral Traditions
Part 3: Buwaya in Colonization, Cosmologies and Renewed Connections with our Ancestors
More online references and stories to Buwaya:
Other references to Philippine animist beliefs and oral traditions:
  • Laura W. Benedict, A Study of Bagobo Ceremonial Magic and Myth (Leyden: E.J. Brill, 1916)
  • Casiño, Eric. The Jama Mapun: A Changing Samal Society in the Southern Philippines. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1976.



    • Thank you so much for your sharing your visions and research. This helped me to understand further my shamanic journey with crocodile as my spirit guide.

      Post a Reply
  1. Maraming Salamat for sharing this!

    I am half-Filipina and interested in pre-colonial beliefs in the Philippines. I have studied Vedic culture from India and have found many interesting connections in the Philippines. The crocodile or Makara is the astrological sign of Capricorn. In India, the crocodile is also revered and feared.

    I have had a primal fear of crocodiles for a very long time. Many times they were chasing me in my dreams but smiling too.

    When I visited Palawan in 2016, I never saw one in person but felt their energy when I was near the marshes near the beach in Puerto Princessa.
    I have read Way of the Ancient Healer and loved it.
    I am looking to see the crocodiles as a way to connect with my Filipino lineage.

    Post a Reply
  2. I am looking for weaving drafts to reproduce Filipino designs. Can you help me find some?

    Post a Reply

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