Buwaya: Crocodile in Philippine Symbolism and Beliefs, 2 of 3

Posted on Feb 10, 2012 in ancient symbols, buwaya, healing, history

Part 2 of 3, Buwaya In Canoes, Rituals and other Ancestral Traditions

In the previous post, I was delighted to share the buwaya shape in the NGA baybayin symbol, as pointed out by Akopito, and the other shapes of the buwaya present in weavings, tattoos and some beliefs.

Here now I want to share with you how the buwaya is represented in Philippine sea vessels and in some traditional Philippine rituals.
Buwaya in Sea Vessels
Recently, Spain and the Philippines celebrated the Galleon trade between the Philippines, the Americas and Spain. These countries commemorated the history when the Spanish were an active imperial power in the Philippines, building new Galleons from hardwood trees of the lush forests found in the Philippine islands at the time. The Spanish also loaded their galleons with the gold they found adorning the islanders and in the rivers and land.

The archipelago of our Filipino ancestors was rich with gold. People of ancient India, prior to 1 AD, were calling the archipelago of the Philippines “suvarnadvipa” which mean Islands of Gold.

(Little known fact: To this day the Islands of the Philippines is the #2 producer of Gold in the world second only to South Africa. Sadly and very little known or protested against is that foreign multinational companies own most of the land and mining operations that profit from this rich natural resource in the Philippines today. But that’s another story—research Philippine foreign mining and indigenous people’s rights in google and other search engines).

Courtesy of Lane Wilcken, October 2011

What most colonized and contemporary Filipinos today do not remember or know is that our ancestors in the archipelago were adept sea farers!

Centuries before the Spanish even touched our lands, our ancestors on the archipelago travelled extensively between the islands of the archipelago and even travelled down to the other southeast asian nations such as Bali, Indonesia, all the way up to the lands of Siam. 

The islands of the Philippines were called Ma Yi by the Chinese. Chinese merchants identified groups of our islands by the ports they docked at for trading:

Island of Luzon = Lu Song Gao 

Island of Palawan = Pa Lou Youn

Island of Mindanao = Min Tou

Island of Cebu = Sug Bu

City state of Manila = Ton Do

sultanate of Sulu = Jo Lo

Read more: http://wiki.answers.com/Q/Chinese_Ancient_names_given_to_Philippines

So even before the coming of the Spanish galleons, the people of the islands were already building and sailing vessels that were nimble and swift. Groups of people in the islands learned from their seafaring Austronesian speaking ancestors. Pacific islanders from the Balinese to the Maoris to the Hawaiians, all seafaring people, are all our distant relatives through the Austronesian lineage. (See Wikipedia on Austronesian Peoples and Outrigger Canoe for more info.)

Philippine ancestors called their sea vessels balangay, banca, batil, baroto, and paraw. Ancestral people of our islands were adept navigators and could read the sea movement, sky and birds and fish in order to make their way between islands and across oceans and seas. (For more information online on Philippine seafaring tradition read this article by Henry F. Funtecha, Ph.D. )

However, the bangka was more than just a boat. The technology and its entire process of construction embodied the beliefs of the indigenous culture. The people of the Philippines spoke to their seacraft to ask of it safe journeys. They also embellished their seacraft with symbols that protected them.

Here are photos that show that the buwaya makes a strong presence in contemporary sea craft of Philippine fishermen:

Page 65, Filipino Tattoos: Ancient to Modern.

The above image shows how the buwaya symbol and deeper meaning is rendered on the outrigger canoe prows to look like the gaping jaws of the crocodile!

2/9/2012. Paul Kekai Manansala, author of Quests of the Dragon and Bird Clan, commented that the “mouth form of these canoes with “the “crocodile prow” probably originated from the old bifid boat that consisted of a dugout canoe that acted as a base for a plank-buit canoe placed over it. This resulted in two prows at the end resembling the mouth of a reptile. Apparent bifid boats appear at Niah Cave off Sumatra possibly dating back to the Mesolithic period.” Paul also provided a link to diagrams on bifid seacrafts in Sweden and Philippines, here, that point out amazing similarities. 

2/10/2012. Lane Wilcken, author of Filipino Tattoos: Ancient to Modern, also commented that “The outrigger canoes of the Philippines and Indonesia are likely the basis for the canoe culture of the Pacific Islands, not the other way around.” 

Wow, between Paul and Lane this stuff gets more and more fascinating! Makes me want to read more books and almost become an amateur historian. Almost. Not quite.

More photos below of buwaya-mouthed boats:

Courtesy of Lane Wilcken, October 2011

“The [above] photo of the moro man mending his nets.
It shows a canoe prow that is a very stylized buwaya.
If you compare the prow to Indonesian paraws you will
see that it is indeed the jaws of the crocodile
albeit they are more ornate.” Lane Wilcken, October 2011

In the past up to today, many Indonesian canoes called jukung often had an eye painted on the side of the canoe near the jaws which further accented the crocodile appearance. Here are some pics of Balinese jukung shared by Lane Wilcken:

Canoe, Traditional Balinese Jukung Fishing Boat, public domain
Balinese “Jukung”, public domain

Here now is an imagery summary of the buwaya’s appearance in baybayin, tattoos, fabrics, weapons and in seacraft:

Summary of Buwaya Symbolism in Philippine Culture
(1) 1
(2) 2
(3) 3
(4) 4
The symbols sources in order of appearance:

(1) Christian Cabuay,

(2) Eagle’s Corner.

(3) Sushidog

(4) Father Francisco Lopez,

Doctrina Christiana, 1621

(5) Sketch of pre-hispanic, Philippine “Langi”
tattoo by Lane Wilcken. Page 60
in Filipino Tattoos: Ancient to Modern
(6) a (6) Detail of Kinarayan fabric
From the collection of Virgil Mayor Apostol.
Page 233 of Way the Ancient Healer.
(7) b (7) Detail of Bagobo fabric, Sinaunang Habi: Philippine Ancestral Weave, by Marian Pastor-Roces. Pg. 284.
(8) kampilan image, Filhistory.com

(9) 1

(9) Detail of Philippine sea canoe,
Page 65, Filipino Tattoos: Ancient to Modern
by Lane Wilcken

When looking at all open shapes or jagged open shapes in the symbols, fabric, tattoo and sword hilt you can see the impression of open buwaya mouths. How fascinating!

The jagged edged theme of teeth is something you can watch out for in other tattoos and Philippine fabrics or maybe even architectural decor.

Buwaya in Philippines’ Traditional Rituals

From Titania Buccholdt in Maguindanaon Terms for Traditional Healing Practices:

Pagipat is a traditional healing ceremony where, through the use of traditional kulintang (melodic gong) music, the traditional pagagamot (healer) enters into a trance and is possessed by a spirit which facilitates healing. The pagipat cannot take place without both the pagagamot and a kulintang musician who is able to play in such a way as to put the pagagamot into a trance. A typical pagipat will also require a large amount of rice molded into the shape of a crocodile. A cooked chicken may also be needed for the ceremony, and may be placed on top of the rice crocodile.
From Tingting Cojuangco in Maguindanaon Culture: The Crocodile Story:
…a month after a woman gives birth, the pagbubuaya (crocodile ceremony) is performed. Many of Abdul’s Iranun brothers believe that a man is born with a twin [kadkadua] that is a crocodile. One is born on land, the human; the other, the mystical, in a body of water. 
This is the world view that links them to the heavens while on earth. Their kin, the indestructible reptile in the water, is their conduit to the powerful non-beings from whom succor and blessings are beseeched. Hence, the crocodiles, their relatives and ancestors, are revered and called nono or grandfather. 

Here are the preparations for the offering to the spirits performed centuries ago in the beginning of the peopling of Mindanao, and which are what they still do today.

On top of immaculately washed and shiny banana leaves, the figure of a crocodile is formed from tapul or boiled sticky rice. Simultaneously, four eggs and a chicken, cleaned thoroughly, are boiled. The crocodile’s head is special so it is made of yellow rice, reserved for royalty and special feasts.
The hard-boiled eggs are placed on the crocodile’s eye area, with two below the crocodile’s neck because they believe the crocodile has four eyes. How else would he see in the blackish waters that he wallows in? 
The crocodile lying on its chest is formed with its four legs spread apart. On the back portion of the crocodile’s neck to its tail extending to his legs and arms, boiled bits of chicken are placed. Near his right front leg is a whole boiled chicken, its breast upward. Bananas serve as his claws and are placed at the end of his four legs. If there are no bananas, the elongated sugar candy called lukot-lukot simulates the claws. 
One must remember that the appearance of the crocodile can vary depending on social status, budget and the ingredients on hand. Sometimes, the scales of the buaya are pancakes called panalam but made of flour and red sugar and laid on top of the crocodile-rice. These are piled bit by bit, edge over edge, beginning from the neck to the crocodile’s back. Sometimes, the pancakes cover the crocodile figure completely. Chicken blood is placed in a coconut shell in front of the buaya, signifying the sacrifice of blood a woman sheds in the birth of her child. Native delicacies surround the buaya to satisfy his appetite. Two bananas are placed in his mouth, plus a giant tobacco for him to “smoke” and enjoy this adulation.
Cigarettes lie under the leaves where the crocodile is, in case anyone wants to smoke after his meal. Quoranic verses with other native animistic prayers are uttered by the presiding imam or pandita, as drops of chicken blood from the coconut are placed on top of the mother’s hands to respect her sacrifice. She walks around the crocodile three times and then sits to eat the crocodile-rice first as this ceremony is in her honor. The others follow after her and the ritual ends. The mother and her baby are now defended against evil spirits. Presumably, this ceremony’s completion will bring peace of mind and protection to both. The balance of strength between evil and good is preserved…

Buwaya in real life
Remember Lolong, the newly captive gargantuan croc mentioned in the first part of this post series? Believe it or not, the villagers and experts who caught him are continuing a hunt for another crocodile which is believed to be larger!
Unfortunately, there is news that Lolong is now showing signs of depression or stress, not eating food in captivity (See this article.)
Tingting Cojuangco also tells the story that “Way back in 1995, a crocodile was caught in Lake Buluan. When the community found out about it, they cried and begged those who caught the crocodile to return it to the lake or it would bring them bad luck. The fishermen had disturbed these creatures who could be their relatives. It was promptly returned to the lake.”
Knowing this we won’t be surprised to hear if Philippine indigenous groups have already been appealing for the release of the croc. Not so sure if this a win-win situation in this day of large populations and civilization as the crocodiles have been suspected of having eaten a few carabaos, a young girl and a farmer, before the large Lolong was caught.

Paul Kekai Manansala blogs in “More on migration of Tantric concepts,”  that long ago, to be devoured by a crocodile was believed to an honor (of course that is meaningless to those who are eaten or the loved-ones who mourn for their loss, and I give my condolences), but here is the belief anyway:

There was a belief that people who died a noble death by the sword, or who were devoured by crocodiles… became anitos (deified spirits) and were united with the pantheistic Deity in the rainbow, or through the vehicle of the rainbow.

… In some cases, the rainbow was equated with the Supreme Deity, while elsewhere it is seen as the abode of God or the gods. Sometimes it is viewed as a bridge or boat by which one reaches the Divine after death.  

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.


  1. Well documented, Perla. Thanks for doing this work! Important to bring the indigenous understanding of buwaya back.

    Post a Reply
    • Vancatu,Some plastic was found in his fecal matetr back in January, the reports of a plastic cord killing him seem to have been invented by one of the papers there. The concern was whether anything else plastic might be still inside him, but apparently not. Also, his caretakers had a good idea of what they were doing, and they put a lot of effort into him he was a huge asset to them. The enclosure wasn’t particularly bad, it just wasn’t particularly good either, but I’ve seen a lot worse frankly. You should see the enclosure that Cassius has lived in for 25+ years, much smaller.Not sure what other croc you’re referring to, but Lolong was easily the largest croc they had there. A big croc exists at the park in Davao a few hours drive away, but he’s not as big as Lolong. There was another croc in Agusan Marsh which some speculated was even larger than Lolong, but this was based on a few blurry photos and some reports by locals. The photos I saw were of a big croc, undoubtedly, but impossible to say how it compared with Lolong.

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  2. Wow, I love the level of analysis put into this. Think I might use it as inspiration and background for future plays and short stories. Do you do archival research to get those old photographs?

    Post a Reply
    • JB, very small enclosures where the cdorocile isn’t able to move around comfortably can lead to significant stress and reduce growth rate and longevity. Lolong’s enclosure was actually relatively large, certainly in terms of water and land area, compared with your typical zoo cdorocile enclosure. Crocs in the wild can and do often choose to live in quite small pools, surprisingly so at times, although others will range more widely given the choice. The usual reason crocs move around though is because they’re looking for resources, and captive crocs given a good food supply and the right conditions don’t always want to leave those cushy surroundings even if given a choice of more space. Lolong’s enclosure could certainly have benefited from more choice, more pools to select etc, as could many zoo enclosures around the world, but that’s not what killed him.You may still be able to see Lolong in person if their plans to create a museum come to fruition.

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  3. Amanda, I'm glad you find the post meaningful. I didn't specifically do archival research for the photos—they were provided by friends or I came across them when reading and researching and asked permission to post them with ownership/source cited.

    Post a Reply
    • that, it is true is that some wild-caught crocodiles silmpy never adapt to captivity, either by refusing to eat entirely and eventually starving to death, or by appearing fine while slowly deteriorating. Crocs in 5 star captive accommodation have died due to this. Perhaps this was the reason Lolong died, a gradual deterioration which slowly impaired his immune system making him susceptible to infections and disease that a healthy crocodile would have shrugged off? While the tempting argument for many will be to blame the enclosure and captive care, it may silmpy be that the crocodile never really settled. Perhaps he should have never been caught? But then he might have been poisoned or shot instead, and would likely never have inspired the sea change in attitude towards crocodiles in the Philippines. Yes, it’s a massive shame for many reasons, but sometimes events are outside anyone’s control.

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