The Idjang; The Ancient Precolonial Castles of Batanes
With little records of the precolonial Philippines, I know how Filipinos today longed to learn more about the past. I mean getting to know how our forefathers lived, without the influences of Spain will bring a new dimension to our national identity. The search for bits and pieces of those missing records is an ongoing process, and slowly we learn more. From the Copperplate Inscription to the Golden Tara, we are starting to build a picture of a far more sophisticated Pre-Hispanic Society. Our hunger for the past did inspired some outrageous claims of a lost Filipino kingdom that turned out to be a hoax. To be honest, the Philippines back then was not the romanticized and fabled fairytale that those claims propagate. In fact, Philippines was non-existent back then. It was never a whole nation before Spain, but a collection of archipelagos with scattered kingdoms, villages, and tribes. It lacks a central leadership and it took painful colonialism to groom it into a nation.
But again, going back to those important discoveries like the Copperplate Inscription, lacking a central kingdom was never an indication of a stone age culture. Those scattered civilizations boast far more sophistications and who knows what discovery may still be unseen. And in the beautiful and peaceful mountains of Batanes are structures that proved just that. The Ivatan people once lived in castle-like habitations known as the Idjang.
The Ivatan People
Now, castles built by ancient people in hilltops might sound like the stuff of fiction. And for a common Filipino, learning that an ethnic group in Batanes has ancient fortifications will raise eyebrows. But such seemingly far-out claim is very much real. But first, let’s take a look at the people who built them; the Ivatans of Batanes.
Batanes became part of the Philippines in 1783. It was claimed by Spain to be part of the Philippines under Governor General Jose Basco y Vargas. This was to prevent the British from claiming the island as the ships of East India Company frequently used the Bashi channel. And prior to that, Batanes was already inhabited by the Ivatan people.
One of the earliest accounts of the Ivatan was made in 1687, by a British Buccaneer William Dampier. They were described as short, and squat, with hazel eyes, small but bigger than the Chinese. They got low foreheads, thick eyebrows, short low noses, white teeth, black hair, and dark, copper colored skin. Their features seem to be a mixed of the Mongols and some got characteristics of the Japanese Ainus.
The origins of the Ivatan remain untraced, but they are classified as an Astronesian group. In terms of linguistics, they are related to the Ilocanos. Now, due to the stormy weather of Batanes, the Ivatans adopted the famous limestone and coral houses, unlike the much common nipa. Take note that prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, their houses are made by the already weather resistant cogon grass. They only adopted the stone houses when the Spaniards introduced the production of lime as building materials. The hostile climates also influenced much of their cultures, from their crops to their study of animal behaviors. They plant crops that could cope with the prolonged droughts and typhoons, and their observations of animals helped them predict the weather. Fishes like flying fish and dolphin fish are also a part of their diet, as well as some delicacies like the uvod (banana stalk pith).
The Ivatan also got their own folk songs and legends, but tourists are more familiar with their striking headgear vakul. It’s made from vuyavuy fiber and designed to protect the wearer from the heat of the sunlight to raindrops.
Now, in 1686, Ivatans are forced to settle in the lowlands of Batanes. But before that they lived in elevated areas, with fortifications like that of European castles. These are the Idjangs.
Because of its location in remote areas (and in the typhoon prone tip of the Philippines) the Idjang never gained that much attention, like the Banawe rice terraces. It was said that these structures are 4000 years old and built on elevated grounds like hills. Today, these ancient structures are easily distinguishable from the background of terrain and trees. They are triangular shaped citadels, with flat tops and walls of limestone and wood. Within the Idjang are various artefacts, the evidence of past habitations of the people. There are earthenware vessels, burial jars, beads, ceramics, and stone tools. Overall, there are several Idjangs in Batanes; the Itbud Idgang, Ivana Idjang, Chuhangin Idgang and Savidug Idgang.
Now, going back to what’s frequently mentioned, Idjangs are basically indigenous castles. That’s because they are used that way by the natives.
Purpose of the Idjang
Before we proceed, let me first point out that castles are different from palaces. One might be imagining fairytale structures on hills when castles are mentioned. But luxurious palaces are far different than protected castles. Castles are a form of fortification, meant to protect the inhabitants from outside threats. With that said, early inhabitants of Batanes often staged wars among each other. Then there are frequent pirate raids, in addition to the typhoons they were already enduring. Because of that, they built Idjangs to protect themselves against men, and nature. These fortifications were built on high grounds, like hills to provide maximum visibility for the defenders, and to make the fortress resistant to infiltration. The high ground also gave the defenders advantage over the raiders, as the elevation enabled them to hurl rocks at the climbing raiders.
And the mighty stone walls of the Idjangs also protected the inhabitants from typhoons.
Lastly, Idgangs got no gates or any forms of entrances. A rope being lowered is the only way one could enter.
The Idjangs Were Abandoned
During the Spanish colonization, the Ivatans abandoned their Idjangs to live in the lowlands. Though Batanes was included in the Spanish Philippines in 1783, the Ivatans continued to live in Idjangs until 1790. Ivatans came to the lowlands due to the decree pf Governor Guerrero. For one thing, it gave them more people to tax. Then, there is the fact that the Ivatans never saw the need to live it fortresses during the time of Spanish colonization. With a central government like Spain taking charge, internal conflicts among villagers were eliminated. The same could be said on outside threats, like pirates. The Idjang eventually lost its purpose.
1. Alonso, R. (2014). "The castles of Batanes." philSTAR.com.
2. Bonifacio, Angel (21 June 2012). "Idjangs: Mountain Fortresses of Batanes," vigattintourism.com