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Bogwa Ritual: A Sacred Tradition for the Living and the Dead in Ifugao

The Bogwa ritual is a unique and sacred Ifugao tradition that honors ancestors and seeks their blessings for the living.

 |  19 min read

Bogwa is a unique Ifugao ritual that serves several purposes, including honoring the dead, maintaining a spiritual bond with ancestral spirits, and seeking blessings for the living and the community.

In the Cordillera Administrative Region of the Philippines, a diverse tapestry of indigenous communities thrives, including the Ifugao people, who are part of the Igorot collective. This region is a hub of unique cultural practices, one of which is 'Bogwa,' a way of honoring the deceased. In this article, we'll embark on a journey to explore 'Bogwa' and its deep-rooted significance within Ifugao culture.

The Ifugao people, renowned for their terraced fields, share a profound connection with the land they cultivate. 'Bogwa' is a ritual that reflects their respect for family, ancestors, and the spirits that shape their lives. Beyond mourning, it's a celebration of life, love, and the enduring connection between the living and the departed.

As we delve into the intricacies of 'Bogwa,' we'll discover why this practice remains vital in Ifugao culture, and how it harmoniously integrates into the broader Igorot collective in the Cordillera Administrative Region.

The Ifugao People and Their Culture

The Ifugao people are a fascinating indigenous group in the Philippines, particularly in the Cordillera Administrative Region. Their culture is closely tied to their land and the stunning natural landscapes that surround them.

The Cordillera Administrative Region is known for its mountains, forests, and the incredible rice terraces carved into the hillsides. These terraces are often called the "Eighth Wonder of the World" and showcase the Ifugao's impressive agricultural skills while reflecting their rich cultural heritage.

What's truly remarkable is the Ifugao people's agricultural practices. They've been meticulously crafting these terraces for centuries, using their deep knowledge of irrigation, water management, and sustainable farming. These practices not only sustain their communities but also stand as a testament to their ingenuity.

As we delve into the 'Bogwa' tradition, it's crucial to understand the deep bond the Ifugao people have with their land and how their culture has thrived in this breathtaking region. These elements are at the core of the unique traditions we're about to explore.

The Significance of 'Bogwa' in Ifugao Culture

'Bogwa' is not just a ritual for the Ifugao people; it's a profound cultural and spiritual practice that carries deep significance within their community. At its core, 'Bogwa' is a way of connecting with ancestral spirits and ensuring the well-being of the living.

The Ifugao people believe that 'Bogwa' is a bridge between the living and the departed. It's a way to honor their ancestors and maintain a spiritual connection with them. By exhuming the bones of the deceased, cleaning, rewrapping them, and returning them to the grave, they show their respect and reverence for those who came before them.

This practice goes beyond mere tradition; it's a way to promote harmony and prosperity within the community. The belief is that by appeasing the spirits of the dead through offerings, such as pigs and carabaos, they ensure the well-being of those left behind.

'Bogwa' is not an individual endeavor; it's a communal and familial affair. The entire community comes together to support the family performing the ritual. It's a time for feasting and togetherness, rather than mourning. This unity strengthens the bonds within the community and reinforces the values of love, respect, and care for one another.

In the following sections, we'll delve deeper into the intricacies of the 'Bogwa' ritual, its various stages, and the cultural nuances that make it a unique and cherished tradition among the Ifugao people.

The 'Bogwa' Ritual: From Exhuming to Feasting

In the "Bogwa" tradition, the concluding ceremonies play a vital role in this unique Ifugao practice. These rituals, held over a span of several days, are not only a way to honor the departed but also a means to seek blessings for the living. Let's delve into the intricacies of these ceremonies:

The Commencement and Preparation

The "Bogwa" ritual begins with the opening of the grave in the morning. The bones of the deceased are carefully extracted, signifying the start of this profound ceremony. The bones are then meticulously cleaned and adorned in a new "gamong," a woven backpack often used by the Ifugao people.

The duration of the "Bogwa" ceremony can vary, sometimes spanning just one day, while in other cases, it extends for three days and two nights. These three days each have their distinct names: "boh-wat," "kad-wa," and "kat-lu."

Feasting and Butchering

A central element of the "Bogwa" ritual is the feasting that occurs each day. Pigs are commonly butchered, except for a special exception. During the final day, known as "kat-lu," a carabao or a large pig may be sacrificed if the family wishes or if the deceased was not granted the traditional "dangli" during their death.

Part of this celebration is sharing, a practice deeply rooted in Ifugao culture. Some parts of the butchered animals are distributed to relatives as a symbol of kinship, known as "bolwa." The choicest parts, such as the front legs ("lapa") and hind legs ("ulpu"), are allocated according to the familial connections. The "lapa" goes to those related to the father and mother of the deceased, while the "ulpu" is reserved for persons linked to the in-laws of the departed. The rest of the meat is cut into chunks and used as a viand to nourish those who participate in the wake.

The Final Farewell

In the afternoon of the "kat-lu," a solemn moment arrives as the bones are returned to the grave, accompanied by the resonating sound of three gongs. The placement of the bones inside the grave is done with utmost respect, positioning the skull to face away from the grave's opening.

Family members take turns entering the grave to bid their final farewell, each gently shaking the skull while offering their words of parting. As the time to seal the grave arrives, two "lawit," which are bundles of cogon grass with the leafy edge tied in an overhand knot, are lowered inside. This act is believed to pull back any stray souls that may have entered the grave, ensuring the spirits find their rightful place.

One of the "lawit" is handed to a family member who briskly walks ahead without looking back until reaching the residence. The other "lawit" is placed beside the grave's door, serving as an additional safeguard.

The Closing Rite

Upon reaching home, the "munbaki" performs the "kib-kib-lu" or closing rite. In this poignant prayer, the pagan priest asks the "Maknongan" (God) for blessings, ensuring that the "bogwa" ceremony benefits both the spirit of the departed and the living family members.

In this ritual, the jawbone of the pig sacrificed during the "kat-lu" is included, along with betel nut ("moma"), piper betel ("hapid"), and a bottle of native wine ("baya"). These items are carefully placed in the "liga-u," a rice winnowing tray, signifying the concluding act of this unique ceremony.

The Culmination: The "Kig-gad" Ritual

The "Kig-gad" ritual serves as the final and most significant phase of the "Bogwa" ceremony. It takes place a day after the main "Bogwa" proceedings, marking the ultimate act of reverence for the departed. This ritual involves a series of offerings, each holding special significance within the Ifugao culture.

  1. Poultry Sacrifices: The "Kig-gad" ritual requires several poultry offerings, including a large rooster (poltan), a large hen (up-pa), and four medium-sized chickens (umatub-lu). Depending on the number of attendees, additional chickens may be included to ensure there is enough food for everyone.

  2. Offerings to Ancestral Spirits: The chickens are meticulously prepared for the ritual. A chosen individual holds each bird by the feet and wings, while the "mun-baki" takes charge of the process. Using a sharp knife, the "mun-baki" makes an incision in the chicken's neck, allowing blood to flow. This initiates a prayer in which only the names of deceased individuals are mentioned.

  3. Bountiful Harvest and Livestock: The first two offerings, the rooster and the hen, are dedicated to the "mundomod-mang" or genealogy, representing a prayer for a prosperous harvest and abundant livestock. The Ifugao people believe that a bountiful harvest extends beyond rice fields to encompass other agricultural practices, including slash-and-burn cultivation.

  4. Protection from Deception: The fourth chicken offering is directed towards the "manah-ha-ut," which stems from the Tuwali word for deception. This ritual aims to safeguard individuals and families from falling victim to deceit or false beliefs. The "mun-ha-ut" chicken represents the dangers of erroneous beliefs that could jeopardize one's aspirations.

  5. The Omen of the "Ido": The fifth chicken is an offering to the "ido" or "pit-pit." This unique bird, known for its vibrant red and black feathers, is regarded as an omen for journeys. It is believed that when the "ido" crosses one's path during travel (mun-a-lawa), it warns of potential misfortune. Traditionally, travelers would halt their journeys briefly to let the perceived threat pass. However, if the "ido" moves alongside the traveler, it signifies good luck. Symbolically, the "ido" represents the obstacles encountered in daily life. The "munbaki" offers a prayer (tobotbal) during this ritual, seeking protection from these obstacles for the individual toiling for their well-being and that of their family.

  6. Blessings for the Journey: The sixth chicken's is offered as [placeholder], associated with the Tuwali word "dalan," which translates to "way" or "mun-dal-lanan," meaning to walk. This offering signifies an individual's relationship with their community and others. It seeks to bestow charisma and luck upon the individual in all their pursuits and aspirations.

In addition to the poultry offerings, the bile of the animals and chickens sacrificed during the ritual undergoes inspection, providing a significant prognosis. The "mabga" prognosis indicates that the offering has been well received by the intended recipient when the bile is black, round, and neatly embedded beneath the liver lobe. However, other bile types, such as "im-makig," "mun-dung-dung-o," and "nakupo," represent less favorable outcomes and require specific rituals to rectify.

This rich set of rituals reflects the deep cultural and spiritual significance of the "Bogwa" ceremony in Ifugao society. Moreover, it exemplifies the harmony between life and the afterlife in their unique cultural traditions.

The Evolution of 'Bogwa'

In recent years, the traditional 'Bogwa' ritual of the Ifugao people has undergone some changes, influenced by modern practices and shifting cultural norms.

One significant shift is the impact of embalming on the 'Bogwa' tradition. In the past, the Ifugao people did not embalm their deceased loved ones or place them inside coffins. The absence of embalming allowed the corpse to naturally decay, making it ready for 'Bogwa' after a year or more. However, with the introduction of embalming practices, the cadaver remains intact even after several years, necessitating the separation of bones from the remaining flesh during the 'Bogwa' ritual.

This transformation has altered the nature of the ritual. Instead of cleaning the bones of a decayed corpse, the bones are now forcibly separated from the mummified cadaver. The evolution of 'Bogwa' from its original form highlights the ways in which modern practices and external influences have impacted this traditional Ifugao custom.

The upcoming sections will further explore the various stages and customs of the 'Bogwa' ritual, shedding light on its cultural and spiritual significance in the present day.

Identifying the Need for 'Bogwa'

The 'Bogwa' ritual among the Ifugao people is not a routine practice but one performed when specific needs arise. There are several reasons that prompt a family to undertake this unique ceremony, each deeply rooted in their cultural and spiritual beliefs.

1. Ligat (Hardship): When an Ifugao family faces hardship, whether it be in the form of an unusual illness or unusual dreams, they may consider 'Bogwa' as a means of alleviating their difficulties. According to their belief, these hardships can be attributed to the displeasure of the spirits of the departed. It is thought that by performing 'Bogwa,' the family can appease these spirits, seeking their favor and ensuring prosperity and peace for the living.

2. Intention to Remarry: A widower or widow wishing to remarry is another common reason for 'Bogwa.' The Ifugao people see this as a necessary step to ensure that the departed spouse's spirit does not hinder the new marriage. By exhuming the bones and performing the ritual, they seek to maintain harmony with the spirits of their deceased loved ones while moving forward in their lives.

3. Ule (Kindness): In some cases, 'Bogwa' is performed simply as an act of kindness and recognition. Wealthier families, referred to as "kadangyan," may choose to carry out 'Bogwa' to honor their departed family members. This act serves as a gesture of respect for their wealth and prestige and can be a basis for family reunions. The Ifugao people believe that by fulfilling these cultural traditions and remembering the dead, they can receive blessings in return, leading to peace and prosperity.

In addition to these primary reasons, other unusual occurrences or signs, such as paranormal activities or strange dreams, may lead a family to decide that 'Bogwa' is necessary. The belief in the spiritual connection between the living and the departed is at the heart of these decisions, guiding the Ifugao people in their practice of 'Bogwa.'

Variations and Alternative Rituals

While 'Bogwa' is a central and revered tradition among the Ifugao people, there are instances where alternative rituals have emerged, offering solutions when the traditional practice is not feasible or practical. Two such alternatives are "ketema" and "agba."

1. Ketema: The 'ketema' ritual is a specific 'baki' ceremony used to identify the spirits responsible for causing illness. It involves the butchering of chickens and is performed by three or more pagan priests, depending on the necessity. As the ritual unfolds, the pagan priests chant and mention the names of deceased relatives and deities, placing two eggs or two knives on top of each other. The presence of spirits causing the illness is indicated when these materials stand upright for a few seconds. Through the 'ketema,' the spirits identify themselves and express their desires. No chicken is sacrificed in this ritual.

2. Agba: 'Agba' is a method used by a single pagan priest to determine which ancestor is causing an illness. This ritual involves using two eggs, knives, and other materials to ascertain the spirit responsible for the malady. The pagan priest utters the names of deceased relatives, placing two eggs or two knives on top of each other. Surprisingly, these materials stand upright when the name of the responsible spirit is mentioned. 'Agba' does not involve the sacrifice of chickens.

These alternative rituals have gained significance when 'Bogwa' becomes impractical, either due to the circumstances or the preferences of the family. They provide a means of addressing illnesses and unusual occurrences attributed to spirits without the need for the extensive 'Bogwa' process.

Special Considerations for Violent Deaths

In cases of individuals who meet violent ends, the Ifugao culture has specific rituals and considerations. When a family member dies due to violence, they are buried without the traditional 'dangli,' which involves the butchering of a carabao. However, the bones of the deceased must still be brought home for the 'Bogwa' ritual.

Seven to nine days after the violent burial, the family performs the "opa" ritual. This 'baki' ceremony focuses on calling the spirit of the deceased down from the sky. It is believed that after a person's violent death, their spirit, upon leaving the mortal body, ascends to the sky. The "opa" ritual involves calling out the names of the dead person while briskly raising a spear towards the sky, in the direction of the sun. The spear is then reversed, with the blade facing a rice winnowing tray, and shaken vigorously. It is during the 'Bogwa' that the traditional 'dangli' is finally butchered, and the bones are returned to the grave after the ritual.

The 'opa' ritual serves as a crucial link in the process of honoring individuals who have died violently, allowing their spirits to be reunited with their bones during the 'Bogwa.'

The Ongoing Tradition of 'Bogwa'

The practice of 'Bogwa' remains an enduring thread in the tapestry of Ifugao culture. Despite the winds of change that have swept through the Cordillera Administrative Region and the Cordillera region, this ritual has demonstrated remarkable resilience. It continues to hold a significant place in the hearts and lives of the Ifugao people, standing as a testament to their unwavering commitment to their cultural heritage.

Notably, 'Bogwa' has not been confined to the boundaries of the Ifugao community alone. Some non-Ifugao settlers who have made their homes in this region have also embraced the tradition. This cross-cultural adoption speaks volumes about the cultural richness and universality of the 'Bogwa' ritual. It serves as a bridge between different communities and exemplifies the power of cultural practices to transcend boundaries.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is the purpose of the 'Bogwa' ritual in Ifugao culture?

The 'Bogwa' ritual in Ifugao culture serves several purposes. It is a way to connect with ancestral spirits and maintain a spiritual bond with them. The Ifugao people believe that by performing 'Bogwa,' they honor their ancestors and ensure the well-being of the living. Through offerings, such as pigs and carabaos, they seek to appease the spirits of the departed and safeguard the prosperity and peace of those left behind.

2. How long does the 'Bogwa' ritual typically last?

The duration of the 'Bogwa' ritual can vary. In some cases, it lasts for just one day, while in others, it extends for three days and two nights. These three days are known as "boh-wat," "kad-wa," and "kat-lu," each with its unique significance and rituals.

3. Are there alternative rituals to 'Bogwa' in Ifugao culture?

Yes, there are alternative rituals, such as 'Ketema' and 'Agba,' used when 'Bogwa' is not practical or feasible. 'Ketema' is a 'baki' ceremony for identifying spirits causing illness and does not involve chicken sacrifices. 'Agba' is a method used by a single pagan priest for the same purpose and also does not require chicken sacrifices.

4. What is the 'Ketema' ritual, and how does it differ from 'Bogwa'?

'Ketema' is a specific 'baki' ceremony used to identify spirits causing illness. It involves the butchering of chickens and is performed by multiple pagan priests. The main difference is that 'Ketema' focuses on identifying the spirits responsible for illness, while 'Bogwa' is a broader ritual that connects with ancestral spirits and ensures the well-being of the living.

5. How do the Ifugao people deal with violent deaths in the context of 'Bogwa'?

In cases of violent deaths, the Ifugao people perform an 'Opa' ritual seven to nine days after the burial. This ritual is essential to call the spirit of the violently deceased person back from the sky, allowing their spirit to be reunited with their bones during the 'Bogwa' ceremony.

6. How has modernization impacted the traditional 'Bogwa' ritual?

Modernization has influenced the 'Bogwa' ritual, primarily through the introduction of embalming practices. In the past, the absence of embalming allowed the corpse to naturally decay and be ready for 'Bogwa' after a year or more. With embalming, the cadaver remains intact, necessitating a different process to separate the bones from the flesh during 'Bogwa.'

7. Is 'Bogwa' limited to the Ifugao community, or have others adopted it?

'Bogwa' has transcended cultural boundaries, and some non-Ifugao settlers in the Cordillera Administrative Region have also adopted the tradition. This cross-cultural adoption demonstrates the cultural richness and universality of the 'Bogwa' ritual.

8. What are the key stages of the 'Bogwa' ritual, and what do they symbolize?

The 'Bogwa' ritual involves several key stages, each with unique symbolism. These stages include the commencement and preparation, feasting and butchering, the final farewell, the closing rite, and the culmination in the 'Kig-gad' ritual. Each stage serves a specific purpose, from honoring the deceased to seeking blessings for the living and the community.


In conclusion, this article has delved into the captivating world of 'Bogwa,' a profound ritual practiced by the Ifugao people in the Cordillera Administrative Region of the Philippines. We have explored the key aspects of this tradition, shedding light on its cultural and spiritual significance.

Throughout the article, we've uncovered the unique connection the Ifugao people share with their land, exemplified by their breathtaking rice terraces and agricultural ingenuity. 'Bogwa' stands as a testament to their respect for family, ancestors, and the spirits that shape their lives.

The significance of 'Bogwa' transcends mere tradition; it is a means of connecting with ancestral spirits and ensuring the well-being of the living. By exhuming the bones of the deceased, cleaning, and rewrapping them, the Ifugao people show deep respect and reverence for those who came before them.

Moreover, 'Bogwa' is a communal and familial affair, strengthening the bonds within the community and reinforcing values of love, respect, and care for one another. It is a time for feasting and togetherness, emphasizing the celebration of life, love, and the enduring connection between the living and the departed.

The article has also highlighted the evolving nature of 'Bogwa' due to the impact of modern practices, such as embalming, which has altered the traditional form of the ritual. However, despite these changes, the core values and cultural significance of 'Bogwa' remain intact.

In closing, this article encourages readers to appreciate the rich and diverse traditions of different cultures, recognizing the beauty and depth of practices like 'Bogwa' that offer insights into the unique ways in which communities honor their heritage and the spirits that guide their lives. It is a testament to the resilience and endurance of cultural traditions, serving as a bridge between communities and exemplifying the universal power of cultural practices to transcend boundaries.

Photos: Cong Teddy Baguilat Jr.

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