Where carabaos come to kneel

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Pulilan shows power and progress in festival

On a sweltering afternoon in Pulilan, hundreds of carabaos were paraded on the main street and made to kneel in front of the church, among amused crowds, who cheered, “Luhod! Luhod! (Kneel! Kneel!)” This was on the bisperas of Saint Isidore the Laborer or San Isidro Labrador, the patron saint of the Bulacan town.
The patron saint of farmers, San Isidro is also the patron saint of many towns in agricultural Philippines, and his feast day on May 15 is celebrated with flourishes, such as the Pahiyas Festival in Lucban, Quezon, and the Agawan Festival in Sariaya, also in Quezon. The kneeling carabaos have become iconic of Pulilan, 45 kilometers north of Manila.
According to the local government, the feast day, now transformed into the Kneeling Carabao Festival, attracts about a million visitors. It is not only the visitors, but even the Pulileños themselves who come out to watch the parade. Despite having seen it many times, Pulileños are still delighted by the carabaos, common beasts of burden, especially when they kneel.
This is done “bilang pasasalamat ng mga farmers para sa harvest ng nagdaan, and to pray for blessings in the coming year (as gratitude of farmers for the past harvest and to pray for blessings in the coming year),” explained Pulilan Mayor Maria Rosario “Maritz” Ochoa-Montejo.
The origin of the practice is still unknown. Pulileños would only say that they have been witnessing carabaos parade and kneel since they were children.
Pulilan was officially founded as a town when an Augustinian friar, Vicente Villamanzo, declared this former settlement a town on January 20, 1796, assigning St. Isidore the Laborer as patron. After that, the practice may have started, but some researchers prefer to believe that it dates back to pre-colonial times, theorizing the existence of a ritual involving the carabaos and a carabao god in the area. When the Spaniards came with Catholicism, they supplanted the carabao god with the image of St. Isidore the Laborer.
The traditional Catholic practice includes the performance of the paseo or the procession of the image of San Isidro to the different barangays/chapels within the municipality for 24 days, and the praying the novena for nine consecutive days prior to the feast day. The carabaos are cleaned and prepared for the parade in the morning of May 14. These carabaos have been trained by their owners to kneel in front of the church. As they kneel, a priest blesses them as they pay homage to their patron saint.
Now, carabaos have a lesser role in Pulilan life as the largely rustic town becomes more industrialized. More farmlands have become factories, residential areas and business establishments.
When I visited Pulilan during the festival in 2006, then-Mayor Elpidio C. Castillo remembered during his childhood that the Carabao Festival used to be a bigger event with nearly a thousand carabaos joining in the parade. Seventy percent of the town’s income comes from agriculture, he said. Then, 42.28 percent of the population was engaged in farming, and the town was an important rice producer in the province.
The carabao traditionally plays a very important part in farming, but the mechanization of the latter contributed to the animal’s decreased role. In a 1995 survey, Pulilan’s carabao population was 137. By, 2005, it had been reduced to 28. Consequently, the participation in the festival also dwindled.
The current mayor admitted that there are only a few carabaos left in Pulilan, and the farmers are now selling their own carabaos. She also said that only 30 percent of the town is agricultural, and several landowners are selling their farmlands. Thus, she is advocating an agriculture degree in a college planned to be established in the town, which will bestow prestige on the profession of farming. Additionally, the local government is currently giving many incentives to farmers such as free fertilizer and seedlings, and other forms of assistance.
At the same time, Ochoa-Montejo promotes Pulilan as a business-friendly town open to trade and investment. The recent developments contributed to the town’s status of being first-class with a P450 million annual budget.
She is also optimistic that farming and the carabao will be always be part of Pulilan.
“Marami pa ring nagmamahal sa kalabaw at sa kanyang bukirin (Many still love the carabao and the farmlands),” she said.
Bringing back the carabao
With the Kneeling Carabao Festival, Ochoa-Montejo is striving to make it a major tourist attraction, allocating about P10 million for the event this year.
“It is one of my flagship projects to put Pulilan on the tourism map of the Philippines,” said the town’s first woman mayor. “We have our own culture that we are very proud of. The Carabao Festival has a long history here in Pulilan.”
The feast day is now a festival that starts on May 6 and incorporates many de-rigueur elements of a modern festival such as shows, contests, socials and, of course, the street dancing parade and showdown. The local government sought the help of event/festival organizer, manager and consultant Nilo Agustin. This year, the slogan of the festival was “Lakas ng Pulilan (Power of Pulilan).”
“There is power in tourism and also in trade and investment,” said the mayor, who also acted as this year’s hermana mayor.
The carabao parade has become bigger this year with the participation of about 1,000 carabaos from last year’s 800. Many of the carabaos came from nearby towns in Central Luzon, such as Calumpit, Plaridel and Baliuag in Bulacan; Arayat in Pampanga; and even as far as Nueva Ecija.
The carabao parade, which started at Dampol First and ended in Paltao, now has been incorporated with a kariton (cart) contest, participated in by the town’s 19 barangays. The carabao-pulled karitons looked like floats, spectacularly shaped and decorated to depict the culture and industries of the each barangay, mostly about rural life.
Another new component of the celebration is the street dancing contest. There has been street dancing in recent years, but this year it was enhanced and carefully thought out. According to Agustin, the participants underwent three months of workshop to be able to craft their own concepts and choreography. This was for the festival as it was re-launched with a new concept, said Agustin.
For the festival dance, steps were created with the help of veteran dancers and choreographers Nonoy Froiland and Edna Vida. The movements were inspired by the motions of the carabaos and farming, and the close relationship between the animals and the farmers, explained Agustin.
The street-dancing contest was participated in by public schools—nine elementary schools and four high schools—held on May 15. Contingents paraded from Lumbac to Poblacion, where they presented dances, mostly interpreting rural life and devotion to San Isidro, at the plaza. In the elementary school category, Dampol B Elementary School was adjudged champion, while Pulilan Central School came in second place and Balatong Elementary School, third place. In the high school category, Dampol Second National High School won first place, while Bajet-Castillo High School took second place and Santa Peregrina High School went home with third.
Despite introductions of new components, the festival still draws from its rural heritage and traditions, with the carabao as one of the central images, reminding locals of its role in the building of the town.

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