The origin of the ambahan

Photo of a Mangyan woman in traditional Hanunuo dress sitting on a bamboo floor
A Hanunuo-Mangyan woman chanting an ambahan at a community ambahan session [Source: Antoon Postma]

If you ask a Hanunuo-Mangyan, "Where did you get this ambahan?," he will most likely answer, "I copied it from somebody else." That is quite probable, for the ambahan has been popularized by being copied on any piece of bamboo, such as the container for tobacco or apog (lime), the scabbard or sheath of a bolo, a violin or guitar, and even on the bamboo beams of a house. When a Mangyan discovers a nice ambahan, he uses his knife to engrave it on bamboo, in the age-old Indic-derived script. Thus, he has "copied" it.

In answer to the same question, another Mangyan may reply, "We obtained this from our forefathers." Most of the ambahans they possess now have been handed down from parents to children through continuos copying. Yet there is no doubt that new ambahans are still being written today by the poets or composers, although it is hard to find out who these poets are. A Mangyan would never admit that he is composing ambahans.

To determine the approximate time in which an ambahan was written, two criteria may be suggested: the subject and the kind of words used.

The first criterion cannot be applied without reservation, for the subject of the ambahan is sometimes very general and true of any period. But if we find reference in the ambahan to Moro attacks or to Mangyans still living along the sea-shore, we are on surer ground, for the attacks of the Moros are known to have occurred at a certain time, and the Mangyans lived along the shores before the non-Mangyans settled on the island. On the other hand, when an ambahan poet writes of going to America, the poem is certain to have been written in modern times.

The second criterion, the kind of words used, is more reliable and, if used by experts, would be a more certain indication of the age of the ambahan. By using this criterion, ambahans may be categorized into three classes.

The first type is the ambahan that only uses the poetic language with a minimum of contemporary words. Sometimes common Hanunuo-Mangyan words are used, but this type of ambahan restricts itself mainly to the use of literary words, i.e. words not used in daily conversation. According to the Mangyans themselves, this is the oldest kind of ambahan.

The next type of ambahan is that in which words borrowed from neighboring tribes, especially the Buhid tribe, are used. Frequent contact with this tribe has made the Hanunuo-Mangyans accept these borrowed words and expressions which found their way into their ambahans.

Lastly, there is the ambahan of later times, in which loan-words from Spanish, Tagalog or Bisaya are evident.

The painstaking study by linguists of the words used in the ambahan may supply the final answer to the question of the time in which an ambahan was written.

[Postma, Antoon. Mangyan Treasures. Manila: Arnoldus Press, Inc., 1995.]