Reviving the Hanunuo and Buhid Mangyan syllabic scripts

1 March 2014 (Tokyo University of Foreign Studies)

Reviving the Hanunuo and Buhid Mangyan Syllabic Scripts


When the Spaniards arrived in the Philippines in the 16th century, they discovered that the natives had their own writing system, and that even women could read and write.  By the 1600s the Spaniards documented over a dozen syllabic scripts called baybayin. Related to the writing modes of nearly all Southeast Asian countries, these scripts originated from the Brahmi script of India. Unfortunately, by the 19th century, most Filipinos had already replaced their syllabic scripts with the Roman alphabet introduced by the Spaniards.

Out of all the regions and the 110 indigenous peoples (IPs) groups in the Philippines, only the Buhid and Hanunuo Mangyans of Mindoro Island, together with the Tagbanwa of Palawan Island, have retained their original syllabic scripts. These three syllabic scripts have been National Cultural Treasures since 1997 and have been inscribed in the Memory of the World Registers of UNESCO since 1998.

The Buhid and Hanunuo Mangyans have kept alive their indigenous way of writing due to their relative mountain isolation. The syllabic scripts also survived because these IPs engraved their traditional poems (ambahan) on bamboo plants, slats and containers, using a knife.

Most studies on the Buhid and Hanunuo Mangyan syllabic scripts were conducted from the last quarter of the 19th century up to the end of the 20th century.  Best known among these studies are The Mangyan Scripts of Mindoro by German researchers A.B. Meyer, A. Schadenberg, and W. Foy (1895),  Philippine Indic Studies by American Major Fletcher Gardner (1943), and various scholarly papers written by Dutch Anthropologist and Linguist Antoon Postma from the 1960s to late 1990s.  Postma, who has been living with the Mangyans for over 50 years,  studied the relationship of the contemporary Philippine scripts with other Southeast Asian scripts.  He also deciphered the Laguna Copperplate Inscription which is considered the oldest written document found in the Philippines, dating approximately 900AD.

Postma also worked on the propagation of the syllabic scripts by producing a Primer on the Mangyan Script in the 1980s.  This was used by volunteer Mangyan teachers in teaching the script in selected Hanunuo Mangyan schools.

To date, the Buhid and Hanunuo Mangyan syllabic scripts are in danger of vanishing.  The  younger generation  is  no longer interested in their indigenous way of writing. Only the elders know how to write in their original scripts.

To revive the Buhid and the Hanunuo Mangyan syllabic scripts, various projects and activities are being implemented by the Mangyan Heritage Center, Inc., (MHC) a non- profit, non-stock, private organization based in Calapan City, province of Oriental Mindoro.    The MHC maintains a research library housing a comprehensive collection of documents on the Mangyans - the common name for Mindoro Island’s eight indigenous peoples groups with their distinct cultures and languages.  Established in 2000, the MHC is actively engaged in the development, promotion and safeguarding of the Mangyan cultural heritage - most especially the Mangyan scripts and ambahans  - which are in danger of being forgotten by the younger generation.

(Presented by Emerenciana Lorenzo Catapang - Executive Director of the Mangyan Heritage Center, Inc. at the International Workshop on Endangered Scripts of Island Southeast Asia, organized by the Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, held on 27 Feb. to 1 March, 2014.  To request for a copy of the full paper, please send an email /


27 February 2014 (Tokyo University of Foreign Studies)

The Ambahan: Mangyan Indigenous Poem of the Philippines


The Philippine island of Mindoro is home to eight indigenous peoples (IPs) groups collectively called Mangyans. Comprising 10% of the estimated 1,000,000 population of the island, these eight groups have their own set of customs and distinct languages. 

Two of the eight – the Buhid and Hanunuo Mangyans - possess their own respective rich cultural and literary heritage. Using a pointed knife, Buhid and Hanunoo Mangyans inscribe poems called ambahan on bamboo plants in the forests, bamboo slats and lime containers. These ambahans with seven syllables per line and rhyming end-syllables were written in the Mangyans’ pre-Spanish syllabic writing systems, thus preventing both from becoming extinct and forgotten.  

Dutch Anthropologist and Linguist Antoon Postma documented the Hanunuo Mangyan ambahan extensively.  Married to a Hanunuo Mangyan, Postma studied the unique and separate ambahan language, translated 261 ambahans into English, and published them in the book Treasure of a Minority  (1981).   These 261 ambahans are arranged according to life cycle - from birth to death and include diverse themes such as friendship, marriage, work, sickness and healing.  According to Postma, the ambahans express in an allegorical way, through the use of poetic language, certain situations or characteristics referred to by the one chanting the poem.  Thus, the ambahan is a poem with significant social functions in the Mangyan community – used in courting, parenting, welcoming a visitor, etc.

Postma’s daughter Anya, who works with the Mangyan Heritage Center, Inc (MHC), a non-profit private organization committed to the preservation and promotion of the ambahan and the Mangyan syllabic scripts, continued the work of her father.  She digitized over 20,000 ambahans documented by Postma  in his series of “Ambahan  Sessions” from the 1980s to 1990s and recorded on cassette tapes.  These digitized and transcribed ambahans are now stored at the MHC library. 

As a culture bearer, Anya could chant ambahans  with various themes and could explain their meaning.  She could also demonstrate how to carve an ambahans on a bamboo slat, and teach participants how to write in the Mangyan syllabic script.

Below is an ambahan that speaks about friendship. 


Ambahan 198

Mangyan Treasures

By: Antoon Postma


Anong si kanaw bulan

Sinmalhag sa rantawan

Kabiton lugod ginan

Salhag  mabalaw  diman

No ga tawo di ngaran

Kang way inunyawigan

Buhok ngatay tawidan

Palaylay ngatay huytan

Unhunon sab araw man

Tida ti kanaw bulan

Tida kuramo diman

May bantod pagpaday-an

May ratag pagrun-ugan

May  ili pag-alikdan

Look! The moon so full and bright,

shining in front of the house!

How can you explain to me,

that the rays are soft and cool?

If a man like us he were,

I would hold him by the hand!

Seize the hair to keep him back!

Grasp the clothes to make him stay!

But how could I manage that!

It is the moon in the  sky!

The full moon shining so bright,

going down beyond the hills,

disappearing from the plain,

out of sight behind the rocks.


(Presented by Anya Postma, Program Assistant of Mangyan Heritage Center, Inc. at the International Workshop on Endangered Scripts of Island Southeast Asia, TUFS, 27 Feb. to 1 March 2014.  To request for a copy of the full paper, please send an email to /