Saturday, December 9, 2006

The Case for Princess Urduja

by John Smart

Fact or fiction? The only first-hand, documented case given for her existence is the writing of one Ibn Batuta -- a Moroccan born, Islamic lawyer turned travel writer, who journeyed on a Chinese merchant ship from India to Canton – whose last stop before arriving in the Southern Chinese port was to visit the Kingdom of Tawalisi,in the year 1347. The main case for her non-existence is that she is described as having elephants as load bearers and, of course, we all know that there are no elephants in the Philippines. Right?

But first, who was Princess Urduja and what did she do that made her so important as to become the subject of a detailed 14th century travelogue and, more
recently, erudite historic debate?

If Batuta’s first-hand reports are correct, the Princess was a leader of such significant import that the lowland and highland tribes, from Mountain Province to Zambales,acknowledged her unifying power such that peace reigned throughout the central regions of Luzon for fear of retribution by her “red-breasted warriors” or kinalakian -- Batuta’s explicit description no doubt stems from the striking contrast
a topless, suntanned, copper-skinned woman must have offered when compared to those in his own country, who more timidly exposed their bodies in private and far away from any sunlight. The daughter of the King of Tawalisi, she was given charge over
much of his Kingdom after the King’s son failed to make an impact in battle and
left it to his sister to defeat a formidable enemy. She and her father are reported
to have been the recipient of tributes equal to those bestowed upon the King of
China (a significant accolade in the 1300s); together, they commandeered Chinese junks that trespassed waters under their control and audaciously negotiated reparations before releasing them back to the owners. She was unassailed in combat by any men who had thought to court her Urduja was by any measure a woman of substance,
learning and immense presence such that all who were subject to her governance lived peacefully and in awe of her power, which protected them from erstwhile enemies.
But . . . was she real?

First let us consider the elephants. Batuta actually wrote that, amongst other things, he was presented with “two elephant loads of rice”. Consider how you might describe to someone across the other side of the world the size of a jeepney-load of rice? If your intended reader had knowledge of elephants (they certainly did across much of South Asia and the Middle East – Batuta’s origin) then this would be a
useful simile to use, without the need for physical elephants to be present to transport the rice at hand. But . . .In Rizal province there can be found Elephant
Hill, so named for the remains of elephants found there in recent history. And, on Anda Island, off the north coast of Pangasinan (in the middle of what was then known as Tawalisi), during the last century, elephant remains were found while foundations for a house were being excavated. In other words, it appears to matter not whether the reference to elephants was unambiguous or as simile . . . beasts of the
elephant genome did indeed inhabit our islands.

Then, there is a question as to why a Princess in Luzon would have an apparently middle-eastern name: Urduja. This was the argument that I thought would most likely dispel my idolatrous vision of a true Filipino goddess. But then I chanced upon translations of transcripts from records of the Ibaloi tribes people (still living in the mountains of northern Luzon) and discovered that their orally preserved historical records, handed down since before the Spaniards rewrote most everyone else’s, laud a Princess Deboxah (pronounced Debuca) as being the founder of their tribes and who, they claim, is The Princess Urduja. Could “Urduja” be a simple
mispronunciation by our Islamic lawyer friend who, by his own account, arrived late for the party being thrown to greet his traveling companions? One can imagine Batuta
trying to translate the name most accurately above the cacophony of boisterous celebrations and, failing to find another Muslim (i.e. another sober) partygoer with whom to compare and confirm, phonetically recording people’s names (the written Philippine Baybayin script of the time was in any event based upon a phonetic, sanskrit style alphabet) for future transcription.

The only argument that seems to be potentially in favor of the naysayers is the nevertheless huge question of whether Dr. Jose Rizal’s computation of the distances, detailed in Batuta’s travelogue, cause the Kingdom of Tawalisi to be headquartered in or near Pangasinan. Despite a thorough trawl of literature referenced on the subject of Princess Urduja and Tawalisi, it seems nobody has been able to use Batuta’s records to definitively relocate the Kingdom.

And what of the source: Ibn Batuta -- a Moroccan born, Islamic lawyer turned travel writer. Have his other words from the same and subsequent manuscripts been questioned for their accuracy? Whilst some have suggested that he may have added some color to certain items in his chronicles, nobody has discredited his texts to the point that
any of his work is dismissed as fanciful or fiction. In fact his work has been hailed in most quarters as a “valuable record” of South East Asia at that time. If final confirmation is necessary, the renowned Philippine artist Fernando Amorsolo famous for his vivid scenes of everyday rural life and depictions of the beautifully romantic countryside in oil on canvas, saw the Princess as a fitting subject for a number of works. We are pleased to be able to reproduce one here with the kind permission of the current owner, Ms. Dorothy Francy. Thus, without veraciously tested evidence being offered to the contrary, it is my belief that Tawalisi, Princess Urduja, her "red-breasted warriors” and their descendants are integral parts of this patchwork quilt of an archipelago that the Spanish deemed worthy and desirable as conquest.

Long live the Princess!