[Skip to content] [Skip to main navigation] [Skip to user navigation] [Skip to global search] [Accessibility information] [Contact us]

Five Go Collecting: Traditional Healers in Palawan

Dalia is one of the five modern-day collectors selected by the Royal Anthropological Institute to take part in the Horniman Collecting Initiative. Here she reports on her fieldwork with the traditonal Palawan healers of the Philippines.

In many areas of the Philippines, traditional medical practitioners continue to be the main providers of health care. In the course of my fieldwork, the most common practitioner that I came across in the Palawan ethnic group were 'balyan', who rely on visualisations and invocation of spirits during healing practices.

Balyan use a variety of objects in their every-day practices and many were keen that some of these objects be donated and displayed at the Horniman Museum and Gardens in order to help maintain their cultural practices which they feel are under threat.

In order to select the most appropriate objects for the museum, I trained various healers to use digital cameras in order to visually document their practices and the objects that they use.

Following an initial training session, participants were given cameras for a period of 1-3 weeks and at the end I collected the cameras and printed the participant’s pictures.

The pictures were then used as the basis of qualitative interviews and allowed healers to decide what objects best reflect and convey their work.

In one case, Sario Langi, a balyan, used his camera to take pictures over 3 weeks whilst treating a variety of patients. One evening, a man came to him feeling very weak. Sario felt his pulse whilst calling upon the spirits to assist him in his diagnosis (turon). He also used a 'tari-tari'.

Tari-Tari is a diagnostic tool, a bamboo stick with honeybee wax at one end from which a piece of 'rocoroco' (Ocimum sanctum or Holy basil) is attached. Sario’s tari-tari was made by his father (also a balyan) and he inherited it from him after his death. The tari-tari is the same length as the span of Sario’s hand, but it will become longer or shorter to respectively confirm or refute the questions that Sario asks it.

In this way, Sario was able to diagnose that the man was suffering from 'pintas' (curse or evil words), probably spoken by a scorned lover. The tari-tari is crucial to Sario’s work, so he kindly made one to donate to the Horniman.

As a treatment, Sario gave him a 'pananga' which is an example of a repellent (panulak). This small cloth pouch, sewn by Sario’s wife Pina, contained 7 specific herbal plants and roots which, if tied by a string round the waist, reverse the curse and help defend the patient against further attacks. 

Sario inherited the knowledge of which 7 plants to use from his ancestors who appear to him through prayer. Sario collects these plants from the surrounding forest and stores them in a woven basket made by his father. Sario kindly donated this basket to the Horniman along with some pananga.

As well as illnesses caused by human agents, Sario can diagnose those caused by malevolent spirits. Using his camera, he documented his treatment of these illnesses.

He enters a sleeping state (natutulog) so that his own soul leaves his body and is replaced with a spirit with whom he can communicate. He adorns a headband that has sprigs of rocoroco (Ocimum sanctum or Holy basil) tucked into it, closes his eyes and start to use 'tawar' (incantations) to invite the spirit in. Sario feels himself becoming dizzy at this point is unable to ‘see’ what is happening in the human world.

He then picks specific sprigs of rocoroco which he waves in a circular motion over the patient along with 'silad' (pom poms) made from Mangrove Fan Palm (Licuala spinosa) accompanied by incantations (tawar) to call good spirits to his aid. Sario’s daughter took pictures of him using the silad which have now also been donated to the museum.