The hanging coffins of Sagada

Today is a long drive southeast to the rising hills of the highlands. The road passes through emerald green and harvested brown paddy fields, squares of sun drying yellow corn and white flecked rice, chomping, humped, white cattle, cash crops of maize or onions. Hamlets, villages then towns line the route. Construction tends to be the same – concrete blocks with the omnipresent corrugated iron roof. In the county there tends to be simpler, bamboo shacks mixed in and in the towns, multi-storied houses with balconies and chrome bling add variety and indicate greater wealth.

Every town has an imposing church lording it over the skyline. The Spanish friars certainly did their job well. The buildings themselves20160213233835_IMG_4734

date from different times, ancient and modern, but all were established in the 16th century when the conquistadors first arrived. 

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The domination of the church of Santa Maria over the hearts and minds of the faithful is complete. Dating from 1810 and constructed in brick its faded glory stretches along the ridge for 90 metres. The fact that it’s Sunday and mass is taking place just adds to its peace and harmony, not just of spirit but also of ambiance as beautiful singing nightingales out of the open doors from the packed congregation who express their delights and celebrations over the surrounding scene.

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Then the bus starts to climb. Within a few moments the road is wiggling and winding up through jungle foliage and palms and stretching branches. Then it is into the sharp, taloned chicken feet of forested high valleys and ridges, carved and dissected by water into a scenery of gnarled fingers and arthritic knuckles on a tapestry of hands.

My destination is Sagada. Sagada is a small scruffy little town, full of corrugated iron and wooden panels, high up in the highlands and a favorite, for some reason, with the young couples celebrating Valentine’s Day. Being at 1400 metres the air is fresh and even chilly at night. The locals dress up in fleeces and woolly hats to keep out the cold that they seem to feel.

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The town is renowned for a truly remarkable practice. The locals have been air burying their dead in coffins perched high on cliff faces for over 2000 years. Why? It could be to keep the preserved bodies away from wild predators or they may have believed it took their loved ones that much closer too heaven. Whatever the reason, it’s all a bit macabre. Thoughts of falling skeletons from worm rotten coffins comes to mind but it is reassuring to know this rarely happens due to the hardness of the wood. It is still done today with the latest body buried in this way in 2010. There are several cliff faces for this use.

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At least the Spanish introduced cemeteries and underground burials even though gravestones and slabs are not so picturesque as hanging coffins.

I had lunch in  the hills just outside town in a stilted cafe overlooking the houses and paddy fields. I love this image.

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