Reliving Paoay’s storied history and rich culture with Guling-Guling Festival

In Photo: The much-awaited performance at the Paoay Church

Story & photos by Marky Ramone Go

Believed to have originated even before the arrival of the Spaniards, the Guling-Guling Festival morphed into a religious practice in the 16th century, when the Spanish friars attached it with the celebration of the Lenten season.

During the street parade, young
The much-awaited performance at the Paoay Church couples dance in traditional costumes

Happening a day before Ash Wednesday, guling, the Ilocano word “to smear,” comes to play, when the town mayor would smudge a white cross, made from damp and white rice flour, on to a person’s forehead to indicate one’s pureness. The townsfolk believe that this ritual washes away their sins.

Today, the festival has taken greater heights in terms of revelry and cultural showcase, while retaining the spirit of age-old traditions.

Living relic of Paoay

“Guling-Guling is a living relic of Paoay’s history starting from the pre-Hispanic colonial period. As a fat Tuesday celebration during Holy Tuesday, it is a deeply rooted pagan tradition that took new form as a Christian rite; a part of the religious transformations under the Spanish colonial rule. The fact that it centers on dudol, a Muslim food, only suggests that there is harmony of faith and beliefs in a town of more than 300 years, and we have always been proud of that,” explains Bernard Joseph Esposo Guerrero, the cultural researcher, writer and tourism officer of Paoay.

“This year we brought culture closer to the kids. This can be seen in the flash mob presented by the grade schoolers and the youth festival that gave opportunities for budding talents to showcase what they have. As part of the local government’s initiative to popularize the celebration, we added an open category so that contingents from other towns can compete,” Guerrero adds.

A weeklong revelry

I arrived at the town of Paoay just as the sun was rising. Almost beat up from an overnight bus trip, I alighted from a tricycle and was immediately drawn to the gleam of the sun, whose rays are kissing the outer walls and the buttresses of Paoay church. The scene appeared surreal and instantly summoned a throwback feel to olden times—without the need to stretch my imagination, as the nearby heritage houses also brought forth a similar feeling.

I have been in various festivals all over the country, but none similar to the atmosphere the town of Paoay brings. A compact locale enclosed by pockets of historical structures and even newly dug century-old bridges—all paints a place almost removed from the rapidity of modernity.

I spent my first afternoon walking around the town and noticed many young students partaking in the final rehearsal for the festival’s grand finale. Adorned with colorful costumes, I watched them as they danced and strutted their graceful movements, while the younger children played gleefully on the lawn-covered grounds fronting the church of Paoay. One promptly senses the festival vibe rising.

The ‘Dudol’ cook-off

Among the many interesting side shows to the Guling-Guling Festival is the “Dudol” (dodol) cook-off held on a piece of farm that sits adjacent to a small pond near the highway. Known as a traditional Ilocano rice cake, it is also popular in Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Southern India. The dudol is believed to have reached Paoay through the Malay and Indian settlements that thrived on the coastal towns of Ilocos Sur and Norte even before the arrival of the Spaniards.

It is made from bel-laay (rice flour), sugarcane juice, coconut milk and aniseed (anise). Cooking this delicacy requires patience in stirring the ingredients over a small fire and heaps of creativity to make a serving of dudol look distinctive. Fortunately, for us travel writers, some locals invited us to become part of the judging committee and was given the first dibs in tasting at least five varieties of dudol.

The bucolic scene at the farm coupled by the blowing wind can almost lull one into an afternoon siesta. The prevailing mood of that moment made me escalate my appreciation, to the type of provincial ambiance reigning not far away from the heritage filled streets of Paoay.

Winding-up the Guling-Guling Festival

The Guling-Guling Festival is celebrated every year during the same day as the famed Mardi Gras—a Christian and cultural festivity celebrated in many countries. Mardi Gras is French term for “Fat Tuesday” and mirrors the traditional practice of indulging in savoring sumptuous foods and merrymaking before the ritual of fasting during the Lenten season that takes place the next day, Ash Wednesday.

Upon waking up, I certainly felt the lingering air around Paoay becoming more celebratory, as I spotted scores of local women donning the traditional clothes of pandiling and kimono—all of which were carefully handwoven abel cloth.

The art of abel hand weaving in Ilocos is well-known and is considered as part of the province’s rich artistic heritage. Colorful costumes made of abel would take center stage later under the moonlit night, as the contingents from various towns perform in front of the splendid façade of Paoay Church.

Later in the afternoon, the street parade kicked off with well-choreographed dances participated by both men and women of all ages. The women came adorned with vibrant abel woven kimono, while the men sported a dashing set of kamisa de Chino.

I watched the whole spectacle from the sidewalk among a thick but orderly crowd. I enjoyed a clear view of the passing performers while I took pictures in between downing shots of basi—a sugarcane wine that was being passed around by a group of socializing festival-goers beside me.

The climaxing event—where the contingents took turns in performing various folk dances in front of the cheering spectators—against the beautifully illuminated portico of Paoay church, raised the festival’s merriment level into notches higher.

As midnight struck, the Guling-Guling Festival came to an end. Along with its conclusion, the loud declarations of exuberance and other fun reverberations became silent. The Paoay church and itsglowing luminous colors—once again witnessed a whole town celebrate another edition of the Guling-Guling Festival. Visiting Paoay for the second time, I have no idea such festival is being celebrated here. After my first Guling-Guling Festival, it is safe to assume that I will definitely sign up and experience it again next year.

Image credits: Marky Ramone Go


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