Hanging Coffins and Tattoo Artists of Sagada

Sagada Hanging Coffins

In the Cordillera region of the Philippines is where you can find a small yet famous town known as Sagada. This town of Mountain Province has the famous Echo Valley which was made known to both locals and tourists by its world-renowned hanging coffins. Basically, these coffins are displayed high on mountain cliffs. The Lumiang Cave on the other hand is a burial site where you can find stacked centuries-old coffins.

The Unique & Interesting Hanging Coffins of Sagada

People who dwell in the town of Sagada are called Igorots, one of the major tribes in the Philippines. Igorot people have unique and interesting funerary customs such as burying their dead in coffins which are nailed or tied to the cliffs’ side. According to claims and beliefs, this kind of funerary custom is practiced in this said region for more than two thousand years now, although no one is certain if there are coffins which are as old as these.

Igorot, travel blogger
Igorot women have red teeth because they chew on betel nuts their whole life.

According to stories, these coffins are being carved by an old person before he dies. But if an old person is incapable of doing the tedious task of carving because he is too old or too sick to do it then his son or relative will do it. Once the person dies, he is then placed inside the coffin in a fetal position. This position of the dead is observed as a belief that once a person dies, he should exit the world in the same position as when he entered it.

hanging coffins Sagada
Old persons carve their own coffins.

After the dead person is wrapped in blankets and tied, the corpse will then be carried and brought to the cliff in a procession. While the corpse is being paraded, mourning friends and relatives attempt to carry or grab the corpse. People usually do these as they firmly believe that being smeared with the deceased’s blood is a good luck at their end. For instance, a person who is smeared with the blood of the deceased will possess the knowledge, skills and abilities of the dead person when he was still alive.

Rain or shine, a corpse that is going to be sent to the burial site should undergo similar proceedings. Once the mourners reach the burial site, the corpse will then be positioned inside the coffin to be tied or nailed to the side of the mountain cliff.

Why Hang on the Cliffs and not Bury in the Ground?

The people of Sagada who practice this kind of funeral custom commonly believe that by hanging the coffins on the mountain cliffs, the dead person will be brought close to the heavens and their ancestral spirits. Aside from this belief, there are also other practical reasons why the coffins of these dead people were hanged and not buried.

Hanging Coffins
By hanging corpses, they are kept safe from tribal headhunters.

For example, Igorots are aware of the fact that when a dead body is buried, it will decompose quickly. Thus, hanging their dead loved ones on the side of the cliffs is just a way to prolong the life of their physical bodies. In addition, in the days when headhunting was commonly practiced, buried corpses were easy targets. But hanged corpses are safe and secure from the threats of the headhunters.


A Fascinating Burial Custom

While the hanging coffins of Sagada is indeed a fascinating funeral or burial custom there are still many questions about it that haven’t been answered yet to these days. For one, people in Sagada claim that these coffins are 2000 years old but they have nothing to show to prove such claim. However, it is important to note that this kind of funeral practice originated in China especially in the tribes of Guyue and Bo.

Similarly, these Chinese tribes also bury their dead on the side of the cliff. Moreover, some of the coffins can be dated back to the Zhou Dynasty (1027 to 777 BC). Thus, it can be plausible to note that contact between the tribes of China and the tribes of Sagada allowed the diffusion of such kind of burial custom. The most intriguing question so far is this: why do the people of Sagada practice this kind of burial procedure?

hanging coffins
Hanging coffins from Bo tribes in China.

Aside from being a customary practice, China’s historical sources said that the Bo tribe believed auspiciousness is achieved when coffins are hanged on the cliffs or set on high places. It is through this manner in which the Bo tribe gets the chance to enjoy quiet and peaceful life after death. In the pre-modern times, burial customs and traditions were commonly associated with ritual and religious beliefs.

Therefore, one can simply think that the Igorots probably had ideological reasons for practicing this kind of burial custom along with the other practical reasons that were mentioned. And since documents and written evidence lack to prove these reasons, people can continue to see this thing as a product of speculations. But with the continued observation of such practice in Sagada, it can be continuously recorded and orally passed to the next generations. Yet the decreasing number of people who practice this funeral custom means that such kind of custom is nearing to its extinction.

The Old Fashioned Tattoo Artists of Sagada

Local visitors and tourists are not only attracted by Sagada’s hanging coffins but by its old fashioned tattoo artists as well. During these days, a lot of people from different points of origin travel to Sagada, Mountain Province and its neighboring towns because of the famous old fashioned tattoo artists who are still doing tattoo art the old fashion way. Visitors either want to witness or participate in this town’s unique tattoo design which is locally called ‘batok.’

hanging coffins
You choose your design from this.

According to historians Sagada is a home to great tribal warriors. For the fiercest men in the tribe, a tattoo art on their skin symbolizes courage and bravery. And on the side of the women, a tattoo art portrays elegance and beauty. Tattooing is a tradition, a kind of status symbol that members of the community admire. To these days, tattooing is currently continued by the remaining tattoo artists in Sagada and other neighboring towns and provinces. People who perform tattoo art are called ‘mambabatok.’

Sagada’s Tattoo Artists and their Traditional Tattoo Culture

Up to the present days, traditional tattoo culture is still currently practiced up in the mountains of Sagada and other neighboring towns and provinces. Roaming around you will see men and women especially the elderly ones who carry distinct and unique tribal tattoos on their arms and chests, covering almost their entire body. In Sagada, such tattoo arts found on the skin of these local residents are artistically made by traditional tattoo artists or ‘mambabatoks.’

Many mambabatoks have already passed away and the last one to live and continues the art of tattooing in a traditional manner is known as Apo Whang-Od from the Butbut tribe of Buscalan. According to those who have already visited this last living traditional artist, getting to her place is similar to a pilgrimage made by many travelers.

Tattoo artists of Sagada
Apo Whang Od was 97 years old as of this writing.

From Manila, the Philippines’ capital city, one has to travel for ten hours and another three-hour top-load trip and finally, another three-hour trek to reach the traditional tattoo artist’s place. In totality, sixteen hours have to be consumed to be able to reach, witness or participate in the traditional tattooing made by the last mambabatok.

Apo Whang-Od is now in her mid-nineties but the craft in tattooing still lingers in her veins and still as impressive as ever. Looking at this old woman you will notice that her entire body is covered with tattoo art in different kinds of tribal patterns. These patterns have long been etched on her skin many, many years ago but it is interesting to note that their design and tint are still clear and dominant.

hanging coffins
The three dots are Apo Whang Od’s insignia.

Without the existence of Apo Whang-Od, traditional tattooing might have already been forgotten. But this lady mambabatok is wise enough to continue this tradition that should never vanish away even in the future. On account to this, she made it possible to give the right and proper training to her grandniece, a nineteen-year old girl named Grace Palicas.

Mambabatok, Grace Palicas
Grace Palicas with Apo Whang Od. Picture bye Geraldine Carney.


While still young at the age of nineteen, Grace has already inherited much of Apo Whang-Od’s skills and knowledge in the field of traditional tattooing. In fact, Grace has been invited many times to Manila to join ‘Dutdutan,’ a popular tattoo festival in the Philippines. Apo Whang-od and her grandniece will successfully continue their tradition, practicing the craft for years and years to come.


The Tattoo Session

The moment you set your foot on Buscalan you will be welcomed by the tapping of Apo Whang-Od’s bamboo stick. The sound itself is good enough to make you feel nervous and excited at the same time. Apo Whang-Od’s tattoo sessions are usually done in a quiet place or just in front of her home. When she’s done with her daily routine like drinking brewed coffee and feeding her chickens, her entire day will soon be occupied with non-stop traditional tattoo sessions.

traditional tattoo Kalinga
Once the design is on your skin, the tapping begins.

She attaches a citrus tree thorn to the end of a foot-long bamboo stick. The thorn is then dipped in charcoal ink. She then continuously taps the bamboo stick along the pattern to inject the thorn with ink, deep into the skin. Apo Whang-Od repeats the process until she is satisfied with the results.


Sagada: a Place for Artists and People Looking for Spiritual Meaning

The spiritual significance of art or any custom is well-documented. They are indeed life-changing that other people may see them as just mere traditions, customs or art. That said, the life-changing quality of something and the feeling of being reached by a specific object, custom or work of art cannot be denied. The spiritual power cannot be denied. Such artworks and customs made by the people of Sagada touched many people on an inner level.

Basically, the interesting things that you see in Sagada can move viewers on a purely emotional level. This does not necessarily refer to the religious aspects of spirituality. It is in terms of how a particular custom, tradition or work of art can touch someone on the inside, establishing a connection that cultivates change within him.

hanging coffins, Sagada
Rice Terraces abound in Sagada.

With such thoughts, Sagada is indeed a place for the artists and those who are looking for life’s true spiritual meaning.


How to Go to Sagada?

Sagada embraces visitors with its warm hospitality made by the locals and complemented by its grandeur and beauty at the same time. Undoubtedly, this mountain town’s charm is incomparable to other tourist destinations in the Philippines, making it as one of the favorite Philippine attractions by both local and foreign visitors. Whether you’re an adventurer, a laid-back traveler, young or old of any background or age, Sagada has a definite place for you here.

From Manila, you can reach Sagada by bus via Banaue and Bontoc, Mountain Province. Alternatively, Sagada is also reachable either via Banaue, Bontoc and Baguio with almost the same fare rate and travel time. From Manila, you can travel to Baguio by way of Dagupan Bus, Philippine Rabbit Bus, Dangwa Transit, Saulog Bus or Genesis Bus.

If you are traveling from Bontoc, you can catch a jeep to Sagada. Jeepneys leave Bontoc on an hourly basis starting from six o’clock in the morning to one o’clock in the afternoon. Travel time is approximately an hour.

hanging coffins
Colourful jeeps from Bontoc to Sagada.

Now if you have the plan to see one of the wonders of the world, the Banawe Rice Terraces, apart from visiting Sagada, the Banaue route is best for you. Dangwa Transit and Ohayami Bus travel from Manila to Banaue with three departures starting from 8PM. From Banaue, you can hire a tricycle to be able to get to the town proper and to catch a jeep or bus that leads to Bontoc. The bus or jeep will stop near the municipal hall of Bontoc and from there you can board a jeep to Sagada. You may also want to ride atop of a jeepney to enjoy the scenic view and the glorious clouds of Bayyo and Bontoc.

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