The Draw of a 'Holy Mountain'

Mount Banahaw, Philippines

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Praying at an altar at the Saint Lucia waterfalls on Mount Banahaw.

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Three volcanic mountains—Makiling, Banahaw, and San Cristóbal—dominate the otherwise flat landscape about 50 miles south of Manila in the Philippines.

A mix of Spanish, precolonial, and contemporary myths holds that Makiling's native spirit is a fairylike creature whose silhouette can be seen at rest atop the volcano's rugged peak, while the muse of Banahaw is a gruff warrior who battles with the maid of Makiling for ownership of the clouds. The spirit of San Cristóbal is said to be a Bigfoot-like, mischief-making monster who once wrestled with Banahaw for ownership of water flowing through the mountain's streams and waterfalls. Today, Mount Banahaw is blessed with water; Mount San Cristóbal is dry.

Local religious folklore, strongly infused with Spanish colonial Roman Catholicism and the martyrdom mythos of nationalist revolutionaries, has latched on to Banahaw as the "holy mountain," a place that radiates ancient powers of healing and redemption. Although far less well known than more famous sites associated with healing miracles, such as Lourdes in France, it draws both pilgrims and trekkers, the faithful and the curious, the sick praying for a miracle and foreigners drawn by the mystical legends of this place.

Amid towns and villages on Banahaw's slopes, there are monasteries and churches of the "Rizalistas," one of many sects in the region venerating nationalist hero José Rizal, who was born in the nearby town of Calamba and executed in Manila by the Spanish in 1896 for writing insurgent literature. The Rizalistas themselves are divided into diverse subsects, worshiping Rizal as revolutionary, saint, or reincarnation of Jesus, with Banahaw as their "New Jerusalem."

Special places. Any of these churches gladly provides a guide, called a pator, who takes travelers on a tour of Banahaw's holy sites, called puwestos, to be visited in a sequence similar to the tradition of the Way of the Cross in Jerusalem. The puwestos are mainly natural features of the mountain: rocks, caves, waterfalls, even Banahaw's own peak. Some rock formations are noted for their resemblance to human features, such as those of the Virgin Mary or a saint. A spring in the shape of a giant footprint is called Bakas ni Kristo, literally Christ's Footprint.

Pilgrims can wiggle through a cave called Kalbaryos, or Calvary, a narrow tunnel in the rock through which one must slide sideways, each successful passage earning the traveler an indulgence worth seven years of forgiveness for all sins. In another nearby cave, pators take pilgrims down a ladder to a tiny but deep pit in the rock filled with cloudy spring water said to have miraculous healing powers for those who dip themselves in it seven times.

Many stories of Banahaw's powers hark back to pre-Christian animist stories handed down by oral tradition—stories that have survived and evolved to unite those in the area of different faiths around their spiritual mountain, drawing others from the Philippines and abroad to see if the power is truly there.