Old Ifugao Traditions - BOGWA
(Bone Cleansing Ritual)
By Anderson D. Tuguinay

“Bogwa” is the practice of exhuming the bones of the dead, cleaning, rewrapping and returning them to the grave or “lubuk. The Ifugao is one of the ethnic groups in the Cordillera region of the Philippines that practice this tradition of exhuming their dead usually after a year or more depending on the desire and necessity. The Ifugaos traditionally see it as a family responsibility towards the deceased loved one and a necessity for those left behind in order to prosper and live at peace with the spirits of their departed. With all the animals offered to appease the spirits of the dead, the bogwa is one of the most expensive native rituals next to a wedding. Three days of feasting rather than mourning is expected and an open invitation is extended to everyone within or outside the community. Performing bogwa shows not only the love and care to a family member even though he died several years ago but also the concern, love, care and hope for prosperous years for the living ones. Bogwa repeats the normal burial ceremonies and activities when they died without the expression of grief.

Ifugaos before western influence did not embalm their dead nor place it inside coffins. Instead, the corpse is bathed and clothed with the traditional g-string or “binuh-lan” for men and “ampuy-yo” for women. The deceased is seated in betel nut trunks called hadag fabricated under the house or da-ulon. With the absence of embalming chemicals, the corpse decay fast and only the bones remain in the tomb after year duration. Traditionally, early Ifugaos would just open up the tomb (lu-buk/gu-ngat), gather up the bones (tinip-lud) and after cleaning, wrap it in a new burial blanket called gamong. The bones are not brought to the residence for the bogwa but instead returned immediately to the grave. A pig is butchered as an offering to the dead. This is called “pinapong-pong” meaning to take hold or to grasp. It is believed that the sacrificed pig is given to the spirit of the dead who thereby brings it to his ancestors. The “bogwa” comes in later either by necessity or obligation.

Because of current legally required embalming practices, the cadaver is still intact and mummified even after two years, thus the decimation of the “tinip-lud” practice. When the “bogwa” ritual becomes a necessity, the bones have to be separated from the mummified cadaver. The bones have to be forced out from the sockets and the flesh to be scraped out with the use of knives and other instruments. Sometimes the hair and the face are still intact and recognizable but with the tradition, the skin and the hair have to be removed as a requirement for cleaning. The bones are then cleaned and neatly arranged in a new gamong with the leg bones (femur, tibia and fibula) first. The arm bones (humerus, ulna and radius) come in next. Pelvic, rib and other loose bones are gathered in the center of the piled bones. The skull comes finally on top. The burial blanket is folded wrapping the bones in place and carried to the residence for the “bogwa”. Several persons gathered for the wake that would consist of three days and two nights. During the “bogwa”, it is the obligation of the family to serve dinner to persons attending the wake. Snacks, confectioneries and alcoholic beverages are also served. “Hud-hud” is sung nightly by elderly folks who come in droves to attend the wake. Christian religious groups also participate by praying the rosary and singing religious songs during the wake. A “bogwa” is characterized by presence of several persons day and night, as it is customary that even in the wee hours of the morning several persons are seen gathered to where the bones are laid.

Customary to Ifugao traditions, the grave is opened in the morning. The bones are cleaned, wrapped in a new “gamong” and brought to the residence for the “bogwa”. This ritual could be a day wherein the bones are brought back to the grave in the afternoon of the following day or it could be up to three days and two nights. During a three day ritual, the first day is called the “boh-wat”, the second day is called the “kad-wa” and the third is called the “kat-lu”. Pigs are butchered everyday with the exception of a carabao or a large pig during the “kat-lu”. A carabao is butchered if the deceased was not given the traditional “dangli” during his death or if the family wishes.

During this occasion, some parts of the animals butchered are given to relatives as a sign of kinship. This is called “bolwa”. The “lapa” (front legs) and “ulpu” (hind legs) are the choice parts for the “bolwa”. The “lapa” (left and right front legs) are given to families related to the father and mother of the deceased. The “ulpu” is given to the persons who are related to the in-laws of the deceased. The rest of the meat is cut into chunks and cooked as viand for people attending the wake. It is the “mun-ngilin” who decides and directs the separation of meat portions intended for the “bolwa”. The separated meat portions are immediately given to the representative of each clan who in turn calls for clan members and divide the meat amongst them.

In the afternoon of the “katlu” (third day) the bones are brought back to the grave with the usual three gongs accompanying the entourage. The bones are positioned inside the grave with the skull facing opposite the grave opening. Family members enter the grave one at a time slightly shaking the skull saying their farewell. When about to close the slab or stones that seals the grave, two “lawit” is lowered inside and pulled briskly when closed. It is believed that the “lawit” will pull back any stray soul of any person who entered the grave either for reason of doing maintenance work or saying their respects. Once the grave is closed, one of the “lawit” is given to a family member or relative who briskly walks ahead without looking back. When the person carrying the “lawit” reaches the residence, he stacks it in the corner of the house. The other “lawit” is left beside the grave door. A “lawit” is a “pu-dung” or a cogon grass, the leafy edge tied in an over hand knot.

The “munbaki” performs the “kib-kib-lu” or closing rite when the family reaches home. In the prayer (baki) of the pagan priest, he asks the “Maknongan” (God) that the “bogwa” benefit the spirit of the deceased and the family. In the “kib-kib-lu” ritual, the jaw bone of the pig butchered during the “katlu” is added to the betel nut (moma), piper betel (hapid) and a bottle of native wine (baya) which are placed in the “liga-u” (rice winnowing tray).

The culminating ritual is the “kig-gad” which is performed a day after the “bogwa”. This is the final and culminating phase. A large rooster (poltan), a large hen (up-pa) and four other medium chickens (umatub-lu) are needed for the ritual. More chickens are added to suffice the viand for those persons present during the ritual which is done by one or two pagan priests. The chicken being offered in the ritual is held by the feet and wings by a person while the “mun-baki” holds the head and incises the neck with a sharp knife. As soon as blood spouts out, the “mun-baki” starts his prayer. The roster and the hen (first and second) are offered to the “mundomod-mang” (genealogy). Only the names of deceased persons are mentioned during the “baki”. The roster and hen are sacrificed one at a time. The third chicken is offered to the “matungulan” or host. It is synonymous to the “maknongan” or supreme god. The “baki” for Matungulan said in part, “dawaton mi ta hay map-map-hod di iliyak ya dumakol di ag-gayam ya imog-mogan”, literally means praying for bountiful harvest and plentiful livestock. Bountiful harvest does not only refer to products from the rice fields but also from the habal or slash and burn agriculture.

The fourth chicken is offered to the “manah-ha-ut” from the Tuwali word “ha-ut” (noun) or “mun-ha-ut” (adjective) meaning to deceive or to cause to believe what is not true. The offering is intended so that the individual or family does not become a victim of deception or false belief. The “mun-ha-ut” symbolizes the fallacies and false belief of an individual that will tend to imperil his aspirations.

The fifth chicken is offered to the “ido”. The “ido” or “pit-pit”, a jargon in the Tuwali –Kiangan dialect is a small boisterous colorful bird with red and black feathers which is regarded as the bird that imparts an omen for a journey. It is believed that when the bird intersects the trail (mun-a-lawa) you are traveling, it is implying a warning that an untoward incident may happen. Traditionally, the traveler used to discontinue the journey or step aside from the trail for a few minutes to let the misfortune pass by. However, if the “ido” moves parallel to the trail seemingly accompanying the person, it is a sign of good luck. Idiomatically, the “ido” symbolizes the obstacles we encounter in our daily life. It is in this offering where the “munbaki” pleads in his prayer (tobotbal) that there will be no obstacles for the individual who toils for his welfare and wellbeing of the family.

The sixth chicken is offered as “paki-dal-da-lanan”. It is derived from the Tuwali word “dalan” (way) or “mun-dal-lanan” (to walk). In essence, it is the relation of an individual with the community and other people. The offering is for the charisma or luck of an individual that he may be blessed in all his undertakings and aspirations.

The bile of the animals and chickens sarificed in the ritual is inspected and given prognosis. Bile which is black and seemingly round, imbedded neatly and covered by the liver lobe is called “mabga”. This is the best prognosis as the offering is well accepted by the one to whom it is offered. If the bile is full but pale in appearance, it is called “im-makig”. The interpretation is that the spirit of the deceased wishes to take one of the family member with him in the unknown world. When the apex of the bile lies exceptionally outside the liver, it is called “mun-dung-dung-o”. It comes from the Tuwali word “dung-o” meaning to peep or looking through from the outside. The prognosis means that the spirit of the deceased is always looking at the family. Another type of bile prognosis is the “nakupo”. This is when the bile is exceptionally pale, thin and without any fluid. It connotes emptiness. Except for the “mab-ga” prognosis, the others are not favorable. Some rituals are recommended to attain bile which is “mab-ga”.

According to Apu Inugwidan, a well respected “munbaki” from Kiangan, Ifugao, there are three reasons why “bogwa” is performed, namely – “ligat” (hardship), when a widower plans to remarry (mun-bintan), and “ule” (kindness). The Tuwali word “ligat” is a synonymous to the Ilocano word “rigat” which means hardship or suffering. A family member who becomes sick is a form of “ligat”. It is believed that a spirit of the dead is causing the illness. It is also manifested in unusual dreams wherein it is believed that a spirit is implying a message. Extreme scenarios could be manifested by paranormal activities such feeling the unusual presence of the spirit (ma-min-da-ang), unexplained hearing of voices or other unusual occurrences. Personal accounts of some individuals who performed the “bogwa” because of unusual occurrences revealed that when the tomb was opened, it was found out to be flooded. It could also be that the grave could be full of ants or termites or a nail from the coffin pressing against the cadaver.

During earlier times when the “baki” was rigorously and meticulously practiced by early Ifugaos, it is customary that the family performs the “ketema” when a family member gets sick. “Ketema” is a “baki” ritual itself which involves the butchering of chickens. It is however more specific in determining who among the spirits of the dead relatives and deities causing the illness. The ritual is performed by three of more pagan priests depending on the necessity. As the ritual gains its momentum, the pagan priest/priestess performing the “ketema” would be more agitated as they mention individually the names of dead relatives and deities. As the pagan ministers chant the “ketema”, one among the persons present in the ritual would suddenly go in a trance, trembles and speaks incoherently which is a sign that the person is possessed (nih-kopan). Through the possessed person, the spirit identifies itself and makes known what he/she wishes to be done. In some instances, the spirit of the dead would request that he/she be brought home for the “bogwa”. The spirit would then leave the possessed person in a daze. So it is from this reason that the family shall perform the “bogwa” as a necessity no matter how costly it may be.

With the decrease of persons knowledgeable in performing the “baki”, families resort to “agba” instead of the costly “ketema” in determining whose remains are to be brought home for the “bogwa”. The “agba” is a method of the “mun-baki” to determine which ancestor is causing the illness. The ritual is done by one “munbaki” (pagan priest) with the use of two eggs, knives and other materials as a sign that the name of a spirit mentioned is the one causing the malady. The ritual starts with a “tobotbal” (prayer). Then the pagan priest one at a time utters the names of deceased relatives and at the same time place two eggs or two knives on top of the other. Surprisingly, when the name of the spirit causing the malady is mentioned, the eggs or knives used in the ritual stand upright on top of each for a few seconds thus giving the prognosis. It is however surprising that the materials used would not stand on top of each other if the name called is not the spirit causing the illness. When the spirit is identified, the “mun-agba” would then act as the medium and informs what the spirit desires or needs to be done. No chicken is sacrificed in this ritual.

Persons who die from violence are buried without the traditional butchering of the carabao called “dangli”. It is however a must that the bones be brought home for the bogwa after a year or more from the date of the burial. Seven to nine days after the victim is buried, the family performs the “opa”. It is a “baki” ritual practically focussed in calling the spirit of the dead to get down from the sky. It is believed that after the person have died from the violent incident, the spirit, after leaving the mortal body wondered up in the sky. Name calling in the ritual sometimes include the names of living persons who help or handled the victim after the incident. When the family feels that it is a necessity to bring home the bones for the bogwa, the opa ritual it is again done in the morning before the bones are brought in the afternoon. A pig is butchered during the opa ritual. A cluster of the red “dongla” leaves are tied to the hilt of the spear which is briskly raised towards the sky in the direction of the sun by the pagan minister who shouts name of the dead person. The spear is abruptly reversed with the blade towards the liga-u (rice winowing tray) shaking it briskly. It is during the bogwa that the traditional “dangli” is finally butchered. The bones are brought back traditionally to the grave after the ritual.

The Tuwali word “u-le” means kindness. The “kadangyan” (wealthy) or financially capable family performs the “bogwa” for no other reason than to maintain the tradition of remembering the dead. This is done as recognition for their wealth and prestige. It is also done as a basis for a reunion of relatives and clans. Ifugaos believe that when the dead are taken cared of and given what is due in a cultural tradition, the kindness shall be returned in the form of peace and prosperity for the family.

Bogwa is still performed by the Ifugaos. Some of the non-Ifugao settlers also perform the “bogwa”. The rituals for the “bogwa” is basically bone cleaning and a repetition of customs and traditions accorded to the recently deceased. The consistency of bogwa shows the love and care to a family member even though he had died several years ago. Bogwa as a tradition is more of a personal responsibility towards a love one rather than performing it as a necessity.

Kiangan, Ifugao, Philippines
01 December 2009


  1. mind for some photos. i need it kasi for homework eh, mabalin??