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This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org

It is quite difficult to write on something in which everybody claims to be an expert at. As a matter of fact, this post has been in my dashboard for more than 4 months already.  It has never been touched since I prepared the image on the lower right.

There is a resurgence of interest on Pre-Hispanic Philippine syllabaries (baybayin or surat).  This interest is very much welcomed.  Anything that is older than Philippines 1521 is something worth exploring and analyzing.

This post is about a lonely pot found in Calatagan whose surat has eluded decipherment. The Calatagan pot has 40 symbols and 14 of these are unique. Although questions about its authenticity is still very valid,  many believed that it would be difficult to fake the inscription.

This is the first part of a two-part post on the Calatagan pot.  In this part, I write the Visayan reading of the pot’s inscription while the second part will deal with the internal coherence and anthropological testing of the proposed reading.

Calatagan pot inscription (circular, original; linear, by the authors). The circle is the rim of the pot. Courtesy: Guillermo, J. Southeast Asian Studies 42, 2011.

Guillermo, and Paluga of the University of the Philippines Diliman, writing in the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies [1], give a ‘tentative’ reading of the markings on the Calatagan pot.   Using a combination of traditional palaeographic techniques and cryptographic methods, they propose this :

Gana Bisa Kata 
Duna kita’y halabas 
Yawa, sala, kakaga 
Yamyam la ni Manugdait 
Kita sana magbasa 
Barang king banga

and the translation,

Gana Bisa Kata [Powerful is Gana’s Word]
We have a sword
Evil, faults, falsehood
Just chant this, Shaman(s)
Let us read the signs
Spell/power of this pot!

The authors build upon the earlier works of J. Francisco and Q. Fortich Oropilla.  J. Francisco wasn’t able to make a decipherment of the inscription because there was an error in transcription. But the authors used 5 of Francisco’s identifications which were from the baybayin.  On the other hand, 4 identifications from Orpilla were used by the authors.  These 4 identifications were from the close comparison of the Calatagan script with the Tagalog Doctrina Christiana script.

Oropilla by the way, has a book on his reading of the Calatagan pot based on the Pangasinan language. Guillermo and Paluga’s version however,  is the only reading that has been scrutinized in the Philippines and by the best known experts in the Southeast Asian field.

To settle the question of a correct transcription, the authors photographed and analyzed the image again.   This also helps the authors know the direction of writing.  Should the reading be clockwise or counter clockwise? The assumption is that the direction of writing is also the direction of how it should be read.

The authors used a clockwise reading against the counter-clockwise reading by Oropilla.  They said that 1) the overshooting of the inscription tells you that these symbols are the last to be written; and 2) the writing becomes shallow as one circles from the left to the right as seen in their photos.

Two symbols were deciphered by inverting them and comparing against other known written symbols.

The fifth line was used by  the authors to get the remaining unknowns. The fifth line has only 2 unknowns. They get all possible reading of the fifth line and they zero in on the one that is intelligible.  From here, they obtain the equivalent of the remaining unknown symbols.

la or ya?

All in all, the authors were able recognize 4 more symbols while still guessing on a 5th symbol, the la.

The authors then put these together to come up with their reading.

So what makes it VISAYA?

da. Courtesy: Guillermo, J. Southeast Asian Studies 42, 2011.

The symbol for da was the clue for the authors to read the inscription in Visaya.  They said, “only the Visayan syllabaries possessed this form of da.”

The Calatagan symbol for da traces its antecedents from as far back as the 1st century.  The difference however is the opening of the round portion.  The Calatagan symbol has an opening to the left while the other inscriptions from Southeast Asia opens to the right.

By using Visayan as the base language, they were able to translate the Calatagan pot inscriptions. Note that the first line actually is not Visayan but of Malay-Javanese origin.  Here is the proposed line by line translation with dictionary meanings.

Courtesy: Guillermo, J. Southeast Asian Studies 42, 2011.

So, how did a Visayan pot get to Luzon?

According to Guillermo, “No one knows the details. However, the Visayans are the most sea-faring (historically) of the early Filipinos. Most historians of Southeast Asia nowadays emphasize this kind of mobility as opposed to our modern-day landlocked mentality in Luzon.”

Anybody can give a reading of an old, mysterious script. However, it is important 1) to test for internal coherence of the text and 2) to compare to anthropological elements.

I will write how the authors test their reading. The test is actually exhaustive and hence, merits another post.  (Click here to go to that post.)


Here are some juicy trivia I pick up while reading this paper.

1) Jose Rizal proposed a Tagalog orthography based on baybayin.

2) Surat is not a Sanskrit loanword and thus must have existed before the Indian-based script.

3) There are at least 4 major theories on the origin of baybayin. These are 1) direct introduction from India; 2) development from  the Buginese scripts and Javanese alphabets; 3) descent from Sumatran writing systems; and 4) derivation from scripts of mainland Southeast Asia, in particular from Cham.

[1] Guillermo, R., & Paluga, M. (2011). Barang king banga: A Visayan language reading of the Calatagan pot inscription (CPI) Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 42 (01), 121-159 DOI: 10.1017/S0022463410000561

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