Monday, January 5, 2009

The old is new again (part 1): Unearthing a lost church

I'm a huge fan of archaeology, and when it happens in my own backyard, can you just imagine the palpitations and cold sweat?

Every summer when we were kids, we would often go to the town of San Nicolas, five or so kilometers from my hometown of Taal, Batangas, to swim in the Taal Lake, from where we could see Taal Volcano and Mt. Maculot. Near the beach by the roadside, we would often gaze at this massive wall covered with vines and thick vegetation, and would wonder, "what was that?" The old folks would say that it used to be a church, but no one knew for sure since nobody alive saw it as a structure. It had always been a wall, since before World War II, since before the turn of the 20th century, since anybody could recall asking their great grandparents about it.

A couple of months ago, a cousin of mine who lives in San Nicolas said they just had mass at the unearthed church. I was like, "what??" Excavated? Finally? I knew I had to visit and see for myself this place that had always been in the subconscious of many generations of people in our part of Batangas.

It was indeed a church. Tarpaulins put up around the site confirm that the structure was none other than the old church of "Lumang Taal" ("Old Taal"), erected in 1575 under the supervision of Father Diego Espina, an Augustinian friar. It was destroyed in 1754 during a cataclysmic eruption of Taal Volcano.

Indeed, that particular eruption of the volcano has become legendary, not only because it destroyed many towns in its environs, but also because it caused the Taal Lake to rise, submerging the destroyed towns for eternity, depriving future generations of the chance to explore these towns as they are now under the dark waters of the lake. (If you want to read more about Taal Lake and its lost towns, hunt down the excellent "The Mysteries of Taal" published by Anvil). The eruption and the rising tides forced the survivors to relocate the towns of Taal and Lipa to their present sites. The Spanish had since constructed a new church for Taal, the mighty Basilica of St. Martin of Tours, the biggest catholic church in Asia.

Being used to massive Spanish-era churches in the Philippines, I thought the old church was small in comparison. But of course, since these are ruins, there's the possibility that I may have been standing only on the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. What if this was only the belfry? Who knows? (If anybody involved in the excavation is reading this, I would greatly appreciate more information).

I couldn't help but feel privileged to have the whole place to myself when I visited, knowing that for hundreds of years, this place was just a rumor, an enigma. I also couldn't help but imagine how it might have felt like during that fateful day when the volcano exploded. Were there people here when it rained rocks and fire? This was a church after all, a place of refuge in times of distress? How many were killed?

I also thought about the Filipinos who were probably forced to haul all those boulders and corals to build this church. Spanish churches in the Philippines are not just places of worship. They were also graveyards of poor Filipinos forced to work as slaves for the glory of Spain.

Like many towns in this part of Batangas province, the town of San Nicolas used to be just a barrio of Taal. It still feels like a small village. It's that sort of place where young people still refer to young women as "mga dalaga," and to young men as "mga binata," with no hint of irony. Getting a ride to the next town is a longish wait. The main source of livelihood in the town is fishing, specifically tilapia farming. There are well-to-do people in San Nicolas, families whose wealth is determined by how many of their children are currently working in America or in the Middle East.

I walked towards the lakeside and immediately felt the cold wind on my face. We used to swim in these waters, but the old resort has now been abandoned, as the fish pens took over. There's now a decent sort-of park, deserted, probably a nice place to unwind if you're from the city, but I can't imagine the folks around here actually sitting on the benches and marveling at the volcano and the lake that have decided their fate for as long as anyone can remember.

In spite of how the sun shines across its surface, the Taal lake remains a scary beast. It remains mysterious, intriguing. It will no doubt continue to fascinate archaeologists and historians for generations to come, who will only be able to wonder what secrets remain hidden beneath its dark and perilous waters.

(Click any image to see more photos)
(Click any image to see more photos)


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