During the 2020 pandemic, as lockdowns shut down normal routines and most people became cooped up, I observed a resurgence of hobbyists – and blade collectors were no exception. The mixed media of forged steel, wood, and other materials culminate in a sharp and highly capable tool. Traditional blades (which I term as “Filipino blades”) are made using indigenous materials, tools, and smithing methods. While not as glitzy and sophisticated as foreign or custom blade builds, there’s something in Filipino blades that emphasize a unique identity. Perhaps it’s the diskarte of the panday (indigenous blacksmith) and artisans in making do with simple yet sturdy materials, the long hammering and grinding process, or the cultural flavors embedded in hilt and scabbard design.
There are collectors whose primary aim is to display or educate, and their pieces are arrayed inside private museums, trophy rooms, or simply hung on house walls. Others collect blades to learn proper wield and cutting, either for bushcraft tasks or martial arts training.
My main interest is classifying old Filipino fighting blades via historical and cultural research. “Take apart and analyze each component” is the valuable advice of Sali Style Nagarajen, my mentor and foremost Filipino blade expert. Based in the United States, Mr. Nagarajen and his group have been quietly acquiring and studying Filipino blades since the 1990s. They’ve been acknowledged by local and foreign academics for their pivotal contributions in Filipino blade research.
Majority of our antique Filipino blades fell into colonial hands – first, Spain, then shortly afterwards, the United States. These migrant blades are collectively dubbed as “bringbacks,” a popular term of US soldiers for Filipino blades which were acquired as war loot, gifts, or trade with pandays and artisans. US blade shows, militaria auctions, and eBay are swimming with used but still-sharp Philippine cultural artifacts. The most highly-prized blades come from the Bangsamoro, who’ve earned the admiration of colonizers for their fierce and tireless resistance of Mindanao and Sulu.
Proper classification of a Filipino blade is a thesis unto itself. What makes the classification process complicated are blade variations across the provincial and even municipal level. For example, the dahong palay is a common blade profile that occurs across Luzon. However, each town has a different take on component materials and measurements, blade profile, hilt construction, and scabbard signature. Then there’s an added layer of complexity when analyzing old blades. Traditionally, Filipino blades were made by a minimum of three people: the blacksmith, the hilt-maker, and the scabbard-maker. Components were usually crafted and assembled in one place, but there were cases when components were made in different areas – or different eras! Hilts and scabbards – collectively called as the “dress” of a blade – could be replaced by necessity (wear and tear) or by choice (wielder’s preferences).
Filipino blade researchers study hundreds of samples in order to observe evolution through different historical periods and account for area-based variations. All possible permutations must be considered to arrive at a logical and accurate blade classification.
The story of Filipino blades is intertwined not only with our rich indigenous cultures, but also with significant historical events. As the flames of revolt spread in the Philippines during the colonial eras, farm bolos evolved into fighting blades. There were thin and light blades used for dueling and light combat, while there were also heavy and thick blades for war.
The old pandays and artisans knew their stuff when it came to blade and hilt construction. I was taught by Zel Umali (an authority on Panay, Negros, and Batangas blades) on the hows and whys of blade restoration. Rejuvenating the luster of various components is like resurrecting the art of a bygone era. To cite a few, there’s the elegantly carved ivory pommel on Sulu kalis, the resilient rattan-wrapped ferrules on Visayan sundang, and the carved carabao-horn hilts on Luzon bolos. Antique blades can be acid-etched to reveal the random or deliberate patterns of laminated steel, a testament to the skill and ingenuity of our pandays.
Consistent with the thousands of islands in the Philippine archipelago, there’s a dizzying assemblage of Filipino blades and voluminous blade terminologies. Itak, buneng, barang, palang, gulok, minasbad, pinuti, talibong, sundang – these general blade terms can be encountered across the archipelago. The wide scope of Filipino blade etymology is currently being researched and classified by Lorenz Lasco, a Philippine-based scholar who’s studied and repatriated hundreds of antique Filipino blades. Unlike other areas of indigenous cultural research, there are very few Filipino-authored academic publications that focus on the classification of Filipino blades. To date, there’s only one major publication with several academic articles and a wealth of pictures: A Warrior’s Armament and Ornament: The Edwin R. Bautista Collection of Philippine Bladed Weapons, published by the Museo ng Kaalamang Katutubo in 2020.
Aside from print media, there are social media resources such as Filipino Traditional Blades (FTB), a Facebook page run by Randy Salazar and his group of professional outdoorsmen. They work closely with Mr. Nagarajen to further Filipino blade research on Philippine soil. So far, they have unearthed modern iterations of old blades, rediscovered blade-related oral traditions, and profiled previously-unknown pandays and artisans. They also observed how the traditional ways of bladesmithing have evolved, thanks to the availability of modern tools and machines. FTB’s page supplies the public with data gleaned from on-the-ground “blade hunts,” and has become a popular resource for blade collectors hungry for knowledge and traditional blade sources.
Collecting Filipino blades requires time, effort, and resources. The benefits of studying them are manifold – proper use of bladed tools, awareness of historical and cultural significance, and utility or self-defense applications. Filipino blade collectors hold a sharp and tangible legacy to be used, treasured, and preserved.
This article is dedicated to Lola Tiktik and Lolo Mele, the author’s Batangueno grandparents. The author wishes to thank all the people who supported and enriched his blade hobby: his wife, Paola, his parents, Ray and Vernie, and the family of Prof. Juan Lim. He also wishes to thank his other mentors: Braulio Agudelo, Prof. Felipe Jocano, Jr., Elrik and Franz Jundis, Virgil Mayor Apostol, Jesus Salon, and the late Dr. Doreen Fernandez. When the blades are in their scabbards, the author manages three very active children, and works full-time at TaskUs, Inc.
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