In the Philippines, fluvial festivities are also observed with much folk revelry especially in provinces with river towns like Bocaue (Bulacan) and Peñafrancia (Bicol). But in terms of mass fervor , unabashed excitement and elaborate preparation rituals, nothing beats the celebration of the fiesta of Apalit, highlighted by a traditional river procession of its pintakasi, Saint Peter or Apung Iru, on the waters of Pampanga River.
Held every last week-end of June (28-29 this year), the fluvial rites may have begun as a primitive festival to honor the many gods of nature that our ancestors worshipped. With the coming of our Spanish colonizers, the rites could have merged with Christian elements, mutating into the distinctive folk festival that we know today. In the midst of all these is the one object of the townsfolk’s deep veneration--the age-old ivory image of the titular patron, Apung Iru, originally owned since the early 1800s by Apalit’s eminent family, the Arnedos.
The life-size image shows a seated Saint Peter, complete with papal accouterments: a gold crown, cape, ring and staff. The santo is housed in the Capalangan barrio chapel after a fire gutted the private shrine where it used to reside. The religious pageant begins with a town procession of the santo, carried by members of the Knights of Saint Peter. Then, the sacred image is brought to the river bank of Sulipan where as much as five thousand people and a flotilla of boats wait with eager frenzy for the saint’s arrival. It is here where the libad or fluvial parade begins.
Anticipation mounts as Apung Iru is transferred from a wooden boat to a processional pagoda decorated with multi-colored flowers. Swimmers fill the river to assist in the smooth conveyance of Apung Iru. With the image enthroned, the floating pagoda begins its 7-kilometer, 2-hour journey to San Simon town. From the banks of the river, throngs would acknowledge the passing Apung Iru by waving leafy branches and fronds or by making the sign of the cross. With excitement reaching fever pitch, brave souls would dunk themselves in the waters of the river, unmindful of the danger, swimming alongside the flotilla as hundreds more throw food offerings to water-drenched devotees.
It is interesting to note that in Christian Goa, India, a similar fluvial festival is observed every 29 June to honor Saints Peter and Paul and to welcome the monsoon. Fishermen from the large fishing families of Bardez taluka would lash their boats together to form rafts on which religious presentations were made. From the 17th to the 19th century, Goa was a major center for ivory; could the fine ivory used in carving the image of Apung Iru have originated from this former Portuguese colony?
Whatever, Apalit’s ancient way of paying homage to Apu Iru remains unrivalled in color and spirit, and, flavored with the Kapampangan’s zest for living and feasting, continues to be a unique, mind-boggling experience that mixes deep religiosity with riotous revelry!
(5 July 2003)