Monday, November 08, 2010

Taal Basilica

I visited the majestic basilica of Taal, in my father's province of Batangas, six months ago. The town is old, rustic, and crammed full of history. Traditionally, Taal was known as the home of the aristocracy of Batangas; it was home to mestizos and Spaniards, the cream of the crop in the highly stratified Philippine society of the 19th century. Many old houses survived the ravages of the War and are still extant in the town, although signs of decay have taken root as well. Case in point: the plaza that fronted the basilica now has a rather ugly and ill-maintained basketball court. Still, the basilica remains noble and stoic, like a grand old dame crusted with age and yet still wielding an awful majesty. Not for naught was it once held as the biggest church in all of Asia.

We arrived in Taal fifteen minutes before five in the afternoon. Apparently, the anticipated Mass was due to start in a bit; we saw altar boys in burgundy cassocks and lace surplices hurrying back and forth to the sacristy, carrying with them the ciriales-- two silver torches and a venerable old processional crucifix. The crowd was very thin-- the basilica can probably hold a thousand people at least on any given day, but there were only fifty at most present at the Mass. I was later told that anticipated Masses were abhorrent to the generally conservative outlook of the Taalenos, who still preferred to worship at first light of dawn.

That done, we then proceeded to a smaller church, also in Taal, the Shrine of Nuestra Senora de Caysasay. Local legend holds that a fisherman once fished the image of Our Lady-- which was all of a foot tall-- from the sea and decided to bring it back to town to honor it. The Lady, however, was said to have disappeared; the locals still say that the Virgin of Caysasay likes to take walks in the town of Taal at night, mirroring many popular legends of miraculous images in the Philippines. By the time we had reached the shrine, though, it was already sunset, and I was not able to take enough pictures.

Rather curiously, the shrine of Our Lady is connected to the Basilica itself by a secret stair that descended from the grounds of the Basilica at the top, and wound itself along a hidden road, till at last it reached the little shrine below. Historically, this may be attributable to the fact that Taal was once divided between the town proper-- the area above, where the old money families lived-- and the so-called 'labac', the 'lowlands', where the common folk lived. Older Batanguenos still say that the old folk of Taal guarded their privileged status with a vengeance; they suffered none of the Chinese working class to enter the premises of the town proper, and any who did so almost always met certain death, by way of the balisong (Filipino fan knife).

It is said that the Virgin of Caysasay was once brought to the basilica; whereupon it escaped, and disappeared for some time. Years passed before two sisters discovered the image of the Virgin in a tree; and henceforth, it was decided that the Virgin would stay in the Labac. The locals eventually built a small shrine in honor of the equally small-statured Virgin. The old money families of Taal have long since fallen from their untouchable positions, and their fortunes gradually eclipsed by the industrious Chinese-Filipinos. But I am told that the Chinoys would still rather worship at the little shrine beneath the majestic basilica.

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