Friday, August 18, 2006

Mountain of myths

Ever since I can remember, Mount Arayat has been my one and only constant visual reference of Pampanga. It was the mountain of my childhood, the mountain I passed by thousands of times each morning in my daily commutes to Angeles, and in my college years -- the mountain that signalled to me “You’re almost home”, as I rode a Philippine Rabbit bus from Baguio. Indeed, the ancients considered old bunduk Alaya the navel of the earth, from which all directions, all movements of the Kapampangan universe were reckoned. Arayat was, and still is Pampanga’s most famous landmark, a twin-coned mountain that dominated our eastern landscape rising in solitary majesty from the flatlands unlike the Zambales mountain range—although Pinatubo took a bit of the limelight away from her with its 1991 eruption.

Nevertheless, Arayat was the original, a 3,564 foot high natural wonder that inspired the many myths and stories I heard with fascination in my youth. In the turbulent 70s, I found quiet entertainment in my Classics Illustrated fairy tale comic books which recounted immortal tales of Greek gods and heroes. In my child’s mind, Arayat became my Olympus, the abode of gods and the scene of their thousand and one adventures. Early on, we thrilled to the tale of the Kapampangan sun god Sinukuan who was supposedly imprisoned in a cave sealed with a “white rock” visible on the mountain side. (The “White Rock” became a bastion for Kapampangan revolucionarios in our wars with Spain, America and the Japanese). If Olympus had Vulcan working in the bowels of the mountain, we had our own fabled Sinukuan trapped inside Arayat’s belly. On car rides to Manila, we would actually inspect the white speck on Arayat from afar, although the resolution of the legend was never clear to us. There was also a vague story about an ancient battle between Apung Pinatubu and Apung Sinukuan, with the two giant creatures engaging in a rock-throwing fight that went on for days.

Another Sinukuan also figured in a legend that will rival that of Mariang Makiling. Mariang Sinukuan, it is said, was in fact, Maria Makiling’s sister who made Arayat her home. She made the forest primeval thrive with fruit-bearing trees which she cared for daily. A person who eats the juicy fruit is liable to get lost forever in the woods.It is also claimed that one can see from atop the mountain the silhouette of Mariang Sinukuan in quiet repose.

My imagination often ran wild when it came to musings about the day when Arayat would blow its top. Would it be something like the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius which swallowed whole towns as recounted in my Classics Illustrated comic book “Last Days of Pompeii?” In actuality though, Arayat is quite an extinct volcano whose last eruption was over 500,000 years ago. But then again, the Pinatubo eruption, dormant for over 600 years, is a grim reminder of the fickleness of Mother Nature.

In the 1950s to the 1970s, Arayat took on another unflattering monicker—Huk Mountain, a lair of communist activities and a hideout for the country’s peasant rebels. But it quickly shed off this image with the establishment of tourist-friendly ecopark---the Mount Arayat National Park in Barrio San Juan Baño, which boasts of natural pools, refreshing springs, picnic areas and mountain trails. To this day, Arayat is a favorite haunt of mountaineers and campers. Within its forest sanctuary are animals like local civet or musang, wild boar, monkeys and rarely-seen birds like the delectable pasdan.

Like Mount Banahaw, Arayat too has a mystical side for it is in her foothills that Rizalistas gather every December to honor the national hero in quiet ceremonies. The cult was brought to Arayat by the late Apo or Mahal na Inang Birhen Sinukuan in 1947, acknowledged as Rizal’s female incarnation. An earlier cult leader, Felipe Salvador, who established “Santa Iglesia” in the 1890s in Apalit and who organized a peasant guerrilla warfare against the Americans, relocated his church to Arayat as well. It comes as no surprise that Leo Parungao, a former press secretary and journalist known for his paranormal research and writing is from this town.

To remind myself how beautiful Pampanga is amidst the rising concrete jungles and the crowded megamalls that are threatening to cover our landscape, I need only to drive through Clark and exit through the Mabalacat or Main Gate, look through my car window where I can have a grand view of my mountain of legend and lore, of my past and present, the enduring symbol of all things Kapampangan: Arayat!

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