Bangsa Moro, culture, Newspaper article

The Dragon in Lanao

This is an article I wrote for The Philippine Post (February 26, 2000). I posted this in my websites and in my blog, M-Reality: Body/Mind/Spirit. But in 2009, Blogger removed my blog, as well as numerous other blogs, due to alleged third-party malware. I am re-posting it here. It occupied one whole page in a newspaper. Surely, it deserves a page in the blogosphere.

dragon in lanao 2
The Philippine Post Feb. 26, 2000 

While watching the movie “Anna and the King”, I was amazed at the similarities of Thai and Moro cultures– the parasols, the royal banners, the dances and even the costumes. I realized that indeed, there are a lot of similarities among the Moros, the Indonesians, Malaysians, Borneans, Burmese, Cambodians and Laotians, especially among their royalty and nobility. Perhaps it is because they all belong to the same race — the Southern Mongol race.

One big difference however can be noted between these Muslim and non-Muslim nations: the presence or absence of the dragon in their arts and culture. Among the Muslims – the Moros, the Indonesians, the Borneans and the Malaysians, the dragon appears to be absent in their arts and architecture. On the other hand, in the arts and architecture of the Thais, the Cambodians, etc. are full of dragons just like in the arts and architecture of their racial cousins the Northern Mongols — the Chinese, Tibetans, Mongolians, Japanese, Koreans, etc.


The most logical explanation would be that the introduction of Islam created changes in the art forms of all nations who became Muslims. Images of humans and animals, be they mythical or real, are forbidden in Islam.

In the Arab world, calligraphy and arabesque designs flourished. In the Lanao sultanates, Maranao art is characterized by an S-shaped design known as the niyaga  motif. This geometrical design is found in practically all its art forms. It is however in architecture that it finds its most exalted place. The torogan, the Maranao royal house, would just be an ordinary house if it does not have the panolongs, the carved beams in front of the house. These beams are lavishly carved with the niyaga figure.

The prominence and location of the niyaga-filled panolongs plus the belief by old folks that the niyaga frightens and drives away evil spirits make one think that the niyaga is much more than a geometrical design. In fact, a look at these panolongs would immediately bring in images of the dragon.

dragon panolong
“Ang Dragon” by Clara Marie Asuncion Gonzales

Upon seeing a panolong, artist and web designer Clara Gonzales thought that it was a dragon’s head. Her design, inspired by the torogan‘s panolong, was titled “Ang Dragon.”

Filipino sociologist Prof. Juan Francisco hypothesized that with the coming of Islam, the Sarimanok was transformed into the niyaga, which he called the “metaphysical Sarimanok.” He maintained that this extends Maranao Prof. Nasagura Madale’s suggestion that the Maranaos later recognized their traditional art without regard for religion, and so stylized the niyaga and transformed it into the Sarimanok.

The Sarimanokis a mythical bird which according to legend was the messenger of dragon sarimanokroyalty. It is usually drawn with a fish dangling from its beak and/or from its claws.

It could be a representation of a kingfisher or other birds like hawks which can still be occasionally spotted catching fish from the lake’s surface.

But lovely birds used as messengers of royalty, much like homing pigeons, are not the stuff to frighten away evil spirits. Neither do they qualify to be the guardians of the royal houses. Rather, they are symbols of wealth, rank and status.

dragon leftTherefore, if the niyaga is a stylized representation of the animal guardian, then the Sarimanok would be a poor candidate for it. More probably, the niyaga figure is a stylized form of none other dragon rightthan the ancient protector of royalty, the Oriental dragons.

One time, while discussing the  Chinese year of the dragon, a niece, Commissioner Jamila Tamano-Lucman, asked me what I thought the niyaga represented. I said that I had always considered it to be a dragon. She asked me why. I answered that it could be one of the Chinese influences in Maranao culture, much like the Maranao martial art, kun tao, which belonged to the Shaolin school of kung fu.

My niece believes that the niyaga indeed represents dragons; but, not the mythical ones. She believes that a straggler dinosaur, much like the Loch (Lake) Ness monster, could have lived or its descendants might still be living in Lake Lanao.

The surface of Lake Lanao is about 2,300 feet above sea level. It is one of the highest lakes in the world. It is huge and deep. It is the deepest (112 meters) and second biggest lake in the Philippines. Some geologists believe that the lake must have been the crater of a huge volcano.

Near Lake Lanao is Lake Dapao. It is a deep, dark lake with an air of mystery around it not unlike the Loch Ness. Could there be an underwater or subterranean connection between the two lakes? A Jurassic creature trapped under these lakes is not impossible.

Come to think of it, in the Maranao epic, the Darangen, there are monsters that are described as “crocodiles as big as mountains.” They are usually depicted as protectors of the royal clans. Could they be memories of giant reptiles living under the lake?

dragon Loch ness
Purported photo of Loch Ness monster

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