7/5/08





The Minasbad: Utility and Artistry in a Bicolano Blade.
From P.B. Robosa's "Baao Vignettes"
Our thanks to kindred spirits from Iriga and elsewhere who graciously linked this site with theirs. This piece could be of interest to them.


In my study of native decorative design, one object stands out as a permanent but unheralded example of Bicolano craftsmanship and artistry, the ubiquitous Bikol farm implement, the minasbad. This tool that was once surely a weapon in the days of old, is our local version of the Chinese broadsword and has its most beautiful expression in the Rinconada area. Here, a number of craftsmen from Iriga still make the highly decorated wooden sheath and the distinctive hilt of an animal figurehead made of elegant Carabao horn. Some are still sold ornamented with the traditional trimmings of a cloth or abaca sash and cow hair tassel. Seeing these masterpieces made using the traditional Malay forge and a minimum of handmade tools is an education in ancient blacksmithing, metallurgy, engraving, and carving. The handle-figurehead alone can be made into a variety of possibilities from animal heads, parts and other shapes. When I had one made, the elderly craftsman told me that I could have the pick of ten different species of animals on the hilt but I choose the traditional hound’s head for my minasbad. I did not stop there though and started collecting a few other examples until the increasing cost and my wife’s strange stares stopped me.

As a boy, I heard many stories about the minasbad and admired examples of them made by my Uncle Leopoldo "Papa Dodoy" Bagaporo de los Santos who was an expert in bolo craft. I heard the story that he learned blacksmithing in Iriga while growing to manhood there during WWII. He used unique but tried and tested techniques on every stage of the work in coming out with a bolo that was always an individual work of art. Aside from producing bolos in all its forms, he occasionally experimented with other materials and I have seen bolo parts made of aluminum, bronze and stainless steel and all of them engraved with distinctive decorations. It’s a pity that today only a few examples of his work exists in the collection of family and friends, and again, displaying this obscure skill and craftmanship would be outdated today in the age of cellphones and globalization.




There are still a handful of us though who marvel at the weapons and fighting skills of the ancient Bikolano and no weapon elicit more discussion among us than the minasbad. My knowledge of minasbad lore include how the blade measurements is taken to fit the length of the arm of the bearer, that it must balance on your finger when held in the middle and that the test of its sharpness and the skill of the bearer is proven when the blade can decapitate a Carabao in one stroke. It is told that the Cimarones carried it with pride like a badge when dealing with the lowlanders and how the lowlanders would use their own minasbad to hand articles to the Cimarones, a precaution against a sudden slash that could chop off an arm. I knew that the hair ornament was meant to wipe off blood from the blade after an engagement and that the pointed ears of the hound on the handle was meant to pummel and the teeth-like serrations on the base of the blade was to saw away in close quarter combat.




I also fell in love with the minasbad’s undulating shape, the back of the blade having curves like that of a woman’s in a sinewy “S” ending at the tip shaped like the end of the spoon. It is this part of the weapon that reveal its utilitarian side, this unusual tip is perfect in the harvest of Abaca, the blade lacked a pointed end that would otherwise damage the pith of the Abaca plant.

The minasbad’s use as a farm implement is also versatile. You could clear a path with it, cut small branches, cultivate, crop bamboo or even cut down a small tree. It is fortunate for the minasbad that though it would have been essential to the ancient Bicolano warrior in war is today in peace, still an indispensable tool of the farmer, thus saving this artifact from oblivion. So important could have been this object to its owner that enough time was also spent in the care and ornamentation of not only the handle but the blade and the sheath. The most distinctive part of the minasbad or any other bolo manufactured in Rinconada is the Carabao-horn handle. This type of carved handle is totally non-existent elsewhere in Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao, in the Bicol region, I believe it is found only in Rinconada.




The grip is reinforced by ribs around the handle that also served as ornamentation and the pummel is formed by the head of an animal usually that of a dog or a hound with its fangs opened in a contorted grin. In what is supposed to be the forehead, the end of the tang is locked in bronze forming a little crown parallel to the points of what would be pointed ears. The appearance reinforces our connection to the Malay archipelago as it appears very similar to their garuda sculpture. The other design elements on it show both local and foreign influences, the scale-like and triangular siko-siko patterns are certainly indigenous but the curved and counter-curved lines on the surface of the sheath and on the brass fasteners are definitely a Spanish flourish. The Spanish baroque element is more pronounced however on the blade that the pattern even ends in a floral design. This somewhat strange design element for a weapon is common to other cultures like the Japanese who add flower patterns to their swords. The “S’ curve of the blade is similar to that of Chinese broadsword as well as the sheath construction, suggesting that the original design could be Chinese. This wouldn’t be impossible because iron working in Bicol during pre-Hispanic times was the best developed in the Philippines.

But time has undoubtedly added embellishments to the minasbad. You can see some of them today furnished with a brass hand guard similar to a cavalry saber or more commonly the hand guard of a Japanese Samurai sword. Time has also taken toll on the crafting of the minasbad as many examples now appear mass produced and of sloppy manufacture. You can still acquire well-made ones but at serious cost suitable to a discerning collector, and admirers are but a few and the survival of this inherently Bicol artifact and its fine nuances are at risk








The story of this Bicol blade dates back to Philippine pre-history. The noted Philippine historian William Henry Scott mentions in one of his books that the pre-Hispanic Bicol language contained the most numerous and highly specialized words pertaining to warfare signifying that our ancestors were probably occupied if not skilled in the activity. The first Spaniards in the region noted the gallant bearing of the Bicolanos as they were the ones possessing the best and most complete armor and weapons. Undeniably, the centuries of Moro threat could have had a hand in the development of the Bicolano martial spirit and weapons technology. During the height of the problem, when the Bicolanos asked for succor from Manila, the impoverished government simply instructed the Bicolanos to manufacture bladed weapons as a measure against the Moros, perhaps the minasbad was manufactured in large numbers and was looked upon as the match for the Moro kris and it was during this time that it acquired its pre-eminence as a weapon and its storied repute.

16 comments:

MD said...

Hello!

That's a very nice article, thanks!! :)

I plan to go to Bicol soon. Where would be a good place to shop for these swords?

Additionally being a serious antique sword collector, would you know of a place or somebody who has an antique minasbad which I can buy? Thanks in advance.

I also read that there are two other Bicol swords -- sinampalok and ginunting. Would you be able to confirm whether these are indeed Bicol blades also?

Thanks again,

MD

P.F.Paulix B. Robosa said...

Hello!

I'm surprised some people are still interested. Members of my family are still collecting these objects for what they are, works of Bicolano art and craftsmanship. Fine works can still be had in Iriga market and if you are serious and would like to have one personalized and finely crafted you have to go to the smithies where they are made. You could contact me here in Baao and I'll show you where.

Glad to be of help in the propagation of our culture.

MD said...

Hello,

Many thanks for the reply! :)

Will certainly contact you if I will be going there to Bicol soon.

Thanks again,

MD

Anonymous said...

Hello Paulix,

It's me again (Lorenz Lasco is my real name, by the way, and my cell no. is 0917.582-1208.

I and three friends here in Manila just formed a group, as we are all Phil. ethnic weapons collector, as well as advocates of preserving our rich culture.

We were just wondering if you will be in Manila one of these days, and if you'll be then we were thinking of inviting you for lunch, or merienda, or dinner, so that we can exchange knowledge about these wonderful Filipino weapons of old.

Should that be feasible with your sked, then perhaps you can just send me a text message.

Thanks in advance!

Lorenz :)

Anonymous said...

I think Im related to Leopoldo "Papa Dodoy" Bagaporo de los Santos. My Grandpa gave me a bolo from when he was a child. im gonna reblog on my tumblr. www.dionbagaporo.tumblr.com

Its eye opening to read about history potentially being my family.

Anonymous said...

Mabuhay an culturang Bicolnon!

Anonymous said...

Hi,Saan po dyan sa rinconada area gumagawa ng minasbad? Thanks

Anonymous said...

hello,

meron pa po gumagawa ng minasbad? balak ko sana magpagawa

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Alex Ercia said...

I just read this article of yours. I would like to know if You can give me information on how I can have a minasbad made. I am referred by Lorenz Lasco. I hope to visit Bicol soon. Is there anyway you can give me your contact information and maybe information on how to have a minasbad made and its cost. Salamat kapatid.

Alex

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Anonymous said...

hello, I'm from VA, USA. I've always wanted to acquire one of these since I'm a starting off collector and a FMA practicioner. is there anyway I could get some shipped here?

Anonymous said...

I just ordered a Minasbad, from Traditional Filipino Weapon http://www.traditionalfilipinoweapons.com However, I found out recently, that there are 2 different versions. The handle design is similar, that it had the carving of an animals face on the bottom, but other than that, they look completely different. I believe the difference, is that the version I have is pre-colonial. It's supposed to be like a crossover between the Pinute, and the southern Chinese Dan Dao. So it looks more Asian in design. The other version that I've seen, seems to have some Spanish influence. The hilt that looks more Spanish in origin, will definitely protect your hand better, but I'm not a fan of the odd looking blade. I also saw a photo in Bicol, where they had both styles. What I'm thinking, is that 1 was designed in pre-colonial times, and then when the Spanish came, Bicolano sword makers noticed the advantage that the European style hilt over the Asian one, which is small. However, the post colonial blade isn't to my liking. The pre-colonial blade you can stab, cut, and hack limbs off. The newer dab anyone with it, if you did, it wouldn't go in to deep.It simply for hacking, which a lot of