DeMISTYfied IN DJOGJA: Women, tradition, taghuri (kites) and memories of Sulu

TARAKAN CITY, East Kalimantan, Indonesia (MindaNews/20 March) – A friend and Tausug blogger, Calliter (, recently wrote a beautiful and delightfully graphic story of taghuri (kites) of Sulu and he pointed quite dramatically to the similitude of tradition of kite flying to the spiritual and mystical nature of the Tau Sug or People of the Living Current. Below is my inspired rejoinder, frilling his account (and hopefully deepening that experience) with my own understanding as a woman and how I also perceive this as a local tradition in Laminusa island, a largely Sinama speaking people of Sulu.

UMAW. In the 1970s before war broke out in Jolo, anyone who had lived in the marshes in Barrio Asturias must have known the mute and deaf lad whom Calliter fondly remembered was reputed to be the best kite flyer in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, I hadn’t witnessed Umaw, whom we also called ‘Ya’, in action except when he was under our house ‘mag-kas’ or panning the mud for gold and coins that had dropped and rolled out from the bamboo-slitted floor and remained slumbering for ages in that dark and murky underworld. And of course, there would always have to be instances when boys were boys and girls were girls where girls were not usually taken along to an invitational or inter-neighborhood kite-fights when Umaw, whose regular home and family I had not known to exist, would have openly displayed his prowess. Girls do get to fly our own kites, too, or were made to take charge of our brothers’ and fathers’ kites in friendly flights within and in the vicinity of the home-taytayan (i.e. cat-walk).

In most households in Asturias, girls had their own special functions, anyway, such as watching over younger siblings who amazingly had the propensity of getting themselves rolling down, falling and getting buried into the thick and sticky ‘pisak-Asturias’. The mud in Asturias was so notorious that parents had to periodically warn their children to be careful. This was because one never expected to be stuck up the knee or waist only. No way. Every child who had the misfortune of getting in the way and unwittingly bumped out by stampeding runners and hunters of a fly-away ‘utas’ kite (i.e. broken kite), after being cut off and beaten out in the air-race, would in all probability end splashing into the mud and covered full and thick in its fine and sticky black dough, whether they dropped head or feet first.

I presume present-day stilt-house dwellers would not have this experience anymore, as when children fall from the taytayan their immediate destination would have to be the clogging mound of garbage and stagnating plastic bags and styrofoam boxes and the pests that thrive within. In our time, in Asturias, the most dreaded mudfall was landing into a clump of water lilies where a swarm of ‘sapling’ (butterfly larvae) resided, so that girls had to device a way to get the secret remedy relayed around, warning that only with a pure gold comb could we ever untangle the squirming worms out of our hair.

Yet outside of the actual public flight of the kite, its making was a household affair. In my own family, my father and my two elder brothers were skilled in making all sorts of kites, the mandal, tallung, pindun and even the large awak-awak and janggayan. Among us three girl-sibs, I was always the one most enthusiastic to watch and aggressively participated in the project. Aside from prescribing the color scheme and combinations, I was often assigned to make the jambu (tussles) and design the togel (tail, Tausug = ikug) as well. It was from this constant exposure to folding and cutting the delicate Japanese paper that I got initiated into various ways of designing paper patches and paper-sculpting that I learned as a child the basics of ukkir pattern-making, another vanishing Suluan art that men and women equally excelled in as boat-builders and luhul (quilt) pattern-makers.

Of girls and kite flying in Sulu, I could tell a lot of anecdotes without trying too hard to insist on a gender lens. Yet one thing I could say in all honesty is that unlike in the present where sexual segregation has become more and more stiff and socially pervasive to be well-delineated even among games that innocent children play, our society of old, for instance in the island village of Laminusa, had been generally egalitarian, integrative and tolerant. To illustrate, one imagery that I would like to recall and retell is that of describing the kite flight as a cooking process. Kite flying was like making the equally famed Panyam, a ceremonial rice cake, queen of all delicacies that sat on top of every sampul buwas kuning (yellow rice mound) and roofing every maligay (cake-house) that we used in religious and social rituals and celebrations.

As one starts to release the taghuri into mid-air, it must show its spirit by eagerly engaging the wind. As soon as it feels the wind’s pulse, it quakes as though electrically charged in a movement called ‘analeret’. Analeret is a culinary term, it means ‘to sizzle’. The kite analeret is one characterized by a rattling sound of the paper rippling to resist the pressure of the wind. This is like the rice dough in making a Panyam, when dropped into hot oil, it must come into life in laughing sizzles.

As for the kite, the saleret should be optimal in intensity and length. It must never be too slow to be weak and neither too long to not allow the kite to achieve height. For the Panyam, the ‘saleret’ would later determine the beauty and grace (regularity in size and curve) of the kola’ or frills fringing the perfect Panyam, the slow and weak saleret would make very big and unsightly irregular frills while too long saleret will make shallow scallops or none at all that is considered plain, dull and ungraceful.

FINALLY. “To be so still that nothing can disturb your peace” as goes the Desiderata, again as recounted by my friend, Calliter, a taghuri is a reflection of the Tausug spiritual and physical discipline. In the midst of air turbulence, the best demeanor of a kite at flight, I have learned from Omboh Kautuh and his famed Galawang, was to be so still as to exhibit almost no movement at all in mid air. Such taghuri has its ‘breath held for the longest’, as when the most skillful of Sama pearl diver goes deep-diving without air, such kite is ‘apeddon’ (with second vowel ‘e’ silenced when pronounced) or dives the deepest. A kite which is jittery even on height is likened to a rocky boat that is ‘alenggang’ or ‘alensa’.

As my friend must have also diagnosed of a person’s spirituality, this symptom has something to do with the lack of balance between the body and spirit. Of kites, the body is divided into three parts: the tangkal (torso or spine), the arms or wings and kok, the head which could be found at the upper neck part of the spine of the kite where the T is tied. And as it is in dealing with human body-spirit homeostasis, a spirit can be weakened by an overwhelmingly loud and boisterous body. The remedy then is to ‘fill the head’ with knowledge, this is when we say that a person is in the process of maturity. For kites, the unstable movement may be cured by adding more weight unto the head, which the islanders did in many ways, from cementing hardened half-cooked cassava (that we also used to ‘cement’ the coconut-shell mold to the clay-pot in a putuhan steamer that is used to cook the staple food, putu) to tying a cigarette butt’s spongy end to load the head.

[Mindanawon Abroad is MindaNews’s effort to link up with Mindanawons overseas who would like to share their experiences in their adopted countries. Mucha-Shim Quiling Arquiza is an ethnic Sama from Laminusa, Siasi, Sulu, Mindanao. She is presently working for her Ph.D. in interreligious studies at the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies at Gajah Madah University in Yogyakarta. Mucha is secretary general of the Asian Muslim Action Network in the Philippines (AMANPHIL) and the founding directress of Lumah Ma Dilaut, a school for living traditions of the Sama Dilaut (or Bajau) in Zamboanga and Basilan waters. Email:]