I have been a Marian devotee for some time now, but my devotion is very specific and limited. And as much as I love the artistry that comes with Roman Catholic devotion, I was unable to attend the Grand Marian Procession within old Manila's historical quarter called Intramuros [thus named for being “within the walls”] until this year. And considering that every Roman Catholic educational institutional I have attended since time immemorial have always declared the Feast of Immaculate Conception on December 8th school free, I can't really explain why I never bothered attending the GMP.
I have read about it in some book and would always participate in discussions of Marian Iconography, yet somehow people would always seem aghast when I would declare my non-attendance to what they regard as the jewel of all Marian Processions in the country. But by saying that, it would be unfair of me not to mention the side commentary that has always been associated with the GMP at Intramuros; that it was -by default- a fashion show. Upon asking a friend of mine a day before if he was attending, he responded nonchalant, “I don't attend that Fashion show.”
Yes, I know that some of us in the ranks of those that own religious images are often guilty of being “over the top” when it comes to processions in general to the point that we can make finials of ostrich feathers and cherry blossoms from twigs and spangles, I am one that stands by and believes in self-control and constant editing lest I find myself in the throes of the “overkill”.
But it is kind of different for me these past two years, for I have made a few friends that have been immersed in Marian devotions long before that life changing experience I had around four years ago when I could say for certain -for a brief moment in time, in those sacred seconds- that I felt God had walked the earth. Therefore, I opted to attend this year. A good friend of mine, Sonny Djajakusuma, who is also responsible for helping with the repairs of my processional image of Saint Mary of Bethany will be taking out his new image of the Nuestra Señora de la Salud for this year's GMP. However, this will not be the first time he will be joining for he hath taken out another image of the Virgin, the Nuestra Señora de Alta Gracia -which he opted not to take out this year. Also, Djaja was the one who took me to my first La Naval procession last October which I endured with a sprained back supported by a cane. To those of you that know me, I am averse to anything of the Dominican order that I avoided them. But it was an enlightening experience.
But before I proceed any further, I would like to give those of you who are unfamiliar, a brief backgrounder on what the Grand Marian Procession is all about. You see, every year on December 8th, the traditional date of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, The Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception has been organizing a yearly procession of images of the Virgin Mary in the infinite variety of her titles and the many devotions associated with her in the Philippine Archipelago since about two or so decades ago. Marian Images from all over the country are brought to the walls of the historic quarter for an annual procession with the image of the Immaculate Conception as the last to come out in celebration of the Feast. Through the years, aside from the traditional Marian images that are venerated all over the country, many other titles and incarnations of her have joined the procession thus making it a grander display in the years that followed. And this year, I believe that the total images that came out already reached a hundred.
I arrived about 55 minutes late that cloudy December afternoon. They said it would start at exactly 4:00pm, which to my surprise it did considering the cliché of Filipino time not starting on the dot. By the time I made my way to the street that led to Fort Santiago where the procession started from, it was already the 50th image of the Virgin Mary that I beheld. Part of me was wondering if my friend Djaja's image of the blessed mother already passed or was still about to emerge from the gates of Real Fuerza de Santiago blaming myself for moving too slow that day.
Then I felt this energy emanating from the processional line; from afar my eyes could make out an image of the blessed mother encased in a silver baldacchine borne on the shoulders of her devotees locally called an “andas”, being danced and swayed left and right to the music of a marching band. Behind her, a youthful crowd of more than a hundred enticing revelry as they went past us. It was the Nuestra Señora de Turumba of Pakil, a town in Laguna about three hours drive away from Manila. She was a relatively small image of the Sorrowful Mother, that gained the title Turumba which was derived from the local word “tumba” which translates to topple or tumble by the way she is danced as by those who bear her on their shoulders. With digital camera on hand, the hairs on the back of my neck did stand like that time years ago when I stood at some corner of the Quiapo district of Manila during the biggest procession celebrating the feast of the image of the Black Nazarene.
There was something about that congregation from Pakil that kept me mesmerized. There I was recalling the legend why the locals had to dance and incite cheers for the grieving image of the Blessed Mother. It is said that centuries ago, faithful of Pakil began dancing and cheering so that the Dolorous image of the Blessed Mother shall shed tears no more. And in doing so, they attributed many a miracle to this devotional activity. And some people ca take this with a grain of salt, but of all the artistic incarnations of the Blessed Mother there, this was the only one that made me feel she was there with me, at that very moment. I guess it's different for other people...
And true to my luck -which one has attested to be unfair to the rest of the world- my friend Djaja's image of Nuestra Señora de la Salud emerged from the gate of the fort in her stunning tiered “carroza” [processional carriage/platform] bedecked with white flowers. Her visage of carved ivory and hands of the same precious material bore in her hands the Christ child also with head and hands carved of the same; both dressed in rich fabrics exquisitely embroidered in gold thread. I expected nothing less of Djaja who knew the ins and outs of composing religious images from scratch. His knowledge of carvers, suppliers, gold thread embroiderers and other related ateliers would produce no less than excellently finished images that reflected his unfailing devotion to the Virgin Mary.
I would not miss this for the world, so I cut my way into the crowd and made it to the processional line just in time to join Djaja's processional party. Before them was a marching band and altar boys who bore the standard of the Virgin, one burned incense on a censer, and some others lit her way; and just after them the young lady that accompanied the Blessed Virgin Mary, Trina Ballesteros wore a Traje de Mestiza [traditional formal Filipina female dress made famous by Imelda Marcos during her time] in iridescent green and black with a classic faux tortoise shell comb sans the soft mantolin as that of the Spanish fashion; on her right hand, she held a “bara alta” -a metal staff with a finial of pressed or worked metal that held the image of the Virgin she accompanied.
As we turned the corner to the front the Manila Cathedral, each image of the Virgin Mary was introduced to the crowd, recalling the history of the devotion to a particular title of hers, which town or family the image comes from, and the sponsors that have helped them in this year's procession. Kind of like a candidate at a beauty pageant in the simplest sense. Upon the steps of the cathedral sat the members of the confraternity in their formal traditional best and blue and white sashes. They were composed of society's elite, a majority of them with their hyphenated family names so familiar to me in the many times I have been in the same room with them or have heard mentioned in conversation. As we went past them, I could not help but feel as if this was all for their sheer delight and entertainment...