Monday, January 24, 2005

Magellan & Sto. Niño – A Candle Story

If you have been to Cebu, you will not have missed the famous Magellan’s Marker and the equally well-known Sto. Niño Church.

Let us do some qualifiers first. I say, Magellan’s Marker because of so many names so many people use to call it. Many call the place Magellan’s Cross. Some call it Magellan’s Monument, Magellan Shrine, Magellan Memorial – ahhh whatever. Just remember, it is a little “building” that enshrines the cross purportedly brought by Magellan in the 1520‘s. The Church right beside it is not spared! It also has many names that the lowly traveler like me gets confused! Sometimes it is called a shrine, a basilica, a cathedral, a chapel, a museum – sometimes even a combination of two words like “The Sto. Niño Cathedral and Museum”.

Let us talk about the marker and the church AND candle-making instead, okay?

These two “edifices” – if we can call them that, are probably the most famous tourist landmarks in Cebu and located right smack in the busiest of its districts. Or we can say, the area became so busy because of these two famous landmarks! Fair enough, right?!

As a tourist or visitor (howsoever those two words differ anyway), you would usually be dropped at the Magellan side of the church since parking is ample there! So you get to see Magellan’s Marker first. Even as far as some 10 meters away from the marker you are mobbed by old ladies and children selling candles – usually colored yellow or maroon. You buy them candles by the bundle at something like five pesos for six pieces.

Curiously, she who sells you the candles will attempt to drag you to a place where you are supposed to “light them and pray”. This “place” is actually anywhere in the area (usually on the sidewalk) where you would find the other half of a tin-drum (kerosene, oil or gasoline containers). The contraption is open on top and covered by a wire mesh (chicken wire?) where you are supposed to lay your candles. Lay your candles? Well, yes literally!

The expression of “magtirik ng kandila” is thus acquiring a new meaning here! Who said anyway that when you light a candle it has to stand on its other end while the wick is lighted?! This funny sight really tickled my curiosity so I started asking around!

Why light candles on magellan’s markers?
The vendors answered: To give you a safe voyage and make your tour of Cebu free from any harm. The tour guide answered: To venerate this sacred structure since it is the first Cross that was planted in the country by Magellan. It’s a symbol of the birth of Christianity in the Philippines.

Why light the candles away from the cross or even just the enclosure?
Vendors: So we can maintain the cleanliness of the shrine. Tour guide: The tourism authorities issued a memorandum that the place should be kept clean at all times. So the candles cannot be lighted inside. For example (as we stepped inside) if there were candles here (pointing to the floor) we won’t be able to walk here.

Why are the candles not allowed to stand?
Vendors: There is no place else to light candles in this area since if you did that on the pavement, the street will get dirty. Now I was already starting to debate inside my head “why allow candles when there is no place to light them on”. Tour guide: (now obviously irked at my questions but getting the flow of what I was curious about) It’s a recycling business. You see, if the melted wax is gathered into the container, it can be remolded into candles!

My tour guide was probably happy I got an answer that would make me stop asking any more questions. In fact, all I could say was: “Oh I see”! However, as we were walking around the marker, I saw old ladies praying to the cross. Some were kneeling at the marble floor of the marker’s enclosure, others were just standing on the side, and still others were even outside. Most notable was the audibility of their prayers. We could hear them but we couldn’t understand as the prayers were obviously in their dialect. Some were even waving or dancing as if in a fit of urgent need or the way they do it in the El Shaddai prayer rallies you see on TV. Plus, many of those “praying” are themselves the ladies who sell candles.

They pray like that all day?
Vendors (who were not praying): Yes sir, they are very religious. They want god to bless their families and all the visitors like you. Tour guide (half-smiling): To show you that indeed people pray here and so you will buy their candles! At this point we were already proceeding to the entrance of the Sto. Niño Church.

Inside the church, it is different. It teems with humanity – tourists and local devotees alike – that you will find it a bit harder to walk around with ease. And it gets rather hot inside. If you are visiting the place with a tour guide, your first destination inside the church compound is the open space to the left of the church. It could be called a garden as there are fountains in the middle. It is bounded on all sides by the church and its extension building that houses the museum, a religious store and the rectory (or convent, whatever).

This garden is interestingly lined with massive rows and rows of candle holders especially made for this place. The holders are arranged like little bleachers in a little sports arena. Strategically located near these candle holders are big wooden boxes that contain little pieces of candles. These little red candles are the type that you would put inside little glass jars common in many restaurants. Our tour guide motioned us to get candles, light them and place in any of those hundreds even thousands of little round holders.

Where do we pay? (I whispered)
Tour guide: No payment. That is for free. But you see those metal boxes beside the candle holders? Those are donation boxes. Everyone is expected to drop their cash donations there.

And so I did light two candles and pray. Yes I did pary! Then I fumbled for some coins and dropped them in the donation box. As I was doing this, I could feel the heat of the hundreds of lighted candles. I observed that the melted wax flows into some catchment at the bottom of the candle holders. The hot liquid shimmering in the sunlight.

So these candles are also recycled?
Tour guide: Of course! And it is done right here, inside the premises.

Why don’t they require exact payment? Why just a donation?
Tour guide (raising his eyebrows): The money they get from the donations is more than enough even if you sold those candles at five pesos each! Like I saw you drop your coins, there were at least two 10-peso coins and I think one 5-peso coin and some 1-peso coins, right? And you just lighted two candles! If you open those boxes, you will find out there are a lot of paper bills and not just coins. Now, I was silent (tour guide happy)!

Oh well! Whoever was that dude who said “found your own religion, get rich”? I salute him.

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2 comments :

  1. just an update...

    was in cebu again last February, and hey! there are still your candle-selling children but there are nomore candle-burning places around the "magellan shrine"! and it was now totally closed where no once can enter the enclosure!

    so all of my barkadas (28 of us) had to make do with taking pics of the insides by poking their cameras from the grills!

    at least wala nang pagtitirikan ng candles in that area - which was obviously just a commercial need of cebu's "enterprising" assholes than a historical or religious practice!

    maybe they've reak the story above! hehehe

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  2. You asked all these questions of the tour guide about candles but don't seem to have asked about or visited the museum.

    The reason some people would call it the Sto Nino Basilica and Museum is because there is a museum there.

    To get to the museum, you walk past the toilets then go underground.

    The museum contains many interesting historical Catholic artefacts, gathered over the last few hundred years.

    Also, did you see any of the artwork in the halls by the candles and have it explained to you? Did your guide explain that the Sto Nino doll is a representation of the baby Jesus?

    There is a painting depicting the finding of the Sto Nino doll without which Legaspi would have sailed away from the Philippines as a failure and possibly there would never have been a Spanish occupation of the Philippines.

    There is another painting depicting the Cebuanos bowing down to the doll and accepting Jesus in favour of their own religion.

    I wish I was there when you were visiting to explain what your guide seems to have missed!


    Regards: Jim Sibbick

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