As Tropical Storm Meari dumped heavy rains on the Philippine capital Manila, causing the cancellation of domestic flights and residents to flee their houses near rivers and low-lying areas, I traveled in the wee hours of June 24 hoping that the rains would not spoil this year’s “Taong Putik” (Mud People) Festival.
The trip to Aliaga town in Nueva Ecija province, north of Manila took an hour longer than usual due to rising flood waters in Manila and surrounding areas. I arrived in the barangay of Bibiclat before 5am, allowing me enough time to talk to residents and ask for directions to where devotees, called “Taong Putik” or literally Mud People, start their preparations as part of a yearly festival honoring the village's patron saint, John the Baptist. In other parts of the largely Roman Catholic Philippines, people use St. John the Baptist’s feast day to engage in revelry that includes dousing water on unknowing passersby.
One resident pointed me to the rice fields where devotees apply mud to their faces or whole bodies to show humility. Luckily, I arrived while the devotees were just starting their yearly ritual, also called Pagsa-San Juan. Apart from putting mud all over their bodies, the devotees wear costumes made from vines, dried grass and leaves.
The Taong Putik Festival has been observed in Aliaga for decades, with its exact origins unknown. Some say an image of St. John the Baptist was brought to Bibiclat, meaning snake in the northern Ilocano dialect, by early settlers, which helped drive away poisonous snakes from the village. According to another legend, Japanese soldiers during World War II changed their mind about executing all the men in the village in retaliation for the death of 13 fellow soldiers after it rained so hard. Residents believed the Japanese soldiers’ change of heart was a miracle of St. John the Baptist, and they promised to pay homage to him on his feast day.
I interviewed one of the devotees, Mario Guda, 55, who said he has been taking part in the festival as a Taong Putik since he was a teenager. He prays to St. John the Baptist for forgiveness for all his sins, including his uncontrollable temper when he is drunk.