Ati Atihan


When :January (annual)

The Ati-Atihan is a confusing blend of the sacred and the profane, a festival held to honour Jesus Christ on one of the world’s most beautiful islands. Each January the inhabitants of Panay Island, Filipinos, others from around the 7107 islands and tourists from all over the world flock to Kalibo, the capital of Panay Island, for this amazing spectacle.

Although ostensibly this is a Christian festival, its roots go back to the 13th century, when ten Datu refugees fleeing Borneo found refuge in Panay Island. They purchased a plot of land for a gold hat and a basin from the local people, known as the Atis. Ati-Atihan actually means apeing the atis and it is for this reason the celebrants blacken their faces and dance with an abandon which can only be labelled extreme.

The links between the refugees and the Atis were strengthened over the centuries as Atis would come down the lowlands of Panay Island when meagre harvests left them short of food. In gratitude for the Datu’s assistance, the Atis said thank you in the best way they knew – by singing and dancing. The tradition then fused with the Catholic faith after the success of proselytizing Spanish friars and the processions became associated with honouring the Santo Niño.

It is now a phenomenal party/ religious experience with salsa, merengue and costumes creating a Mardi-Gras atmosphere in which supplicants are praying one minute and swigging arak (rice wine) the next.

Early in the morning of the festival, groups of people begin streaming into Kalibo, pulsating to the rhythms of the drums carried by celebrants. The people come to show their gratitude for a good harvest, an uncomplicated birth, or a good year of business. The beat goes on and frenzy builds up in the noonday heat as the sweat and the alcohol muddy the senses. A frenzied dancing procession of costumed figures from history, pop music and politics mingle with African warriors in mock battle with cowboys and the cries of Hala Bira, Puera Pasma! (Keep on going, keep on!) are lost and resurface between bouts of drumming and blasting music.

On the afternoon of the third day, celebrants file into the cathedral and kneel at the altar to be massaged by the priests. By this time, they are in such a state of high excitement, anguish, exhaustion and emotional frenzy. It doesn’t really matter – the soul has been purified – all that remains is to participate in the finale, in which the assembled thousands join together in singing religious hymns.