As early as 8:00 in the morning, people started to flock the San Fernando Cathedral wherein penitents are expected to go there and do their 'panata'. Sure enough, spectators surrounded the masked men who had wounded and bloody backs. It seemed that we came at the right time as the 'magdarame' are about to come to the Cathedral to pray.
A group of five men were the first I've seen. Their faces were covered with cloth and crowns made up of leaves and stems secured their covered faces, like mimicking Jesus' crown of thorns. Their lashed backs were completely covered in blood as they walked barefoot inside the cathedral patio. They must have walked quite a distance since their bodies were covered with both blood and sweat. The heat of summer morning would've tempered the concrete streets like hot coals so I could only imagine the difficulty for them to walk under the hot sun. They repeatedly hit their backs with homemade wooden torturing devices designed so they can sway it from side to side and hit their wounds. Every time the wooden fringe end hits their wounded backs, it causes the lashes to bleed more, soaking the wooden ends with blood and then gets sprayed onto the ground as the device swayed from left to right... right to left. If you get too close to them you can get sprayed with their blood.
Once they were at the Church, they each found a spot and silently prayed on their knees. After praying, they laid on the scorching concrete chest down and spread their arms and legs. Their companions then hit their entire bodies with wooden sticks. Then they get up to turn around and lay flat only to be hit again. The site was a feast for photographers and tourists , hopping to take photographs of the flagellants in action. The masked penitents on the other hand, didn't mind the attention as they continued on with their pledge. As soon as they were done with their 'ritual and prayers', they got back to their 'pamalo' and continued with their walk probably to go to the next church.
As the first batch of 'magdarame' exited the cathedral, here comes another group. Some of them didn't shed blood but they carried huge wooden crosses barefooted and dressed in red robes that seemed to re-live Jesus' passion. The morning continued with more groups of 'magdarame' coming to the cathedral to pay homage and pray while getting their backs slashed and bodies hit. As the sun shone hotter and the crowd went bigger, the stench of blood floated in the air. The cathedral grounds were already soaked with blood and the scent of blood was unbearable as the bloody sight.
Follow their Steps
We were lucky enough to follow a group of flagellants from the beginning of their 'panata' as they showed us how they slash their backs using the 'panaba' which is a block of wood with shards of broken glass sharp enough to pierce through the skin and let blood flow. Then they got their 'pamalo' and started hitting their bloods to generate more blood and pain. With all of their faces covered, they lined up and started walking barefoot on the hot ground. The idea was to walk pass every chapel or 'pabasa' site around their village to pray, reflect, and then get their bodies hit. They do this until they reach the city cathedral which is usually the flagellants 'last stop before ending their 'panata'.
As we walked the streets of San Fernando, we came across more flagellants walking in groups. For most locals, it is a normal for them to see these masked men lingering around the place on Good Friday, spraying on blood onto every corner of the street and unintentionally scaring children along the way. To me its like a zombie movie that has come to life. There is not a street corner that we wouldn't pass on without seeing a bloody flagellant.
The Tira Bakal
I thought the 'magdarame' was brutal enough but I was wrong. Expectators back at the cathedral wouldn't leave until they see the 'Tira Bakal'. The brutality of this pledge is more morbid than the usual magdarame. In the Tira Bakal, the masked flagellant gets dressed in a red robe with a crown made up of leaves and stems. He carries a huge, wooden cross and like other 'magdarame' he journeys to the Cathedral. But getting there wouldn't be easy. Men who are dressed as Roman soldiers continue to hit the flagellant with a piece of metal or wood hence the name 'Tira Bakal'. The idea was to recreate Jesus' pain as he carried his cross all the way to Mt. Calvary. The disguised soldiers repeatedly beat the flagellant with their sticks, kicked and pushed him until he stumbles unto the ground. The beating continues all the way to the Cathedral. The Tira Bakal that I've witnessed was not bringing his cross anymore but he was tied on the waist and dragged all the way inside the Cathedral grounds. Maybe he was beaten badly along the way that he couldn't make it to the Cathedral bearing his cross.
As the sun shone higher and afternoon progressed, we headed back home. The scorching sun was too hot to bear that we gave up going to Cutud to witness the crucifixion. But seeing these dedicated 'magdarame' was enough to complete my Good Friday. Some people may negate their pledge and the way they hurt themselves to ask for penance or pray, but for these men, it is a way of life... a pledge that they had to to once a year... to remind them to pray, to ask for penance. It takes more than guts and courage to do what they do. It also takes deep faith and dedication to make it through...
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