Friday, January 2, 2015

Notes on the folk medicine of the Rizalistas in Dapitan

Rizal's house in Dapitan
A replica of Rizal's house in Dapitan, where he was exiled for four years
(G. Lasco, 2010)
By Gideon Lasco, MD

DAPITAN – The Rizalistas here converge around Rizal Park in Brgy. Talisay, where Jose Rizal stayed in exile for four years (1892-1896). They have homes built within the vicinity of the park, and they have an alleged membership of a few thousands. Most of them come from Dapitan, Dipolog, and the surrounding towns of Zamboanga del Norte.

On August 28, 2010, I conducted an discussion among three women and one man, aged 60, 32, 55, and 67 respectively. I also interviewed their most experienced manghhilot, who introduced himself as Isidro, while he performed the hilot (therapeutic massage) on me for one hour. Furthermore, I conducted interviews with other Rizalistas as well as residents of Dapitan from August 27-29. The information I derived from these discussions are by no means exhaustive nor comprehensive; they are merely offered as a glimpse of the Dapitan Rizalistas’ philosophy and practice of folk medicine.

Their philosophy of healing may best be gleaned from how the view Rizal the healer. Significantly, our informants ascribe Rizal’s healing prowess not only to his medical education in Europe, but also to his inherent spiritual power. They also say that Rizal practiced hilot (therapeutic massage) in Dapitan, and that he employed herbal medicines. When asked if they know of any account, by either written document or oral tradition, about the particular herbs Rizal used, if any, they were not able to give an answer. However, in the correspondence between Rizal and Blumentritt while the former was in exile, the claim of Rizal’s use of herbs seems to be corroborated.

Our informants acknowledge that much of their medical tradition was taught by their founder, which they call Mahal na Haring Filemon, who is still living at age 79. Interestingly, however, they claim that their source of knowledge is ultimately Rizal still, and it is through revelation that this knowledge was conveyed to them via their founder.

The practice of folk medicine among the Rizalistas is limited to two components, namely pharmacotherapy (gamot) and therapeutic massage (hilot). Arguably, there is a third, inherent, spiritual component; this is expected for the Rizalistas are first and foremost a spiritual group which recognizes the deity of Rizal in varying degrees.

The pathophysiologic basis of disease is derived from prevalent folk theories of illness causation, though syncretism is observed: terms such as high cholesterol and uric acid have entered their body of medical knowledge, creating an interesting amalgam of beliefs. The acquisition of Western terms has given rise to simplistic explanatory models for particular illnesses. For instance, hypertension is seen simply as a state of high cholesterol; whereas various arthritides are attributed to elevated uric acid. Elemental forces, such as lamig and hangin, are seen as etiologies of both primary diseases and complications. Despite the use of these terms, however, there does not seem to be a coherent, systematic theory of pathophysiology.

There are only two drugs used as therapy: one is a dark red, concentrated syrup called dugoang serap; the other is called ‘fire capsule’ and is said to be derived from the plant called ‘luyang kahoy’. Both have a wide range of alleged therapeutic indications.

Dugoang serap (perhaps serap is a corrupted form of ‘syrup) is derived from the bark of a tree called dugoang kahoy. I was instantly reminded of a folk therapy I was given on the deep jungle of Mt. Mantalingajan by a Tau't Bato panglima: when I complained of weakness (we had been climbing for 4 days, 11 hours a day), they got a bark, which, when dipped into water, turned the water red. They call it 'dugong halaman'.

Dugoang serap is said to be curative for leukemia, hepatitis, dengue fever, mga sakit sa dugo, binat, and many other diseases and disease categories. A teaspoon of the syrup is mixed with hot water and the concoction is drank like coffee, once or twice daily. A 375mL bottle costs 1000.

The potency of dugoang serap draws from the belief that blood is life; therefore, intake of a blood-like substance is life-sustaining. This will also figure in the discussion of hilot, or massage.

The other pharmacotherapeutic agent is the fire capsule, which is allegedly derived from the bark of a plant called luyang kahoy. This tablet is particularly useful for kidney and gastrointestinal problems, but is also effective for cancer, ulcer, heart disease; it is essentially promoted as a panacea. The dose is once daily, but if one wants quick results, a single dose of 5 capsules can be ingested. Moreover, dose is faith-dependent; a person with much faith can get by with just the minimum of dosages. Each capsule is sold for 20 pesos.

Finally, hilot itself is employed as therapy; a “ten-step technique” is taught by the group’s founder. The massage is officially called “Philippine New Life Therapeutic Massage” and is said to be both a “spiritual” and “material” massage. The “spiritual” component is allegedly the inherent healing power within the healer, that can be boosted by faith and spiritual acts such as prayer and penitence.

The explanatory model for the ‘mechanism of action’ of the hilot is interesting. According to Isidro, the blood vessels are the primary target of the massage. The kneading action stimulates the blood vessels, strengthening them:
Kapag hinihilot, yung mga ugat ang hinahanap…Ang dugo ay nagiging bago, nalilinis. (When you do the 'hilot', you're searching for the blood vessels. The blood is renewed, cleansed)
The cleansing effect on the blood is then connected to the lowering of cholesterol, saying that the stimulation of the blood vessels cause the dislodgment of cholesterol plaques. Washing of laundry is used as metaphor:
Parang labada na may mantsa, kapag nakusot, nawawala, nalilinis…Ganun ang nagagawa ng hilot kaya kailangan may training para alam kung ano dapat ang hilutin. (Just like laundry that has stains, if you scrub it, the stains get removed; they are cleaned. That's what hilot does that's why you need the training so you know what to massage)
When asked however how the ‘blood vessel’ theory of massage can explain pain relief, Isidro answers that a secondary target of the massage are the nerves, the realignment of which can relieve pain. Interestingly, there is little distinction between blood vessels and nerves in the Tagalog and Bisaya languages; for many speakers ugat can pertain to both. Isidro, while performing the hilot, was able to correctly identify and locate many blood vessels and trace their course in the human body. Gentle massage of the femoral vessels, he said, while massaging the femoral area, can strengthen a man. Impotence, he added, can be alleviated by massaging the hypogastric and inguinal areas, with improved circulation in mind.

Hilot, like pharmacotherapy, has many indications; but it is seen as the weaker form of therapy, used for mild cases and for general well-being, except in some instances where it is seen to be a superior therapy (e.g. in the case of impotence). The hilot has to be performed in a sequential manner, or else the efficacy would be greatly diminished, if not nullified. The need for a proper sequence draws from the spiritual aspect of the hilot.

The Rizalistas in Dapitan are an interesting focus of study because they exemplify many of the Filipino folk beliefs and values regarding medicine. The spiritual component of healing figures prominently; and the folk theories of disease causation are still used, albeit with substantial borrowing of concepts from Western medicine. I believe that a more in-depth study of their beliefs and practices, and perhaps a comparison among various Rizalista groups according to geography, would be a good direction for research.

August 29, 2010


  1. I was so curious to know about the folk medicine and this is a lovely informative content where I have huge info and I enjoyed it very much. Also thankful for informing this info of systematic theory of pathophysiology which is so important to me. Thanks dude and still wait for your next post.
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