Cañao: The Igorot Way of Strengthening Community Spirit and Unity

As I was strolling around Burnham Park, carved images on a block cemented structure caught my attention. I just became conscious that I have been visiting Baguio City quite a lot of times. Boats floating on the pool of water and the scented flowers all around are mostly the main attractions.

As I came closer to the images, I just realized that those are images portraying traditional practices of the Igorot people. These are symbols of historical value that attempts to communicate with the people, a treasure that requires to be preserved for the next generation.

One image shows the traditional dance of the Igorots called cañao. It is a dance done in unison to the sounds of the gongs played by men performed mostly during occasions.

According to Igorot Quarterly, cañao or kanyao is simply a “festival” or ceremony or liturgy among the mountain people of Northern Luzon.

According to studies, the Benguet people believe in the existence of unseen beings that originated from the sky world and the underworld. These unseen beings are described as spirits that have been thought to have power over man. In addition, it is believed that spirits can be influenced by man to his advantage. Through that, the people struggle to win the favors of the spirits with the use of prayers and material offerings in a ritual. Knowing their attributes and whims is significant as a basis to classify said spirits as to hierarchy and generosity.

Photo by: Joey Rico
Photo by: Joey Rico

Recognizing the significance of cañao

The beats and rhythm of gongs and solibaos (native drums) echo and the cries can be heard from pigs and carabaos while being slaughtered and offered to the gods and spirits. Thus, the cañao begins.

The whole community would collect firewood, pound rice and fetch water. They would slaughter animals and cook it. They would participate in religious rituals, such as dancing the sadong and the tayaw in were they go around several times, dancing with a hop-and-skip with their stretched arms outwards. They would play the gongs and drums, and join in the religious chants.

According to, cañao serves as a community affair that provides a social purpose. Through this affair, each member of the community, in the spirit of bin-nadang or cooperation, would help out in all activities. Furthermore, through the cañao, families and clans are able to trace their blood lineage and family tree.

“Through cañao, we Cordilleran’s have unique songs and dances performed during social occasions. It draws the people to unite as one and it enriches our culture. It is a practice that is interesting since it is very alive when watching and in performing it,” stated by Joseph Sumakey who already experienced doing cañao.

It can be performed for thanksgiving for the health of the community, for an abundant harvest, and for healing such as a very simple ritual of “sedey” with the use of water and prayer. In addition, a grand kanyao is focused on entertainment, cultural shows and festivities.

Photo by:
Photo by:


Understanding the traditional costumes

According to Arthur Allad-iw of, the “bag” (bahag) is a common costume for male Igorots. It is long woven material about 10 to 15 inches wide and 3 to 5 feet long.

The Bahag’s main reason is to cover up the man’s private parts. It is definitely safe at the waist to avoid the clothing from falling off as well as to guarantee that it covers the male organs securely and appropriately.

Traditionally, there are no upper clothes for men. Tattoos are frequently in the upper body. The amount of tattoos shows the sign of the male’s authority in the village.

Also, a tattoo symbolizes how many enemies he has slain with his spear or bolo. Some Igorot costumes comprise a head gear decorated with feathers, and some arm bands.

On the other hand, the female Igorot costume consists of a large rectangular woven clothing about three to five feet wide, and three to four feet long.
It is plainly worn like a skirt and protected around the waist. In the olden times, there was also no upper clothing for women. Being nude is pure and innocent and not an indecent exposure but as the modern era has come to influence the new generation, earth colored blouses are now worn.

The new generation has decided to wear upper clothing for civility purposes. Nevertheless, topless during the olden days was not considered offensive.

The native beads usually embellish the woman’s upper body that the weight and amount of beads signify the status of the woman.

I suddenly appreciate the art of images carved into the stone when I go deeply on what is the significance of those. I don’t just admire the artists who carved them but the unique practices of the Cordilleran’s that made us one!

By: Angela Nilva

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