KASAMA Vol. 16 No. 3 / July-August-September 2002 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

By Christine F. Godinez-Ortega

PASSENGERS on the slow boats plying the south will not miss the tube-like multicolored malong on board. For one night at least, the passengers do as the Maranao do, using the garment as a blanket, bedsheet, baby's hammock, lounging dress or "dressing room."

The malong serves many purposes. The Maranao newborn is wrapped in the best malong. And as he grows to adulthood, the malong is his indispensable companion until death, when he is wrapped again, for the last time, in his best malong.

The malong is also used as an all-purpose bag, umbrella, raincoat, tent, stretcher, swimsuit, G-string, beach wear, mat screen, curtain, tablecloth, even boxing gloves. Most Mindanao theater, dance and musical groups use the malong as a backdrop or prop. It serves as screen, wall, cave or tunnel, sailboat, wind, lake or river, rope, bird's wings, mock-up baby, backpack. The possibilities are endless.

Of Mindanao's dominant, Islamized tribes, the Maranao have most influenced Philippine fashion. The scholar Nagasura T. Madale is delighted that non-Maranao wear the malong, but is less so that they alter the garment for use in fashion shows and beauty contests. Changes are acceptable, he cautions, provided they do not offend the sensibilities of the people. However, with the influx of western ideas, especially through radio, TV and the schools, few take the transformation of the malong as an affront to the people's culture.

Women traditionally gather the malong around and above the breasts or around the waist over a long-sleeved silk or cotton blouse decorated with gold or brightly colored buttons, or embroidered with sequins in okir designs. The men wrap it around the waist. Wearing the malong without a blouse is considered immodest, but the practice is tolerated on the fashion ramp or when non-Maranao twist, roll and shape it with as many as 30 or more pins into a cocktail or evening dress showing off the wearer's curves.

Mindamira Saber Macarambon points out in her essay, "Artcraft and Uses of the Malong" that the malong is also used by the Maguindanao, Tausug, Samal, Yakan and a group in Palawan, who all call the garment by other names. The Maranao-Maguindanao term malong is from the same linguistic matrix as the Tausug Samal tajong and the Luzon-Visayan patajong. These garments are similar to the Indonesian and Malaysian sarong, the Thai ponong, the Myanmar loungi and the Laotian sinh.

It was the Maranao of Lanao who turned the malong into a work of art. The designs they use are called okir, the generic term for the scroll and geometric patterns of the area; okir a dato refers to the ornamental design for men and okir a bay to that for women. The okir a impangkat (zigzag design) adorn the handwoven, narrow, colorful strip called the langket. The wider langket used as accents on the malong are sewn vertically while the narrower strips are done horizontally. Some malong have abstract designs representing plants, animals or other objects.

Usually the langket contrasts with the rest of the malong. A red background with white or multicolored designs is a typical combination. Among the common langket designs are the mayan sa palaw (mountain-like or slope-like arrangements of the design) or the sapak a madanding (branch of happiness so called because of the happy effect it has on the wearer or viewer).

Handwoven malong are usually made of cotton or, rarely, of silk. Their prices range from P1,500 to P10,000. Factory-made malong of Chinese cotton for daily wear may cost from P150 to P300. The social and economic status of the Maranao can be gauged by the number and kinds of malong she owns. Malong measure 72 inches wide and 65 inches long. Those woven around the Lanao Lake area are longer and thicker because of the cooler climate. The Maranao name them based on their origin, color and design.

The most common, the landap ("beautiful to look at"), is handwoven and decorated with langket. The pandi ("flag" or "banner"), ampik ("seductive" or "attractive") and the bagadat ("striped") are other kinds of malong. The most prized is the andon whose pattern is similar to the Indonesian ikat; it literally means "tying" or "enwrapping" and refers to the process of combining colors and designs in weaving.

Years ago, malong dyes were extracted from local plants, but since they have disappeared from the forest, the weavers now use commercial dyes. The Maranao dyeing technique is called kabalod. The weavers produce multicolored designs on the pegaolen or back-loom. Background colors are usually red, blue and yellow, and the designs maroon, orange, fuschia, green or violet.

In the past, only the upper classes had the privilege of wearing the yellow malong called landap a binaning. Today, malong with pink or white horizontal and vertical bands on a black background or other non-traditional color schemes have appeared, a concession to the dictates of buyers.

Highly prized malong are kept as heirloom pieces and are waxed and perfumed to preserve them. There are two methods of perfuming the malong. One is to apply a concoction of juices taken from fragrant roots and leaves such as the towa, salapiin and sabi on the malong and allowing it to dry for several days. The other procedure known as borok is to drape a malong over a baloyan (big basket) and smoke it with a mixture of dried salapiin leaves, ashes and charcoal. Although the Maranao weavers - who are mainly women - are highly respected in their community, the ancient craft of back-loom weaving is under attack from modern technology. The weavers can compete by preserving and keeping their art - and therefore the symbolism of the malong - alive, even if they sometimes have to yield to the demands of fashion and the market by producing trendy or even garish designs. The malong is not merely a utilitarian garment; it is an art form. Used by the young and old, the rich and poor, from cradle to crypt, the malong is a symbol of Maranao culture, deserving encouragement and support from both government and the Maranao community.

This article is reprinted from "Archipelago", May 16, 1997.