Tuesday, June 12, 2012


 SUKLAB KA LALAM NING PAYUNG KU. A Filipina poses with her day's catch while carrying her bilao of vegetables and her umbrella, her one reliable protection from the elements. Ca. 1915.

To brave wind, sun and rain—such is the function of the umbrella—the indispensable “payong” that we bring out, most specially when the rainy season comes along. But of course, the umbrella is more than that as its long history shows—from being a mere shade and sartorial accessory to becoming a part of global pop culture. In Japan, the umbrella is known as koumorigasa, in France—a parapluie. Italians had their ‘parapioggias’ , the Dutch their ‘paraplus’ and the Portuguese toted ‘guarda-chuvas’. 

But long before them, some eleven centuries before Christ, there were the inventive Chinese who warded off the elements by mounting a sort of a pagoda on a stick. These first umbrellas were symbols of honor and prestige, and old prints show them made of embroidered silk. Athens and Rome too, had a similar adornment; poets described umbrellas being used in religious festivals, balanced by hand by priestesses.

Umbrellas were mentioned in Indian writings, and appeared as illustrations in a ancient Codex in 12th century Venice. So prized were umbrellas that Charlemagne was once gifted by the Caliph of Baghdad, Haroun al Raschid, with a fabulous umbrella of purple and gold that inspired awe and dazzled the crowd who bowed before it as if it were a precious relic.

No wonder, the umbrella formed part of the papal regalia and was used in Roman Catholic liturgy; a decorated umbrella—an ‘umbraculum’—covered and protected the Holy Eucharist in short, indoor processions. In France, they were used at the court of Henry II, and in 1650, the umbrella was recognized as a symbol of style in the country. Its manufacture, however, was restricted by a special act. The “Robinson”, which served as a portable shelter for royalty weighed more than 3 kilos and was fastened to the arm by a massive copper ring. Later versions doubled as lightning rods, making them even heavier. 

Credit goes to an unnamed mechanic from Lyons for making the first modern umbrella by replacing the whalebone ribs with hinged steel tubes. But it took an Englishman—Mr. Fox of Sheffield—to take out a patent for a similar invention which he named “Paragon”. It only weighed 400 grams and by the end of the 19th century, it was being used all over the world.

 Spaniards introduced the “paraguas’ to the Philippines, who used accessories such as wide conical hats (turung), salakots, nipa raincoats and even extra-large anahaw leaves for protection against pelting rains. The standard black umbrella came into common use by Filipinos who carried them in bright sunshine or in heavy downpours. Kapampangans, Tagalogs and even their Indonesian neighbors soon had a name for this contraption--“payung”—a shade. Down South, Muslim royalty took umbrellas and transformed them into colorful and bejeweled parasols called ‘payong-a-diyakatan’.

 The ‘payung’, like in European countries, became a status symbol for many Filipinos, and was treated as a fashion accessory. Men and women not only posed for pictures with their feathery fans and handsome walking canes but also flaunted their umbrellas, shown either open or closed. Ladies favored the Japanese paper parasols, delicately pleated and decorated with prints.

 The shape of the "payung”“ inspired names for places, plants and things. “Telapayung” is an alternative term for the almendras (walnut) tree, which sports a thick canopy of leaves that resembles an umbrella’s coverage. There is also a barrio of that name in Arayat, which was either named after the almendras or for its umbrella-like geographical silhouette. Mushrooms in Kapampangan, are called “payung-payungan” (faux umbrellas) and a smaller specie is known as “payung-payungan daguis" (mouse mushroom).

 In folklore, the ‘payung” has found its way into our riddles, and it is the answer to this cryptic puzzle: “Inyang minukyat ya ing senyora, mibukadkad ya ing sampaga” (When the señora climbed up, the flower bloomed). When Rihanna’s song “Umbrella” took the country, literally by storm, a Kapampangan version composed by Jason Paul Laxamana and sung by the girl-band Mernuts, became an instant favorite: “Ngening atiu ne ing kauran/ Pangaku e kakalinguan/ Suklab ka lalam ning payung ku/ Suklab ka lalam ning payung ku/(Yung ku yung ku eh eh eh)/ Lalam ning payung ku/ (Yung ku yung ku eh eh eh)/ Lalam ning payung ku..”

There are so many umbrella variants today, like the “Chamberlain”, with its trademark long and slender handle; the “Tom Thumb”, a small folding umbrella that can be operated by one hand. There are dome-shaped umbrellas, square umbrellas, made of plastic, nylon, oil cloth. Some outfitted with electric fans, others come with drip-dry tips. And, of course, there are fantasy umbrellas designed to double as weapons of attack and deadly espionage devices, thanks to Hollywood spy movies. But they have never ceased to retain their original purpose. Once the typhoon season sets in, it will be time to get the trusty ‘payung’ ready again and start singing in the rain!

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