Photos by Martin Espino

San Joaquin’s Pasungay-Pahibag: A Raw Display of Power and Masculinity

By martin espino

Januarys in Iloilo aren’t just reserved for Dinagyang: on the third Saturday of the month, the southernmost town of San Joaquin, Iloilo annually celebrates its foundation as a settlement through the Bayluhay, a reenactment based on the legend of the landing of the ten Bornean datus on the southern part of Panay Island in what is now the present-day municipality of San Joaquin and upon which the fabled Barter of Panay between the datus and the Aeta inhabitants took place.

However, the arguable highlight of the fiesta is the Pasungay-Pahibag (literally: “bull-fight” and “horse-fight”, respectively). Not only has this event been around far longer than any other festival held in Iloilo, but its origin was believed to be purely accidental: the first Pasungay allegedly began when two bulls were set loose by their keepers and began fighting on the hillside while the resting farmers watched in amusement.

The fight so captured the fascination of the townsfolk that it has since continued and evolved to its present incarnation. Outside of the Iberian Peninsula and Latin America, San Joaquin can stand tall as one of the few places in the world to maintain a “bullfighting” tradition which sees cows, carabaos and stallions being specifically bred and raised for fighting. Considering how popular cockfighting still is in specific pockets of Iloilo, bovines being pitted against each other should come as no surprise to anyone reading this.

During this year’s Pasungay-Pahibag, the tradition was kept as usual: after the morning Mass, the townsfolk all head to the stadium to witness the highlight of the day. The bleachers were jam-packed as the swelling crowd gathered around the makeshift “ring”.

Similar to Pavia’s Carabao Carroza Festival, the Pasungay-Pahibag was divided into a series of matches called the soltada. Just like the prizefighters they were meant to be, some bulls came from as far as the neighboring towns of Antique. The animals’ handlers—each leading a snorting animal inside the ring, heads bowed low as if ready to charge—recite an oracíon before the match to ensure that their bulls gain a higher chance of winning.

The matches began with the bulls charging and locking horns at each other, and the stallions biting and kicking against their respective foes. The match got to be decided when one of the animals retreat away in pain, with some jumping over the barricade and onto the curiously delighted crowd. The losing animals were eliminated via classic elimination-style rounds, and the remaining animals then fight it out in the finals. Miraculously, none of the animals sustained serious injuries despite the intensity of their combat.

The clashing of the horns, the stomping of the hooves, and the dust-filled air seemed to greatly contribute to the crowd’s enjoyment. The Pasungay-Pahibag serves as a reminder that, in the game of survival, nothing can match the raw power and masculinity of an animal backed against a corner.

The thrilling and adrenaline-filled morning was rightfully bookended with the other activity synonymous with Philippine fiestas: eating and drinking, which lasted from the afternoon and well into the night. And once again, all was right with the world.

Bayluhay Festival: Pasungay-Pahibag - Project Iloilo
Some of the townsfolk climb trees to get the best view.
Bayluhay Festival: Pasungay-Pahibag - Project Iloilo
A crowd gathers outside the ring to get a closer view of the fighting bulls and stallions.
Bayluhay Festival: Pasungay-Pahibag - Project Iloilo

Refreshments to cool one’s self are available at the ambulant vendors selling anything from ice cream, bottled water, candies, and sorbetes
Bayluhay Festival: Pasungay-Pahibag - Project Iloilo
Bulls at their holding pen waiting for their soltada.
Bayluhay Festival: Pasungay-Pahibag - Project Iloilo
A bull and handler inside the ring waiting for the soltada to start.
Bayluhay Festival: Pasungay-Pahibag - Project Iloilo
Bulls in action at the Pasungay-Pahibag.
Bayluhay Festival: Pasungay-Pahibag - Project Iloilo
Dust fills the air as the bulls clash during a soltada.
Bayluhay Festival: Pasungay-Pahibag - Project Iloilo
Stallions kick and stomp during a soltada.
Bayluhay Festival: Pasungay-Pahibag - Project Iloilo

Handlers and judges surround the fighting bulls during a soltada.
Bayluhay Festival: Pasungay-Pahibag - Project Iloilo
Bulls lock horns during a soltada.


Martin Espino is a caffeine-reliant, analogue-loving individual who writes in his spare time. You can follow him on Instagram at @frozen_armpits.


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