Catholic churches in the Philippines house a number of wooden statues of Christ, Mary and the saints. Catholics revere these religious images, as they pray and worship. But more than their religious affinity, both to the devotees and non-Catholics, these wooden works are given much appreciation because they are created with pure craftsmanship and artistry.
In the Kapampangan dialect, they are called “mandudukit” or woodcarvers. They are the pride of Betis, Pampanga. Betis is a small town in the province of Pampanga, Philippines which is known for its furniture-making and wood-making industry. It was an age-old industry and tradition that has been passed from generations to generations. According to the town’s history, before the Spaniards came to the country centuries ago, the people of Betis are already well-known artisans. They were blacksmiths, shipbuilders and carpenters. It was also said that the Augustinian missionaries who came to town in the 1500’s are the ones who taught the locals on how to carve wood into religious images.
The wood carvers of Betis are now renowned globally with their reputation of high-quality wood works and furniture done out of the amazing ingenuity of the local artisans. Moreover, this industry supports many households in Betis as most of the local carvers make a living out of it, putting food in their tables and even sending their kids to school. One even proudly shared that two of his children was able to finish college with the help of the income they get from woodcarving.
The wooden works are intricately carved and meticulously sculpted to create the perfect resemblance of the religious images by the hard working locals. According to the carvers, they use huge trunks of the Santol tree in creating their sculptures. The Santol tree has softer wood than other types of trees which makes them easier to cut and shape. Also the wood cannot be infested by pests that feed and live on woods like termites. Other types of wood are easily infested by pests which bore small holes and destroy the wood itself.
Filipinos are known for their resiliency during hard times. Just like these wood carvers, the disastrous Mt. Pinatubo eruption in the 90’s did not let them put an end to the town’s tradition and source of living. The calamity had almost covered the whole town with ash and sand in a heavy lahar flow destroying houses and even lives. But as years passed by, local woodcarving families who evacuated went back to Betis and little by little they were able to get up from the tragedy and continue their lives doing what they are good at, woodcarving.
Today, small factories and woodcarving stores are lined up by the road in the whole town of Betis. Churches, museums or even ordinary buyers of wood crafts can go to the town and can choose from their display of finished products or have them customized by the woodcarvers of Betis, Pampanga.