Their rise and fall of empires have fascinated history buffs, especially if they are immortalized by Hollywood film-makers. One case in point is the birth of the Greek Empire, which is depicted in a most-awaited sequel to the gallant stand of the 300 Spartans led by King Leonidas against the mighty Persians.

But closer to home, far from the glitter of Hollywood studios, an empire existed in the country which brings with it centuries of glorious history—the Empire Province of Cotabato.

Once the Philippine archipelago’s biggest province, it spans from the lush Moro Gulf and Sarangani Bay, fertile farmlands, majestic mountain ranges and verdant tropical rainforests. Back in the day, Cotabato was the domain of the legendary 18th-century Muslim leader Sultan Dipatuan Kudarat when Mindanao experienced its golden age.

Founded by the American civil government on Sept. 1, 1914, it included the whole South Central Mindanao region, covering the present-day South Cotabato, Sarangani, Maguindanao and Sultan Kudarat, and the cities of Cotabato and Gen. Santos.

With geopolitical partitions over the years, notwithstanding, Cotabato has remained the “mother province” and cradle of culture of the region now referred to as “Soccsksargen”, an acronym of the provinces comprising the area.

The province’s claim to fame is the confluence of 13 indigenous Muslim and lumad tribes, which make it a cultural kaleidoscope. Among the prominent IP groups are the Teduray, Manobo, Tagabawa, Igorot, B’laan, Matigsalog, Ilianen, Kirintiken, Tinananon, and Aromanen, plus the Maguindanaoan Muslim tribe who live in harmony.

This cultural tapestry is preserved in the annual Kalivungan Festival which also marks the provincial founding day. Coined from the Manobo word literally meaning “gathering”, it showcases the ethnic music, dance, rituals, and the diverse ways of life.

Manobo tribal community dance

Manobo tribal community dance

According to Cotabato Gov. Emily Taliño-Mendoza, Kalivungan brings to the fore the political and economic strides made by the province over the years.

She said that the centennial fete highlights unity in diversity among lumads, Christians and Moros which have made the Province a land of harmony.

Kalivungan Street Dance

Kalivungan Street Dance

Part of the month-long festivity are home-grown sports activities to showcase Cotabato’s great outdoors with the Lumba Anay sa Salba Bida, an 8-km river tubing challenge through the Alamada-Libungan River in Alamada and the Lumba sa Pulangi, a regatta of dugout wooden canoes in Carmen.

Lumba sa Pulangi

Lumba sa Pulangi

Exotic Moro music also echoed as Maguindanaoans displayed their artistry through the “kulintang” brass percussion ensemble in the Kapagana Festival held in Pikit. Literally meaning to welcome or entertain, the cultural event included the Kulentangan Extravaganza and the native game Sipa sa Manggis.

Kulentangan Extravaganza

Kulentangan Extravaganza

Culminating the monthlong merry-making is the Street Dancing Showdown last Sept. 1 at the Provincial Capitol Grounds in Amas, Kidapawan City to mark the Province’s Centennial Day.

Municipal contingents rendered contemporary interpretations of lumad and Muslim dances, with tribes from neighboring provinces which used to be part of the Empire Province taking part.

Regarded as an ecotourism getaway, Cotabato forms part of the Department of Tourism’s “12th Paradise” which promotes South Central Mindanao’s cultural, adventure and natural attractions.

Its major tourist spot is the KMM Eco-tourism Triangle, composed of Kidapawan City, and Magpet and Makilala towns, which are the gateways to the 10,311-foot Mt. Apo National Park, the country’s tallest peak.

Venado Lake at Mt Apo National Park

Venado Lake at Mt Apo National Park

The Philippine Eagle’s sanctuary, the area abounds in exotic flora and fauna and is a true-blue mountaineer’s ultimate climb. Most of its ascent points are nestled in Cotabato.

A favorite access point is the mystic Moncada folk religious community at the New Israel Eco-Park in Makilala. The upland village has a 2.3-kilometer two-line zipline, reputedly the longest in Asia and treats one to an exhilarating zip through hills and valleys.

Motocross Race in Makilala

Motocross Race in Makilala

Asik-Asik Falls, tucked in the hinterlands of Alamada town is the poster image of the province because of its rejuvenating and mesmerizing curtain-like icy waters which pours out from the rocks on a cliff.

Asik Asik Falls in Alamada, Cotabato

Asik Asik Falls in Alamada, Cotabato

An emerging historical spot is Fort Pikit, located on a hilltop in Pikit town built in 1893 as a fortress. Made up of stone masonry which offers a commanding view of the vast plains and rivers from where Moros mounted raids against Spanish posts.

It was also used extensively during the American Occupation and figured prominently during World War II. It is undergoing restoration after being declared a national historical landmark by the National Historical Commission in 2011.

Fort Pikit

Fort Pikit

Cotabato’s mountainous contour has also gifted it with an expansive cave systems in the Kulaman watershed in the village Pisan in Kabacan town is a potential getaway for spelunking and canyoning.

The point of entry is Usok Cave, a short river cave which leads into a series of 17 cascades and chambers deep into the dense jungles of the town. The lush tropics and the occasional natural pools formed by the waterfalls and subterranean streams provide inviting respites throughout the long trek.

Usok Cave in Kabacan

Usok Cave in Kabacan

Meanwhile, fruit lovers will find the province an agri-tourism and agro-industrial haven because of its sprawling animal farms, eco-parks and vast plantations of tropical fruits such as durian, marang, pomelo and mangosteen where one can feast on fresh exotic delights to their hearts’ contents.

Tropical fruits stall

Tropical fruits stall

A century hence, the Empire Province is still as enigmatic as before.

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