Santigwar: An Indigenous Healing Practice


Note : This article was published in the first edition of LAWIG. On March 2021, LAWIG was re-launched underlining photography and design talents from the provinces of the Philippines.

Plate. Candle. Essential Oil. Who would have thought that these common household materials would be used for an indigenous healing ritual locally known as santigwar?

Despite the availability of modern medical facilities in the province, some community members from various walks of life are still drawn to folk healers – para-santigwar – when they feel ill. The enduring reliance on santigwar reflects the local belief that healing is also a matter of faith. 

69-year old Teresita Mariano, fondly called as Mommy Tess, is one of the known para-santigwar.  She has been voluntarily practicing santigwar for almost four decades now.

Mommy Tess learned about the healing tradition when she brought her ill daughter to Manila. “Nagduman kami sa Blumentritt (Manila), ta may nagtaram samuya na baad matabangan kami kang parabulong duman [We went to Blumentritt (Manila) because someone informed us about a folk-healer who could help us],” she narrated. After the healing ritual, the folk-healer handed out to her a bottle of oil, and suggested that she, likewise, can be a para-santigwar because of her strong faith. He also advised her to regularly visit the Sto. Cristo church in Daraga, where prayers for miracles are known to have been granted.

Upon returning to Bicol, Mommy Tess started performing santigwar to her daughter until she regained her health. Mommy Tess continued to be a faithful servant of the church, while helping others through her newfound divine gift. Her neighbor learned about her healing practice, and news of it soon spread in the community through word-of-mouth. On an average, about ten people visit her per day. Their usual ailments are severe headache and body pain, allergy, sprain, pilay sa hangin or colic pain and/or heartburn, nausea, and unexplainable fever.

Mommy Tess starts a santigwar ritual by asking the ailing person’s name and condition. She will then light a candle, put oil on a plate, and pray over the person while moving the plate as if doing a sign of the cross. After which, she will run the plate over the candle’s flame. This burns the oil into a black soot and any figure formed is examined closely by Mommy Tess. She dabs her fingers into the burnt oil and rubs them on the person’s forehead . The ritual ends with a short prayer. 

Despite her belief in indigenous healing, she cautions her visitors to not neglect modern medical methods. “Marhay man giraray na nagasunod sa mga doctor ta sinda ang mas nakakaaram sa lawas ta. Asin sa pagsunod sa gawi kang pagbulong ninda, ibahan ki panggadyi asin pagtubod na ika mararahay [Alongside believing in santigwar, it is better to follow what the doctors say for they are experts. As you take and follow their medical advice, make sure that you also pray so that you will be healed.],” Mommy Tess would always say after the santigwar. 

Even with these reminders, people from all over the province – and even beyond – keep on streaming into her simple abode. Mommy Tess shared that the farthest healing request to date is from the US, for whom she prayed over via video call. 

Kaipuhan na may pagtubod ka sa Diyos, ta s’ya ang pinakamakapangyarihan sa gabos. Kung dai ka nagatubod, dae ka man mabubulong [It is important that you have a strong faith in God because he is the Almighty. Without faith, you won’t be healed.],” Mommy Tess concluded.

Plate, candle, and an essential oil will merely be household items if without strong faith in santigwar – the indigenous way of healing through divine intervention.

Photographs by Onin Lorente
Words by Ranielle Navarro

Ranielle Navarro, a resident of Legazpi, loves writing poems and taking photographs. Aside from learning the local language, Ranielle suggests exploring beautiful sceneries and the stories behind them to truly appreciate Albay.