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The Enduring Hoax of Princess Urduja

Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his favorite topics.

Was Princess Urduja real or just a myth? Read on to learn more.

Was Princess Urduja real or just a myth? Read on to learn more.

Is There a Precolonial Philippines?

For more than 300 years, the Philippines became the subject of world powers. It started with Spain, then the United States, and briefly with Imperial Japan. Having spent centuries under someone else’s rule, it’s understandable that modern Filipinos long for their precolonial past. People want to know what it was like before the arrival of the Spaniards and feel for themselves the culture untouched by western influences.

But there is a problem.

There is no such thing as a “precolonial Philippines.” As a harsh truth, the Philippines was born upon the arrival of the Spaniards.

I will say it again—the one precolonial kingdom that modern Filipinos desire is the stuff of fantasies. And I will remind you again that what we had were separate kingdoms. Referring to the Boxer Codex, the ancient Visayans differed from the Tagalogs and the Moros. People could be tribal (as in the case of the Negritos) to advanced (as what Magellan saw in Mactan). But from the way I see it, being a collection of kingdoms could be a wonder in itself. Culturally, the pre-Hispanic Philippines is rich and colorful, from ancient religions, healing arts and performing arts to social structures, warfare, seafaring and much more.

Nevertheless, the desire of modern Filipinos to explore their ancient heritage also makes them prone to false histories. The fictitious Maharlika Kingdom was just a start. But before that, there was a story of a fabled Filipino warrior princess, which turned out to be a hoax.

Painting of Urduja, by Cesar Amorsolo. From: https://mekeniman.blogspot.com/2014/11/54-cesar-amorsolos-warrior-princess.html

Painting of Urduja, by Cesar Amorsolo. From: https://mekeniman.blogspot.com/2014/11/54-cesar-amorsolos-warrior-princess.html

The Mythic Urduja

Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Battutah, or simply, Ibn Battuta, was a man to be reckoned with. He was a Berber Maghrebi by origin who lived in the 14th century. But his adventures in the Muslim world, from Africa to Eurasia, secured his place in history. His travels surpassed that of other explorers, but his visit to a place known as Tawalisi ignited Filipinos’ interest.

As Ibn Battuta made his pilgrimage to Mecca, he visited other Islamic countries and ended up visiting the land of Tawalisi on his way to China (after reaching what was now Indonesia). Its head of state had the same name, Tawalisi, and under his rule existed a great navy rivaling China. He had a daughter, a leader of an all-woman army Kinalakian, going by the name Urduja.

Princess Urduja was described as tall and beautiful, with “bronze” skin, straight black hair and deep eyes. The princess was an expert warrior, adept in swordsmanship and horseback riding, with a penchant for dueling. She remained unmarried, for her preference was a man who could defeat her in combat.

Being warlike wasn’t her only desirable trait. The princess, being fluent in Arabic, provided the visitor Ibn Battuta with generous gifts for his trip to China and even prepared a banquet for him.

Women warriors weren’t uncommon in Southeast Asia, but somehow Princess Urduja was identified as an ancient Filipina by proponents. They reckoned that the fabled Tawalisi was a place somewhere in the Philippines. And if Urduja was indeed a Filipino, there was a good reason why people desired her to be one.

A Malay Kris.

A Malay Kris.

Symbol of Strength

Maria Clara, a character from José Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere, is often used to describe a Filipina. Yet the association with Maria Clara is often criticized since the said character is seen as an undesirable model to begin with. Though feminine and chaste, Maria Clara was portrayed in the book as weak, powerless and a victim who can’t stand for her Crisostomo.

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Urduja, on the other hand, was the opposite of Maria Clara.

She was strong and independent, at the same time feared and respected. With such power and influence, she became an equal or bested the opposite gender. And critics often point out that gender equality wasn’t part of European values back then. In fact, it seems to show that precolonial values were superior to western values with regard to the treatment of women. That said, Urduja is also the symbol of rebellion against western influence and colonial mentality.

Urduja and the precolonial Philippines were progressive even before the west considered progress. At least, that is what proponents claim. Because the problem here was that, for one thing, no one was sure if Tawalisi was in the Philippines. And who knows if Tawalisi was even real, as accounts by explorers during those days could be exaggerated. If that’s the case, Urduja was either not a native of the ancient Philippines or just a myth.

A painting of Ibn Battuta.

A painting of Ibn Battuta.

A Hoax?

Firstly, let’s begin with the place itself. There are attempts to connect Tawalisi to territories in the pre-Hispanic Philippines. The name itself, as well as Urduja’s military unit of women warriors, Kinalakian, sound like Tagalog words. Tawalisi is close to the word “tawilis” (a sardine in Taal Lake), while Kinalakian reminds modern Filipinos of the word “laki” (large). But some Tagalog words were influenced by Malay, and it is not surprising to find similar sounding words in Southeast Asia. But proponents turned to some of Ibn Battuta’s narratives to support the Philippine claim.

When Ibn Battuta proceeded to China, Urduja gifted him rice, water buffalos, gingers, lemons, peppers, mangoes and salt. These commodities are common to a place in the Philippines, namely Pangasinan. Hence Tawalisi must be the ancient Pangasinan, which American historian Austin Craig indicated in 1916. The national hero Jose Rizal had his own theory based on Ibn Battuta’s travel time from Tawalisi to China. That Tawalisi is in the northern part of the Philippines.

So far, that was all the evidence proponents have. But Ibn Battuta’s own accounts disputed Rizal and Craig’s hypotheses. Tawalisi was between Java and China, and the journey from Tawalisi to China took seventeen days by sea. Based on that, Pangasinan is simply too far away to satisfy the seventeen-day sailing; hence, many scholars agreed that Tawalisi was elsewhere. The likely candidate is Champa, also known as Vietnam. And as for Urduja’s gifts to our explorer, those commodities are also common in other parts of Southeast Asia and not exclusive to the Pangasinan.

Gitarja depicted as Parvati.

Gitarja depicted as Parvati.

Urduja Herself

Urduja and her people’s own description also contradicted what we know of precolonial people. Filipinos are indeed known for their brown skins, just as Urduja was described, but being tall is not a Filipino trait. Plus, her people were described as Turks in figure and fought as horse archers like Mongols. Something that precolonial Filipino warriors never did.

Overall, with only shady evidence linking Urduja to the Philippines and the explorer’s tendency to exaggerate their adventures, we can conclude that Urduja was just a myth. And if she was inspired by a real figure, tracing Ibn Battuta’s travelogue suggested that she never came from the Philippines.

One theory suggested that her name was a mispronunciation of Gitarja, the Bhre of Kahuripan of Majapahit. Like Urduja, she was depicted as wise and brave, even riding to battle herself. Unfortunately, the political nature of historical education helped propagate the myth as real. And together with the fictitious code of Kalantiaw, Urduja’s lore persisted.

References

1. Guiterrez, Chit Balmaceda (n.d.). "In Search of a Princess" Filipinas Magazine.

2. Nugroho, Irawan Djoko (2011). Majapahit Peradaban Maritim. Jakarta: Suluh Nuswatara Bakti.

3. bn Battuta, The Travels of Ibn Baṭṭūṭa, A.D. 1325–1354, vol. 4, trans. H. A. R. Gibb and C. F. Beckingham (London: Hakluyt Society, 1994), pp. 884–5.

4. William Henry Scott, Prehispanic Source Materials for the Study of Philippine History

5. Figueroa, Antonio (24 January 2022). "FAST BACKWARD: Debunking Urduja’s myth" Edge Davao.

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