The Rise of an Empire Province
Bernard L Supetran (contributor)

Hollywood is partly to thank for reliving the glory ancient empires, and their rise and fall, and how they have shaped the world as we know it.

Its often glamorized and sometimes inaccurate depiction of history has captured the fancy and kindled the interest of movie buffs and couch potatoes.

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

Once the biggest province, it embraced South Central Mindanao region, covering the present-day provinces of Cotabato, South Cotabato, Sarangani, Maguindanao and Sultan Kudarat, and the cities of Gen. Santos and Cotabato. The latter was made the capital city of the new geopolitical entity

Created by the American civil government on Sept. 1, 1914 out of the vast Moro Province, Cotabato spanned from the lush Moro Gulf and Sarangani Bay, fertile farmlands, majestic mountain ranges and verdant tropical rainforests.

Despite the geopolitical partitions over the decades, it remained the “mother province” and cradle of culture of Region 12 now referred to as “Soccsksargen”, an acronym of the provinces comprising the area.

Even before it officially existed as a province, Cotabato was the domain of the legendary 18th-century Muslim leader Sultan Dipatuan Kudarat when Mindanao experienced its golden age.

Its claim to fame is the amalgam of 13 indigenous Muslim and lumad tribes, which make it a cultural kaleidoscope. Among the prominent indigenous 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 showcased in the Kalivungan Festival which also marks the provincial founding day. Derived from the Manobo word which literally means “gathering”, it is a veritable show window to the ethnic music, dance, rituals, and the diverse ways of life of Cotabato’s tri-people.

Cotabato Gov. Emily Taliño-Mendoza said Kalivungan, which is held in the last week of or first week of September, brings to the fore the unity in diversity among lumads, Christians and Moros which have made the Province a land of harmony.

She noted that the centennial fete serves as the cultural and economic Renaissance of the province with its emergence an agri-business powerhouse and eco-tourism destination.

She added that the month-long festivities are home-grown sports activities to focus on Cotabato’s great outdoors with the Lumba Anay sa Salba Bida, an 8-km river tubing challenge at the Alamada-Libungan River and the Lumba sa Pulangi River, a regatta of dugout wooden canoes.

Exotic Moro music echoed in the air 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.

Culminating the month-long merry-making is the Street Dancing Showdown last Sept. 1 at the Provincial Capitol Complex in Amas, Kidapawan City to mark the 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.

Mendoza said they will soon complete their Provincial Museum which will serve as the repository of Cotabato’s heritage and culture.

Also in the pipeline is Provincial Pavilion, dubbed as “The Basket” which represents Cotabato as a major fruit basket in Mindanao.

The province is getting known as an agri-tourism 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.

Medium-scale agro-industries on organic wines, rice, sugar, coffee and palm oil, among others are also on the rise due to the need for health- and earth-friendly farm produce.

On the tourism front, its anchor attraction is the KMM Eco-tourism Triangle, composed of Kidapawan City, and Magpet and Makilala towns, which are the popular gateways to the 10,311-foot Mt. Apo National Park, the country’s tallest peak.

A sought-after access point is the 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.

Hidden in Alamada’s upland, Asik-Asik Falls is Cotabato’s poster image owing to its rejuvenating and mesmerizing curtain-like icy waters which pours out from the rocks on a cliff.

Fort Pikit is a hilltop historical spot in Pikit town built in 1893 and was used extensively during the Spanish and American periods, as well as during World War II. Declared a national historical landmark by the National Historical Commission in 2011, it is undergoing restoration and development.

The province’s rough topography has endowed it with an expansive cave systems in the Kulaman watershed in Kabacan, 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. The lush tropics and the occasional natural pools formed by the waterfalls and subterranean streams provide refreshing respites throughout the long trek.

Mendoza concluded that these positive developments relive the ancient glory of the Empire Province, and prepare it to face the challenges of the changing times.

(Photos courtesy of Bernard L Supetran)

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