Historical Controversies Series: Urduja, The Warrior Princess

Princess Urduja as immortalized in a painting by Carlos Francisco
(Credits: Kwentong Pinoy)

Editor’s Note: This is the second article of the series Historical Controversies Series. In this blog, I will examine the historical basis of the legendary warrior princess Urduja, whose kingdom that stretched much of the northwestern coast of Luzon, most probably the modern province of Pangasinan. The controversy lies in the existence of Urduja as a historical character and her popularity in Philippine folklore.

I got to know the legendary story of Urduja when I was still a student, I was told about the fabulous stories of love and war — typically Philippine drama as we see on telenovelas. Though I haven’t watch the animated movie of her life, I am relatively clueless about her life as a “historical” character because some said she’s just a legend and a product of popular culture, nationalist writer and historians claimed she really existed but they can give a really convincing evidence about her exploits. If you say she’s just fiction, then the people of Pangasinan would probably burn you in the stake.

Princess Urduja ruled like a king
(Credits: Kwentong Pinoy)

The only basis for Urduja’s (b. 1320?-d. 1380?) existence was the account of Islamic explorer Ibn Battuta, who described her as the ruler of Kaykulari in the region of Tawalisi. She was said to be acting like king in a region as Battuta would claim “a country that possessed an armada of ships that rivaled Mongol-ruled China.”

The name Urduja appears to be Sanskrit in origin, and a variation of the name “Udaya,” meaning “arise” or “rising sun,” or the name “Urja,” meaning “breath.”

The only historical reference of Urduja
was in Battuta’s account (Credits: Wikipedia)

When only an account by a foreign traveler is the only reliable source, the existence of Urduja should be examined by other means. The Ibaloi oral tradition has been there for centuries and was passed from generation to generation, surprisingly there was no mentioned of the existence of a power warrior princess. However, in the tradition, a prominent woman was mmentioned. Deboxah is believed to be Urduja (maybe her probable Islamic name was coined by Battuta). According to Saint Louis University proffesor Dr. Morr Tadeo Pungayan, a renowned expert in Ibaloi culture, “Linguistically, Urduja is Deboxah (pronounced Debuca) in Ibaloi. We’ve always had a woman named Deboxah from time immemorial among the genrations of Ibaloi. The name usually describes a woman of strong quality and character who’s nobly descended. That name is an Ibaloi name. That’s why Ibaloi trace their ancestry from Urduja”. Writer John Smart believes that Urduja is a mispronounciation of Deboxah.

But one thing that leaves a big question mark in my head, why did Battuta mentioned Urduja in his account? Was she a really important person?

The map showed the extensive travels of
Battuta as compared toMarco Polo’s travels

To possibly get an idea, lets take a look at the route of Battuta’s journey to southern China (Urduja appeared on Battuta’s account in 1347, so by that time she’s already a 20-year old woman). Unlike the map above, Battuta would have probably made landfall in the Philippines because he’s using the monsoon winds to bring him to his next destination. Another important thing to consider is he needs provisions for his journey and so he has to negotiate with the rulers of the places he land (i.e. Urduja). And so I believe that Battuta would have been an audience to Urduja’s court. Even though Tawalisi seemed to be non-existent, it is interesting to point out that Dr. Jose Rizal, in Dr. Austin Craig’s 1916 paper “Particulars of the Philippines’ Pre-Spanish Past” was quoted as saying in one of his letters: “While I may have doubts regarding the accuracy of Ibn Batuta’s details, I still beleive in the voyage to Tawalisi”.

The questions of Urduja’s existence in Battuta’s travelogue only added more questions than answers. According to Smart, Urduja “was a leader of such significant import that the lowland and highland tribes, from Mountain Province to Zambales, acknowledged her unifying power such that peace reigned throughout the central regions of Luzon for fear of retribution by her ‘red-breasted warriors’ or kinalakian.” “Batuta’s explicit description no doubt stems from the striking contrast a topless, suntanned, copper-skinned woman must have offered when compared to those in his own country, who more timidly exposed their bodies in private and far away from any sunlight,” Smart adds.

Urduja inherited her father’s kingdom after her brother failed to make an impact in battle. The Kingdom of Tawalisi was believed to be located in Pangasinan, according to an estimate of Battuta’s travel to China (Battuta said that he reached Tawalisi after a sea voyage of 71 days, 34 of which were spent rowing due to no wind and reached China from Tawalisi after a voyage of 17 days). However, Battuta’s description seemed to point to somewhere else as he mentioned elephants in the kingdom, no elephants and fossilized remains existed in the Philippines. Though its possible to transport elephants via an extensive tribute system and if such system existed then Tawalisi would probably been a powerful country because enforrcing such system would mean a powerful army and navy.

Urduja became a female icon as shown as
Amalia Fuentes portrayed her in this classic movie
(Credits: http://pelikulaatbp.blogspot.com)

Being an early case of an ideal feminist role model, it is not surprising that the idea of having a “historical” Urduja was lobbied by women’s group. “Feminists tried to revive the Urduja story but were discouraged to learn that Ba(t)tuta’s account of the voyage to Tawalisi was labeled as either an intrigue or a fantasy,” as Chit Balmaceda Guttierez would say.

In popular culture, she has become a popular character but many people still doesn’t know about her. Her story was made into a live action film in the 1940’s and the 1970’s and was recently made into an animated film. But the story was merely retold as a love story — the typical telenovela way. I just hope someone will make an objective documentary of her.

In a sad note, most historians have closed the historicity of Urduja but in my opinion she deserves a historical distinction in a country that needs a pantheon of heroes and heroines. Dr. Jaime Veneration of the University of Philippines Department of History said that the old Chinese scripts, which may have chronicled Urduja’s kingdom have remained inaccessible for their archaic language and calligraphy.

Urduja is still a person worth mentioning in our history.

“The Case for Princess Urduja,” by John Smart
Urduja, Wikipedia.org
“Medieval Traveller Ibn Battuta was a Guest of the Jaffna King in 1344,”Ilankai Tamil Sangam
“In Search of a Princess,” by Chit Balmaceda Guttierez

This entry was published on March 7, 2009 at 3:04 am. It’s filed under Biography, Filipiniana, History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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