Retracing the Hargrove expedition in Taalthree decades after

More than 30 years ago, Elena “Lenette” Mirano, then a young scholar working towards a doctorate degree, was asked by her professor, Isagani Medina of the University of the Philippines, to accompany an American Vietnam War veteran in his exploration of the Taal Lake, searching for old towns and ruins.

Mirano tagged along her friends Marian Pastor Roces and Victorino “Ino” Manalo in the expedition they were serving as interpreters to Thomas Hargrove, who would later write a book on that expedition, the now sought-after Mysteries of Taal: A Philippine Volcano and Lake, Her Sea Life and Lost Towns, published by Bookmark in 1991.

Inside the Pastor House in Batangas City.

On page 99 of that book, Mirano and Roces are mentioned as they approached Labangan Bay in Alitagtag, in front of a cave called by locals as “Sambahan.”

A boat moored at the vicinity of the cave.

Apparently, Sambahan is also called Dingin, the place where the Cross of Alitagtag was found in the 1590s as mentioned in the verses recited in the subli, a religious ritual with most likely precolonial roots.

Dingin was a discovery for the team specially Mirano and Roces who were researching about the subli that time.

Mirano would later author the now classic book Subli: Isang Sayaw sa Apat na Tinig, One Dance in Four Voices, published by the Museo ng Kalinangang Pilipino in 1989.

With the discovery of Dingin, a significant religious site, Mirano was quoted by Hargrove in the book exclaiming, “My God…this is it!”

Recent expedition

Fast forward to 2023, Mirano and Roces together with historian Regalado Trota Jose, anthropologist Jun Gines, Mirano’s balae Liza Bascos and this writer had an exploration of the eastern shore of the Taal Lake to check Dingin as well as remnants of old towns destroyed by Taal Volcano’s past eruptions.

A day after Labor Day, the group went on a three-day exploration starting off with Kapusod, a sustainable bed-and-breakfast facility located on the shore of the lake in Kinalaglagan, Mataas na Kahoy, which served as the group’s embarkation and disembarkation site.

Kapusod is owned by journalist Howie Severino and his environmental lawyer wife, Ipat Luna, who coordinated the two boats called sinibatsi for the visit to a number of important sites and prepared a sumptuous lunch consisting of fried tawilis, pako salad and sinigang na manok.

The visit to Dingin was “a high point,” said Mirano, who hosted the group at their family’s compound which features an eye-catching modern bamboo house in the town of San Luis.

“I feel comforted that Dingin is still there and the old belief system is still there after more than 400 years,” she said, adding that there is something luminous at that place even if a big portion of it collapsed already.

Lumang Bauan

A short boat ride from Dingin is Kalumala, a bucolic lakeside village in the neighboring town of Santa Teresita. Both towns were previously part of Bauan during its more than 400-year history.

Walking about a hundred meters from the lakeshore, the boatmen-cum-guide with Jose, Gines and this writer found the sprawling ruins of an old church complex, the same structure documented by Hargrove and his companions three decades ago.

Santa Cruz inside Bauan Church.

Called Lumang Simbahan by the locals and built in the 17th century, it is the third church of Bauan before it moved to its present site.

An archaeological investigation of the site in the early 2000s by the University of the Philippines’ Archaeological Studies Program found out that it was unused for a long time due to the thick deposit of silt but was later converted by settlers into a burial ground for cholera victims of the early 20th century and later pets and miscarried fetuses.

Jose, a foremost scholar on church history and heritage, said the ruins must be protected since there are just few extant 17th century churches in the country.

Part of the old Bauan Church ruins.

“It is one of the relatively larger 17th century church complex in the Philippines and the biggest in Batangas,” he said.

The other remaining 17th century church in Batangas is the ruins of the old church of Taal in San Nicolas.

Jose also said that the Lumang Simbahan is important because it is “a venue of the subli culture” before the Cross of Alitagtag was transferred to its current home, the present church of Bauan.

Lumang Lipa

After documenting the ruins of the third church of Bauan, the group headed back to Kapusod, boating against the tide called isuba, of the lake.

The boatmen stopped few hundred meters from the lakeshore and pointed the site of the old church of Lipa which is now underwater.

Boat rests on top of the old Lipa site.

The only evidence is the name of the barangay called Lumang Lipa, now part of the town of Mataas na Kahoy, and the big sign on the shore indicating the barangay’s name, with love.

After a sumptuous meal at Kapusod, Axel Catapang, a young architect, toured the group around the Caysasay Church in the town of Taal.

The church is undergoing restoration works following the damages it incurred due to the 2020 eruption of Taal Volcano.

The conservation of the structure is a blessing in disguise as many interesting facets surfaced such as the details on the masonry and its facade, the canal system and the well which was surprisingly found right in front of the facade.

Jose, who helped in its declaration as a National Cultural Treasure, said the church may have been a sacred precolonial religious site as evidenced by natural rocks where sections of its walls were built over.

The day was capped by a late merienda at the Posada La Patriciana of Michael Rodriguez, a restored 19th century bahay na bato on Taal’s Calle Conrado Sanchez.


The highlight of the highlights of the Batangas expedition is the barangay fiesta of Pook in the town of Agoncillo.

This village practices the most traditional subli today even if it is a two-part ritual of dancing which at times intense and a bible-themed, poetic joust starred in by a Reina Elena complete with costumes, appurtenances and even art.

Sitting from the sidelines and observing the performances, Mirano later said it is “arguably the most intense practice of a communal devotional expression I’ve seen.”

She also said that it is the “window to our deepest selves” alluding to a belief, a religiosity that dates prior to the arrival of Christianity in the country.

Pook was a whole-day spiritual treat broken only by meal breaks at Joe Mendoza’s house followed by a culinary treat at Jose’s relatives in Bauan the following day and a visit to the Cross of Alitagtag enshrined at Bauan’s church.

Batangas City

The treats and surprises did not end with Bauan as more interesting facets of Batangas heritage were discovered and rediscovered, thanks to “some gravitas” by Roces.

In two archival maps from the 18th and 19th centuries, the town was fortified with what seems to be bamboo poles while the church was fortified by blocks of stone complete with baluartes.

Remnants of Batangas City fortification.

The remnants of this church fortification can be seen inside the church complex and the neighboring campus of St. Bridget College.

These maps plus the other built, natural, movable and intangible heritages of Batangas City are featured at the Museo Puntong Batangan, curated by Roces with the help of Mirano and Gines.

The museum, founded more than a decade ago, is a product of cultural mapping even before this activity became widely known.

A visit to Batangas City is not complete without dropping by the impressive Acosta-Roces heritage house, one of three Spanish colonial houses that survived the Second World War in Batangas, a town then.


Two of the visited sites, Dingin and Lumang Simbahan in Lumang Bauan, are under threat from the Taal Lake Circumferential Road Project by the Department of Public Works and Highways that was given the green light by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

With this project pushing through, the group is pushing for their protection due to their cultural significance.

At that time, Roces said the Heritage Law must be amended to include natural sites with cultural significance so that sites like Dingin could be protected from unwarranted development.

Natural sites are now included in an expanded heritage law, Republic Act 11961, which was passed in August 2023.

She also said that if the discovery of a likha, an ancient anthropomorphic religious figure, in Dingin is true, then its protection is easier because there is evidence of material culture there apart from the Cross of Alitagtag.

The governor as well as all mayors of towns around the lake should make statements or pronouncements on the protection of the whole lake complex, she said, as the importance of which transcends beyond its physical form.