Princess Urduja ancient accounts say, was a 14th century woman ruler of the dynastic Kingdom of Tawalisi in Pangasinan, a vast area lying by the shores of the Lingayen Gulf and the China Sea. Pangasinan was an important kingdom then, and the sovereign was equal to the King of China. Known far and wide, Princess Urduja was famous for leading a retinue of woman warriors who were skilled fighters and equestrians. They developed a high art of warfare to preserve their political state. "These womenfolk took to the battlefields because the male population was depleted by the series of wars which came with the rise and prominence of the Shri-Visayan Empire in the sixth to the 13th centuries," the accounts said. Strong and masculine physique, they were called kinalakian or Amazons.
The saga of this unique princess was the stuff of legend. Parents and teachers tell her story like they would a fairytale, or the biography of Gabriela Silang, an 18th-century revolutionary, or Tandang Sora, a granny who fed members of the Katipunan.
The legend of Princess Urduja can be attributed to the famous story of Mohammedan traveler, Ibn Batuta of India. In 1347 he was a passenger on a Chinese junk, which has just come from the port of Kakula, north of Java and Sumatra and passed by Pangasinan on the way to Canton, China.
Urduja, who had a particular fascination for the renowed "Pepper Country"--pepper being considered black gold then--was quoted by Batuta as saying, "I must positively go to war with that country, and get possession of it, for its great wealth and great forces attract me."
For a time, feminists tried to revive the Urduja story but were discouraged to learn that Batuta's account of the voyage to Tawalisi was labeled as either an intrigue or a fantasy. Scholars, considering the story absurd, declared Urduja a myth.
The Philippines' national hero 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". He went as far as to calculate the distance and time of travel from the port of Kakula. Rizal's commentary was triggered by a scholar, Sir Henry Yule, who wrote in his time that: "Tawalisi may be found only in a Gulliver geography."
Today, years after scholars have passionately debated whether the 14th-century heroine is a product of mythology or history, Princess Urduja continues to fascinate Filipinos. In Pangasinan, the Governor's office building in the coastal town of Lingayen is called the Urduja Palace. So is a hotel along the highway.
Urduja's name still has great resonance among the Ibaloi, one of the major ethnolinguistic tribes in the Cordillera region. Dr. Morr Tadeo Pungayan, a respected scholar of Ibaloi culture and professor at the St. Louis University of Baguio City, said, "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".
The Cordillera tribes, also known collectively as Igorots, pride themselves as being the only ethnic group that doesn't talk about the origin of man according to Spanish chronicles. Among the tribes, genealogy and family history are orally passed history. The Ibaloi, just like other highland tribes, could easily trace their ancestry. This is ensured by their custom of naming newborns after ancestors to help keep their memory alive and evoke affection and protection.
"No Ibaloi will bear the name of an ancestor unless she's related," Dr. Pungayan explained. While the Bontoc tribe bestows the name of an ancestor to a grandchild, the Ibaloi style is namesaking the great-grandchild, he added.
A book on the history of Benguet province, written by Anavic Bagamasbad and Zenaida Hamada-Pawid, shows the Benguet genealogy tracing tribal family lines from the year 1380 to 1899. The book says, "The extent of inter-settlement alliances is climaxed in the memory of Tublay informants with the reign of Deboxah, Princess Urduja, in Pinga. She's acknowledged as the granddaughter of Udayan, an outstanding warrior of Darew. Her death signaled continuous decline of kinship and alliance between highland and lowland settlements."
The Darew mountain range is remembered as the earliest settlement in the mining town of Tublay. The close relations between the Cordilleras and Lingayen are well-accounted for in Batuta's chronicle. It said that the Kingdom of Tawalisi was very extensive, including the vast areas up to the fringes of the Benguet mountains and the Cordillera ranges in the east of Luzon.
Th ruler, Batuta further said,"possesses numerous junks with which he makes war upon the Chinese until they sue for peace and consent to grant him certain concessions."
Despite recent research, however, most academicians remain cold to oral history, saying that such accounts still have to pass through stringent rigors of scholarship.
Today, some historians consider the issue of Urduja's historicity as closed. Compounding the issue is the lack of archaelogical evidence on the existence of the Shri-Visayan Empire. In fact, other aspects of Philippine history are being doubted,too, especially since the late William Henry Scott, an American historian in the Cordillera, proved that the so-called pre-Hispanic laws--the Kalantiaw and Maragtas Codes--were faked or invented by psuedo historians who only wanted fame or riches for themselves.
Dr. Jaime Veneracion, the University of the Philippines head of history department, said that the old Chinese scripts which may have chronicled Urduja's kingdom have remained inaccessible for their archaic language and calligraphy.
But history buffs like writer Ed Reyes remain undaunted. He says: "The researchers aren't conclusive, given the fact that the Philippine history has only been covered in writing for the last 500 years".