A small country where great things come from

The 3 Meanings of Maharlika Icon

July 7, 2021

Maharlika was the name of the pre-colonial confederation based in the city of Manila.

  • Maha means great, such as Maharashtra and Mahabharata. It adds r when it is conjugated
  • Lika either means:
    • creation from Tagalog “likha” which in Sanskrit means to draw or paint
    • cup in Sanskrit, made up of la (cup) ika (small, feminine)*

*Pottery was among the first industries of mankind. Among the creation myths of the country is the supreme god Bathala creating Maharlikans from heated clay which ended up “just right”, not being too dark like the Negritos nor too light as the East Asians.

Therefore, Maharlika means “a country where great things come from or are created.”

This is very different from the meaning of the “Philippines” which comes from King Philip II of Spain.

  • His Hapsburg family line had genetic diseases resulting from inbreeding
  • His religious policies were very intolerant
  • His reckless spending pushed his Spanish Empire into debt

His attributes are neither creative nor noble. So to upgrade the qualities and attributes of the country, we clearly have to abandon the name “Philippines”. This leads us to the question: Why did the original Maharlika name have different meanings?

Meaning 1: Maharlika as Nobility

The Heart of Maharlika was Manila which was then known by the Song dynasty as Ma-yi, from their pronunciation of “May-nila”.

  • Nila means blue in Sanskrit which was used by the nobility to distinguish themselves from the rest of society. It follows that Manila meant “place of the nobility”. This led to Maharlika being understood nowadays as noble or blue-blooded.

Maginoo nobility wearing blue

Meaning 2: Maharlika as Freedom

The nobility was then protected and served by free men known as timawas, leading to a class system:

  1. Nobility (Maginoo meaning “having dignity”, led by a datu who wore blue and gold)
  2. Free men (Timawa meaning “in peace or freedom” who wore blue )
  3. Indentured servants (Namamahay or “within the house”)
  4. Slaves (Sagigilid or “on the sides” who were naked “bahag”)

This class system then led to another interpretation of Maharlika to mean freedom, which confuses it with the Indonesian word merdeka.

A Confederation Based on Trade

Based on the definition of Chinese historian Chau-ju-kua, the immediate territory of Maharlika included:

  • Luzon (Tondo, Bulacan)
  • Visayas
  • Western Mindanao + Sabah (Pigafetta writes that Cagayan in Mindanao was a penal colony for Borneo)
  • Eastern Mindanao (Kingdom of Butuan or Masawa)
  • Babuyan Islands

However, there was no single constitution as all the cities were independent:

This is common in archipelagos. For example, the Greeks were divided into city-states – The Spartans fought the Athenians and the Athenians fought the Thebans. Yet, we call them all as ’the Greeks’. We never take Sparta nor Athens by themselves in isolation, just as we never regard Mindanao in isolation from Luzon, though both can be isolated from Thailand or Papua New Guinea.

The nobilities were then unified by confederation which allowed each area to have freedom in politics, economics, and culture. Maharlika was part of a regional trade network that included:

  • Northern Taiwan
  • Luzon (Tondo, Bulacan, Ilocos)
  • Visayas (Cebu)
  • Mindanao (Butuan as Masawa)
  • Borneo (Brunei)
  • Moluccas
  • Celebes
  • Tendaya

The Filipinas was the resource-rich region that the Spanish wanted, of which Maharlika was a part. Therefore, Filipinas, Philippines, or Pilipinas are all abstract ideas of the Spanish which really expressed their ambition and greed instead of anything about the nations in Southeast Asia.

In other words, “The Philippines” has nothing to do with Filipinos, but everything to do with the Spanish desire for precious stones, gold, silver, minerals, fruit, grain, animals, and spices. So being “proud to be Pinoy” means being proud for your land having precious metals, bananas, coconuts, tuna, etc. and not really for you having skills, morals, or intellect.

Meaning 3: Maharlika as Warrior Class

Some natives also had greed and ambition for those resources and consequently resorted to piracy. For protection, Maharlika relied on a military force from Luzon (the island where Manila is).

In contrast to the militaries of China, Japan, Thailand, and Malaysia which were used for conquest, the military of Maharlika (and Indonesia) was for defense, until Manila was conquered by Brunei. This military force was sourced from the free men or timawas, just like in any civilization*.

*For example, the early Roman army was made up of citizens and only added foreigners and servants later.

This then led to the word Maharlika being associated with the warrior class. It’s similar to the word “Spartan” being associated with tough soldiers, meagre lifestyle, simplicity, low-maintenance, etc.


Spartan warrior

These gave us 3 different meanings of Maharlika

  1. Nobility
  2. Freedom
  3. Warrior class

How Buddhism Led Us to Maharlika

When we were in university, we agreed that Catholicism had too many contradictions, while Islam was quite constrictive. And so we tried Buddhism, which then is closely connectted to Hinduism, Yoga, and Sanskrit.

Filipino Buddhists say that Buddhism was the original religion of Precolonial Philippines. This has been proven by the Golden Tara Statue in Agusan near Butuan. Magellan held his first mass in Masawa in the kingdom of Butuan. This was the start of our quest.

Historian William Henry Scott mentions the Kingdom of Butuan from Chau Ju Kua who mentions Ma-i as its owner. Historians who are ignorant of Sanskrit will say that Ma-i is Mindoro. But this doesn’t make sense because:

  • Mindoro had no Kingdom
  • The Mindoro ports of Calapan and Puerto Galera are incapable of handling world trade with big ships

The only Kingdom with Ma-i in its phonetics is “Maynila”:

  • Manila had a Kingdom of Tondo
  • Manila has an excellent port in Manila bay which could easily handle world trade, as evidenced by its modern port containerization

We learned a bit of Sanskrit, thanks to our shift to Hindu-Buddhism. We know that “nila” means “blue”. And so, may-nila combines:

  • the tagalog “mayroon” (to have) and
  • the Sanskrit nila

This leads to “having blue” which was then applied to Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao, as noted by Chau Ju Kua.