The Precolonial Philippine Governments

Ruma Bichara


For sure, it is never easy running a village, much more a 16th-century Malayan kingdom. Concerns of law and order, naval and military defenses, tax collections, granaries and supplies, local and international trade diplomacy, and religious affairs were some items in the list of a king’s daily agenda in the olden times.

It was tough work for any ruler, so the padukas, bataras, pangulos, haris, lakans, rajas, sultans, or the kings of the ancient Philippines co-governed their territories with the help of an elite group of noble councilors, which formed the early government systems of the Philippines — the ancient pamahalaans.


In the precolonial times, when a victorious datu, a chief of a barangay, sakop, or village, had expanded his territory and other chiefs pledged their support and alliances to him, that victorious datu would ascend to become the datu of datus. 


Now, this datu of datus, depending on his religious belief, would update his title to signify that he was now the lord paramount — the king of a bayan, banwa, bansa, or nation. And the most recorded titles of the precolonial Malayan Filipino kings are lakan, raja, and sultan.


The more villages and islands the lakan, raja, or sultan had or influence over, the more administering he had to perform. Hence, to uphold his rule and manage his growing kingdom, that ruler formed an elite state council, which might be called the Pulong, the Kasapulan, or the Ruma Bichara.

In Luzon, in the barangay-type coastal societies of the Tagalogs, their state council might be called the Pulong, also known as Lipon or Lupon, and its council member was titled as kapulong or kagawad.

Meanwhile, in the Visayas, which had the banwa-type settlements, their state council might be called the Kasapulan while its council member was called kasapul.

As for the sultanates of Mindanao that had the banwa-type groups, they referred their councilman as mantiri, and the Tausugs called their state council as the Ruma Bichara, while the Maguindanaons called theirs as the Bichara Atas.


The early Malayan state councils were composed of the most royal datus or the barabangsa datus. We emphasize the words most royal, for some datus came from a non-ruling class, or from a mixed parentage of a noble and a commoner, or by appointment, such as the giyulal or gullal datus. And the chances of the giyulal datus in joining these exclusive royal councils are assumed to be near impossible.

A precolonial state council is also a royal council. And as observed, one must be a barabangsa datu to join a state council, and his bloodline must be of the highest order of nobility since a potential new king might arise from this elite circle to dethrone their current ruler.

More often than not, the state council members belonged in the same family tree of the lakan, raja, or sultan — such as brothers, sons, nephews, cousins, uncles, and in-laws.

It is evident that political dynasties held power in the past, and this introduced an elite form of social stratification: the Maginoo Caste or the ruling class. These kapulong, kasapul, mantiri councilors were the most powerful, influential, royal datus who had the wealth, armies, farms, villages, and the means to support their ruler kin.


Customarily, a state council was made of one ruler and few councilors — one sultan and four councilors in the early years of the Sulu Sultanate — and its members increased since then and up to the years of the Spanish colonization of the Philippines.

The main role of the lakan, raja, or sultan was to lead, especially in global trade and wars; whereas each kapulong, kasapul, or mantiri councilor had a specific function and an office to administrate.

For certain important state issues, the council members would vote to reach a collective decision. It is documented that the Sulu Sultanate’s state council had their sultan and their crown prince to exercise two votes each, while the rest of their councilmen had one vote each.

The participation of the kapulongs, kasapuls, and mantiris in their respective councils granted them to acquire great profits from the state dealings that they managed with other kingdoms.


When the Castilians conquered Luzon and the Visayas in the 16th century, the state councils of the ancient Philippines were destroyed, except for the Mindanao sultanates. The Muslim kingdoms of the Philippines might have these ranks and titles in their state councils:

  • Supreme Ruler: Sultan, Raja
  • Crown Prince: Datu Raja Muda
  • Prime Minister: Wazil
  • Palace Commander: Datu Maharaja Adenduk
  • Lord Admiral: Datu Raja Laut
  • Customs Commissioner: Datu Maharaja Layla
  • Council Speaker: Datu Amir Bahar
  • Executive Secretary: Datu Tumangong
  • Information Secretary: Datu Juhan
  • Commerce Secretary: Datu Muluk Bandarasa
  • Interior Secretary: Datu Sawajaan
  • Finance Secretary: Datu Bandahala
  • Inspector General: Mamaneho
  • Sultan’s Envoy: Datu Sakandal
  • Weapons Commander: Datu Nay


Precolonial supreme rulers were also seen as the corporeal representatives of their deities as hinted by their titles, such as the paduka is an incarnate of a Hindu god, the batara is derived from the god Bathala, and the sultan is the shadow of Allah.

Therefore, depending on their official religion, a royal council was guided by a spiritual leader: babaylan for the animistic kingdoms, while kali for the Moro monarchies.


Interestingly, traces of the ancient Tagalog pamahalaan are still felt across the Philippines, for the Lupon Council or the Pulong is still practiced in a modern-day barangay, which is headed by a punong barangay and ministered by kagawads.

Also, we can celebrate the fact that the ancient Philippine governments are comparable to the European monarchies with subtle Malayan differences, for there were paramount leaders, such as lakans, rajas, or sultans as if kings; the observance of a royal councils made of datus as if lords; and the spiritual guidance from babaylans or kalis as if archbishops.


  • Laarhoven, Ruurdje. The Maguindanao Sultanate in the 17th Century: Triumph of Moro Diplomacy. Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 1989.
  • Majul, Cesar Adib. “Political and Historical Notes on the Old Sulu Sultanate.” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 38, no. 1 (1965): 23-42.
  • Mednick, Melvin. “Some Problems of Moro History and Political Organization.” Philippine Sociological Review 5, no. 1 (1957): 39-52.
  • Scott, William Henry. Barangay: Sixteenth-Century Philippine Culture and Society. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1994.
  • Tiongson, Nicanor G., ed. 1994. CCP Encyclopedia of Philippine Art, Volume II. Manila: Cultural Center of the Philippines.

Illustration Sources: The image detail at the top is from Philippines: Sultan of Sulu, Mindanao; The Story of the Philippines by Fiske (ca. 1890), retrieved from the University of Michigan Library Digital Collections; the image remix is brought to you by Datu Press®.

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