OBANDO, Philippines (Reuters Life!) - Hundreds of couples flocked to a town in the northern Philippines to take part in a centuries-old ritual dance, honouring a patron saint believed to bring fertility.
The ritual took place this year amid an increasingly acrimonious battle over a controversial bill promoting artificial contraception in this intensely Catholic nation.
But those seeking children packed into Obando by the thousands for the annual May ritual, inspired by miraculous stories of the babies it has brought.
Couples dance in the two-hour long procession, swaying their hips to a traditional folk tune from bamboo and marching bands. The ritual is accompanied by a short chant and prayer to Saint Claire, the local patron saint of fertility, asking her to bless them with children.
Ruelito Cruz and his wife Gina came in the hope that the dance would help them have a child more than a decade after they had their first.
"They say this is where we can ask those kinds of wishes, that is why we hope our wish for a second child would come true," said Cruz.
The rite has taken place in Obando for centuries and apparently originated from a pagan fertility ritual where couples once rubbed their body parts against an idol.
But the act was later changed by the Catholic Church when they introduced Saint Claire, the patron saint of fertility, to the locals.
Dentist Earl de Castro's wish for a healthy child came true after his wife surmounted difficulties with past pregnancies to bear a healthy baby.
"It was a miracle for us to be given a child. That is why we go back here yearly for thanksgiving," De Castro said.
The dance also promotes fertility in a different way, with the saint playing matchmaker to help people find a partner.
Newlywed Tess Faustino said she found her husband after asking the patron saint for guidance.
"This is my first time to wish for a child," she added.
The contraception bill has led to an escalating war of words that has put Philippine President Benigno Aquino on a collision course with the country's powerful Catholic Church leaders, who have blocked similar measures since the 1990s.
"The problem is not the bearing children, but the problem is poverty and corruption in our country," said Jerry Fortunato, a parish priest in Obando.
The Philippines, with 80 percent of its 100 million population devoted Catholics, holds many festivals honouring patron saints that are believed to grant miracles.
Not everyone came to ask the saint for children. Some begged for different miracles instead.
Jemimah Santiago, a call centre agent with two children and pregnant with her third, danced in the hopes that her husband would return after leaving her for another woman.
"I'm dancing right now (to see) if he can come back with me," she said.
(Editing by Elaine Lies)