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Published: July 20th 2008
Strange as it seems, it is in their cremation ceremonies that the Balinese have their greatest fun. A cremation is an occasion for gaiety and not for mourning, since it represents the accomplishment of their most sacred duty: the ceremonial burning of the corpses of the dead to liberate their souls so that they can thus attain the higher worlds and be free for reincarnation into better beings" Miguel Covarrubias
Bali means Island of the Gods, its religion is 93%!H(MISSING)indu which expresses itself through the many hourly, daily, monthly, bi-monthly, yearly, twice yearly, decade, end of century, beginning of century, summer, autumn, winter, spring, birth, 3 month of age, 6 months of age, reaching 17 and adulthood (teeth filing ritual), promotions, demotions, weddings and death, the final cremation ritual that lasts for days even years after a death. Each ceremony and every ritual has Bali's ancient history and its colourful and rich culture woven into it, which is brought together further by the abundant creative artistry that comes from the very heart of its energetic and humbled people.
We arrived in Bali at a rather special time as June and July 2008 is the most auspicious cremation session since five years ago. It is customary that every five Balinese years, which each year is 210 days that consists of six months of 35 days each, or 30 weeks of 7 days each, each week having its own name, until the end of this time the people of Bali cannot be properly cremated, yet until this special time comes around they must be buried
temporarily, if they are cremated between this time it is said that the path to reincarnation is cut off, not to come back to earth ever again?
They say you have not experienced Bali until you have experienced a Balinese cremation, like walking the Inca trail in Peru, or climbing around Angkor Wat in Cambodia. But two cremations in a month is heavy going. I experienced death everywhere, it was in and around me and every few days I witnessed various ceremonies that took place in honour of the islands deceased. Some of the dead were as young as nine who had drowned or were killed by motor cycles, some in their 30's, 40's and some as old as 103, some had died a few days before, some were buried in temporary graves some four years ago and had waited for this turn of calendar to arrive then they were exhumed. It is a common and cost saving practise here that as soon as one body is removed from a temporary grave someone else then takes that burial spot until they too can afford a proper cremation or until the auspicious calendar dates return, the families
who bury their dead in graves are too poor to hold a proper cremation ceremony which runs in to thousands of dollars.
The local priests are consulted to name the best date and time so the souls of the deceased can be given back to God or The Gods (depending on whom you speak too). God or The Gods decided where the soul is to be reincarnated, which is believed to be within the very same family. It is usual that many common people will wait until a royal King or Queen passes away as it is not only a custom and an honour that they too can be cremated on the same day but it’s cheaper for the family, it also gives them plenty of time to save up. Some people have been known to wait 30 years for the right time to dig up the remains of an ancient family member and give them a good royal cremation send off. But whenever I asked the question that if the family wait 30 earth years just for the right calendar time to let the soul go free by cremation, would this not entrap the soul, keeping
these creatures were on each corner of each tower
them in a dark ethereal limbo therefore not letting them reincarnate, would this not confuse the natural order of life, death, rebirth and karma? Or is it just a body, the spirit had moved on? It is complicated but the Balinese have special ceremonies and rituals to cover such issues and concerns. Here in Bali they believe the body must go through the elements of earth, fire, water then air in order to reach Nirvana states however long this takes in either realm.
Lucky for me a much loved King had just passed away, King Tjokorda Gede Agung Suyasa of Ubud Bali was the head of the Ubud royal family and was chief of Desa Pekraman since 1976, he died on the 28th March 2008 after cancer had taken him at 67 years old. His remains had been kept at Puri Saren Kauh Ubud Palace, his reading glasses lay upon his chest so while lying in state he was able to read the 'Bali Times' and 'Jakata Post', along with a letter of condolence from his friend President Susilo Bambang and his personal effects left in his man bag.
The high priest or
Padanda of the Klungkung palace set the date for 15th July 2008, unfortunately for us this was some four days after our 30 day non-extensible visa expired which was a big problem as it came with threats of huge fines or jail. The King was affectionately known by his people as ‘the wise one' as he and his family married up all their combined oceans of wealth and influence to help his Hindu subjects with all religious and cultural matters that went beyond the call of normal duty, he was known to be a peoples man, he regularly got his royal hands dirty as he loved to muck in and he was kind and generous throughout his whole life time. He was to be cremated in grand style alongside his nephew Tjokorda Gede Raka who died last year and his aunt Desak Raka who also died last year but was already cremated, so her ashes remain in a sacred box. There were 68 members of the community who all died within the last four years; they were to be cremated elsewhere but on the same day.
Not in Five years of Sundays was I going to
miss this, so we over stayed our visa. I spent five weeks in Bali and during that time I went back and forth, alone, to the sacred town of Ubud which means healing. I wanted to get to know key locals and to be part of their sacred Hindu customs and traditions and to document the cremation progress. For me this was an exciting time and I got to talk to a lot of locals who all had something to do with this cremation. Some seemed surprised and curious that I was so interested in death, some people felt honoured I was there and wanting to be part of their world, some thought I was plain crazy for wanting to see a funeral over staying my visa, with the threat of being slung in jail. The locals say it was to be the biggest cremation in one hundred years, but some others say it is more like in the last thirty years as many Royal persons have died since then, but on this occasion every grand ritual and gesture and as much pomp a town could muster for the people of Ubud and the whole of Bali and Indonesia to
say thank you to this one very special king, whatever this cost it was going to be fully exercised. Over 70 villages on the island were asked to help with the preparations which they all obliged.
The procession started and the atmosphere was pure electricity with no pylons in site for obvious Bade height safety reasons, the Balinese don't weep for their dead, they celebrate. We decided to find a good spot to take pictures and after a few minutes entire royal families from everywhere were standing in front of us, real life Kings and Queens and little princesses and no one went near them for ages, so I leapt from my prime photo taking space and in amongst the 15,000 strong crowd I approached them. Gradually people started to do the same, it turned out they were all very commoner friendly, one fine King asked me where I was from? I said London, he told me he had been to London on business and his son is a keen Tottenham Hotspur supporter, I told him that Tottenham is where I last resided, he took a great interest in my homelessness and epic travels, he confided
that he has now met many westerners who are giving up material life and he found this 'most interesting', we both laughed, I covered my mouth as I did this, as you do in the presence of royalty, he was the nicest King I have ever met.
I was amazed that my carefully chosen cremation outfit, that was a local made black, orange and gold batik sarong with black t-shirt with subtle Sanskrit letters, fitted in perfectly with their traditional Royal mourning dress, in fact one King of Java commented on my 'beautiful sarong' and where did I get it? Both Stu and I had somehow managed to dress to fit in with commoners and royalty alike as he wore a t-shirt given to Balinese people only. I felt honoured to be chatting amongst them all, Indonesia has many royal families dating back from when it was nine small kingdoms, but in 1929 they were restored back to self governing states. After much civil fighting and world wars President Soekarno declared in 1959 his policy of a guided democracy.
The main attractions were two impressive towers called Bade's that divided up into nine tiers
(steps to heaven) which carried the deceased to the Dalem Puri cremation grounds some 900 yards away from the palace. The Kings tower was 27 meters high, hence why the pylons had been removed, it was made from heavy looking bamboo, great chunks of wood and much create paper and real gold leaf, and it weighed in at 11 tonnes. This was carried manually by the people guided by two royal family members Tjokorda Raka Kerthyasa and Tjokorda Oka Artha Ardana Sukawati, also accompanied by a magical maestro in a gold lame suit he was known as The Banjar who sprinkled holy water on the men throughout to help cleanse and cool the Kings porters, he then got the men moving from side to side to confuse the path of any evil spirits who wanted to steal the Kings soul on route to the cremation grounds.
This also caused chaos with spectators as the local police shouted at anyone near the curb to 'get the hell away this thing will kill you'- ironic. Mr Gold Lame Banjar man guided up to 400 men with his long red flag, he voiced with passion when to move one
way or another as this 11 ton platform took up the whole width of the road, trees were cut, cables dismantled, he orchestrated his visual guidance of any pending difficult situations with dramatic body language, he was the grand conductor. He also managed to get the crowds worked up into an excitable near tribal frenzy which is an art in itself, along with the traditional Bali cremation sounds of Gong Beri symbols and drums played by the Bale Ganjur or (marching troops) This enormous bade vehicle had not one single wheel beneath as it was fuelled by the Kings people, with their pure passionate devoted energy alone. It took 400 men to carry these towers only 150 yards at one time, the local porters who wore the special edition purple t-shirts aligned the roads relay form, when one lot of men were visibly exhausted another 400 men would take over, this took around 8,000 men in total to complete the journey.
Between the Bade towers was the Naga Banda which is the effigy of a sacred Dragon, this has been rarely seen in other royal cremations to date. The dragon is a vehicle for the much loved
King to reach Nirvana quicker, although waiting three months with your soul trapped in a formaldehyde drenched body is a long time in earth hours to wait for such freedom, but he was left with plenty to read to pass this time. This dragon ritual-myth dates back to 1460 when King I Dewa Ketut Tegal Besung passed away and his son the new king Waturenggong questioned the authority of a high priest and tested his powers by placing a goose (which is also seen placed on the main Bade) in a well and covered it up, King Waturenggong asked the high priest what was in the well, the high priest replied by saying a dragon, the towns people and the new king laughed until they opened the well door and a dragon popped out. The high priest asked King Waturenggong to ride with him to heaven which he did, and then they both returned to Earth alive and well. Since then the high priest always rides with the dragon to help guide only special Kings Souls up to Nirvana.
The padanda priest on this occasion was female, at the beginning of the ceremony she had a
bow and arrow and shot at the dragon, this was to symbolise the killing of the dragon that ties the soul to earthly processions and to release any bad acts the deceased may have done within his life time, which by all accounts coming from the mouths of his people, was nothing at all. The high priestess was in a trance throughout this ceremony and her dress looked Egyptian, a simple white dress trimmed with black, gold and jewels, very grand. Finally there were three impressive solid looking Bull effigies or Lembu that I had watched being built over the last 5 weeks, every detail had been considered even the bulls whiskers were jewelled to perfection. The King and his nephew were to be taken from the Bade towers and placed inside the bulls ready to be burnt. This part took a while to organise as the men in purple shirts could not figure out how to get one bull back into its stand, so a lot of waiting around occurred. As everyone was hanging around, Stu had an opportunity to place the royal coffin upon his common shoulders, not everyone could do this, but because he wore the official
royal purple t-shirt that the kind man at the hotel gave him, it was his VIP pass to everything. During this long wait the royal ushers puffed on cigarettes, supped up huge amounts of coffee and texted friends on mobiles as they all took turns in carrying the coffins of the King and the royal nephew on their shoulders as it was not allowed to be placed on the ground.
Between the two Bulls 60 Hindu priests were to chant sacred Hindu prayers and give sacred offerings, I saw cows heads on platters which are sacred protection for the afterlife, suckling pigs which represents the avoidance of laziness in the next life and dead ducks or geese which give the soul wisdom for the next life, which I may have confused with a dead chickens which offered at a cremation wards of greediness in the afterlife. The men in gold lame suits were also priests and played main roles in the send off. They removed the bull’s top part, to prepare the space where the bodies will lay. In Bali they remove the old clothing of the deceased replacing it with a white cloth, they cracked some
Mr Gold Lame Banjar man
that little blip is him controlling everything......!
kind of clay pots as pieces of debris came crashing down around the platforms. Most of the area in the cremation grounds were accessible to all, there was no great security present but when the priests were attending to the ritual needs of the deceased we were all told to be seated and to be quiet, but some idiot pot bellied tourists tried to get on the ramp and take invasive photos of the ceremony, many people shouted for them to respect the king and get the hell down which they did in the end.
When the sun was setting, the top half of the bulls were put back, Mr. Gold Lame Banjar man broke down in floods of tears, high emotion took over everywhere, it was over whelming for everyone, he had held that stage all day and had now completed the final dressing of the Kings body. Around 20.00 pm four fire engines were at the ready as this was a close environment with thousands of mindless people, and lots of inflammables laying around, remembering that this was a cremation and bottles of gas stood near the stands, the gas pipes were laid between the
bulls. The dragon did a final dance to the bulls and was placed between them. The flame was lit and wooshhhhh up they went in flames. The heat was so intense people moved back. We watched the fire for a while and the fire men seemed to have it all under control, we wiped our eyes dry then ran to the nearest restaurant, so did 5,000 other people. After the flames had gone out the high priestess would have taken the ashes of each person and laid them out in human form on a white cloth, these represent the vital organs of the deceased. She then would place them in a decorative coconut shell and the whole family would escort her to Sanur beach to release them into the sea to complete the cycle of elements. Which brought me back to my first few days here on Kuta beach, watching families do just this. The whole event from start to finish was the most incredible event I have ever witnessed.
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One of the best ever!
Dear Claire, thank you so much. Again, you have enlightened us with the many customs and rituals of wonderful people all around the world. Carolyn ( Gunga)
Claire, what a wonderful experience that so few of us will ever get to experience. Your writing is so descriptive, I almost felt like I was there. Thank you for sharing your spiritual journey. Delaine
Hi Claire, As usual an amazing account of your onward journey. I love living vicariously through your journals. They are amazing, vivid, entertaining, touching, funny, real. Thanks and keep them coming.
WOW, and then another, WOW, and then another! WOW!!!! I've only now got the chance to sit down and catch up on your blog & again, as always it is FABULOUS! Just unforgettable. (And I am glad you & Stu are not holled up somewhere in prison!) It brought back lots of memories of the festivals and rituals when we were there last year & ofcouse all those lovely smiling faces. I just love Bali. Keep smiling, Sarahxxx
What a travel experience! :)
Hi Claire, I was reading Autobiography of a Yogi at Bunga Permai hotel where I found your address, just had to look and see what it was when I came home, got a surprise and have enjoyed your comments on Bali. Do you think you will return to Bali some day? I hope wherever you are you are happy.