Tuesday, April 06, 2010

ngaben (cremation ceremony)

Cremation is a happy event, something to be celebrated in Bali because it helps to free the spirit of the dead from this world. Interestingly though, the body of the deceased is not necessarily cremated at the end of the ceremony. In addition, the cremation ceremony does not necessarily take place immediately after death. The ceremonies are very expensive and most times, the family needs to save money before they can hold the ceremony. In some cases it may take 3-4 years before the body is cremated, and until then the body is buried. As far as I understand, there are also certain periods when a cremation ceremony can be held every year.

A few weeks ago however, there was a cremation ceremony in Ubud for someone who died about three weeks ago, which was considered to be quite soon. The ceremony would be followed by the actual cremation. Tourists were welcome and cameras were allowed as long as we respected the local dress code of sarongs and no bare shoulders.

The ceremony was said to start around 12pm, but preparations around the house of the deceased started as early as 8am. The street has been cleaned, bamboo platforms were built, the bull and the cremation tower were brought to the area. Around noon time, the crowd got bigger, with families of the same neighborhood  (banjar) bringing food and offerings. Also the Gamelan group of the banjar started to prepare to play music.  Again, when everything was ready, the ceremony started suddenly. Everyone was in a very happy mood, a lot of chattering and laughing and the pace of the entire event was really high.

We started walking from the house towards the Monkey Forest, where the cremation would take place. The cremation bull was leading; sometimes we were walking in a fast pace, sometimes even running. In crossroads, the people carrying the bull were turning clock-wise several times and often shaking the bull vigorously. I later learned that this was to shake-off any remaining evil spirits that might have been still around. In some of the points that we passed, they were spraying water on the crowd by hoses. 

It was the middle of the day, sun high up, humidity rising, the pace frantic, the loud Gamelan music almost hypnotizing and the crowd just too much... I was already overwhelmed by the time we reached the cremation area in Monkey Forest, I can't imagine how the local guys carrying the cremation tower must feel. Once we were in the forest, everything was placed at certain spots and preparations began. It was time for us tourists to rest, but the actual work for the Balinese attending the ceremony just begun.
There were many steps and each looked very detailed. First the cremation bull was opened and ladies with long hair approached, dipping their hair into the bull. It was quite interesting but so far, I never got a chance to learn what that symbolizes. Then the priest approached the bull and started the preparations; it had multiple steps all very detailed and requiring a lot of details. I was once again amazed how it was handled in a very organized and elegant way, all the while everyone was having fun and using this as an opportunity to socialize. It was really a celebration, not a mourning. Everyone smiling, greeting one another, men smoking in big groups and not even one solemn face, let alone anyone crying. The preparation around the bull took more than an hour, then finally the body, which was wrapped heavily in white fabric was lowered into the bull too. As the bull was closed one again, men started to set up the mechanism to ignite the fire. I learned that wood fire was used in past, and sometime for really big ceremonies (such as a member of the royal family) it sometimes took months to tower up enough wood appropriate for such a big event. About a year ago, a member of the royal family passed away and I was told that it was the biggest wood tower and the cremation ceremony ever in Bali. But nowadays things seem to get a little more practical and environmentally friendly; fire was ignited from 2 flame-machines attached to industrial-sized LPG canisters. Of course first the bull was insulated via metal panels to ensure that fire would not spread around.

The wave of the flames in addition to the midday heat was too much. Plus, all of us oblivious tourists who got too close to the fire to get the best photo shoot were covered in ashes due to a reverse wind... Once the fire lost its blaze and Balinese started spreading around and eating I felt it was also time for me to go. The whole experience has been new; see a lot of happy faces celebrating the death of a loved one, the impeccable Hindu ceremony a lรก Balinese, the very welcoming attitude towards tourists and their intrusive cameras.

Lesson learned; to stay away once the cremation fire is ignited unless you are sure about the direction of the wind.

1 comment:

  1. hi ...
    i like how u describe and pictures ofcoz spoke a1000 words