The Ultimate Journey

By John Cooke

There was, my friend Budi announced one day on the beach at Jimbaran, to be a cremation. It was not, he added, just an ordinary cremation but something rather special. "You really should try to go" he stressed. Now I have known Budi long enough to appreciate that such intelligence is not to be taken lightly - and once again, it would transpire, I was not to be disappointed.

 In the West, cremation is a somber occasion, doleful and forbidding. How different thing are in Bali! Many western visitors, although aware that cremations in Bali are spectacular occasions, nevertheless feel uncomfortable at the prospect of participating. They fear that it is, if not actually indecent, at best disrespectful to attend simply out of curiosity. Commendable though such sensitivity may be, it is totally misplaced. For the Hindu Balinese, the body is little more than old clothing for the soul. The procession and burning celebrate the progress of the deceasedís atman from one cycle of existence to another, a further step along the arduous path to moksa - ultimate unity of the spirit with God. It is a celebration of life and the larger, more boisterous, the crowds, the greater the success of the ceremony. For this reason, visitors of all sorts are welcome - provided they show appropriate respect by donning sarong and sash, the proper dress for a religious ceremony. Moreover, the riotous exuberance of the cremation procession is but the brief public tip of a massive ritual iceberg involving months of private ceremony. This helps explain why cremations on Bali seldom include any overt displays of grief. Not only are tears disturbing to the spirit of the deceased, but in most instances, death occurred months, if not years, before the ceremony. Most cremations involve only skeletal remains exhumed from temporary, but often protracted, interment.

 Balinese society is dominated, if not obsessed, by ritual and ceremony. No activity of any significance can take place without the preparation of elaborate offerings and liberal dispensation of holy water. The proper offerings for each occasion are not left to personal choice, but are laid down in minute detail in the adats of the local temple and carefully monitored by the attendant priests. Offerings, particularly for important events, do not come cheaply. Moreover, in the case of funeral rites, great prestige and status can accrue to the family through displays of opulence - however unfounded. Hence it can often be long after a death has occurred that the family manages to accumulate sufficient wealth to provide a ceremony of acceptable magnificence. Ever practical, the Balinese often amortize the expense by joining together with other families in the village to stage mass cremations that can sometimes exceed 200 bodies at one burning.

 On Jimbaran beach, Budi had mentioned to me both date and place. Now, after a week of stormy, unsettled weather, the day of the cremation dawns fine and clear as the first rays of the sun graze Gunung Agung's forested slopes. Sacred volcano and navel of the world, this great mountain dominates both Balinese landscape and belief. Usually concealed by heavy cloud, this is surely an auspicious start to the day.

 Accompanied by friends with whom I wish to share the occasion, we soon leave the busy highway and follow undulating lanes that meander deep into the countryside. Our destination, the small village of Bunbungan, lies amid palm trees and terraced rice fields in the foothills a few miles to the north of Klungkung, hereditary capital of Bali's premier royal family. Parking in a grove of bananas on the edge of the village, we walk slowly up the main street. The air is heavy with anticipation as the crowds are already starting to gather. As soon as we round the final bend I know that Budi was not mistaken. A massive cremation tower dominates the scene. Surmounted by nine tapering meru roofs, it stands at the cross roads in the village center, waiting to bear the deceased to the burning ground beside the Pura Dalem - the Temple of Death - beyond the southern boundary. Only the most aristocratic families are entitled to towers of such size and magnificence.

 As we draw near, the magic sound of a funerary gamelan orchestra can be heard above the soft babble of conversation. Families along the route are already taking up position in the shadow of walls and trees, while in the shade of the Bale Banjar, a large open pavilion doubling as village hall, owners of market stalls do a brisk trade in snacks, multi-colored sweet drinks and fruit to the growing crowd of onlookers.

 Uncertain as to when the day's events might start - such things are unpredictable in Bali - we intentionally arrive early and find that we have at least two hours in which to absorb the unfolding spectacle and ponder its significance. The cremation tower or wadah is an elaborate structure built around a framework of bamboo and lavishly decorated in multicolored paper, foil, tinsel and glitter. For weeks relatives have been gathering from all over the island to help in its construction. It is a communal work of art, representing countless hours of devoted labor. Intended to please the gods and spirits, it is, like all such traditional Balinese creations, a transitory masterpiece that will shortly be destroyed without a second thought.

The structure of the wadah, like the body it will shortly carry, is a microcosmic representation of the Balinese macrocosmic universe. Designed to be carried in procession by perhaps a hundred men or more, it rests upon a massive bamboo platform that will also bear priests, relatives and musicians together with their instruments. The lowest level of the tower represents the underworld, where Bedawan, the turtle that supports the world on its back, is entwined by Anantaboga and Besuki, the pair of great dragon-snake Nagas that safeguard man's physical needs.

 The topmost part of the wadah, towering some 40 feet or more above the ground and imitating the stepped meru roofs characteristic of Balinese temple shrines, represents the abode of the gods. In between the heavens and the underworld, amid forests and mountains, is the middle world of man, containing a symbolic house. It is here, on a protruding platform, that the body will take its final journey.

 Although dominating the scene, the wadah is not the only structure present. Some distance in front stands the massive sarcophagus into which the body will eventually be transferred for burning. Ten feet tall, the sarcophagus is in the form of a great black bull, indicating that the deceased is a brahmana, the highest caste in Balinese society. At present it rests quietly on the ground, surrounded by a growing number of visitors who marvel at, and photograph, the intricate anatomical detail indicating that this ceremony is for a prince rather than a princess.

 Somber, resonant music from an ancient orchestra of bamboo xylophones floats across the adjacent compound, where the body lies in state in an inner pavilion. Family and friends cluster in the shade of spreading trees consuming tea and sweetmeats.

From time to time, groups of women dressed in black and bearing offerings on their heads emerge from inner courtyards and move off down the street. A priest, clad all in white and accompanied by his entourage, comes out to perform a series of ritual blessings before the tower and sarcophagus. Rugs are laid in the road and on it small baskets of flowers and carafes of holy water set. Thick blue smoke rises languidly from bundles of incense as the priest, sitting somewhat incongruously beneath a bright golfing umbrella, intones earnestly in Sanskrit, and from time to time rings his bell, flicks flower petals and splashes holy water over the offerings. The crowds pay no attention, except for the visiting photographers, who hover close by with cameras raised.

 As the crowds continue to grow, the shaded places fill to capacity and the itinerant vendors of cold drinks eagerly ply their trade. Bearing ice-filled baskets of bottled water, coke and beer on their heads, they only smile when their wares are dismissed as too costly. They knew full well that the sun god is on their side and thirst will soon drive even the most resolute back. These are not the only salespeople present. At every cremation, throngs of smiling sarong sellers gather, bearing huge bundles of gaudy fabric on their heads. They do a brisk trade, for many visitors come unprepared and few are insensitive enough not to don the requisite sarong and sash. Finally, more insistent perhaps because their goods are so clearly less saleable, are the downtrodden hawkers of crudely carved bone and ebony souvenirs. I am always happy for them when they eventually find someone in the crowd unable to say no.

 Although every cremation in Bali differs in detail, here at Bunbungan I am puzzled by the presence of a large palanquin positioned between the sarcophagus and wadah - a feature I have not seen before. It is only when a great red dragon-like naga suddenly arrives, rearing up high above the forty men carrying it, that I realize how special this cremation is to be. The Naga Banda is only seen at the funeral rites for members of Bali's old royal families, and so is very uncommon.

 Quite suddenly, at some signal that eludes me, the crowd becomes galvanized into activity and starts to search out locations from which to view the procession. Like ants after rain, people begin streaming from the compound that houses the body. Being of high royal birth, it was not proper for this body to be buried, even temporarily. For the many weeks needed to complete the complex preparations, the deceased has lain in a special pavilion, guarded around the clock against assaults from evil spirits and offered refreshment at regular intervals. Each night, paper lanterns are lit by the entrance to guide the spirit home should it wander off and become lost.

 Now several teams of men, dressed in black but identified by matching colored headdresses, take up their positions beneath the sarcophagus, palanquin and wadah. Marching bands of gongs and cymbals distribute themselves throughout the length of the procession, each wearing distinctive group colors. Women with elaborate offerings piled high on their heads gather in their appointed places. Nothing is written down, yet everyone knows when and where to go. Ever willing to adopt new ideas, the marshals coordinating the multitude of participants in this sea of activity today incongruously carry walkie-talkies and cell-phones.

 A tall ramp, stoutly built of bamboo, is now moved into position up against the cremation tower, while the head of the scarlet Naga Banda is brought forward into the palanquin, to accompany the officiating high priest or pedanda and his numerous attendants. Behind, the tail of the Naga is unraveled and run back towards the wadah.

 Suddenly a melee erupts from the adjacent compound, and with a surprising but characteristic lack of deference, the body is carried in confusion up the ramp and positioned on the wadah platform, covered in bolts of white cloth bearing mystical drawings and magic texts. The procession is about to begin.

 In the lead walks a man carrying a stuffed bird of paradise on a stick, signifying the soul of the deceased. Some distance in front of him, zigzagging from side to side, is a man with two baskets suspended from a pole across his shoulders. At intervals on either side along the route of the procession he plants small sticks decorated with pieces of cloth and feathers. These are to help direct the soul should it inadvertently be absent when the body is moved.

 First come women bearing offerings, then the leading band with cymbals beating out complex interweaving rhythms above the sonorous booming of the giant gongs. Then the great bull sarcophagus, surmounted by a man earnestly muttering into his walkie-talkie. And so it goes, wave after wave of sound, spectacle, color and confusion. Finally, behind the wadah comes the last marching band and then the sea of spectators, jostling to maintain position in the turbulent flowing crowd.

 From time to time both sarcophagus and tower lurch from side to side, tilting precariously and even spinning completely around. Those traveling with the body must cling on for dear life while ensuring their charge does not shift. Alarming and unplanned though it appears, this is a necessary precaution to confuse the spirit and prevent it from finding its way back and later troubling the family.

 The procession travels the length of the village, a distance of perhaps half a mile, and enters the mysterious burial ground beyond the southern boundary. Here, within a grove of giant trees and next to the temple dedicated to Siwa the dissolver, a decorative roof has been erected high above a grassy mound. Amid increasing confusion as the crowds swell, the procession makes three circuits before the sarcophagus finally comes to rest on the grassy mound. A short distance away the tower too is finally placed on the ground, but not before two young chickens are released from their cages beside the body. The direction they will fly signifies where the soul of the departed will also head. Clearly North - towards the sacred mountain Gunung Agung - is most auspicious, and lest there be any doubt in the minds of the chickens, they are forcefully propelled in the right direction, before fluttering unceremoniously to earth.

 At this point the pedanda, still in his palanquin and wearing a majestic crown, symbolically kills the great naga by shooting it with an arrow tipped by a flower. The spirit, no longer needing the naga's physical protection, is thus set free. Having slain the naga, the pedanda and his entourage move to an elevated platform overlooking the turmoil beneath. Men who have carried the sarcophagus and wadah, bathed in sweat, sit in the shade and are served bottled water. Others shift the great ramp up to the wadah in preparation for moving the corpse. Men with long knives and hatchets fell nearby banana stems and pile them around the sarcophagus, while family members help arrange offerings. All is activity.

 With conspicuous lack of reverence the corpse is lifted from the wadah and rushed down the ramp. Meanwhile, in preparation for its arrival, the sarcophagus has been cut into and the entire back removed to reveal the hollow interior. The fact that the space is several inches too short for the body it is to hold appears to surprise nobody. The corpse is soon forced to fit, and a stream of mourners come with offerings to accompany the soul - costly cloths, letters to the gods, and much else besides. All the while, the officiating priest pours jar after jar of holy water into the sarcophagus, smashing each in turn. These final preparations last an hour or more, the crowd waiting quietly while impatient foreign visitors wander aimlessly around pointing cameras at all and sundry. At last, just before the lid of the sarcophagus is replaced, several family members move in with cameras and videos to record the final appearance of the deceased.

 In a departure from normal custom, no firewood has been heaped around the sarcophagus on this occasion. Instead, a 50 gallon drum of kerosene is hoisted up a nearby coconut tree, the contents fed by garden hose to a pair of large blow lamps, the heat from which is directed upwards by the heaped banana stems. With a roar the blowlamps leap into life and within moments the sarcophagus is enveloped in flames, the elaborate work of weeks quickly disappearing in a cloud of smoke.

 Not long after the flames begin their work, the crowd starts to melt away. Within half an hour most casual onlookers have left. Small knots of women, clearly close family, sit in groups watching and talking quietly while a small band of dedicated photographers hover closely in the hope of capturing a macabre image or two as the corpse falls through the bottom of the sarcophagus and into the flames.

 Although the crowds have dispersed, much still remains for the family to do before life can return to normal. After the flames have subsided, the ashes must be gathered up and prepared for final consignment to the deep in an ocean-side ceremony. The living must then be cleansed from the pollution of death. The soul must be symbolically dispatched to heaven and even deified. These further rites will occupy at least another month or more before the priests can recite their final mantras.

By the time that all is finished, the visitors will long since have returned home - but they will not have forgotten. The emotional images of the events they witnessed that day in Bali will remain seared in memory and vividly re-lived with every telling.
Meanwhile, I must return to Jimbaran beach to find out what other important news Budi may have for me.

 

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