The village farewelled 29 of its own last Thursday in the usual spectacular fashion of ngaben ceremonies. Preparations had been going on for a month and nobody slept the night before as the Pedanda (High Priest) led prayers and chanting throughout the early hours for the safe journey of the souls of the departed.
It is a requirement for all Hindu Balinese to be cremated. If the family is of a higher caste, or wealthy enough, this can occur soon after death. But if not, it’s cheaper by the dozen. Or in Thursday’s case, 29.
Consider the expense, borne by donation by everyone in the village. Ceremonies and cleansing immediately after death. A ceremony and procession to the burial ground for interment until the cremation. It literally could be years, but when the time comes another ceremony to respectfully recover the remains and return to the preparation area. In the meantime, hundreds, if not thousands, of offerings are prepared and beautiful sarcophagi (lembu) are made. Much more about Balinese death and cremation can be found here, an interesting read with passages from several authoritative sources.
Our day began at around 9am as overcast, but mostly the rain held off. After the Pedanda had evoked the ancestors to welcome some new arrivals, the procession assembled and noisily made its way to the cremation ground, perhaps a kilometer away. There’s always a lot of waiting at any Balinese ceremony and this was no exception. With vendors selling balloons, sarongs and food, there was something of a fairground atmosphere as holy business carried on.
Offerings must be presented, there are prayers to be said, families must to be blessed by a mangku (priest), but eventually chickens were symbolically released, fires were lit and heavy smoke covered the area. All that work. Reduced to ashes. Like a Buddhist mandala, nothing remained – a reminder that beauty and life are ephemeral.
Usually the ashes are collected the next day, but for various reasons our deceaseds’ ashes were wrapped in white cloth and placed on special tables with even more offerings and blessings. By this time it was about 5pm and we were wilting and made our way home, but at around 6 another procession took what was left down to the holiest place in Ubud, the confluence of two rivers at Campuhan Bridge, and released. We heard the returning gamelan and procession around 9pm.
Mind you, it’s not over. More ceremonies will occur 12 days after the ngaben. I don’t know how the Balinese find time to work. Of course, not long ago village life was enough to sustain everybody and they didn’t need to seek outside employment; it’s only the influx of tourists and people like us who choose to live here that has altered the traditional lifestyle. Those days can never return, but somehow the culture remains intact and there is no reason to think that coming generations will take short cuts as they are deeply wedded to the culture in every aspect.
Our next major ngaben will be some time in the 2020s but there will be many other ceremonies / festivals / events happening before then, including the return of these now ancestors to their family compound at Galungan. It is the richness of Balinese life that draws us here, but we can’t pretend that we will will ever fully understand.