Bali’s tourism industry has suffered in the aftermath of the bombings but life goes on for the island’s locals and so does death. ALISON GRINTER was there to witness a traditional Balinese cremation ceremony.
“That’s my sister,” says Tjokorda Raka Kerthyasa pointing to the charred remains of a human form dangling beneath the equally charred sarcophagus. No, this isn’t some bizarre act of self immolation. We are in the town of Ubud in south eastern Bali.
Kerthyasa is a member of the Ubud’s royal family (or as he put it “second in line to the throne”). I met him a few days earlier at the bar of the luxury hotel he runs with his wife. Over cocktails, he had wasted no time in telling me – a complete stranger – about his elderly sister’s recent death and invited me to her cremation.
Kerthyasa’s matter-of-fact attitude to his sister’s death reflects the Balinese attitude to mortality. Hindus celebrate death as just another phase of a person’s spiritual journey even if that person has died in tragic circumstances. Outpourings of grief are frowned upon and are believed to hold the spirit back from its next life.
The cremation itself (actually a double cremation – another woman from the village is to be cremated alongside Kerthyasa’s sister) is an all-day affair and began hours earlier – at around 10 in the morning with ceremonies attended by family members behind closed doors. It’s also the culmination of weeks of hard work by the villagers to prepare offerings.
Despite being a tourist magnet Ubud retains the feel of traditional life and religion is interwoven into the fabric of everyday life.
Around midday a crowd begins to gather on the main street. The whole town of Ubud has seemingly turned out for the occasion. In the scheme of things, cremation is just as momentous as a wedding and almost as joyous. You won’t see any tears shed here. The mood is undeniably upbeat, people have smiles on their faces. The loud jangling of the gamelan angklung, the traditional Balinese musical instrument, rents the air creating a carnival atmosphere.
Tourists, or bules, as the Balinese like to call us have been somewhat depleted in recent months – kept away from Bali by fears of terrorism. But today every single foreigner, has come out of the woodwork to witness this spectacle.
The touts are doing a brisk business, selling bottled drinks out of buckets of ice at inflated prices, and sarongs to the self- concious bules who are inadequately attired for the occasion in shorts and singlet tops.
Finally the bodies are carried out of a house, in plain white caskets and each are placed in a tower, with the tower’s height reflecting the person’s status. The Pecalang, Bali’s security guards, are out in force to ensure everything runs smoothly. Two of them mount one of the decorated imitation bulls each – later to be used as sarcophagi for the two bodies – and they’re off, lifted aloft by other Pecalang to be carried a couple of kilometres to the cemetery down the road. The towers and bulls sit so high in the air that men must use long wooden prods to lift power lines to give the parade clearance. The crowd, even larger now, follows in the parade’s wake.
Arriving at the cemetery the bodies are taken out of their casks and stuffed into the bulls. Village women queue up with offerings also to be placed into the bulls. Then, without much ceremony, the bulls are lit.
“Cremation can be gruesome,” says Tara, a 34-year-old American. Originally from Oregon in the US, she is married to a Balinese man and is somehow related to Kerthyasa via marriage. She has lived in Bali for almost a decade and has seen her fair share of cremations. “Sometimes the bodies don’t even burn that well because of all the fluid.”
The Pecalang, in their uniform of orange shirts and black and white checkered sarongs (resembling Formula One winning flags) have a solution to this problem. They hasten the process of incineration using blow torches fuelled by tanks of kerosene. Before long they have created a blazing inferno.
As the fire eats away at the sarcophagi revealing the bodies inside I find that it’s not grisly at all, just incredibly fascinating and strangely beautiful.
The local fire department are on hand in case something goes wrong. And something does – one of the bull’s burning heads topples to the pavement below, rolling dangerously close to the kerosene tank. Everyone flinches. Panicked, the Pecalang spring into action using sticks to knock the flaming chunk of wood clear, thankfully averting the need for firehoses.
“Just what Bali doesn’t need – another bomb,” mutters someone darkly to my left.
Kerthyasa seems oblivious to the minor drama that has just unfolded. Standing alone he seems to be in a world of his own. As the flames die down I ask him how he feels: sad? happy? As a foreigner I have no idea what are appropriate words at such an event. But he doesn’t seem at all fazed.
“Not happy, but satisfied to have participated to have been able to give her a fitting send off,” he says sagely. And with that I leave him to his thoughts.
Other spiritual sites in Bali
Pura Tanah Lot
Built on a wave-lashed chunk of rock, Pura Tanah Lot is one of Bali’s six most sacred temples. Its name means temple of the earth and sea and is the scene of many ceremonies. It is also home to the holy coral snakes. Unsurprisingly Tanah Lot’s dramatic setting draws scores of tourists but only true believers are allowed to climb the temple stairway to the compounds above.
Pura Luhur Uluwatu
Pura Luhur Uluwatu is a directional temple (kayangan jagat) which means that it has meaning for all Balinese, not just the locals and guards the south west from evil spirits. A favourite spot for tourists at sunset, it affords fantastic views of the coastline below and is only a stones throw away from the legendary Bukit surf breaks of Uluwatu.
Situated on the slopes of Mount Agung in east Bali is the temple complex of Besakih. Also known as the “Mother Temple” of Hinduism, it is the holiest site on the island for Balinese Hindus. Adding weight to its holy status was the 1963 eruption of Mount Agung which destroyed several nearby villages leaving Besakih untouched.”