The Greatest Show on Earth

… is not the circus (nor the film). Neither is it Las Vegas, Disneyland, the Big Dipper or Northern Lights. Nor do I think is it a view of our planet from the moon. It’s a Balinese cremation, most especially for a member of the royal family. If you haven’t been to one, well… you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Unlike the way funerals and rites are conducted in the West, where death is believed to signify finality and the last stage of life; and where death is tinged with grief and tears, a death in Bali is a vastly different experience; indeed, here it marks passage into the next cycle of the soul’s life.

On this island, a person’s body is merely deemed a vessel temporarily housing the essence of life, the soul. Which is why a death is not a somber affair (despite some feelings of sadness among the family immediately after); rather, death is seen as the gateway to the soul’s ultimate journey to heaven, released when the corpse is consumed by fire.

At death, the family swings into action, making plans to cremate the body as imminently as possible. In many instances, bodies are buried when a family cannot pay the exorbitant costs of a cremation, waiting instead until their village holds a more affordable communal cremation.

A cremation ceremony is one of the most famous Hindu-Balinese traditional and religious ceremonies. It is a festive gathering for the whole village; a day filled with ceremonies, offerings, performances, laughter and joy – an excuse for celebrating.

When it involves the royal family, it is an even bigger more illustrious affair; yesterday’s event involved the active participation of more than 20 surrounding villages. Balinese royal households represent the focus of Bali’s religious and cultural life. As such, the Balinese name for a royal cremation ceremony is also different; for non-royals it’s called ngaben, while a royal cremation is called pelebon.

Today’s cremation was for the 80-something matriarch of the Ubud royal family, Anak Agung Niang Rai. She was the queen of the royal household of Ubud’s traditional community, and wife of Tjokorda Gde Agung Sukawati, head of the royal family until 1978 and widely known as “the king of Ubud.” Tjokorda Agung was one of the most important figures in the history of Ubud. During his reign, he pioneered the development of Ubud, to the point where it became widely known as the heart of Balinese art and culture.

Ibu Rai died on May 14th, and her body has remained inside the royal compound of Puri Agung Ubud since then; watched over 24 hours a day.

Preparations for the cremation, which began shortly after her death, culminated in today’s all-out extravaganza, lasting from dawn until dusk. I followed those preparations with near-obsession, sneaking quietly into the palace grounds in the early morning hours on my way to yoga class; intently observing the craftsmen, artists, handy and dutiful villagers of all ages, fastidiously creating all the disparate elements that would fit into perfect formation for this day.

Draftsmen drew measurements for structures made of Styrofoam, teak wood or bamboo; master craftsmen drew intricately ornate designs on paper and other materials that were to be cut, covered in colorful foil paper, bunches of cotton, striped or multi-colored string, paint and glaze.

Woodworkers carved and chiseled out dainty flowery designs (imagine!) into all sides of the coffin (carved from the trunk of a single tree) into which the corpse would be laid and then placed into the sarcophagus.

Most of the elements were affixed to the royal bade (funerary tower) or portable platform standing 24 meters high and borne on the shoulders of villagers from Peliatan. The bade was constructed out of different woods, including truckloads of bamboo.

The remains were transferred from the royal compound to a recessed area in the upper level of the bade, just below the nine-tiered roofs (indicating the elevated social status of the deceased) by way of a ramp made of bamboo, inclined from the inside of the compound, over the outer wall, up to its resting spot.

The tower was elaborately decorated with gold papers and various figures from Hinduism and Balinese mythology. Monstrous-looking mini-gods were crudely built, then shaped, painted, clothed, draped in sarongs, bearing torches – each with horrible, bulging eyes.

Heads of dragons, elephants and other beasts were constructed, fine details carved out and augmented with brightly-colored paints, string, velvet, cotton and gold leaf. In fact, gold leaf was everywhere, covering nearly everything.

Gamelan instruments were set up on an inner bale (pavilion) of the palace courtyard, the tinny-sounding music ramping up a few days before the actual cremation. Coconuts lay on the ground, waiting to play their pivotal role in offerings for the day. The palace mutt (a dwarfish hybrid Bali-dog) lolled about, sniffing here and there, hoping to catch a morsel left behind from a worker’s lunchtime meal.

For days before, people were asking each other: Are you going to the cremation? – as if inquiring about attending a party or writing circle. When I left a friend’s house a few days ago, she called after me: See you at the cremation!

Yesterday’s cremation was undoubtedly the biggest show in town. The biggest event in Bali, hands down. High priests, low priests, holy water, offerings, coconut husks, burning incense. The unmistakable scents of being, for one day, at the center of the (Balinese) universe were amplified by the hordes of people – royals, villagers, invited guests, performers, dancers, vendors, resident foreigners and tourists – who crowded the nearly-1 kilometer stretch of road, from Ubud Palace to the Puri Agung Peliatan (the temple and cemetery site at the end of my street).

I awoke shortly after 5 a.m., and was out the door before six. In the darkness of pre-dawn, I was (understandably) filled with trepidation, unsure whether a freaked-out bali-dog might leap out from its post, bark incessantly and wake the neighborhood. But people were already sweeping outside their homes and shops, while the dogs kept mostly out of sight.

Passing the cremation grounds just past six, I caught sight of a small group of people arranging offerings under the cover of the moon-filled darkness. In the grassy courtyard across the street (which sadly doubles as a garbage-burning site), food and toy vendors were already beginning to set up their stalls, in full anticipation of the large turnout later in the day.

By the time I reached the main road a few steps later, the first hints of daylight were filtering through clouds. Jalan Raya was nearly emptied of vehicles, a sure sign that people were paying attention to the zero-tolerance parking policy of the coming day: the road was reserved for movable bamboo towers, a bull and a walking caravan of royalty in their finest attire. A fire truck was parked in front of a bank – not so much as a precautionary measure, but rather for the purpose of spraying the road with water, to confuse any (evil) spirits that might threaten to interrupt the procession.

The market was buzzing with its usual early-morning activity, but a little further on, a different kind of buzzing was already in high gear: Outside the palace, swarms of male villagers with saws and drills, ropes, ladders and different lengths of bamboo, were re-jigging and strengthening the platform below the brilliantly-decorated bull (sarcophagus, lembu). They – and others like them – would be responsible for shouldering the weight of that bull (and royals sitting on its back and around the base) for the full length of the walk; they undertook their role seriously, ensuring that the platform would be sufficiently stable to withstand the pressure and distance.

Curiously, not a single man stood out from the crowd as a foreman; each villager seemed to know his role, directions were followed without argument, tools were shared, and everything seemed to fall into place as needed. Despite the apparent absence of a leader to orchestrate the maneuvering (although one of Agung Rai’s sons, whom I met by accident, explained that his brother had designed the tower down to its minute details), by all appearances it was a highly orderly and collaborative effort.

By 7:30 a.m. or so, I staked out a place right across from the entrance to the palace; with a prime view of both the tower and bull/lembu. An Australian woman I had met the day before arrived soon after and we watched together as the morning’s activities unfolded in front of our eyes.

A cohort of young royals, prohibited by reason of their traditional status from participating in the extensive manual work undertaken to honor the deceased, sauntered out of the courtyard, black jackets buttoned up high, bearing trays of prepared coffee, tea and snacks for the workers – who continued to smoke and chat and laugh all through their hard work.

Small groups of locals gathered, and everyone’s gaze turned skywards. Fathers with small children in wool caps and down or fleece jackets pulled up on motorbikes, others hoisted their child up for a better view or squatted in front to admire the sheer size and beauty.

There were also entire families piled onto their motorbike gawking, teenagers in uniform on their way to school, women on their way home from the market, a few weary-eyed, camera-toting tourists ambling along too. There were looks of shock, awe and utter amazement.

I found it hard to take my eyes off the sights, in particular the tower and bull… knowing that in a few short hours it would all go up in smoke. The epitome of ephemera, I thought and later discussed with Kadek, one of the men whose fellow villagers were steadying the platform; temporary like the day, Kadek said, as fleeting as our lives.

Invited guests began to arrive, most dressed in traditional costume. Women were garbed in deep teal kebayas and long skirts, many of whom wore stupendously high heels, apparently forgetful of their upcoming 1-kilometer walk to the cremation grounds.

All day long, not a single kite soared in the sky; an otherwise inexplicable oddity. The words pelebon and puri were on everyone’s lips.

Vendors hawked sarongs, postcards, gaudily-painted cone-shaped bamboo hats, water and juice. Snacks were sold along the way: fried tofu with peanut sauce, ice cream, grilled corn and satays, cold drinks, bunches of edamame, clumps of peanuts.

I spent the day standing, leaning, kneeling, swaying, squatting and shifting from leg to leg. After eight hours, my body ached from heat, sweat and exhaustion. Some onlookers and village men actually did faint from exhaustion (or the unforgiving heat), and were swiftly carried up by their comrades into a packed but shaded bale for medical attention. In one case, an ambulance had to be called in for one of the villagers who had been carrying the bull-platform and had been crushed; causing the young royal sitting atop the bull who had witnessed the incident to scream, collapse – and nearly faint from shock.

Somewhat regrettably, but in dire need of rest, I retreated from the cremation site. Instead of the usual five-minute walk to my room, I was stuck in traffic. Yes, while walking. I hadn’t anticipated the logjam that would block my street while the main road was closed down. So, with vehicles and motorbikes parked thickly on either side of the road, I had no choice but to maneuver between motorbikes, sometimes with nowhere to go until they were able to move and free up some walking space.

After a shower and power nap, I dressed and meandered back to the site, noticing thick plumes of smoke spiraling diagonally into the sky ahead of me: Signs of a burning woman.

While the sun began to set, Ibu Niang Rai’s body succumbed to the blazing fire of purification. The electricity was cut all along the main road, effectively shutting off a day’s worth of supply not only to tourist-hungry warungs and shops on that stretch of road – but also to places along my street, who were equally impacted. Which is why I did the only right and neighborly thing: I dined at the local Yummy Yummy warung, where Rai served me a gas-stove cooked chicken curry by candlelight.

Too exhausted this morning for yoga, I finally had a chance to pass by the cremation grounds at midday. Except for some smoke still rising from the embers in the garden next to the site, the entire area had already been swept clean – without the slightest hint of anything that had transpired in the very spot just yesterday.

The towers, bamboo ramps, everything was gone without a trace. It was extremely eerie. But also extremely efficient and according to protocol; as if to say: The cremation ceremony ended, the soul left the body, the family went home, there is nothing to do but return to the business of life – for now.

The cremation ceremony – together with the preparations leading up to the day – was unequivocally one of the most fascinating, breathtaking and mesmerizing events that I have ever witnessed in my life. And so, my apologies; I’m afraid that my photos don’t quite do it justice…

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