A death in a Balinese family means burial, or if funds are available, a cremation. Ultimately, even buried corpses are disinterred (or effigies are used) and are cremated as well in mass celebrations organized by traditional villages or hamlets (banjar). However, if a member of the royal family dies, hold onto your sarong!
The royals spare no expense when it comes to sending their loved (now deceased) ones off into the afterlife – preferably reincarnation as a beneficent god. They spend upwards of a month in preparations, and upwards of 1 billion Rps (exchange unnecessary, it’s alot of cash any way you look at it), to mount a spectacle of breathtaking proportions.
Yesterday a cremation of this magnitude was held right here in Ubud, for one of the elder royals who died in Jakarta. Agung Tjokorda Ngurah Wim Sukawati was 90 years old when he died on February 24, 2013 in hospital from a short illness. But, due to upcoming island-wide Nyepi and Galungan festivals, the cremation date was necessarily postponed. A priest determined that the first auspicious day for the pelebon (royal cremation) was set for May 14th; hence the long wait.
What to do with a dead body that cannot be cremated in a timely manner? If you’re a member of the Puri Agung Ubud family, tradition dictates that you lay the body (once doused in formaldehyde) in state, inside the family compound, on a bale (pavilion). Then, you proceed to present daily offerings, lead prayers, and – yes, ’tis true – you feed the man. This I learned from none other than Tjok Sukawati’s son Raka, whom I first met at the 2011 royal cremation and saw again yesterday.
The site in front of Puri Ubud was, as it had been two years ago, a place humming and strumming with activity. Bamboo poles being tied together to construct platforms, sarcophagi and towers, sponsored Styrofoam banners proclaiming the death, massive and ornately detailed decorations, masks, and hundreds of villagers and tourists.
At dawn and dusk in particular, there was an unmistakably amusement park or county-fair like feel to the intersection; food carts, balloons and other kids’ games for sale, women hawking sarongs or krises (ceremonial knives), vendors selling newspapers, coconuts, babi guling (suckling pig), trucks hauling and dumping materials, men smoking and joking, mothers bearing infants on motorbikes, fathers carrying infants around the platforms. Eventually, I even spotted a thin man selling plastic bags full of cotton candy. I’m sure some wondered: is this a cremation.. or a carnival?
For the proceedings themselves – the long procession down Jalan Raya until the cremation grounds – my friend and I claimed excellent viewing spots, alongside many other spectators, from the top balcony of café Kue. We were lucky indeed. Just after noon, when the procession was meant to begin (and begin it did!), the heavens opened and the rains came down. Not just a simple rainfall; this was a downright torrential downpour. The kind you expect to only see in the middle of rainy season. We watched as the revelers (really, that’s what the Balinese do at cremations, they revel!) got soaked through, yet the procession never came to a halt.
Male villagers, dozens at a time, hoisted and carried the multi-ton 22-meter tall bade (cremation tower) and five-meter tall lembu selem (bull sarcophagus). Villager women and female members of the royal family tip toed cautiously in their high heels while children pranced in puddles. Priests and family members sat atop the platforms as well, including a handful that stood leaning out and swaying – a frightful sight – near the top of the highest tower. There was also a five-meter long naga banda (dragon) mounted on yet another platform that was carried along the route.
And then, the crowds passed, drenched but with colorful umbrellas in hand, as they made their way to the Setra Dalem Puri cemetery, abutting the Pura Dalem Puri temple and Peliatan village pavilion (watilan) – right at the top end of my street. They were going to witness the burning (of the) man and blazing of the bull. And all the rest of the paraphernalia.
My friend and I decided to eat and part ways.
I had plans. Big plans. And they didn’t entail an industrial-strength high-powered burner. Or ash.
I turned down Monkey Forest Road, which had all but emptied out of tourists and vehicles, then walked down a path to Sherry’s house. Once we got past the chit-chat and my much-needed rest, we headed to the kitchen, where we whipped up a bunch of ingredients that we’d patched together, then lightly fried them in a wok, spooned on a bit of homemade tropical kaliasem jam, guzzled a bit of brem wine and dug into a batch of what I believe must have been the tastiest and creamiest (and just possibly the first) Balinese Cheese Blintzes this side of the Dead Sea.
What an amazing day that was, and what a contrast between the procession and the privacy of the meal cooked with your friend. Brilliantly graphic description. I learnt a lot from reading this, which was a real pleasure
My humblest thanks 😉 Contrast indeed.. a perfect way to wind down!
Great post Amit. I’m not sure what’s up with my internet but I couldn’t see the pictures which was a shame but I loved hearing about your day. Hope you and Sherry had a great time, your lunch sounded heaven. Hugs to you both XX
Shame about not seeing the pix, but yes it was altogether a wonderful and colorful day!
I’m so glad I got my cremation photos first thing in the morning and could enjoy the afternoon procession from the dry comfort of home, vicariously, through your blog post! (And those blintzes were the tastiest morsels this side of heaven…thank you!)
Well at least you got to enjoy the cleanest & driest part of the festivities 😉 I’m making blintzes again this wknd!
Woah! I have never seen the ceremony of Ngaben. I once heard that the most expensive Ngaben rituals were mostly done in Ubud. I also heard that the family who held the ceremony often sold the rights to film and air the procession to TV stations. I wonder if it is true.
Apparently they had huge cranes at the cremation site for television crews; doesn’t surprise me, it’s a visual feast for the media. As for ngaben, they don’t use that term (I’ve learned) for the royals.. only pelebon 😉
Ah, I see…
Sometimes I forgot that Bali also adapted the caste system from Indian Hinduism! So, am I to understand that the term Ngaben is only for peasants?
For commoners, i.e. lower castes that royalty I think.