Clouds shroud the mountainsides of Abang Songan village as we proceed with solemn purpose toward the cemetery.
Ketut’s father died last June. He was buried and an elaborate, day long ceremony was performed at his grave. But the Hindu population of Bali believes that the spirit stays near the family and remains active and restless until it’s freed by the rituals of a firey cremation.
Cremation is one of the most spectacular and costly events that occurs in Bali. To help those with limited funds provide this essential send-off for their loved ones, a mass cremation is held once every five years. It spreads the expense over many families, and makes available to all this otherwise prohibitive ritual.
That time had come in Ketut’s village. At his invitation, seven of us left Ubud at 8:30 a.m. to make the hour and a half trip into the mountains as perhaps the first ever foreigners to witness this ceremony in his village.
With patient help from Ketut I have attempted to reconstruct the day and some of the beliefs and practices around this most important event. But he will be the first to tell you that he doesn’t know everything. The holy Sriempu Pedanda are the keepers of knowledge. Nine of them are required here today, three to represent each clan, and they will attend to ceremonial protocol.
What follows is specific to Abang Songan. These particulars may not exist in any other village as each municipality brings its own flavor, history, and tradition to bear on observances such as these.
One of our group snaps a shot as this part of the procession begins. The women carry offerings of food on their heads. The gifts are beautifully garbed in double sarongs of white and yellow cloth.
Uniformed gamelan players assemble.
Kadek (our exceptional driver for the trip) dresses Omar in traditional garb.
Roasted pig on a stick is an offering of food to appease and distract the dark spirits so they won’t cause the people carrying the heavy bulls, or the tower, to stumble. The man in the red shirt cradles a fabric wrapped box containing a carved wooden doll that symbolizes the deceased.
It’s perhaps a mile, maybe more, that we walk together. The road is a trail that takes a steep plunge as we near the cemetery.
At the bottom of the hill at last, the canopy sheltering a red bull comes into sight.
Bali operates on a hierarchy of castes and clans. The largest percentage of Balinese are Sudra, and that is the only caste represented here today. But there are three clans, the Tangkas, the Pande which was Ketut’s father’s clan, and the Pasek. It’s essential to the Balinese Hindus that the caste and clan distinctions are maintained in the rituals of death as in life. The members of each clan can only be burned in a bull with other members of the same clan.
In Ubud, the bodies of the deceased are exhumed, cleaned, and shrouded in white for the cremation. In Abang Songan, if the dead cannot be cremated immediately, they’re buried and they remain buried. Instead of a corpse or bones, the family carves a human likeness from a small piece of sandalwood to symbolize their loved one. This effigy is placed inside a box along with 200 coins. Ketut says that every person is born with 200 spirits. Each coin is for one of them. Once the box contains the doll and the coins, it’s wrapped in white cloth. Dark spirits are repelled by white but as an added level of security, inscriptions are written on the fabric and inside the box with further instructions and warnings to discourage unwanted supernatural activity.
Abang Songan has a cavernous community building. One week before the cremation, thirty-seven boxes, each representing someone who has died in the past five years, are placed there along with the offerings that will accompany them to the cemetery. I get the idea from Ketut’s narrative that keeping 7400 spirits present and accounted for is no small task. Three days before the cremation, more small offerings are brought to the building, three for each of the deceased. They’re tapped on the ground three times which brings the spirits hustling to sample the offerings. The priests intervene, praying and calling the spirits back to their boxes. When all have gathered, the boxes and offerings are doused with holy water that has been collected from the seven main temples in Bali, and the ritual cleansing is complete.
I took this photo of Ketut’s father shortly before he passed and it is lovingly carried by his family throughout the day.
Four bulls, one for the clan Tangkas, one for Pasek, and two for Pande, began their journey to the cemetery early in the morning carried on platforms of criss-crossed bamboo poles by an army of strong, young men. The Padma tower that will transport the deceased followed the bulls, but at midpoint between the community building and the cemetery it halted to await the arrival of the dead. Back at the building, the boxes were retrieved and each one was held by a family member on the slow walk to the tower. They approached and a long sheet of white fabric was lifted high overhead. The bearers with their boxes proceeded slowly beneath this canopy and up a wooden stairway. At the top they handed their boxes to the priests who stowed them inside the tower for the last half of the journey.
Upon arrival at the cemetery, the protective cloth was again held high as the boxes were transferred from the tower to the bull that represented each ones caste and clan.
At the cemetery, the parcels are taken out of the tower, handed back to the family, and transferred to the appropriate bull, again under the protection of the long cloth.
The tower with its Garuda wings and its bamboo platform can only be used once. After it has served to transport the dead, it’s burned.
Sometime in the afternoon a shower erupts. But a little rain doesn’t put a damper on the smiles.
This girl’s mother insisted I photograph her beautiful daughter. Balinese women in their temple finery know they look good and are not shy about posing and asking you to be sure to post their photo on Facebook.
Offerings are piled under the bull, four offerings for each one of the deceased represented in this clan. The back of the bull has been sliced open and filled with the white wrapped boxes of the dead.
A pile of offerings awaits while white clad priests move among the families grouped around this bull, blessing and sprinkling holy water. Trash collects on the ground and awaits the clean-up crew that will descend when all is complete.
Fire starts with the red bull as the crowd pushes away from the searing heat.
The other three are ignited and soon the mountainside is ablaze.
As the fires die down a female Pedanda rings the bell and chants prayers.
The title of Sriempu Pedanda is bestowed only after death, Ketut tells me. Following years of study, the Pedanda in training is wrapped in a shroud as though dead, and carried on a bamboo platform to the temple. The initiate is left there without food or water for three days, then unwrapped. If the person is still alive after this symbolic death, he or she has earned the right to serve the people in this holy capacity.
For us, it was over. Kadek had the car waiting at the top of the brutal hill that we’d slipped and slid down on the final approach to the cemetery. Now upon leaving, climbing back up challenged our gluts to the max. After walking the distance to the cemetery, then standing for hours because the ground was too wet to sit on, Kadek’s car felt like a luxury limousine. He shuttled us to Ketut’s family compound, and because we had been with the dead, a ceremonial cleansing was performed before we were allowed through the entrance gate. Purified, we were welcomed in and invited to sit on mats on the terrace. Bali kopi and cakes appeared, then sweet, creamy Nescafe and more treats. The Balinese ascribe to the old adage: Life’s short, eat dessert first!
There had been some tentative questions by our guests early in the day about dining etiquette and more specifically, how to politely decline offerings of food. That was eight hours ago and most hadn’t had a bite of anything since breakfast. Dinner appeared, heaping mounds of rice and vegetables, Lake Batur fish, corn fritters, a bowl of crispy tempe manis, and it disappeared almost as quickly as it came, with groans of pleasure and exclamations of delight. Second helpings were begged and the round-cheeked face of Ketut’s mother beamed pure happiness.
After a tour of the wood carving shop, a peek into the family temple, and a volley of photos of majestic Mt. Abang in the distance, our little troupe headed home with reruns of an anthropologist’s dream rolling in our heads.
But the ritual for Ketut was far from over. He remained at the cemetery with his brothers, and as the ashes cooled families sifted through them. Handfuls were scooped up and put into the shells of coconuts, wrapped in new white and yellow fabric, and taken to another cemetery by the river. There the ground was struck three times with the nuts again summoning the spirits back. Presents of food offerings were made to further entice them. Upon leaving that cemetery, the fabric that dressed the coconuts was removed and replaced with fresh new cloth. “Must have clean shirt,” Ketut said.
The next day the coconuts were on the move again, this time to the beach. The long white cloth reappeared and the remains were moved beneath the trailing fabric held high by willing hands, into a new tower for their ride to the sea. There, nuts and ashes were pitched into the water. “Before beach, body and spirit,” Ketut said. “After beach, just spirit.”
7400 spirits are once again on the loose and 200 coins reappear on the scene. New white and yellow fabric is folded and stacked. One family member is handed the cloth and it’s touched three times by the string of 200 coins. That person carries it to the five small temples nearby. Each step of each temple is touched three times by the fabric. At the end, the person takes three steps backward and summons the spirits back to the white cloth.
But it isn’t over yet.
Now the entire entourage pilgrimages to Besakih, the mother temple on Mt. Agung. There, at the most sacred site on Bali, the family prays. Ketut says, “We tell god at Besakih we want to bring spirits home. Already cremation, already purified at beach, already visit small temples.” Prayers at Besakih, with the priests in attendance, go on until just before dawn. When this production of grand proportion and significant spiritual impact is finally over, Ketut tells me that he forgets he had a father. He will not even dream of him again.
I’m shocked at the harsh sounding words and I argue. “Of course you’ll remember him! I’ll always remember him. He was a great man.”
He looks at me with a soft smile and eyes older than time. “It’s okay,” he says.