Balinese Cremation Ceremonies – Witnessing a Ngaben Procession
It is amazing what can happen on a quick trip for lunch in Southeast Asia. When in the States, 9 times out of 10 nothing interesting happened during a lunch break at work. Well, there was the one time in DC where we had an earthquake. And, there was the time I stopped at a liquor store with a friend so he could buy a bottle of wine for dinner that Friday night and the owner had us tasting Scotch before we left. Aside from that, nothing happened on the way to Roti or Qdoba or any other typical American chain. It was always going to lunch, or grab and go, and return to the office.
In Asia, though, I find there is no normal day. Something always happens, whether it is a dog or chicken crossing our road, adorable school children playing drums, a smile from a woman making an offering, or just seeing someone using a motorbike to transport something entirely different.
But, when we were at the Padang, we stumbled upon some sort of Balinese Hindu ceremony. We decided to investigate.
We saw a cremation procession during our last visit to Bali, with friends and family walking down a small side street. A group was carrying the remains of a person, ceremoniously wrapped, propped on a platform. We witnessed the procession for a minute but did not follow.
What was happening outside of the Padang that day was different. Bigger. More organized. I did not think what we were about to witness was a cremation procession, but I was wrong. It was a Ngaben, the traditional Balinese Cremation Ceremony.
At first, it was a lot of waiting around, wondering what was happening. We saw a large black cow figure on one side of the street, and a large tower, or temple structure, on the other. Both were placed on top of bamboo pools to allow them to be carried. Each was getting finishing touches. The coffins were placed inside these structures, but we could not see them. Beautifully dressed women waited on the curb with flowers, fruits, and Balinese offerings. I continued to snap photos and wait for the real action, still wondering what was going on.
When I learned it was a Ngaben, I felt bad about filming the scenes. In the States, I am sure taking photos of a funeral or wake would be considered rude at the least. In Bali, though, I was not alone, and I found myself in a little local paparazzi line waiting for the procession to begin. The Balinese do not treat the ceremony as a solemn affair. Instead, death is a joyous occasion, one to be celebrated, as the deceased quickly is reincarnated. There was not a tear in sight and no one seemed to be bothered by my filming.
As we followed the procession (on the back of the motorbike) down one of the main roads of Peliatan, the black cow and the tower were joined by other processions from different parts of the village. After someone dies, an auspicious day is determined by the village priest and all the recently deceased will be cremated on that day.
I witnessed a procession of 5 deceased during this apparently auspicious day. In this case, there were two black cows, or Lembu, which signify a person of a higher caste, or royalty. There were two towers or Wadah. And, there was a simple coffin draped in red and white fabric, which contained a priest or holy person.
The processions drew hundreds and hundreds of people walking down the road before converging to turn into the cremation site. When the procession began, and again when turning into the cremation site, the devotees carried the coffins in several circles, to confuse bad spirits who might try to follow. I felt bad for the villagers carrying the coffins because they looked heavy. Often the towers would rock from side to side from the weight. A close family member often hung off the top of the tower, ceremoniously leading the way.
When the processions turned off of the main road, it continued into a temple to prepare for the burning of the structures, together with the body of the deceased. The cremation is necessary to free the spirit from the body, to aid in the process of reincarnation.
As much as I was okay filming the procession to that point, I hesitated to continue to the cremation site. If I were invited, that would be one thing. But, there are certain things I do not like interfering with. This was easily one of them.
I later learned more about Ngaben. Higher caste members of the village are generally cremated within three days. Others are buried first and later will be exhumed for a group ceremony, similar to the one I witnessed. My friends, Komang and Made, have each invited us to their villages in August when the next large cremation ceremony will take place. They have told us we can attend the exhumation and take photos of the process. With the permission of the locals, I would be honored to observe such a sacred ceremony.