While I was in Ubud in Bali, I was lucky enough to be able to attend a Hindu cremation ceremony locally known as Pitra Yadnya or Ngaben. A man from the village where we stayed had died and about to cremate. Putu Dedi, one of the villagers told us that we’re very fortunate since there is a wedding and cremation ceremony that will occur during the days we are there. He also said that not all visitors of Bali witnessed these magnificent celebrations.
For Balinese Hindu followers, there are ceremonies for every stages of life. The biggest and the most sophisticated is the last ceremony or the cremation. It is called “Ngaben” or locally known as Pitra Yadnya. Ngaben derives from the word “Abu” which means ashes. Pitra Yadnya is one of the five ritual carried out by the Balinese Hindu. Pitra means soul or ancestor while Yadnya means sacrifice or sincere devotions. For Balinese, Pitra Yadnya is a sincere devotion and a ceremony for the body and soul of the dead.
Ngaben is one of the most important ceremonies for Balinese Hindu as its purpose is to send the deceased through their next life and to return the elements that are used to create the human body to its origin. I noticed that a Balinese cremation ceremony is truly an spectacular, amazing, colorful, noisy and exciting ritual. In fact, it could take years to organize a cremation after a person had passed away. During the preparation time, the body is temporarily buried in the local cemetery until such time that family can afford to finance the ceremony. But it is not always the case, if a person is part of the royal family or a priest, they normally keep the body at home until a good day to conduct the cremation ceremony comes. The right day is usually identified by their highest priest. For those who can’t afford the ceremony, they burry the body right after the person died and take the opportunity of joining a massive cremation at a favorable day. It allows them to split the cost of the ceremony.
At first I was a bit hesitant to take photos. I felt like I was intruding on a very private thing. I certainly did not want to take photos of the ceremony during any of the special rituals but I was surprised that they gave me the signal to feel free to move around and take photos. The Balinese encouraged this to show how rich their culture is.
The three major events which take place before the soul of the deceased is fully released are:
• The Funeral – locally known as prethiwi (solids); To place the body into the earth by burial.
• The Cremation – locally known as teja (radiance); To release by burning with fire.
• The Purification of the Soul – locally known as apah (liquids); To disperse by throwing the ashes into the water.
In Balinese Hindu, a funeral takes place after a person dies and before cremation, unlike the Hindu in India where the deceased is cremated immediately. They usually buried the body at the Pura Dalem or also referred as “the temple of the dead”, which is the temple complex facing the sea. The length of the period between the funeral and the ngaben depends entirely on the financial position of the family.
Every Balinese family has the responsibility to make sure that a proper ngaben is given to a deceased family member. They believe that if this does not occur, there will be a severe consequences for the deceased and his/her family. The ngaben is a joyful occasion as the soul of the deceased is now ready to continue its journey and followed by reincarnation.
The body was wrapped in a plain white cloth and laid within the family altar while everyone sat before the body and prayed. A high priest conducted the ceremony. There was so much noise – singing, chanting,gong music, bells – all these to awaken the spirits.
On the day of cremation,The family compound was packed tightly with hundreds of people from the village. Young and old, everyone is actively participating in the ceremony. I felt goosebumps all over my body as I feel the energy of the ceremony. There is faith.
After an hour or so of prayer the body was carried out in to the street. It was placed in a temple-like structure called a wadah, made of paper, wood and bamboo. This was carried by the young men of the village down to the cremation site. At every street corner, the body was spun in circles to confuse any evil spirits and keep them away from the deceased. Women in bright lace tops carry elaborate offerings high on their heads, crafted from flowers, bamboo, palm leaves and food. Meat on the sticks, whole pigs, little sculptures of colored rice dough all pinned on palm baskets…
In front of the procession another group of men are carrying the sarcophagus, often in the form of a black bull called as lembu. It is an impressive structure and the decorations are often very grand as a lot of gilded items is used in the decorations. There is 2 type of bull white colour and black – White bull are only for holy person or the priest and black bull for the rest. The whole community followed the body to the cremation site.
The bull or sarcophagus arrives first at the cremation site, and waited for the funeral tower to arrive. There is an opening on the back of the bull in which the body will be placed. The final rituals are conducted by the priest who sprinkles holy water on the bull and offerings are placed.
Before the cremation start, close family members stood around sarcophagus placing offerings. The whole structure was then set on fire. As the body and the sarcophagus burned, everyone sat and waited for the body to turn into ashes.
THE FINAL PURIFICATION
The final ceremony after the Ngaben is held 12 days after the cremation. During this ceremony the ashes that was placed in white and yellow cloth will be thrown in to the sea. If the sea is too far, the ashes will be taken to a river which will eventually carry it to the sea.
During the ngaben the soul of the deceased has been purified by fire and resides in heaven. However, during the last ceremony in which the ashes are placed in the water the soul is released to a higher level. From here the soul can follow the final stage of reincarnation. The Balinese people believe that the soul will return back as a reincarnation of a new family member, such as the first baby born after this final ritual.
Ngaben or cremation is a joyful celebration for the Balinese as it represents the release of their ancestor’s spirit and the accomplishment of the family’s duty. For Balinese, death should not be cried as the tears can be an obstacle for the soul to find his way to the new world.
I felt extremely privileged to be there and to watch this ceremony of amazing commitment, love and devotion and of overwhelming community spirit. As I sat there and witnessed this wonderful celebration, I was able to understand what is the natural cycle of life for the Balinese people… Born, Live and Die.