Saturday, May 7, 2016

Sunday May 8 – Royal Cremation, Ubud

My day started at 7:00 a.m. with a yoga class at Intuitive Yoga with Laura. The beauty of the view over Mount Agung and Mount Batur from this lovely open studio, both mountains hazy in the distance, with the brilliant orange morning sun streaming in to warm us and kindle our souls is stunning.

After breakfast we hurried into Ubud for the royal cremation. It is exciting to be on the outer edge of the proceedings. The deceased is the grandson of Tjokorda Agung Suyasa, head of the Ubud royal family. We went first to the Puri Agung palace in Ubud where all of the ceremonial paraphernalia was being finalized including the 9 storey, 21 m high cremation tower and the cremation sarcophagus in the form of a 6 m high bull in which the body would be burned. 

A cremation is the most important rite of passage that a family can perform for its loved ones. Sometimes, the body may be buried until the “right” day for the cremation is chosen from the Balinese calendar. In a royal cremation, the body is lifted up the elaborate staircase and laid in the decorated tower which is supported by a bamboo structure. The tower is a symbolic representation of the universe, with the upper tiers symbolizing the various heavens where the soul is heading. To indicate the royal family, the tower had 9 tiers.

The procession carrying the body was due to commence at 1 PM from the palace heading to the cremation site at Pura Dalem Peliatan temple. We headed off down the street ahead of the funeral procession to our “viewing gallery” in a restaurant just prior to the cemetery.

As if one cremation wasn’t enough for us. By the side of the building we were in, people were setting up for a second funeral of a lesser caste. Often this happens; families piggyback on bigger more expensive funerals to save cost. The tower and the sarcophagus were much smaller and less extravagant for this funeral and there were no tiers above where the body lay. We watched the preparations for the body, and the body being placed on the bed and swathed in white covers. The sarcophagus had left ahead of all of this, and then we watched the tower carried by numerous strong men head out of the narrow laneway that we were hanging over into the intersection in close pursuit of the gamelong band. In the middle of the intersection, the men perambulated the intersection with the tower anti-clock wise three times. The purpose of this is to spin the tower and confuse the spirits. Same sort of thing as when you enter a traditional Balinese house. You are immediately greeted by a solid wall that you have to walk around in order to enter. They took off from the third perambulation at a trot – again, running to outrun the evil spirits.

All of this happened with the royal tower as well. We just weren’t at a big enough intersection for them to do this.

It was an eclectic scene around us as we sat in the second storey gallery along with Michael and Jeffrey and their other invitees.

A water truck drove along the road washing it down with water to keep the Bade carriers and other banjar cool.

 Soon, our attention was turned to the hordes of men dressed in purple golf shirts casually making their way down the street. We learned that the palace had given each of the banjar a purple shirt and the sea of purple was impressive. I think the “banjar” are the young, married males from the villages who form an association to manage and control events, and in some cases may even include members of the town council.


Next, a cavalcade of cars…..the royal family? Then the stairs came into view and were slowly shuffled along by the helpers.

A gamelan band and a gong player with a large bronze gong supported on bamboo carried by 9 or 10 helpers provided a background rhythm to the procession.

The stairs were followed by two beautiful young women (possibly the grand-daughters of the deceased) dressed in mauve and gold sarongs, supporting ornately designed, gold coloured traditional head dresses, holding beautifully created offerings in a silver plate, and carried on gilted royal chairs.

Closely behind the young women and emerging from a sea of purple came the sarcophagus, its black bull body draped in gold scarves standing up high above the crowd.

Then finally, the nine storey Bade or funerary tower tottering precariously above the buildings and supported by the arms of 200 or so banjar who change every every few hundred meters.

Throngs of mourners, villagers, and tourists hurried by, and soon all that was left in the street were the stragglers and the escaped pieces of offering that blew away in the wind.

It is hard to take it all in and I know I have missed many details, but this will give you the gist of the procession.

We took a break from the glitter of the funeral and ate some lunch with our landlord Geoffrey. He is a most interesting man with lots of information and knowledge about a lot of things, but especially about Bali.

Later, we headed to the cemetery hopeful of seeing the burning of the sarcophagus and the body. We were not let down. We missed the moving of the body from the Bade to the belly of the sarcophagus, but did see the men protect the base of the fire pit with what looked like asbestos heat barriers. Then petrol was scattered over the bull  and in a few moments the bull was alight. Slowly, but deliberately the flames spread, and black smoke clouded up above. The smell was pungent; a lot of plastic, paper. The heat pushed the crowd further away. Laura and I moved up the bank and to the side of the burning bull. We saw what we thought was the body dropping from the stomach of the bull on to the platform below, but we didn’t think that was possible. After some reading, I think it was. The fire engine was standing by, and the ground around the burning remnants was sprayed with water, then containers of propane were “pumped” into the centre of the fire. Everything must be completely turned to ash. Unceremoniously, the bulls head fell to the ground. I think that for some spiritual reason this must be the last to fall.

After the cremation, the ashes are collected, ground finely, and sprinkled in the ocean. All of the human body has now been returned to the five elements, the soul is freed to journey through purgatory, and if need be, taken to hell to be tortured and eventually cleansed. In a final ceremony that may be held years later, the soul is called back from the sea, and after several cleansing rituals taken to a mountain temple and released to return to its heavenly abode. It has become a “deified ancestor” and is worshipped at the special shrine in the family compound.

We turned away. What a day. What an experience. 

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