Before we tumble Down the Rabbit Hole directly to the Balinese Ngaben (cremation) Ceremony, I want to give a little history of how I ended up being invited to this ceremony and a little history of Bali and Hinduism.
Bali, Island of the Gods, is one of 17,000 islands in the Indonesian archipelago. A small island 95 miles east to west and 70 miles north to south, it is located 8°south of the equator and is inhabited by approximately 4 million people. Unlike the majority of Indonesian Islands which are Muslim, Bali is 85% Hindu. So how did I end up visiting this island paradise? We must travel back to Paris 2014……..
As you may or may not know, I spent a period of 2014/15 living in Paris, France. I fell in love with Montmartre and in Montmartre at the foot of Sacre Coeur had my “go to” café. I became a regular and the staff got to know me and my “usual’s”. Since I normally stopped by at least once a day for “un café” or “verre de vin rosé”, I often chatted with a waitress named Julie. She talked to me about her desire to move to Bali. I left Paris to return to the States in February of 2015 and we said we would keep in touch via FB. I happened to return to Paris for a 2-week holiday in July of 2015 and of course one of my first stops was Café Chappe. Lo and behold, Julie was there. She had indeed gone to Bali, but had returned to Paris because of her youngest son, they planned to go back to Bali at the end of the summer and suggested I should visit her there. In August of that same year, my adventures in the Middle Kingdom began. I moved to China to teach English. Julie and I kept in touch over the next few years and finally in February of this year, 2018, I planned a trip to Bali. Travel to Bali is quite convenient and relatively inexpensive from the Middle Kingdom. Julie was living in Seminyak which is a seaside community and was teaching yoga. The first part of my holiday I planned to stay in Ubud, which is more north and inland, as there were several things I wanted to experience in that area. The end of my holiday I would go to Canggu and finally meet up with my friend from Paris. That my friends is how I ended up going to Bali for the first time. The second part of the story is how I was invited to the Ngaben Ceremony.
In February, I had a homestay about a 20-30-minute walk from Central Ubud. During my homestay, I had a room with a private bathroom in a family compound. I say compound, because in Bali families usually live together. Together meaning there are several free-standing homes often with a central kitchen in what is called a compound. There is also always a family temple shared by all the households. These compounds make up a tight-knit community. The communities, in turn, make up a village. Kenari House, my homestay was in the community or Banjar, Teges Yangloni the village of Peliatan. My hosts, Ketut and Koming and their two young daughters immediately made me feel like part of the family. Ketut, trained as a chef, would let me join him in the kitchen when he prepared my meals, explaining Balinese cooking and teaching me how to use traditional herbs and spices. Finding them so open, I always seemed to have a dozen questions about Bali and Hinduism whenever I was with them.
Bali is an assault on your senses, vivid colors, temple music, fragrant flowers, and incense await you at every turn. One of the first things you notice in Bali are small baskets with various flowers placed everywhere. They are on statues, bridges, steps, and in doorways. I asked Koming about these colorful baskets with incense. She told me they are canang sari or daily offerings. Canang is a small woven basket from palm leaves and sari means essence. Broken down further can = beauty (like you feel the view) nang = purpose and sari = source. Typically, a family places about 15 offerings per day, more on special ceremony days. The canang sari is handmade daily and it is considered self-sacrifice with the time it takes to make the offerings.
The offering must have certain elements representing the Trimurti or 3 major Hindu gods; white lime for Shiva, red betel nut for Vishnu and green gambier plant for Brahma. On top of these are placed petals. White petals facing East for Iswara, red petals facing South for Brahma, yellow petals facing West for Mahadeva and blue or green facing North for Vishnu. The offerings also can contain food items, rice, crackers small cakes, etc. Along with an incense stick, these offerings are placed with a prayer ritual to deliver the sari (essence) of the canang to heaven. A flower dipped in holy water is sprinkled over the canang along with a spoken prayer as in a symbolic merging of earth, fire, wind, and water. The smoke from the incense carries the essence of the offering to the gods. These offerings are to maintain balance and peace on earth amidst good and evil and between heaven and hell. Within this ritual is an understanding that both positive and negative energies exist in the world. It is up to us to seek balance and harmony in our personal lives, in our community, and in the world. What appeared to be a simple basket of flowers was my first taste of Balinese Hindu rituals.
As my time at Kenari House was nearing the end, I wasn’t quite ready to leave. I extended my stay by one day before heading south to Canggu. Staying this extra day turned into my first experience with a Balinese Ceremony. There was a wedding in the community. Koming invited me to attend with her family. What a privilege to have this opportunity. Koming loaned me a Kamen (sarong/skirt) so I would be appropriately dressed. It seemed the entire community was there, and they welcomed me with open arms. I didn’t get to learn much about the wedding ceremony as I was leaving that afternoon. As I was saying my goodbyes to Ketut and Koming, she told me since I enjoyed the wedding so much, I should return in August. She explained that Ketut’s mother had died in 2016 and every 3 years the community held a Ngaben or Cremation Ceremony. She would be part of the ceremony this August. Would I like to come back for the ceremony? I told her I would be honored to return and would do my best to make it happen.
Indeed, I made my way back to Bali and the Ngaben Ceremony. I always thought my experience camping at EBC (Everest Base Camp) and watching the sun set and rise on the mighty mountain couldn’t be topped. My experience with this beautiful Balinese ritual, the emotion of first hand exhuming a corpse, washing it and preparing it for cremation, witnessing the burning, understanding each step of the ceremony, and returning the ashes to the sea was truly overwhelming and something I will never forget. I was included like family every step of the way. I only hope I can put the sights, sounds, smells, and emotions into words as I next write about the Ngaben.
A couple of preview pictures from the Ngaben Ceremony
Until my next post……The Ngaben Ceremony reminds the living to always create good karma in life. It shows us that Balinese Hinduism is not necessarily about getting to heaven but how to become one with Brahman or God.