Bali ~ Island of the Gods ~ A Brief Journey into Balinese Hinduism, Part 3 The Ngaben Ceremony

Bali ~ Island of the Gods ~ A Brief Journey into Balinese Hinduism, Part 3 The Ngaben Ceremony

“The body is only an encasing for the soul which is eternal”.

2:30 am……my alarm sounds…..darkness surrounds me and I listen to the night sounds. I let my mind drift to the Kuburan or cremation grounds. I am about to participate in the “awakening of the dead” or ngagah.  We will be exhuming the body of Ketut’s mother to prepare it for the Ngaben or cremation ceremony. In Balinese, ngaben means turn to ash. I do nothing for several minutes but allow myself to reflect on the lives and deaths in my own life. Next, I do my best to properly attire myself in my kamen, kebaya and anteng and then make my way downstairs to wait for Koming and Ketut.

Exhuming the body.

It’s a crisp, clear August night/morning as I travel to the Kuburan on the back of Ketut’s motorcycle.  We arrive at the Peyadnyan and I make my way to the Petak.  Family members are preparing the tools and supplies needed for exhuming and then cleansing the body/remains.  I follow the family to the Kuburan where some members of the family have already begun the exhumation process.  A solemnness hangs in the cool night air as young and old look on. No one is openly mourning as even this, “the awakening of the dead”, is the beginning of a celebration; a celebration of life.  A time to celebrate helping the soul of the deceased move on from their previous life.  Koming’s flashlight goes out, so I use the light on my phone to assist the young men digging at the gravesite.  A yell of joy comes from in front of me.  They have reached the body.  Some of the men now drop their tools and pull the dirt away with their hands until a once white sheet is lifted from the grave.  I brace myself as this is the first time I have seen a body that has been exhumed.

Photo Credit to Elemental Productions.  Out of respect for the family, I did not photograph Ketut’s mother’s remains.  This is an unrelated exhumation.

First, I see the skull, then a torso still wrapped in funeral cloth and finally smaller bones of arms, legs, hands, and feet are added to the pile.  Water, water with flowers and coconut water are used as we wash the “body”.  The torso is placed on a fresh white sheet and the skull and other bones are placed as if a whole body.  It is a sight I will never forget, forever etched into my mind’s eye. It was not a morbid sight. The way the remains were so gently cleansed and lovingly cared for touched my soul.  Today, after all, is about the soul which will first be purified by fire which represents earth. Tomorrow it will be purified by water so it may return to heaven.  After the cleansed remains are wrapped in the white sheet, they are then placed and wrapped on a rattan mat, wrapped and moved to the burning area.  Before the grave is re-filled with dirt a pengiber iber or chicken representing the happiness of the Ngaben is released as we say masuryak or horray.  In the old tradition, the chicken was released into the grave and buried. New traditions allow the pengiber iber to be released free outside of the grave although it still represents replacing one soul with another.











Around me, more shouts of masuryak went up. Soon all the remains of the 18 souls were in the burning area.  Time for the Ngaben to begin…..the “turning to ash”. As the community looked on, the black of the night took on an orange glow.  I looked around at the faces of those watching friends and loved ones’ physical body beginning the journey to return to the panca maha bhuta or 5 elements; pertiwi, apah, teja, bayu and akasa (earth, water, fire, air, and ether).  Pensive faces lit in the glow of the fire, young children looking on with wondering eyes, me filled with emotions, questions, and a sense of peace.


We all stood quietly in the still of the morning and as the glowing embers were dying, the sun made its dramatic entrance.  Next, the ashes were gathered and placed on white sheets.  They would later be distributed to the families for the next steps in the ceremony.



Koming informed me we were finished for now.  I could join her at the market and then we would go home to have breakfast, shower and prepare for the next activities.  After the market, we stopped by a street vendor to get breakfast.  We picked up bubuh to take back to Kenari House. Bubuh is made with a rice congee base with various toppings added. It can be made spicy or not and is served in a banana leaf.   Tear off a piece of the leaf and make yourself a spoon if eating on the go. After breakfast, we showered and changed and headed back to the Kuburan.











Upon returning to the ceremony grounds the sarcophagi were uncovered and ready for the next part of the ceremony.  A sarcophagus could be a lembu or bull or a singa mangaraja, a lion with wings.  The animals would be taken to the community of the deceased in celebration and then returned to the cremation grounds and placed on the wadah or structure for burning.




Before the start of this part of the ceremony, there was a short service blessing the sarcophagi/animals.  As the animals were taken to the respective communities/compounds, I sat near the petak and watched and listened.  Friends and families, visiting, laughing and celebrating.  The gamelan played.  Soon, the sarcophaguses were making their way back.  They were taken to the Kuburan and placed on wadahs.  The family now filled the animals with items needed in the next life.  Once prepared, the priest checked and blessed with holy water.  The family gathered around with more offerings and circled the sarcophagus.  Finally, Ketut and Koming using incense sticks, lit the animal on fire.  Again, we all watched as flames engulfed the sarcophagus.  As the flames died down, we went back to the petak, had a lunch of nasi campur and satay followed by a frozen bean curd pop called es lilin.









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Around 3 pm, after what had been a long and emotional day, Koming said we were finished and I could return to Kenari House.  She wasn’t able to take me, so I took a leisurely stroll home where I enjoyed a glass of rose’ on my patio and thought about all I had experienced in this circle of life.

Next post-Nyekah and Nganyut

Ashes to ashes….dust to dust!



Bali ~ Island of the Gods A Brief Journey in Balinese Hinduism, Part 2 Ngening Ceremony

Bali ~ Island of the Gods                                  A Brief Journey in Balinese Hinduism, Part 2 Ngening Ceremony

I attended my first cremation in June of 2016 in Kathmandu, Nepal.  Although also Hindu, it was somewhat different from my experience with the Balinese Cremation.  It was here that I met a couple of Sadhus or wandering yogis.  I was able to take a photo, but for a price.

Sadhus in Kathmandu

I was never pressured on Bali for money for taking a photo.  In Kathmandu, the body being cremated was recently deceased. Whereas on Bali, Ketut’s mother had died 2 years prior and had to exhumed.  The time factor is because the extensive cremation ceremonies on Bali are expensive and go on for several days.  Therefore, once every three years, the entire Banjar or community comes together for one mass cremation or Masal which saves money for the all the families involved.  Both ceremonies prepare the body or remains for cremation which includes cleansing, dressing, and wrapping.  Many flowers are used during this portion of the process.

Preparing the body in Kathmandu
Funeral Pyre in Kathmandu







In Kathmandu, after the body is prepared it is moved to Funeral Pyres of the banks of the sacred river Bagmati which later meets the holy river Ganges and set on fire.  After the cremation, the ashes are sent off down the river. I did not have the opportunity to learn as much about the cremation in Kathmandu as I did in Bali.  My experience with the Balinese was that there are specific parts to the cremation ceremony, of which the Ngaben is just one.  These ceremonies take place over many days.  I will begin with the Ngening Ceremony which is the first part I attended.

I arrived on Bali late Monday evening August 13th.  Planning on attending the Ngaben (cremation) Ceremony on the 16th, I woke up at a leisurely pace on Tuesday. I enjoyed a breakfast of bubur injin (black rice pudding with coconut milk), fresh fruit and Balinese coffee.

My bubur injin

It was a beautiful morning on my balcony followed by a walk into Ubud.  After a trip to the supermarket, I returned late afternoon and enjoyed a G&T with some cheese and crackers again on my balcony.  Upon ordering Ayam Panggang (chicken and vegetables with red curry sauce) for dinner, I discovered the ceremony was not just one day.  Koming asked what I was doing Wednesday.  I told her I had no specific plans.  She suggested I go to the Ngening Ceremony with the family.  I questioned the Ngening Ceremony as I thought the ceremony was on Thursday.  She explained that that before the Ngaben Ceremony which is the actual burning, we had to collect the Holy Water or Tirta for use in the cremation and this ceremony is called Ngening.

Koming arrived at my room early Wednesday morning to “dress” me for the day’s events.  To participate I needed to be in traditional Balinese attire.  She provided me a Kamen (sarong/skirt), Kebaya (lace jacket) and an Anteng (sash).


Her being quite a bit smaller than me, the jacket was a bit snug across my breasts. She suggested we not fasten it.  The kebaya was white because white signifies mourning. Although the color signifies mourning, the ceremony itself will be a joyous occasion, a celebration.


The death ritual is a time to celebrate and help the deceased move on from their previous life.  It is believed that everything in the universe, including the human body, is made up of “five great elements” or Pancha Mahabhuta.  These elements are as follows:


  1. Pertiwi (soil/earth)
  2. Apah (water)
  3. Teja (fire)
  4. Bayu (air)
  5. Akasa (space/ether)

Each of the Pancha Mahabhuta are made up of 5 Pancha Tanmatra or elements of the senses. They are as follows:

  1. Ganda (from the nose/smell)
  2. Rasa (from the tongue/taste)
  3. Rupa (from the eyes/vision)
  4. Sparsa (from the skin/touch)
  5. Sabda (from the ears/sound)

It is through these ceremonies/rituals over the next several days that the body is returned to its Pancha Mahabhuta.

Koming explained to me that she would not be able to be with me while at the Peyadnyan (ceremony area).  Ketut, being son number 4, it is his duty to ensure that a proper cremation ceremony is carried out for his mother. Koming, his wife would be there to assist.  She told me I was free to walk around and take photos. Fed and dressed, Koming put me on the back of her motorcycle and off we went to the Peyadnyan.

The first thing I noticed when we arrived was a giant sign/billboard.  It had the names and photos of 18 people/groups of people who would be cremated and a schedule of “events”. IMG_20180815_081111.jpg

Koming left me here and went about her duties. I took a moment and viewed the souls we would be celebrating, then made my way inside.  This was my first visit to the Peyadnyan, it was a feast for the senses.  Colorful offerings were everywhere, music was playing, the scent of flowers and incense filled the air, children were laughing and playing, the clothing of the women from the Banjar (community) who were helping was lively and colorful. Indeed, it had an air of celebration.  As I wandered around taking everything in, I was greeted with smiles and hellos from everyone.












Soon, Koming messaged me and told me the procession was about to begin.  She instructed me to just walk with the crowd, but not in the line with the families carrying the offerings.  The guys in the band or Gamelan (traditional instrumental ensemble of Indonesia) seemed rather jovial so I fell in step with them. During Balinese death rituals, music is considered a form of offering.   With a police escort at the front, we left the Peyadnyan and the procession started down the main street.  We, the entire community, walked through the streets for about 20 minutes.  We ended at a riverbank and the priest conducted a short ceremony.  The procession then regrouped and walked back to the Peyadnyan.  The Gamelan music, again playing along the route, gave a festive atmosphere.

The procession heading down the main street
Arriving at the river










The priest giving the service



At the river, the Ngening Ceremony
My buddies in the band aka gamelan
Carrying offering in the procession
















Upon returning to the Peyadnyan there was a flurry of activity setting up for the afternoon’s activities.  I sat down and was mesmerized as I took it all in.  Koming came to me and handed me a brown paper wrapped package.  “Lunch”, she told me.  Lunch was Nasi Campur. Nasi campur is a spicy street food consisting of a scoop of white rice, noodles, peanuts, an egg, vegetables and small pieces of meat. Eaten with the fingers, it is quite delicious.  Side note, when eating, the left hand is NEVER used to eat or pass food.

Nasi Campur









After lunch, another flurry of activity to finish setting up for the afternoon.  The afternoon would consist of the Topeng and Corong Corong.  I walked around a bit looking at the beautiful offerings and listening to the gamelan music.  Soon, Koming told me to move toward the entrance to the Peyadnyan the topeng dance was about to begin.  Topeng means mask in Indonesian.  The dance has several masked actors who perform, dance and tell ancient stories concerning ancient or mythical kings and heroes. The actors are adorned in colorful costumes and accompanied by lively gamelan music.











Next was the Corong Corong also called Peras Perasan.  This is the ceremony for the grandchildren. One thing I noticed during the day’s events, the children actively participate in the ceremonies.  They understand this is a celebration and they are helping the deceased move on from their previous life.  During the corong corong a large basket filled with offerings is in front of the specific Petak (shrine/altar) for the deceased person. In this basket are things the deceased will need for the afterlife.  The family members, including the grandchildren of the deceased, form a procession and as the gamelan play, they walk around the offering box and in front of the petak.  In general, the symbolism of the corong corong is that the deceased spirit is going on a far journey like sailing the ocean. This spirit will return reincarnated to the grandchildren who live in the house and give them the inheritance of all they had.




The Priest










Around 5:00 pm, Koming told me the ceremony was finished and Ketut would take me home. She also asked if I still planned to attend the Ngaben (cremation) Ceremony tomorrow. My answer was yes, of course.  This meant a 2:30 am wake up to go to the Kuburan or cremation grounds. Ketut and Koming would sleep at the Peyadnyan and would come to Kenari House at 3:00 am to get me.  With me on the back and his older daughter on the front of his motorcycle, Ketut took us both home.

Ketut and Kiara

I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am to Ketut and Koming for so graciously including me in every aspect of these most important ceremonies. It was an amazing day and I was physically and mentally exhausted.  What an honor.  Tomorrow we start with Ngagah or “awakening of the dead”, the exhumation of the deceased.

“The body is only an encasing for the soul which is eternal”.


3 short videos follow

Gamelan Music



Topeng Dance


Procession during the Corong Corong