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.
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.
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.
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:
- Pertiwi (soil/earth)
- Apah (water)
- Teja (fire)
- Bayu (air)
- Akasa (space/ether)
Each of the Pancha Mahabhuta are made up of 5 Pancha Tanmatra or elements of the senses. They are as follows:
- Ganda (from the nose/smell)
- Rasa (from the tongue/taste)
- Rupa (from the eyes/vision)
- Sparsa (from the skin/touch)
- 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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Procession during the Corong Corong