That’s The Spirit.

Many people told us not to miss the upcoming cremation ceremony. These events are apparently pretty sensational, especially when performed for deceased members of Royalty -like this Swiss Diplomat. Cremations are joyous occasions for Hindus, that free the spirit from the body, and allow entry into the next incarnation. Often, deceased Hindu’s must remain tethered to this life, buried for years until the family can afford to pay for such an event, and even then, their bodies are dug up, and combined with several other deceased people into the same ceremony. Being a member of Hindu Royalty however, has its privileges. No waiting, and no sharing of the spotlight.

We awoke early and put on our finest cremation threads: sarongs and sashes which we bought locally, and white shirts, and took a taxi to the Ubud Palace. Three main floats stood in the street nearby, resting on wide bamboo foundations built to be lifted and carried: a snake, which turned into a dragon on the other side; a large black bull, cut from a single tree trunk and hollowed out by hand, and used only in cremations for men of the highest caste; and the tall, central piece. At its base was a big turtle entwined by 2 snakes (representing the underworld). On top of it was Bhoma, a large ogre-like character on the back, large wings outstretched, there to scare away any evil spirits. On top of him, stacked high into the sky, were tiers of little roofs representing different levels of heaven, in this case 9. Each float was highly decorated and colorful, in golds and reds, and intricate paper brocade.

The place to be was inside the Palace gates, where an invitation only event was happening. But the next best place to be was right where we were, up against the main gate, and able to peer in for 2 hours. To our right, sat the gamelan orchestra, entertaining everyone, and serenading the many dazzling Legong dancers who came and went through a temple entrance on the far side of the open courtyard, where the insiders were meeting and greeting. To the left was a closed room, where everyone in the party seemed to go eventually, to pay respects to the deceased. A steep ramp was constructed from this room that lead away from the Palace, and up into a top section of the tall tower float. More and more people gathered around the floats as the hours ticked by. Hundreds of volunteer male workers wearing black came and went into a nearby temple to eat, the food brought by a small army of women dressed in blue, orange, or white lace. Young, exuberant band members brought their drums and gongs and set up on wheeled platforms, and were having a blast. Eventually, they began to perform, and things started to happen. From behind I turned and saw a sea of several hundred additional boisterous young men -the carriers- walking down the street to come join the show. 100 of them raised and moved the black bull around the corner, and then 250 more raised and rotated the tower 90 degrees. The coffin was pushed and pulled up that steep ramp and into the tower opening-rather awkwardly. Then they again raised the tower (Wadah) and spun it around quickly several times so as to confuse the evil spirits -quite a sight.

Off to the side we spied an extraordinary figure and his entourage walk quietly from the Palace, past the Wadah, and around the corner behind the snake / dragon. We followed closely behind as it began to rain, -something we were not prepared for. But we were not going to let that get in the way of hat was quickly becoming one of the peak travel and cultural experiences we’ve ever had.

This man -the Pedanda- was dressed in white, and had a long white beard. He wore silver and leather jewelry. Soon he was at the center of attention, and commanded it powerfully. Looking very serious, he stretched back an arrow from his bow, and aimed it at the dragon’s open mouth. This symbolized the release of the spirit from its earthly physical needs and sins. It looked for all the world to me as if he would fire that arrow into the dragon, but when he released the bow through his fingers, a little flower shot softly about 2 feet away. I almost laughed, and thought it was a mistake. But then he repeated this act in all 3 remaining directions, over the heads of the bowing crowd. Right then, as if on cue, the sky opened up and unleashed a downpour.

The next hour or two is almost a blur of excitement and extraordinary fun. The hundreds of men in black that were gathered around their respective floats buzzed about in anticipation . The young musicians were working up a frenzy. There were thousands of people in the streets, and thousands more seeking shelter from a terrific downpour, the likes of which we’d never willfully subjected ourselves to (such irony: there were incredible photos to be snapped all around me, but in the downpour I needed to put my camera away, and focus instead on the larger experience). At that moment, a small, golden-foiled conical object bounced towards us. It might’ve been the snake’s nose. We picked it up, and off we all went. We followed behind the tower float, mixed in among the musicians and hordes of smiling people, while the main East West road flooded in the torrent. My newly purchased head sash bled maroon all down my white button shirt. I didn’t care. It was all surreal, this joyous and highly spiritual ceremony.

After an hour or so, we took a hard right down the quiet street where Jen and I had strolled a week earlier, and into the cemetery grounds. The next 2 hours or so were difficult, because nothing much happened, while everyone stood around, cold and wet. Tons of hawkers roamed around, offering drinks, food, and extraordinary carved objects. Eventually, the coffin was removed from the tower (again rather awkwardly and precariously), down another ramp that had been there waiting, and up a smaller one to where the bull was placed. The top of the bull was removed, and the man’s draped body was taken out the coffin and placed inside the bull (white cows are used for women’s cremations). Then, while the snake / dragon was placed next to the bull, various important persons awkwardly stepped up and down the steep ladder to take group photos and say goodbye. Then the grand finale, the actual burning of the bull ensued, slowly at first -probably due to all that rain, nothing a little blow torch couldn’t help- and soon the flames were roaring, and crowd was cheering, inching closer to the warm fire. Surprisingly, they didn’t let it burn all that long before hosing it off. But just as well, because by now it was starting to get dark. We were satiated, cold and wet, and in for a long walk home. But we were also warm from the afterglow of the past 7 hours.

The warm shower back home felt terrific, and we placed that golden-foiled cone on top of our water cooler.


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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Matt & Rita
    May 17, 2013 @ 20:15:01

    How exotic and exciting! What an interesting new life you two have!

    Missing you,
    Matt & Rita


  2. Raphaelle McMahon
    May 19, 2013 @ 17:12:45

    Okay, the Deceased got marched around, then up the Bull, then up the Snake, and so on. But what ever happened to his remains? Was he cremated there in the open? He was a Westerner, right? So where were the mourners, his family? Hey, if you are going to be amateur anthropologists, please go strong on the details. Toughing it out was rewarding, I hope; certainly it was for me! Thanks for the photojournalism. Rapha


  3. ozzcar2013
    May 20, 2013 @ 04:00:29

    Hi Rapha!
    He was Balinese, otherwise these cremations don’t happen. No mourners whatsoever, anywhere. I’ll find out about the bull’s ashes…


  4. Jennifer
    May 20, 2013 @ 07:15:39

    Hi Raphaelle
    Yep. He was cremated right there in the square. When the bull went up in flames, he was inside it. There are no mourners at cremations, only happy people because the spirit of the deceased is being released. Mourning is also bad form because it can encourage the spirit to stick around, which may cause problems for the family. The ashes are taken out to sea. Details . . . I’ve got ’em – Jennifer


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