Stairway to Heaven, Bali Style

13 Sep

August 18, 2011 –

The Soul Freed through Fire

A tower of flame, sooty smoke, and a surge of heat.  The crowd roars in awe and the mortal remains of  Anak Agung Niang Rai, mother of Gianyar Regent, Tjokorda Oka Artha Ardana Sukawati,  begin their final journey.

The Balinese cremate their dead, and the higher the status and wealth of the deceased, the bigger the show.  In all my time in Bali – scores of trips and longer stays over a span of nearly five decades, I had never witnessed one.

My first trip to Bali  was in 1964.  I couldn’t possibly count the times I‘ve landed at Bali’s Ngurah Rai Airport since then.  In all this time, I had never witnessed a ngaben, the Balinese cremation ceremony.  In ‘64, there was one, but we arrived late – no net or cell phones, and precious few phones, period .  At other times, I chased rumors of ngaben, but was always too early or too late,

Work kept me from attending some big events in recent years, but now that I have relocate to Bali, I finally got my chance.  This time I had the time and the place at the  Pura(temple) right in Central Ubud, a place I knew well.  Ubud is the artistic center of Bali, and while it has become a favorite destination, with tour buses sometimes causing gridlock down town, Balinese culture remains central to the lives – and livelihoods – of those who live there.

I got off to an early start( for me) but even by 7:30 the roads were pretty full.  Those coming to Bali looking for a verdant paradise of rice fields should know that both urban areas, and regional centers are built up, and the roads between them see a fair amount of traffic  The favorite mode of transport is the motorcycle, and a strong economy and aggressive credit terms have put one in the hand so most families here,  There were torrents of them, through which I plowed steadily, and slowly, and a bit grumpily as I thought about the good old days.

A wrong turn, and I suddenly found myself in the countryside, with no more than a single vehicle visible in either direction,  and sometimes none at all.   Women laying out morning offerings, uniformed school kids skipping off to school.
Bali is still out there; it always is.

After vectoring in on nameless roads via dead reckoning, I found m self in a familiar spot and got a good parking place not far from the Temple.  Feeling quite pleased with myself, I walked towards the  town center, finding that the soccer field in town had been turned into a parking lot even closer to the action. Oh well, my parking was free.

Balnese Gamelan

Monkey Forest road brought me to the temple and it was thronged already.  A Gamelan – the metallophone orchestras seen all over Southeast Asia and in their most sophisticated form in Indonesia – was playing in the banjar, the reopen community space attached to the temple, as dignitaries, and locals, although at times they seemed outnumbered by tourists, looked on as the priest performed rituals that I have been too lazy to research. I was there for the spectacle, not the theology..

The body  was at the top of a  multi-tiered tower(called wada) ,

Wada detail: Frightening faces scare demons away

connected at its summit to a giant cantilevered wooden structure painted white, quite reminiscent of one of the roller coasters at Great America in Valencia California.  Sometime earlier, men had carried the shrouded body to the top of the tower.

Next to this was a giant black bull, paper and gauze on a wooden structure.  The bull, used by brahmins, the highest caste, would be burnt along with remains at the end of the ceremony.   As it seemed no one knew when the action  would begin – the date had been chosen by astrologers, and they would provide the kick off time for the procession as well, -I sat down in a café facing the temple for an ice tea.  Ubud may be overrun with tourists in the view of some, but I thought the array of nationalities and cacophony of languages, with various strains of English, and also French, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch and Flemish discernible, was pretty good entertainment in itself, and certainly good business for the locals.   Many of the foreign women had chosen to wear Balinese dress.  Some looked, well, odd; others were stunning.

Mom goes Balinese

Seeing many thirsty people hoping for a table, I retreated to a back street for breakfast.  A couple of bucks  and change for coffee, toast and eggs Benedict.  Another reason people come to Bali: the absolute genius of the locals for F&B of all types.

By the time I reached the temple again the Tower and  bull had been moved out to the street.  It was around noon, and the

Police worked hard to keep the surging crowd safe as Balinese move close for blessings.

crowds were thick and expectant.  Crowds have a life of their own, and this one first , buzzed, then murmured, and finally roared as Balinese men in black with checkered sarongs gave a collective shout, shouldered their burdens,  lifted the two structures and began a headlong rush forward, moving fifty meters or so before they set it down.

Women bearing offerings - eternal Bali!

A file of gorgeously dressed women in Balinese sarongs and the lacy louses cabled kebaya, offerings balanced on their heads took up the forward position, and marchers carrying gamelan instruments and rolling the larger ones on wheels took the lead and struck up.  Balinese music is highly percussive, and although not melodic in the western sense, is not dissonant either.  It makes for fine marching music.  The crowd surged around the tower as Brahmins  strewed blossoms and sprinkled holy water in great torrents on the ecstatic Balinese – and foreigners equally enthusiastic.

Then followed a young boy and a girl, gorgeously dressed, each enthroned among blossoms, and carried carefully by a number of men.

This young girl stared ahead, never moving as she was carried through the crowd.

At the next halt there was more ritual with clouds of incense and prayers in Sanskrit.  I also noticed that men on the towers were engaged in animated  walkie-talkie conversations, and were on their cells as well.  It looked to be along stop and when I had my fill of photos, I departed again in search of refreshment,  This will be a consistent theme, for Ubud can provide any thing in the way of food, from tasty back packer’s rice dishes to quality bistro meals..

Gratuitous pretty girls...but are pretty girls ever gratuitous?

A cold beer, calamari with garlic mayonnaise, and catch up on email,  Face book and Twitter via wifi, then refreshed, back to the road, where the procession had just turned a corner to the open ground where the cremation would take place.

The cremation ground was much like a fairground

Savvy visitors and enterprising vendors of snacks, balloons, toys for the kiddies, and oddly, pencils and school exercise books, had already taken up station.  Here was another white stairway to heaven.

Then there was a bit a of a snag.  The bull and the tower had to mate up so that  the lady’s remains could be carried down from the tower via the stairway and set upon the Bull, whose back had been opened to receive the corpse. Apparently this had to be a seamless move without the corpse bearers touching solid ground,  After a number of tries it was apparent that someone had gotten the dimensions wrong.  The two simply could not meet, so tape measures and then  a chainsaw were brought to bear.

Indonesian fried rice always hits the spot.

It looked to be a lengthy and complicated operation so – yes, yet again – I crossed the street for refreshment,  Fried rice and a beer in a simple eatery, filled with young people.  Shaved heads, dreadlocks, accents of the US( Northern California for sure) England, and Australia.  I put in my earphones but left the pod off and happily eavesdropped.  Young people having a look about, finding themselves, perhaps.  Talk of India.  Second, no third generation of the hippie trail, but this time cellphones for calls home, and credit cards.  And yoga and massage instead of dope.  Beer is still popular, I was glad to see.

The event was good business for many

Back at the field, they had gotten things together and were easing the muslin wrapped corpse down the stairway.   Then they hoisted it up onto the bull, where priests chanted nonstop and various dignitaries, family members and guests came to pray. More interesting to me was the crowd – mischievous local kids playing monkey bars on the structures, vendors working the tourists, children of all nations climbing trees.

Kids love trees

Kids love trees

The end was close but there would still be a wait as there was quite a queue of people paying respects,  so I found a seat on some steps across the way, and yes, a snack – sate lilit, ground meat shaped onto bamboo skewers and grilled.  Delicious, with chili sauce.

Spicy pork "sate lilit"

Somehow a sense of something about to happen reached me and I sprinted back to the site just as a man ignited a blow torch, t then set a spurt of flame to the bull.  In a near explosion it was consumed in flame within seconds.

Spongebob sure gets around!

It would be a wonderful climax if that were all there was, but it takes some hours to reduce a human body to ash and bone fragments,  When the outer shell had burnt away, the lady‘s body still remained, and the blow torch man set in for a long session, flaming things again and again as the heat died down,.

Watching the end of one life, towards the end of theirs, but still enjoying being here

It was quite a walk back to the car, but when I reached it just after dark, and drove out of town the traffic had vanished, and sweepers were collecting rubbish. Thumbs  up for crowd management, food and beverage, spectacle, and above of to the Balinese who maintain their culture, and make it easy and fun for the rest of us to enjoy it.


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