On 15 July 2008, one of Bali's largest ever cremation ceremonies in the last three decades took place in the culturally vibrant “village” of Ubud. Three royal figures and 68 commoners were cremated. This photoblog is a record of that wonderful day.

Ngaben on 15 July in Ubud, Bali

Introduction
On the 13th July 2008 we arrived in Ubud, a modest sized “village” in the hills of southern Bali.

I have visited Ubud on many occasions before and always enjoyed it. It is true that the place has become a little over-commercialized in recent years – as witnessed by the overpriced eateries and pretentious art galleries that sell unoriginal artworks at ridiculously inflated prices. Yet the village still casts a magical spell over all who visit it.

It is indeed a very mystical place. Choose the wrong hotel or homestay and you will fail to get a decent night’s sleep: the demons and evil spirits will do their best to dance the night away and keep you tossing and turning in your bed until dawn. And I should know. Because this has already happened to me on a couple of occasions!

Anyway, in a couple of day’s time on the 15 July, the former head of the Ubud royal family, Tjokorda Gde Agung Suyasa, was to be cremated. People in Bali told me it was going to be one of the most elaborate and grand cremation ceremonies to be held in Bali. Ever.

And I was not to be disappointed. For what I saw will certainly live in my memory forever: such incredible pomp and circumstance, yet, at the same time, a ceremony fully embraced by all Balinese regardless of social status or rank, and ultimately a joyous celebration of life over death with not a tear shed by anyone. If only all funerals could be like this!

What is Ngaben?
Ngaben is the name of the cremation ceremony conducted by the Balinese. The body of the deceased is placed inside a coffin. This coffin is then placed inside either a sarcophagus which has been made in the form of a bull (Lembu) or in a wooden temple structure called a Bade. The bull or temple structure is then carried on a crisscross of bamboo poles to the cremation site. Here prayers are said and other rituals performed. The sarcophagus is then burnt. But no tears are shed: Ngaben is not a solemn occasion as the cremation of the body allows the spirit to either reincarnate or find its final resting place in Moksha (thus breaking the reincarnation and death cycle). This is to be celebrated and not mourned.

The Ubud ceremony on 15 July 2008
The creation ceremony in Ubud on 15 July 2008 was one of the biggest cremation ceremonies in Bali in the last three decades. It was a Pitra Yadnya ceremony – i.e. a ritual connected with human beings and their souls. Three royal figures and 68 commoners were to be cremated. The ceremony was going to be huge as one of the royals to be cremated was Tjokorda Gde Agung Suyasa, the former head of the Ubud royal family and an extremely well respected leader of the traditional community in Ubud since 1976. One of the other royals was Gede Raka.

The Bade (tower) constructed for Mr. Suyasa was huge. Utterly immense. It soared into the sky like a skyscraper and at 28 meters high it dwarfed everything around it. And it weighed in at nearly 11 tonnes. And this structure was going to be carried from the Royal’s palace in central Ubud to the cremation site – a distance of at least 1 kilometer! Incredible!

The organizers had to call upon the resources of thousands of volunteers to carry the Bade to the cremation site. The men, dressed in purple shirts - for what reason I do not know – carried the immense structure in 100 yard shifts - around 200 men at a time.

Two huge bull sarcophagus were also going to be carried to the royal cremation site. As was a Naga Banda (dragon). This is very rarely seen - even in royal cremations – but was used in the cremation ceremony because of the prominence of the deceased Tjokorda Gde Agung Suyasa and the very important role he played within the Puri and Ubud community. The 68 smaller bull sarcophagus for the commoners were carried to a different cemetery site than the one used for the royals.

The future of Ngaben
Ngaben is an expensive business even when the ceremony is a simple one. Common people may be buried in a grave for many months before the funds can be raised by the family to fund a cremation. The body is then exhumed and cremated. A simple cremation ceremony for a commoner may cost around Rp5 million; the royal ceremony in Ubud on 15 July 2008 reportedly cost a staggering Rp22 billion!

Despite increasing modernization in Bali, the number of cremation ceremonies is actually increasing – even though they are now more professionally managed than they were before. The construction of the bade, the bull sarcophagus, and all the other things needed in the ceremony such as hand crafted coffins, are now undertaken by specialized professionals rather than banjar (a local village group).

The pictures
Although you really have to witness a Ngaben cremation for yourself to understand what it means to the Balinese, I hope that the pictures I took one day prior to the cremation ceremony (on 14th July 2008) and on the day of the cremation ceremony itself (on 15th July 2008) can provide some insight as too what it was like to witness the spectacular ceremony in Ubud – something which I undoubtedly will never forget for as long as I live.

You can see the pictures by looking at the blog archive in the right hand column at the top of this page.

The Naga Banda

The Naga Banda (dragon), rarely seen even in royal cremations, was used in the cremation ceremony because of the prominence of the deceased Tjokorda Gde Agung Suyasa and the very important role he played within the Puri and Ubud community.

DSC_0853.jpg

The sarcophagus burns

The fire is lit and soon the bull is ablaze. Smoke pours from its nostrils and flames shoot from its eyes. The body is disintegrating into its five earthly elements: earth, wind, water, fire and ether; the soul finally free, either to reincarnate or find its final resting place in Moksha.

the dust of kings is blown into the street,
the wind carries the dust into the rivers,
the rivers carry the dust to the sea,
the sea evaporates and clouds form
and the water is returned to the land once again.

> Antonio Blanco (1912-1999) of Bali


DSC_0831.jpg

The coffin is lifted up

The coffin is lifted and placed inside the bull sarcophagus, its final stop on its earthly journey. A second, smaller bull stood by its side holding the body of another royal relative, Gede Raka.

DSC_0813.jpg

The bull sarcophagus is opened

On the crematory platform, the hollow back of the bull sarcophagus is opened.

DSC_0806.jpg

A huge crowd

The crowd is huge.

DSC_0783.jpg

Heading for the Royal cemetery

We head for the Royal cemetery.

Heading to the Royal cremation grounds

The bade can be moved

However, the bade can be moved. The Balinese have constructed the giant wings in such a way that they are flexible and can bend significantly. This allows it to break free safely.

DSC_0774.jpg

Stuck in a thatched roof

The bade is so huge that its wings have got stuck in a thatched roof. In fact, looking at its size it seems too big to be carried along the fairly narrow street. The electricity has been cut off by the electricity company PLN, but there are still great dangers – getting crushed the most obvious of course.

DSC_0770.jpg

The top of the bade

The top of the bade before it is carried to the royal cremation grounds around 1.5 km away.

DSC_0763.jpg

A sheet inadvertently rolls loose

A sheet inadvertently rolls loose. Makes for a nice shot though!

Bade

The coffin is moved into position

The coffin is moved into position. Note: there are no safety nets or anything – if they slip, they are dead.

DSC_0744.jpg

Close up of the coffin being moved across to the bade (tower)

Moving the coffin into position

The coffin is moved across

DSC_0736.jpg

Watching on

Watching on

Scaffolding and the bade

The scaffolding on the left has been constructed to allow Tjokorda Gde Agung Suyasa’s coffin to be placed in position at the top of the bade (tower)

Ready to move the coffin

The bade’s nine-tiered pinnacle

DSC_0701.jpg

Another shot of the bade (tower)

Notice how high the bade (tower) is relative to the overhead electricity cables

The Bade

The bade (tower)

I’ve kept you waiting – a shot showing the full bade (tower)

The bade (tower)

Attaining a good vantage point

Attaining a good vantage point

More holy water (toya tirta)!

More holy water!

Close up

DSC_0655.JPG

Getting ready to carry the huge Bade (tower)

DSC_0652.JPG

More holy water

DSC_0650.jpg

Sprayed with holy water

DSC_0646.jpg

Holy water (toya tirta)

Holy water (toya tirta) is used in Bali for purification, that is ritual washing, and to serve to purify ritual objects, religious sites, and individuals involved in religious rites. It is this holy water that has led the Hindu religion on Bali to become known as Agama Tirta, or the Holy Water Religion.

Toya tirta (holy water)

Saying prayers

Ngaben: praying

The Priest

The Priest

Waiting

DSC_0580.jpg

One of the carriers

One of the bade carriers

DSC_0557.jpg

The Bali Barong

First shot of the day: a close up of the Barong on the huge Bade (tower). The Barong is the king of the spirits, leading the battle against the dark side. His adversaries including the disgusting Rangda – a demon queen who eats children. The Barong may come in the form of a boar, tiger, dragon (or serpent) or the traditional lion (like this one).

Barong (in Bali)

silhouette of the bull sarcophagus

I couldn’t get a decent shot of the bull sarcophagus due to the people in front of me, but as it headed to Ubud’s Royal Palace, I was fortunate enough to get this wonderful silhouette. The mood now was of great anticipation for the cremation ceremony that would begin tomorrow. The atmosphere was simply electric.

DSC_0504.jpg

The prince

The prince comes next. He seems to be unhappy with something but I’m not sure what.

DSC_0492.jpg

All smiles

But she also has a sense of humor!

DSC_0486.jpg

Demure

Demure is the best word to describe this, I think!

DSC_0484.jpg

The princess again

The princess again.

DSC_0483.jpg

The princess arrives

One of my best shots this. Taken late afternoon, I like the way the reddish afternoon light gives a warm feel to this shot. In terms of composition, it’s well framed and the light even. I love the umbrellas. Nice and sharp too, thanks to a fast shutter speed.

Ngaben: the Princess

The Procession

A procession heads toward Ubud’s Royal Palace.

The procession

Through the generations

A motley bunch of Balinese women from all generations waiting for the arrival of the price and princess. Just look at those expressions!

Through the generations

Waiting by the Ubud highstreet

One day before the cremation ceremony and crowds were appearing in the streets in anticipation of the arrival of two young members of the Ubud Royal family – presumably the prince and princess.

Waiting