Ngaben on 15 July in Ubud, Bali

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.