Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Preparations for Cremation

Some women wait outside the palace before making their offerings to the King's mother.

Unbeknownst to me before I arrived, Ubud is having the biggest cremation ceremony they’ve had in years during the time I’ll be here. Just how many years it’s been since a cremation ceremony this big has happened in Ubud is vague (our Bahasa Inodnesia teacher confirmed for us yesterday that Bali runs on “jam karet”, or, “rubber time”). The cremation is for the King’s Mother (Anak Anung Niang Rai) although I also haven’t gotten an exact answer to what exactly this King is the King of either. All I know is it’s a pretty big deal. For weeks now, there have been extra dance and gamelan practices by local groups and the entire Ubud area is overrun with tourists hoping to share in the spectacle. There are t-shirts saying “Ubud Royal Cremation” being sold at most gift shops.

I love walking down the street and seeing the signs waiting for the procession. Different airlines, banks, spas, and individuals sponsor signs that commemorate the King’s mother and it’s a funny sign of the times to see traditional decorations with the message “Condolences from Singapore Airlines” written on them.

Signs lining the streets to prepare for the procession. The sideways pagoda kind of thing behind the signs will be added to the tower for even more height!

The cremation will be on Thursday and all of the streets will be closed down. The entire town of Ubud will turn into a procession to the cemetery with the body being carried on a tower that is about 100 feet high. Once in the cemetery, the body will be put inside a decorative bull and burned. I am hoping to get some good photos but am also told to be very careful of all the crowds because there’s a risk of being trampled! It’s a chaotic scene with men carrying decorative animals and spinning them around to distract evil spirits and gamelan players trying to fill the air with music in order to sustain the energy of the men carrying the tower. The only image I have to compare it to at this point is the National Mall on the day of the Obama inauguration.

The bull that the body will eventually be burned in.

Cremation ceremonies happen with most deaths in Bali, but because this is for the King’s mother, it is a ceremony that has cost thousands of dollars and taken many months to prepare for. Earlier this week, the preparations were finally complete. It is amazing to me to think of the meticulous artistic work that has gone into creating something that will eventually be completely destroyed.

A small part of the tower.

August is a very popular time for these cremation ceremonies (“ngabens”) because of its significance in the Balinese calendar. People who die at a time that’s not in the “cremation season” are usually buried and then dug up again in late August to have a proper cremation. Some families have to wait a few years until they have enough money saved to give their dead relatives a ceremony. Although the King’s mother died months ago, she has spent time in her family’s compound with people bringing her offerings multiple times a day.

Behind these walls is where the body lies. In front, this man goes to bring "Bali Coffee" to her.

A cremation in Bali is a joyous occasion. The tower the dead person rides on is meant to help them be closer to transcending to their next life. The higher the tower is, the higher caste the person was It is not a time of mourning, but one of celebration. As Oka told me once, “in Bali, cremations are happy, but weddings are sad. Weddings are when people grow up, but at cremations, they are just starting over again.”

The white tower on the right will only be used for people to climb up and place the body on the ceremonial tower on the left.

A literal stairway to heaven.

It is going to be quite a busy week in Ubud. Tomorrow I’m attending a tooth filing ceremony and it’s also Indonesia’s Independence Day. Nita and Komang, the younger daughters of Made and Kadek at my homestay have been complaining because they haven’t been doing work at school all week but instead have been doing flag salutes and drills for Independence Day, and, apparently, their principal’s birthday. They come home very tired.

Today while walking by the football field, I came across some men trying to set up some activities for the Independence Day celebration. The particular event they were setting up is a greased pole made of bamboo that has prizes (DVD players, blenders, t-shirts) hanging at the top. Tomorrow local kids will compete to climb the pole and carry a prize down with them.

I have my sarong and my camera ready. It’s gonna be a big week.


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