Attending a cremation is unlikely to be top of the ‘must do’ list for the average vacationer. But then Bali is far from an average holiday destination. As anyone who venture a few kilometres from the main tourist beaches will discover, this really is the ‘Island of 1,000 temples’ – an understatement if ever there was one. The fabled sea temples of Uluwatu and Tanah Lot, the mother temple of Besakih on the slopes of the sacred Gunung Agung, and the oft-photographed Ulun Danu Bratan temple feature on many a day-trip itinerary. And driving through traditional villages and across swathes of rice terraces can bring many unexpected sights as you come across small temple festival and colourful processions.
Visitors to Bali’s cultural heart in early March found themselves in the right place at the right time to witness something spectacular: the cremation of Anak Agung Niang Agung, the wife of Tjokorda Gde Agung Sukawati (1910-1978), widely known as ‘the King of Ubud.’
“Strange as it seems, it is in their cremation ceremonies that the Balinese have their greatest fun. A cremation is an occasion for gaiety and not for mourning, since it represents the accomplishment of their most sacred duty: the ceremonial burning of the corpses of the dead to liberate their souls so that they may thus attain the higher worlds and be free for reincarnation into better beings”. The words of Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias ring as true today as when he wrote his Island of Bali book in the 1930s.
A ngaben – literally translated as ‘turn to ash’ – is perhaps the most unique ritual in the unique form of animism-influenced Hinduism followed by the deeply spiritual Balinese, who believe that life, and death, are transitions. Even more elaborate is the pelebon – the cremation ceremony reserved for members of the royal family.
For the preceding three weeks, visitors would have seen intense activity outside Ubud Palace as the community gathered to construct the two enormous structures that are the core of the ceremony: the Bade, an intricately decorated, gravity-defying multi-level tower in which the body is placed and carried from the Palace to the Pura Dalem Puri, and the Lembu, a magnificent black velvet bull sarcophagus, to which the body will be placed for cremation.