A Cremation at Peliatan

We heard through the grapevine that today there was going to be a cremation at the village of Peliatan, just outside Ubud. Cremation ceremonies are a big deal in Bali, and all the village turns out to be part of the festivities. It's also a bit of a tourist attraction, although the Balinese seem fairly comfortable with this, as long as respect is shown - which unfortunately it isn't always.

This was a chance to see one of the most important and fascinating rituals in the Balinese life ceremonies - certainly the most important ritual in the life of a Balinese.

We got there pretty early - not much was going on. This huge cremation tower was standing in the street - this was obviously the rich guy who was making it possible for the cremation to be happening today. The Balinese believe that only through cremation is the spirit released from the body and set free to reincarnate again. But the costs of putting on the appropriate ceremonies for a good cremation are such that the Balinese typically wait for a time when one or more weathly people who can afford the extra ceremony are being cremated. They then have a mass cremation, with several people being cremated simultaneously. Consequently, it's quite common for a cremation to be carried out many years after the person dies - the body is buried until it is time for the cremation, by which time it is nothing more than a bundle of bones. Unlike in the west, a cremation in Bali is a very joyous event. By this time people have got over the sadness of the person dying, and are happy that their spirit will finally be released to be reincarnated.

You can see the photo of the guy up on the tower (click on the photo for more detail). The more levels the tower has, the more important the person was. But to put more levels than befits your station in life is a disgrace, and you may be asked by the priest to remove some if you fancy yourself better than you really are (or were). The offerings in the foreground are offerings to the low spirits associated with death. They aren't fussy and are happy with a slab of fat, unlike the higher spirits who like perfumed incense, flowers, fruit, and other fine things.

Opposite the cremation tower was this bull effigy. These bull effigies are other important cremation vehicles, used by most common people. The remains of the person are put inside the bull, which is then burned. The bull symbolically carries the spirit of the dead person to heaven, from whence he or she can be reincarnated. Again, the offerings to the lower spirits are placed in front of the bull. This bull seems to be for another fairly wealthy person in the village.

A little way up the road were a whole herd of bulls - ten in all. One was white, which we think must indicate a priest, or at least a member of the high Brahmin caste. The buzz of activity was beginning to build, as people started arriving. The guy in the foreground with the white head-dress is a priest. There also seemed to be several "lay" priests - members of the community who were helping with the ceremony, but didn't seem quite sure of what to do a lot of the time and who had to be prompted by the priest on what to do next.

The priest took his place on the bale, and started chanting the sacred kawi scripts for the cremation ceremony. We had heard priests chanting all night the previous night - cremations always take place on auspicious days, and the night before, the priests chant the scriptures all night long to prepare themselves and the spiritual environment for the important ceremonies of the next day.

The chanting went on for quite a long time - maybe an hour. The priest had asked for a space to be cleared between himself and the bulls, as respect for the ceremonies he was conducting, and to provide a clear path for the sacred energy he was channeling. Sadly, several tourists completely disregarded this request, and insisted on pushing into the ceremonial area and shoving their cameras into the priest's face. It was really disgraceful and made me feel very ashamed of how little respect some westerners have for these sensitive ceremonies. But the Balinese are a very patient and tolerant people, and probably didn't want to disrupt the sacred ceremonies to kick the tourists out, so, even though visibly upset, did not want to make a scene at a funeral by confronting these slobs.

Offerings were placed in front of the bulls, then some rice paste was daubed on them. They were fed and given water to drink, almost like a young child will feed her teddy-bear, holding the food to the bulls lips. Then, eerily, they were symbolically 'killed' with a touch of a knife to their necks.

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Photos: Astrid, Martin and Julia Randall
All content copyright (c) 2002, Astrid, Martin and Julia Randall