The Cremation Procession

After a while the players for the marching gamelan emerged from the family compounds - gongs slung from poles, cymbal and reyong players, all wearing black, with black sarongs, and their hair tied back with black head-sashes. Then they struck up - the most amazing marching gamelan we had ever heard. Incredibly fast interlocks cascading over themselves, the reyong players (one pot each, really hard) huddled in a tight group, with the timekeeping pot beating out a fast grid and the pangguls flying over the pots sending forth a jaw-dropping stream of notes, so fast you could not even discern which direction the melody was going - was that run going up or down, or both? Absolutely incredible.

Then the ceng-cengs (cymbals) struck up, an amazing sound, syncopated rhythms bursting out in a glorious crash of metal on metal, fast and furious. I was spellbound, and grabbing my video camera, filmed as much as I could - fabulous, fabulous music. Sadly we didn't get any still photos of this magical moment to show you, but it was the most incredible music we had yet heard in Bali.

While this was going on, the remains of the wealthy person were being loaded into a compartment in the tower. The person had obviously been dead for some time - it was no more than a loose package of bones wrapped in white cloth that was carefully put into a compartment roughly half-way up the tower. A pair of gender wayang instruments had been strapped to the platform, but their players were completely drowned out by the marching gamelan.

As the beleganjur or marching gamelan was building up a level of energy that was quite unlike anything we'd yet experienced, the funeral bearers had gathered around the cremation platforms, and at an unspoken signal, the tower was lifted to shoulder height, and as the beleganjur screamed to even more frenzied heights, the funeral tower lurched forwards, then backwards, and sideways, turned around - it had started out facing the opposite direction from where it would go - and headed off down the road, amidst a din of yelling and cheering, the gamelan following after it at quite a clip. The funeral cortege of villagers headed off after it.

The bulls were next - the one next to the tower was lifted up - it had its own gamelan that had struck up - spun around, and headed off after the tower. The tower and bulls are spun to disorient the spirit of the dead person so it cannot find its way back to the house the person had lived in, so it is not tempted to come back and haunt the family, and is instead encouraged to find its way to heaven and its next life.

Traditionally the oldest son rides the bull to the cremation grounds. Here he goes. The other bulls were hoisted up and headed off too, each accompanied by the families of the deceased, and many of them with their own accompanying gamelans. It was a very boisterous scene, not sad at all.

I managed to catch up with the tower. These people were really moving. We'd been told that part of the function of the beleganjur is to put the funeral bearers into trance to enable them to lift and carry such a heavy weight such a long distance - sometimes miles, in this case about a mile and a half.

We practically had to run to keep up with the procession. These are family members following along behind their loved one.

Many people were carrying offerings.

We eventually came to a halt as the road turned the corner towards Ubud. There was a big backup, as the tall cremation tower was not able to get past some advertising banners that were slung across the street. The marching gamelans kept playing while the problem was being solved. Someone had opened up a fire hydrant by the roadside and was spraying the funeral bearers down with cool water - very welcome relief, as it was, as usual, quite a hot day! The white package you can see people carrying here is the remains of one of the people to be cremated that day.

This is the banner that had caused the holdup. They had come prepared though, and lifted the banner up with a specially made pole (also useful for telephone and power cables). You can see the tower has already progressed on down the road and is nearing the cremation grounds, about halfway between Peliatan and Ubud. That's me filming at right.

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