Ngaben, also known as pitra yadnya and pelebon, which translates to “turn to ashes,” is a cremation ceremony practiced on the island of Bali in Indonesia. The ceremony is not a mourning ceremony because the dead are not viewed as deceased; instead it is believed that they are asleep and will be reincarnated (Williams 193). Death rituals are central events in the village community and family that often go on for years, from burial to the final “purification” of the deceased. As of recently rituals are usually collective and condensed in order to save expenses, which are extensive, with over a hundred corpses being cremated at the same time (Hobart 2014, np). Because of the economic costs of the rituals, some families bury the deceased while they wait to gain the economic stability to perform the ritual. However, families should not wait longer than a year to perform the ritual (Williams 194). A Brahmin must decide the most auspicious day for the event to take place. The family of the deceased will make a coffin that will be used to transport the corpse, as well as a replica coffin. These replicas are contemporary vehicles for the dead and can take the form of lions, winged elephant fish or bulls (Hobart 2014, np). The replicas are made out of bamboo, wood and paper.
The night before the ceremony a large wooden drum, a kul-kul, is struck to inform people that they should assemble at the house of the deceased (Williams 194). The ceremony begins with the descendants performing a small rite at the household gate, requesting the spirit to leave. If the body was buried and unearthed, it is vital that the remaining bones, corpse or effigy of it is arranged in a special pavilion in the household. Two temporary bamboo altars, which are dedicated to Surya and Brahma are set up next to the pavilion. The corpse is washed and cleansed to ensure the deceased will be reincarnated in an intact and beautiful body. The accompanying mantra ngereka is recited by a Brahmin to reinforce the act of washing and rejecting any separation of body and mind. An anthropomorphic figure made of Chinese coins is laid to the side or on top of the body or its substitute to ensure that the bones are well proportioned. A vessel of palm leaves with a banana sprout is placed nearby to symbolize the concept of rebirth. A magical cloth, known as a kudrang, with sacred syllables is laid over the body so the deceased is appropriately clothed for their journey to the afterlife. After the cleansing rite a coconut-oil lamp is hung in front of the entrance of the house and is lit every night to show the roaming spirit its home and to beckon it onwards (Hobart 2014, np).
The actual cremation takes place in the graveyard and requires one or more Brahmin to make holy water (Hobart 2014, np). The deceased is transferred to the replica coffin while the Brahmin recites prayers and mantras(Williams 195). During cremation, the visible body and the social role grafted on it are disintegrated by the fire sacrifice, and it is believed that the bodies five primary elements water, earth, fire, wind and space are returned to mother Earth, Ibu Pertiwi. The ashes of the body remains are subsequently collected and stored in a coconut shell, and typically 12 days later they are brought to the river or sea, which is considered sacred, and released into the water (Williams 195). This final step of the ritual is the final form of purification of the soul.
Ngaben rituals differ from different regions and communities in Bali, however there are a lot of similarities. In some communities burying the dead is sometimes interpreted as “impure.” However, in other regions it is also believed that the body should not be cremated too early or else the soul will feel the burning of the flames. It is widely believed that upper varnas frequently die before their time because they practiced cremation without prior burial (Warren 44). In the past it is believed that all but priests and kings were buried initially, however according to the Parisada Hindu Dharma, the faster the process, the better, so the idea of immediate cremation was made preferable as times changed (Warren 45). Some traditionalists still believe that it is important to return to the Ibu Pertiwi before being cremated. It is also widely believed that Brahmins must never be buried and should be cremated immediately. This immediate cremation practice is because it is believed that Brahmins have already died once upon their entry into priesthood; this process is known as mati raga (Warren 44).
Drawatik (185-188) studied the Pacung village in Bali. The Pacung villagers carry out a primary burial, mepegat, followed by the secondary symbolic burial ritual, metuun. The primary burial is carried out directly after death, and the second ceremony is conducted 42 days after the first one. In Pacung, if someone dies during the day, the corpse should be buried before the sun sets and if they die during the night, the community should wait for the following day. The mepegat ceremony does not have to be carried out on an auspicious day as is done in other communities. In the event that the relatives live far away and cannot reach their home village within a day, the corpse cannot be kept at home for more than three days. For the actual burial, a bamboo litter is made, on which the corpse is placed for the mepegat ceremony. The goal of this ceremony is to cut off the relationship between the deceased and their relatives. This separation is symbolized by white strings of cotton that are cut through by using a small piece of resin that has been set on fire. The dead person is provided by the relatives with 11 Chinese coins symbolizing the means of payment for the piece of ground in which the corpse will rest. On top of the corpse the relatives put personal belongings of the deceased as a token of their affection. The corpse is laid out with the head pointed to the north-east and the feet to the south-west. A male corpse is arranged with the face downward and a female corpse with the face upward. Such positions refer to the belief that the male symbolizes the sky and the female symbolizes the earth. The difference in the orientation of the corpse at Pacung to those in the other regions possibly relates to the Sambu sect. In the Sambu sect, death is associated with the north-east where the God Sambu, who is identical to death, resides. Eleven days after the burial ceremony a permanent grave made of cement is built to avoid a possible further digging up of the ground for another burial. The metuun ceremony is a kind of second burial ritual in which the soul of the deceased is invoked to return because it needs to be purified before returning to embang, the eternal world where the souls of those who are dead reside. In case the family needs more time, than the advised 42 days, to accumulate wealth for the ceremony, they are given one year to conduct a ceremony and the date is set by the village. If they are still unable to perform the ceremony after this year, it is the village’s obligation to do so. At the beginning of the ritual Bhatara Ratu Gede Dalem is asked to grant holy water, tirta, so that the deceased’s soul can be purified. A small manikin, jejeneng, which symbolises the deceased, is ritually cleansed and then dressed in white at a site dedicated to the dead, merajapati. The soul of the deceased is then called to enter the jejeneng, which is carried home and put on the bed of the deceased where a purification ritual is carried out.
Stephen (441-444) discusses her first hand experience of the nine important rituals she witnessed during a Ngaben in 2008. The first step, mandak ke pura dalem, occurred at eight thirty in the morning, with the family going to the Pura Dalem, the temple of death, to collect the spirit of the deceased. The second ritual, melaspas petualangan, occurs around an hour afterwards. The Brahmin prepares holy water, while the casket and the replica are placed in the main road. The men, who were preparing to carry the casket, prayed in front of the Brahmin and received the holy water when it was ready. Mandusan, the third step which is performed by a Brahmin, is the cleansing and decorating of the corpse. The body is cleaned with holy water, finger and toenails are cleaned, hair is washed, oiled, scented and combed. The body is then decorated with jewelry and flowers, while members of the family then place money and gifts on the body. The body is then wrapped in a white cloth and placed in a plain wooden box. Natab, ngaskara, pemerasan was the fourth step. The plain wooden box was decorated with ritual objects symbolizing different components of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of the deceased. Ngaskara was performed by a pedanda buda, with the goal of the ritual to reunite the body and soul of the deceased. It was believed that the deceased was brought back to life for a few minutes and this was symbolized by the lighting of a lamp. When the soul of the deceased had reached the other world, the lamp would go out. Ngaskarahad the pedanda make holy water while the gamelan orchestra played various songs; there was a wayang lemah, a shadow puppet performance, and topeng, masked dances. Pemerasanwas a prayer between the grandchildren or descendants that took place while waiting for the spirit to depart. The fifth step, kesetra/pengutangan, which took place at two in the afternoon. This step is the most available to public scrutiny as it is the carrying of the deceased and replica to the cemetery. The gamelan orchestra continues to play music while there are many offerings of meat required to prevent the chthonic forces from ruining the parade. The men carrying the casket and replica are in such a trance that it is believed they are possessed by these forces and are being pushed, shoved and twirled by them. Once at the cemetery the sixth step, ngenargiang tirta ring setra, takes place. The corpse is placed in the animal shaped replica with the coverings cut open to reveal the face of the deceased. The body is treated with more holy water and the vessels used to pour the holy water must be broken immediately after use. The body is then covered with more layers of new cloth. Finally the piranti, the various symbols of the physical and spiritual components of the deceased that were placed on the body, are put underneath the replica. The eldest son of the deceased then lights the funeral pyre. After the cremation fire burned down the seventh step took place, nuduk galih lan ngreka. The remaining bone fragments were retrieved from the ashes and arranged in the form of a human body. Some of the bone is then grounded up into a paste inside of a special earthenware container. The paste is then placed in a container referred to as a suku tunggal. Stephen (445) discusses the penultimate step known as pamraline and the final step, nganyut. Pamraline begins with the pedanda buda beginning his ritual to make more holy water. When ready, the holy water is sprinkled on the paste inside of the suku tunggal, which is held by a female relative. The suku tunggal is then circumambulated three times in a clockwise direction around a pile of offerings and the temporary altar dedicated to Surya. The procession then proceeds to the mrajapati temple where the family placed food on dapdap leaves, offering it to the departing spirit. Nganyut takes place at the sea, where the suku tunggal, along with the ashes, are cast into the ocean. Two final rituals take place at the village, mapegat whichcuts ties with the deceased, and caru which cleanses the area used during ngaben to rid them of negative forces.
The fate of the soul is symbolically tied to the fate of the body (Warren 43). Death rituals affect the transformation and placement of the soul, and the protection of the family and community from the dangers associated with its passage. In Balinese death rituals the elaborate set of rites that are performed break the soul from its material bonds and allows it to become fused with the ancient ancestors worshipped in temples and houses. The essence of the soul is then reincarnated back into its own community and descent group (Warren 43).
References and recommended readings
Drawatik, Marini (2008) “The Burial System at Pacung.” Burials, Texts and Rituals Göttinger Beiträge Zur Ethnologie, 185-188.
Geertz, Hildred (2004) The life of a Balinese temple: artistry, imagination and history in a peasant village. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Hobart, Angela(2014) “Retrieving the Tragic Dead in Bali,” Indonesia & the Malay World. Vol. 42 Issue 124, 307-336.
Lansing, John Stephen (1995) The Balinese. Toronto and Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.
Stephen, Michele (2010) “The Yogic Art of Dying, Kundalinī Yoga, and the Balinese “pitra Yadnya”.” Bijdragen tot de taal-, land- en volkenkunde / Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia, 441-445.Brill.
Warren, Carol (1993) Disrupted death ceremonies: Popular culture and the ethnography of bali. Sydney: Oceania.
Williams, Victoria (2016) Celebrating Life Customs Around the World: from Baby Showers to Funerals [3 Volumes], 193-196. Westport.
Article written by: Michael McTighe (February 2020) who is solely responsible for this content