From Ash to Ash
Witnessing the cremation ceremony of one of Ubud’s royal family members...
It was 9.30 a.m. when I arrived at Puri Kantor Ubud in downtown Ubud, near the traditional market. The road leading there was already closed and the people in the area were busy preparing one of the most important ceremonies; a cremation ritual for a royal family member. At the intersection, an effigy depicting a black buffalo adorned with golden necklaces was standing. Behind it was a tall huge bade, a container decorated with Balinese ornaments to bring the dead body to the cemetery.
That day, Puri Ubud was hosting Karya Pelebon (a cremation ritual) for the late Ibu Nelly Sukawati. She was the wife of the late Tjokorda Ngurah Wim Sukawati, one of the respected Ubud royal family members who had served Indonesia as a diplomat in several countries. The late Ibu Nelly was known to be devoted to her husband. She was Dutch-born yet she had become a true Balinese ever since she was married to Mr. Wim. “She used to travel with her husband, but whenever she was here, she never missed our temple ceremonies,” said Tjok Oka Sukawati (Oka), a relative of the late Mr. Wim’s. “She was really nice. As a foreigner, she gave inspirations and motivation that are positive for our lives in Ubud.”
The Karya Pelebon was quite historical as it was the first time ever the Balinese people in Ubud hosted a cremation ritual for a foreigner. And I was lucky to be among the locals and tourists in Ubud to witness this grand ceremony...
Back to Earth
At 10 a.m., a number of invitees filled up the empty chairs in Puri Ubud. Before the cremation began, a ceremony was held. Offerings were displayed, and a priest conducted a prayer. But according to Oka, the whole ritual of Karya Pelebon for the late Ibu Nelly actually started two days before.
“We had ceremonies yesterday and the day before, but this is the most important one,” he said. “Today, we started at five in the morning with Nyikut Karang to cleanse the place where the cremation will take place. Later, we will bring her body to the cemetery after 12 o’clock. The people in Ubud believe that the best time to bring the deceased to the cemetery for a cremation is after 12 o’clock.” While waiting for afternoon to come, the Ubud royal family invited guests to have lunch after the prayers were done. There was also a traditional dance performance at the gate which passersby were welcome to watch.
Amidst the crowd, Oka continued explaining the meaning of the event. “Today is the peak of the ceremony. We call it the Perabuan ceremony,” he said. “The philosophy is actually to help the deceased return to panca maha bhuta or our original form.” Panca maha bhuta is the Balinese term for the five natural elements in a human’s body: water, fire, earth, air and space.
“A cremation ceremony brings us back to our original form,” Oka continued. “Fire will bring us back to the fire element in us. Our bones and ash will fall to earth which symbolizes our return to earth. The air and space elements in us will return to their original form as well.” After the cremation is done, the Nganyut ceremony is followed to scatter some of the ashes into the ocean. “And that symbolizes that the water element in us goes back to water,” Oka stated.
Journey to Nirvana
It was past 12 p.m. when the gamelan resounded from within the Puri Ubud. Not long after, a number of Balinese men and women marched out of the palace. One of them was holding the picture of the late Ibu Nelly while the others were bringing offerings on their heads and musical instruments in their hands. They went out of the gate, passing all the invitees and tourists who filled the front yard to witness this procession from up close. A white coffin decorated with golden ornaments was then marched out of Puri Ubud.
Looking at the beautiful coffin, I remembered Oka’s statement a couple of hours earlier. “We use a white cloth called kain kajang to cover the body,” he stated. The Balinese believe that kain kajang is one of the attributes that will deliver the deceased to the adman (the spiritual world). They also believe that each person has their own identity. “We decorate the cloth with literature symbols to mark our identity in the spiritual world,” Oka explained.
The sound of the gamelan took me back to the front yard. By that time, the coffin was already out of the gate, so I rushed outside only to find that the street was already packed with people. I made my way to keep up with the troupe. I was standing right beside the bade when they took the coffin up to the 12-meter high bade. From the street side, I could see them putting the coffi n inside the bade high up in the sky.
Around a half hour later, they were ready to bring the bade and the black buffalo effigy to the cemetery. Mind you, these constructions were transported by the Balinese men in Ubud area by walking. Together, they lifted the bade and the effigy up and marched them down the street. The buffalo effigy went first, followed by the bade and the musical instruments.
“To hold this ceremony, we invite all six banjar (villages) in Ubud to participate,” Oka explained earlier. There were at least 1,800 villagers involved that day, but only about 150 people were needed to lift up each of the bade and the effigy. So, the villagers divided themselves into three groups to take turn. I couldn’t help but admire their unity as a community to work together for this ceremony. “And for those who don’t have the opportunity to bring the bade, their attendance is appreciated enough,” Oka continued.
Once the troupe arrived at the cemetery, they took the coffin down from the bade and put it in the black buffalo effigy. “The black buffalo symbolizes a medium that will take the spirit of the deceased to Nirvana,” Oka’s voice resounded in my head. A couple of hours later, they set fire under the effigy which marked the beginning of the cremation ceremony. Within minutes, the fire was getting bigger, eating up the whole black buffalo and the coffin inside.
Watching from afar, I could see what Oka meant about returning the deceased into her original form. Fire turned the body into ash. Some ashes fell on to earth and some others were blown by the wind. And some will be scattered in the ocean during the Nganyut procession in Matahari Terbit Beach in Sanur. I couldn’t help but believe that the late Ibu Nelly must have been smiling from up above as her beloved ones attended her cremation ritual and the whole Ubud community took part in it.
By Risty Nurraisa
Magazine issue > Craft&Culture