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Ngaben cremation in Bali, family gathering at the cremation celebrating the life of the deceased.

Ngaben cremation in Bali

In this journal entry I document Mr A.A. Mangkling’s Ngaben Cremation in Bali. I am grateful to the family for inviting me to cover the celebration of Mr Mangklings life.

The Hindu-Balinese believe the body is impure, a temporary shell, having no significance at all, except as a container of the soul and its anchor to the earth.

All thoughts at the time of death are concentrated upon the spirit and its passage to heaven. The body is just there to be disposed of. And instead of grieving the Balinese prefer to throw a great celebration. In the process, hastening their dead friends soul to oneness with God.

Ngaben cremation in Bali, the head of the family, and assistant to the priestess, is making the sandalwood effigy, which is then wrapped in a cloth and decorated.
Ngaben cremation in Bali, the conical base of the effigy is covered with leaves from a sacred banyan tree, collected in a special ceremony and symbolising fire.

Making the male sandalwood effigy

The head of the family, and assistant to the priestess, is making the sandalwood effigy, which is then wrapped in a cloth and decorated.

The male effigy is assembled on a bamboo frame about 40 cm high. The conical base is covered with leaves from a sacred banyan tree. Which was collected in a special ceremony, therefore, symbolising the fire that will release the atman from the sekah.

Leaves must be arranged concave side down for a male effigy. The opposite for a female. Next, decorated with special dried flowers and a fan-shaped background, similar to the adegan of a cremation.

Finally it’s wrapped in white, decorated with gold leaves, and placed in a special shrine on a silver tray.

Ngaben cremation in Bali, community members working together to make the bamboo stretcher for the deceased
Ngaben cremation in Bali, the body is bought from the families ritual building to be placed on the stretcher for bathing.

The village community members banjar work together to make the bamboo stretcher for the first ritual, nyiramin layon the bathing of the corpse. The body is bought from the families ritual building to be placed on the stretcher for bathing.

Ngaben cremation in Bali, first ritual, nyiramin layon the bathing of the corpse.
Ngaben cremation in Bali, holy water bought from the High Priestess’s home will cleanse spiritual impurities.

Bathing and cleansing of the body

In Bali, holy water is not a symbol or something abstract. It is a sekala container of niskala power, and as such, is sacred and holy in and of itself. Holy water bought from the High Priestess’s home will cleanse spiritual impurities, fend off evil forces, and render the recipient immune to attacks of negative, or demonic, influences.

Ngaben Cremation in Bali, the string benang from his head to toe is nice and straight symbolising a good person.

The body is decorated

Leaves are placed on the eyebrows to ensure a good shape of the brow. Upon his return he will be good looking.
A white colour flower is placed inside his nose to make him fragrant.
Gold signifies happiness, joy and positive thinking.
The string benang from his head to toe is nice and straight symbolising a good person.

Preparing the Offerings

Women work for several weeks. Preparing the offerings which will provide symbolic pleasure to the deified ancestors and to the spirit that will be shortly released to God.

They satisfy the hunger of the evil spirits, the bhutas and kalas, who stand greedily by, ready to interfere in mans every activity. Most important however, the offerings will implore God to purify the spirit and return it to earth in an appropriately higher and purer form.

Procession to the cremation grounds

The body is placed on the cremation tower wadah or hade ready for transportation to the cremation grounds by the banjar men. The procession is led by a young man carrying the ceremonial knife kris which has magic powers.

Ngaben cremation in Bali for Mr A.A. Mangkling’s Ngaben cremation in Bali Indonesia
Ngaben cremation in Bali, the procession is led by a young man carrying the ceremonial knife kris which has magic powers.

The long white cloth, the lancingan, stretched above the heads of a train of people is a symbol of attachment. Also, the connection / relationship to the family.

The stuffed bird amnuk dewata symbolises the purified soul that the still unclean spirit will soon become.

At the cremation grounds the banjar men spin the tower around, in order to confuse the spirit and make it lose its way.  Ensuring, that it cannot return and haunt the family.

In the Hindu-Balinese cosmology, the body of man is but a microcosm of the universe. As it is made up of the same five elements: air, earth, fire, water, and space. These constitute, temporarily, a place for atman, the immortal soul. On the white cloth is a drawing of the microcosm.

Ngaben cremation in Bali, young girl looks at the body before the fire ritual starts
Ngaben cremation in Bali, fires are ignited by a blessed torch and the element ‘fire’ ritual is now underway.
Ngaben cremation in Bali, washing the scraps of ash and bone from the cremated body

Fire ritual

Fires are ignited by a blessed torch and the element ‘fire’ ritual is now underway. The medium by which the body is offered up as a last sacrifice.  Thereafter, the tower and all of the other accessory objects are separately burned.

When the fires have died down, family members collect scraps of ash and bone from the body. Bone fragments are placed inside the yellow coconut and then it is wrapped and decorated.

Ngaben cremation in Bali, high priestess and the High Priest preparing for the ritual performance.
Ngaben cremation in Bali, the high priest Pedanda performs a series of mudras, or hand gestures using his bell and other paraphernalia such as a brazier.

High priest ritual performance

The high priest pedanda performs a series of mudras. Hand gestures using his bell and other paraphernalia such as a brazier. Chanting helps to release the soul and to aid it on its journey.

Five elements

Now the five elements of the body have been returned to the macrocosm whence they came. The spirit has been released to the sea where its impurities will fall as sediment. From which its purer essence will be summoned for the next and final major series of ceremonies. The nyekah, wherein the soul is returned to suarga-neraka. Just as the body’s elements have been returned to the bhuana agung.

Ngaben cremation in Bali, the Dapdap tree carried in the procession to the sea is considered magical because it grows so rapidly.
Ngaben cremation in Bali, Mr. A.A. Mangkling’s family members on the beach before releasing his spirit to the sea.
Ngaben cremation in Bali, the 5 elements of the body have been returned to the macrocosm whence they came.
Ngaben cremation in Bali, the spirit has been released to the sea where its impurities will fall as sediment.

Ngaben cremation in Bali process:

  1. Priest selects an auspicious day for the Ngaben, and announces the event in the village
  2. Village community members banjar make the bamboo stretcher for the first ritual
  3. First ritual, nyiramin layon the bathing of the corpse with holy water
  4. Body is decorated and placed on the cremation tower
  5. Corpse is transported to the cremation grounds by the banjar men
  6. At the cremation grounds the men spin the tower to confuse the spirits
  7. Cremation pyre is lit with a blessed torch and the ‘fire” ritual is under way
  8. Families collect the remaining ash and bone fragments
  9. Bone fragments are placed the inside of a coconut shell
  10. High Priest pedanda performs a series of mudras and chants to help release the soul
  11. Spirit is now released to the nearby ocean and returned to the elements

Heartfelt thanks:

Wayan Budiasa for the introduction to Mr. A.A. Mangkling’s family members. And for his input into the production of this photo essay – Ngaben cremation in Bali.

Yusa Arsana Putra, head of the family for allowing images to be made at the celebration of A.A. Mangkling’s life.

Fred B Eiseman JR’s book Bali Sekala & Niskala Essays on Religion, Ritual & Art.

In particular the chapter titled Cremation In Bali – Fiery Passage to the Afterlife was a helpful reliable source of information and helped fill in the details of this photo essay.

Family Portraits taken at the cremation celebration of Mr Mangklings life.

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Tahnia Roberts

Author Tahnia Roberts

Tahnia is a visual storyteller who uses photography to explore, investigate and document her surroundings. An avid collector of found objects which frequently become still life compositions. Black and white photography is her preferred medium. Born and raised in New Zealand, she currently resides in Kuala Lumpur - Malaysia.

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