In Bali, people say that life is only a preparation for the life beyond. The happiest moment, they say, is when the soul is freed from its material body, and returns to heaven. And heaven, they say, is no different from Bali, except that no one suffers from sickness or death. Bali is a jewel in in the Indonesian archipelago, halfway between Australia and Singapore. It’s a small island, about the size of Cypress or Hawaii. It is unique, for her 2.5 million people follow the Bali Hindu religion.
The early morning ducks are off to the rice fields, where they will spend the day stirring up and fertilizing the soil. The flag at the end of the pole will serve as the centre of their busy universe, keeping them together until their shepherd guides them home again at dusk.
The Balinese have been confronted with Europe since Marco Polo visited in the 13th century, yet they have been little impressed by its glittering promises. Perhaps because their spiritual and material lives are so harmoniously integrated. It would never occur to a Balinese that he is alone in the world; his family, his ancestors and his gods embrace him wherever he goes. Artistic invention is a way of life among the Balinese; the continuity of the traditional crafts is assured and stimulated by the demands of their religion.
It is the inherited duty of the Balinese to liberate the souls of his parents through cremation and ritual purification. His tower represents the cosmos, the layered roof is heaven, the base is controlled by the forces of the underworld. Between the two, as in life, the remains of the material world are placed, wrapped carefully in white linen. A wealthy man is being cremated: the ceremony is modest. Because of the expense, and because one must wait until an auspicious day, the body is often buried before the ceremony takes place. The bull, which will be the man’s sarcophagus, and the tower, are whirled to confuse the soul, so that it will not, in a moment of longing, try to return to its household. This is a joyous moment, the place of cremation has been reached, and the remains will be transferred to the bull. Here, after prayers and the sprinkling of holy water, the last vestiges of earthly life will be submitted to the purifying flames.
Ninety percent of Balinese work on the land. They are good farmers, and with two crops a year, they grow more than enough food to feed themselves. Rice is as important to the spiritual life as it is to the physical. In Bali, music and ritual are everywhere. The magic of the Gamelan Orchestra accompanies every function, even in the smallest village. Each day, girls and women gather in the rivers and collect gravel which is sold for making cement. A few cents is all this heavy work might bring, but it will be carefully put away to insure cremation and the passage of the soul to the spirit world. Children are sacred in Bali. Having just emerged from the spirit world, they are considered holy until the age of six or seven. Boys with music in them begin to play in the Gamelan Orchestra as soon as they are able to. A gifted teacher will guide them, although there are no formal lessons and the notes have never been written down. The infectious, hypnotic melodies are learned almost instinctively.
It has been a year now since the Rajah of Ubud, Tjokorda Gde Agung Sukawati, was first cremated. Tjokorda Agung was so well loved by the people of Ubud that they built him an enormous cremation tower, 21 metres high, carried by 150 men during his first cremation. And now, his eldest son, Tjokorda Puhtra, and his family are responsible for the Malegia, the second cremation, which will assure the final purification of his father’s soul. The festivities will last a week; before they can begin, water must be brought from a sacred spring. Like fire, holy water must be used in all the vital acts of purification. Tjokorda Puhtra has asked over 150 other families, who could not have afforded such a celebration, to have their relatives’ ashes purified along side those of Tjokorda Agung.
Outside the sacred grounds, offerings of incense, flowers, coins and grains of rice keep the evil spirits away. Offerings are placed on a platform, and to be certain the demons are satisfied, an exorcist priest, skilled at dispersing malevolent spirits, dedicates each of the gifts to the underworld. They say that the spirits consume only the essence of each offering: village priests release this essence with holy water and prayers. It is a crucial moment –the balance of the cosmos between the forces of good and evil are temporarily in man’s hands. The platform is torn apart by men from neighboring villages: the offerings are theirs as a pure gift from the participants for the spirits have taken what they want.
The natural world, they say, is held enthralled by two opposing forces: those beneficial to man and those destructive to man. The most common drama represents the cosmic struggle between the Barong, a symbol of goodness, and Rangda, a widow witch who commands the forces of evil. Only the power of the Barong can keep the knives of these trance dancers from piercing their hearts.
All night, the celebrations continue. The gods demand constant attention and devotion, and they are likely to be generous if inspired by subtle and delicate entertainment. It is from the heavens above, Besakih, Mother Temple of Balinese, that the divine spirits and ancestors are invited down to take part in the ritual ceremonies that strengthen the vital forces of their people. Offerings to all spirits, both good and evil, are a way of life in Bali. No one would think of going to work in the morning without thanking the gods for their bountiful gifts, or making sure that the spirits of darkness were appeased.
A cremation demands highly intricate rice paste offerings decorated with fruit and flowers. One works for weeks, and the effect is momentary. But it is felt that a small portion at least of what is given to man should be returned to the gods. For days now, participants have been readying their poospahs, the vessels which are the representations of their relatives’ souls to their final cremation and release. These elaborate effigies contain small objects, usually associated with the deceased, and to which his or her soul is still attached. The colours of purification are white and gold.
Before the procession of 200 souls can begin, the village priests sprinkle holy water over the congregation. Three times they make their way around the central platform, while the high priest guides them with prayers. Through a traditional use of ritual hand gestures and mantras, bell ringing and hymns, the priests, or pedandas, temporarily achieve unity with God, interceding on behalf of the worshipers. This historical romance is performed especially to amuse the gods; if the gods are happy, they say, then the people will be happy.
An important event in the young life of a man or a woman is the ritual tooth filing. All Balinese, regardless of caste or family, hope for this special honour. The participants must be specially prepared and dressed in full ceremonial clothing. Eighty of Tjokorda Puhtra’s family members will have their teeth filed during the purification ceremony: a great privilege which adds to the happiness of the occasion. The pedanda presides, and again asks for divine complicity in purifying the participants. It is said that after cremation if your teeth are not evenly filed, the gods might mistake you for a fanged demon and deny your soul entrance to the spirit world. Tooth filing has a purpose here on earth: they say it will diminish the six evil qualities of human nature, these being desire, greed, anger, intoxication, indecision and jealousy.
The final day has arrived: over a thousand people gather on the beach. There is an air of excitement and high anticipation. The procession moves toward the sea. Seven golden towers, carried by the villagers, recall the great tower of the first cremation. Great care must be taken at this stage to ensure that all participants have been purified, and that the souls which are about to be released will not, at the moment of liberation, be molested by the forces of evil. It is a joyous and peaceful occasion, with an undercurrent of something magical –something trancelike, almost otherworldly– about it. The music, the incense, the ringing of the bells cast a spell over the crowd. The final purifications must be made with fire and water; the remains will be burned, and the ashes carried out to sea. Dejcorda Agung’s ashes are ground up with holy water, and a blessing placed on the foreheads of each member of his family.
This is the day that has been long awaited: Tjokorda Agung’s soul, liberated from all earthly impurities, is now free to enter the heights of the many layered heaven, and to take his place among the deified ancestors in the household temple. Although this is a joyous moment, for some the strain is too much. It is not common to show emotion on such occasions, but in the case of a great man such as Tjokorda Agung, it can perhaps be forgiven. Two pedandas were overcome by emotion and tears: they saw Tjokorda Agung, out there, in white, very happy and surrounded by crowds of people.