Monday, July 11, 2011

Ngaben, The Cremation Ceremony in Bali

Ngaben, or Cremation Ceremony, is the ritual performed in Bali to send the deceased to the next life. The body of the deceased will be placed as if sleeping, and the family will continue to treat the deceased as sleeping. No tears are shed during the ceremony, because death is considered temporary and the deceased will either reincarnate or find his final rest in Moksha (free from the reincarnation and death cycle).

To decide the proper day for the ceremony the family would consult a priest. On the decided day, the body of the deceased will be placed inside a coffin. This coffin is placed inside a sarcophagus resembling a buffalo (Lembu) or in a temple structure (Wadah) made of paper and wood. The shape, size, and elaborateness of the sarcophagus varies according to the social and financial status of the family. The sarcophagus will then be carried to the cremation site in a procession. The procession will move in a winding pattern to confuse bad spirits and keep them away from the deceased.

The climax of Ngaben is the burning of the whole structure, together with the body of the deceased. The fire, together with the chanting of priests is believed to be able to free the spirit (atma) from the body, cleanse it and enable reincarnation.

Not all deceased is allowed a ngaben ceremony. One such exception is an infant (indicated by not yet having any teeth), because they are believed to be free of sin and so does not require the ceremony to reincarnate.

Ngaben is not always immediately performed. For higher caste members it is normal to perform the ritual within 3 days. For lower caste members the deceased are buried first and later, often in a group ceremony for the whole village, cremated. This practice of mass cremation is the reason that now there seems a certain time within a year (usually between June and August) that is considered the Ngaben season.

Various Sarcophagus

A low caste sarcophagus

Mass Cremation
 The Procession

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Saput Poleng

All over Bali you will see black and white checkered cloth draped over trees, statues, and worn by people in ceremonies. This special cloth is called saput poleng in the local language and is considered somewhat sacred.

In a literal sense saput means blanket or cloth and poleng means two-colored. But when Balinese say Saput poleng they are not referring to any two-colored cloth because this black and white checkered cloth has a special spiritual meaning and is used only on certain locations and worn only by certain people on certain events.

To understand the philosophical meaning behind Saput Poleng we must first understand a little about Bali Hinduism. Balinese believe that there are 3 spiritual layers (mandalas), the outer layer (jaba mandala), the middle layer (madya mandala), and the inner layer (utama mandala). These 3 layers are also evident in the architectures of Balinese temples (pura), and even homes.

The outermost layer of Balinese spiritualism is an area where the difference between "black and white" is still visible and obvious. Those that can easily differentiate between good and evil, right and wrong, happiness and sorrow are considered to have a spiritual level that is still within the outer layer. They are easily swayed between 2 opposites. That is why this cloth is only used in the outer area of Balinese temples.

The deeper someone's spiritual understanding gets the less obvious is the lines between 'black and white". They can see that sorrow is part of happiness, find enlightenment in past mistakes, understand that nothing is truly bad, and can accept both sorrow and joy as God's gift.

Saput Poleng is draped over statues and buildings located in the outer area. It is also worn by people during ceremonies that takes place in the outer area.
Sometimes you can see it draped over a tree on the side of the road. In this case it is used to mark the tree to show that a spirit resides within it. This shows that Bali Hinduism also incorporates animism. The locals who understand what the Saput Poleng signifies would often pay their respect in some ways when they past this tree. Someone driving past it would dim their lights or say a quick prayer, some would rather go around it. Balinese believe that failure to do so could anger the spirit inside the tree and give them bad luck. Unfortunately this is not known to most tourists, so the next time you are in Bali you might want to look out for one of these cloths draped in odd places.