Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Eleven-tier cremation tower for the ngaben ceremony of Ubud royal family, 2015 © I Gde Pitana

Cremation Ceremony, Returning Borrowed Elements to Nature

Numerous ritual ceremonies are under the theme of rite de passage among the Balinese Hindu community. One of the most complicated and exotic is the ritual death ceremony known as ngaben or pelebon (cremation ceremony).

In Balinese Hindu belief, all components of the human body are borrowed from nature and classified into five main elements called panca mahabuthapertiwi (soil, solid component), apah (water, fluid component), teja (fire, energy), bayu (air), and akasa (ether, void). As such, the physical human body is seen as a mirror of nature that is enlivened by atman (soul).

When someone dies, the borrowed elements must be returned to nature. Only after the return can the soul be released to heaven. The fastest and best way to return these elements is by burning.
Since ngaben is the last ceremony dedicated to the dead (mostly to the elder of a family), it has become intricate, complicated, and costly. Before the 1970s, it was not uncommon for farmers to sell their land for the sake of ngaben. Later, after guidance from religious authorities, the ngaben ceremony was simplified; although extravagant ngaben is still practiced among rich families.

Raw and Symbolic Ngaben

For wealthy families, the ngaben ceremony can be done right after the death of the family member. In other words, the dead are directly and ceremonially burned, which can be quite expensive because the family must pay all costs. This kind of ngaben is also practiced for religious or customary leaders, such as a village priest, temple priest, or high priest.

If a family doesn’t have resources to do ngaben, the dead are buried. Some years later, after the family secures enough money, the bones are dug up and collected to be burned in a ngaben ceremony. In most cases, the bones are not literally collected but replaced by a sandalwood effigy symbolizing the dead.

Individual and Mass Ngaben

For raw ngaben, all associated costs are a family burden. To reduce the burden, the village or groups of extended families, or a maxima-clan in the village, organize a mass cremation (ngaben massal). Here, those whose family members were buried organize a ngaben ceremony together and share the costs. This reduces the individual cost, as the needed materials can be made for all the dead. This is the most popular ngaben practice in Bali.

Complicated Procedures

The procedures are principally the same for all ngaben. It mainly consists of two stages: 1) burning the physical body and 2) burning the spiritual body, called nyekah. This staging is based on the belief that the body has three layers: physical body, spiritual body, and the permanent soul. The first stage (the ngaben) aims to burn the physical body while the second stage is to burn the spiritual body so that the permanent soul can go to heaven to receive rewards and punishment before being reborn into the world.

Eleven-tier cremation tower for the ngaben ceremony of Ubud royal family, 2015 © I Gde Pitana

Before burning the body and throwing the ashes into the sea or river, ngaben starts with cleansing the dead. The cleansing ritual is complicated, detailed, and full of symbols. It is concerned with all parts of the body and the wishes on how the parts are expected to be in future reincarnations. For example, a mirror is put on the eyes to wish that in future reincarnations, his/her eyes will be clear. The white garment used to cover the corpse, called kajang, is also unique because different clans have different sacred formulas that must be written on the garment.

The most exotic part of ngaben ceremony is the cremation tower construction, called wadah or bade. Every clan has its own “right” with regard to the number of tower tiers, whether five, seven, nine, or eleven tiers. This tower is merely a property to transfer the corpse from the house to the cemetery.

At the cemetery, another exotic property is placed—the burning coffin, called patulangan. The form and color of the burning coffin varies by clan. Popular ones are white bull, black bull, red lion, and elephant-headed fish, and the most prestigious is the dragon (nagabanda). As these properties are very heavy (sometimes dozens of tons), hundreds of people are needed to move them from the house to the ceremony. This exotic performance is a famous tourist attraction in Bali.

After the corpse is burnt, the bones are collected, crushed to ash, put into a young coconut, and thrown in to the sea in a special ritual. This is the end of the first stage.

The second stage, nyekah, starts by inviting the soul from the sea, burning the soul, throwing the ash into the sea (or river), inviting the soul back, taking the soul to a number of temples, and putting the soul in the family temple.

On an auspicious day in a special ceremony, the soul is invited to sit on an effigy made of banyan leaves. Similar to the first stage, this effigy is burned, and the ash is put into a young coconut and thrown into the sea. This symbolizes washing away the spiritual body to purify the soul. Afterward, the purified soul is invited back, to sit on a prepared effigy and taken on a pilgrimage to a number of temples; most will visit Besakih Temple, the mother temple of Bali. Coming from the pilgrimage, the soul is put into family shrines. Now, the soul’s status has changed from a human soul to “universal shine,” deva or betara, a life that exists above humans. All descendants pay homage to this betara on auspicious days or during holy days.

Although philosophically the cremation ceremony is simply to return nature’s borrowed elements; in reality, this is the most complicated religious ritual found in Bali, and in most cases, it is a showcase of one’s power or prestige in the community.