I arrived in Lombok yesterday, taking the slow ferry from Padang Bai to Lembar, and then I travelled up to Senggigi, where I’m trying to finish these two posts on my Travel Journal before heading to one of the Gili Islands, where I suspect Internet access will be much more difficult to obtain.
My last week in Ubud, Bali, was so filled with social activities, I was invited to so many lunches, dinners and ceremonies, that I hardly had the time to write about it in this Travel Journal. So I will now try to tell you a little more, about the inspiring people I have met, on the cremation ceremony I attended, and how I ended up working a little at the ARMA Museum in Ubud.
Zanzan, my friend at the ARMA museum, took me around Ubud in the early morning, and we drove through tiny villages, past rice fields where people were planting or harvesting rice, through forests and landscapes that have inspired so many artists. Children in uniform going to school, whole families on one scooter, villagers working together to prepare for the cremation ceremonies that would be held on the auspicious day of Friday 22 October. Zanzan explained about religion and its influence on agriculture, about the layout of a village or living community, and together we admired the views that were so well captured by various painters, like Walter Spies. When we got back at ARMA, he treated me to an early lunch, and we talked about how Mr. Agung Rai had inspired Zanzan, and how this museum was set up only with the promotion and conservation of the culture of Bali in mind. In exchange for the insight into Bali life and culture that Zanzan had given me, I offered to help him a little with his laptop, and to share my ideas on how the museum could further promote Balinese culture, perhaps by applying for funding or sponsoring, and how to improve visitor attendance. That week, I ended up working quite a bit in the museum, making me realise that this might be something I would like to do when I’m not travelling, as a museum in general, and ARMA in particular, is such an inspiring place. I was invited to dance and music performances at the ARMA Open Stage, which were actually more amazing than the ones I had seen before, and I was intruiged by the jegog music, with elaborately decorated bamboo instruments. The more traditional kecak performance at ARMA’s Open Stage made the one that I had seen before at Padang Tegal, and which I have described in this journal, look tame and without passion in comparison. I had the honour of meeting Mr. Agung Rai, a very charismatic man, and his wife, during many occassions, and was invited to join them for dinner, gorgeous food at the Kafe ARMA, prepared by one of Bali’s greatest chefs, Deddy Kuswara. I was invited to join a Hindu blessing ceremony, where I too received the blessings with rose water, flowers and leaves you put behind your ears and in your head band, and the cermonial rice you place on your forehead.
Zanzan offered to show me one of the most important cremation ceremonies that would take place on Bali, near Ubud. On the morning of that Friday, I met a Mr. Khambata, a very interesting 68-year old man of Parsi-descent, who was born in Bombay and enjoyed the classical British education there, before moving to London to become a surgeon, which he practiced for almost 40 years. Upon retirement, he became a teacher to many visiting opera singers in London, on how to use their voice. He expressed jealousy of the fact that I’m doing what he had wanted to do all his life, visiting all those countries that I still have on my itinerary, which he has only been able to do in the past years or so. This again made me realise how fortunate I am, to be able to experience all this.
Together with two Taiwanese tourists, Mr. Khambata and I went to attend the cremation ceremony, or ngaben, which is central to Balinese Hinduism. It is a way for the children to pay their debt to the parent, who has nurtured and protected them during life. It is also extremely expensive, and a ceremony may be performed many months or years after someone has died. Sometimes, a whole village mounts a joint ngaben ceremony every few years, the preparations taking many months, and the remains of the people who have died in the mean time will be exhumed, cleaned, and then cremated.
To show respect, we were dressed in sarongs, wearing the traditional head band. We joined the procession, following an eight-tiered, approximately 15 meters tall ceremonial tower, or naga banda, constructed on a bamboo-pole platform, extravagantly decorated. The higher the tower, the more important the person for whom this cremation ceremony is mounted. The tower was carried by about 30 people, who were frequently sprayed with water along the way, as it was a very hot day and the tower must have been very heavy. They either moved with great speed, or stopped completely to allow for the raising of telephone cables, so the tower could pass through underneath. This wasn’t always successful, and the tower ripped many wires loose from their fixtures, depriving some homes temporarily of communication. In front of the procession, a large black bull was being carried, constructed of wood and covered with black velvet and gold, which would be used for the cremation itself. Behind us, another bull and a smaller tower followed, for a second ceremony. Everywhere, there was music, people laughed and made jokes, as in their Hindu tradition the passing of a loved one is a thing to celebrate, not to mourn. The procession turned a corner, and the tower was spun around and around several times, to confuse the evil spirits about its direction. Many onlookers including tourists gazed at this amazing display.
After a while we arrived at the temple courtyard where the cremation would take place, and the bull was placed in the center of the square. The hundreds of people installed themselves in the shade of a large community hall without walls, to look at the cremation. Vendors came selling pizza, ice-cream, drinks and other snacks, and people chatted, laughed, and met up with friends. The back of the bull was cut open, revealing the wooden frame. The remains of the deceased, wrapped in blankets, were removed from the tower and given to a family member. The tower was then discarded, and the family and close friends of the deceased formed a line, carrying the remains of the deceased wrapped in blankets, some of her favourite belongings and clothing, and many offerings, consisting of meat, flowers and fruits. They placed all this carefully inside the wooden animal, and the back was once again placed on the wooden frame. Prayers were said, and the bull was set alight. It didn’t take very long for the bull to be completely engulfed in flames, radiating an intense heat. When everything had been consumed by the fire, the ashes were collected and placed in what looked like a small chair, draped in silk, put among many elaborately decorated baskets with offerings. At a later point, the ashes would be scattered in the river, and it would take them to the sea, where the soul would be released. Having shed its body, the soul would proceed to the upper world, to wait for reincarnation, or for those who have attained spiritual purity, to be absorbed into nirvana.
Mr. Khambata had invited me to dinner, and many more would follow in the coming week, and we discussed this intruiging display of a culture and religion that is so unlike my own. Mr. Khambata is best described as a walking library of knowledge, and we discussed many issues including the differences between Balinese and Indian Hinduism, history, politics and literature.
I spent the last two nights in the luxurious ARMA Resort, courtesy of Zanzan, and marveled once again at the beauty of the gardens, the sound of water everywhere, mango and coconut trees, the smiles of the employees who all knew me by name, and in the distance a farmer working in the rice fields, a line of ducks following his every movement. My room was decorated with many hibiscus flowers, and the welcome message “To Mr Frezzo” was hand written on the petals of a white flower, placed on top of a basket with exotic fruit, which I thought was lovely.
I was quite sad to leave Ubud and my friends behind, but such is the nature of traveling. I know I will be back in Bali, who knows when, but my time there was the most inspiring I’ve had for many, many years.