For the average sun-seeking vacationer the idea of attending a cremation ceremony may be the least appealing thing. Admittedly, if I were anywhere else in the world I would not have been so keen on attending, however, I had seen the grandiose ceremony featured on an episode of Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, so I knew how special this occasion was.
To the Balinese, this is a day to celebrate. Freeing the soul to journey to the afterlife attracts villagers and tourists from far and wide. To us as tourists, the unadulterated display of tradition & customs is a Holy Grail experience. No amount of Barong dances and cultural village tours can get the heart of the people in the same manner.
The Day Before
When we checked into our hotel they suggested we leave no later than 10am for the ceremony that would get underway after noon. The electricity would be out as powerlines needed to be cut to make way for the funeral pyre that would be carried down the main street.
We headed into town to get a lay of the land and first peek at the funeral preparations.
Outside of the Royal Place, we saw many signs and flowers which must have been expressions of sympathy.
Just around the corner we spotted the completed bull sarcophagus, the massive funeral tower known as “bade” and a ramped tower that reminded me of a carnival slide.
The Royal Palace, residence of the royal family of Ubud, was closed off to the public but was buzzing with activity and traditional music inside.
Picking a Spot
We made our way to the main road, Jalan Raya Ubud and saw a line of spectators staking out spots on the shady side of the street near the Royal Palace. We turned and started to look for a good spot of our own along the parade route. One that offered shelter from the hot sun and a high vantage point so we wouldn’t be crushed as the crowd of spectators was ushered aside to make way for the procession.
We saw a retaining wall on the sunny side of the street and thought it would be a good elevated position, plus, we could sit and wait on the wall which continued down a relatively shady street. It would turn out that this was a choice location as the procession would be turning down this street and ending within a block from where we were standing.
A large crowd gathered on the street and rooftops. Street vendors were happy to have the captive audience to peddle their sarongs, statues, and drinks.
A few sour face tourists huffed through the crowd with suitcases in tow as they made their way to check into their accommodation.
Locals were dressed in their finest Balinese lace and their made-up faces were impermeable to sweat. We, on the other hand, looked like we ran through a sprinkler as we patiently waited in the midday sun.
The First Procession
A fire truck drove down the street to spray water on the route the procession would take, a cleansing ritual I presume. The street was cleared of people to make way for the first of two funeral processions that day.
We heard shouts and drums, then spotted the massive bull being carried by local village men wearing sarongs. A young man was riding the bull, as half dozen boys sat at the feet, adding to the already crushing weight of the structure.
The band followed the bull, banging cymbals, drums, and gongs.
Behind them, women carried offerings on their heads.
Last was the tower holding the body, mounted on a bamboo platform and held by the village men. The height of the tower signifies cast and this one was much smaller than the one we had seen the previous day.
The Royal Procession
First, the ramp tower made its way down the road, fitted perfectly to the back of a truck. Bamboo scaffolding was draped in white cloth and the sides were draped in decorative cloth. Several men stood on each side directing it safely through the crowd.
Next, a sea of purple filled the streets. Women wearing lace blouses and turquoise sarongs carried offerings and fanned themselves from the heat.
Behind them, men carried long poles with umbrellas, tassels and what looked like feather dusters.
Two golden-crowned women were carried like homecoming queens on chairs resting on the shoulders of several men.
Behind them, hundreds of men in black and white checkered sarongs walked the street playing music and cheering.
Whistles blew to move the onlookers back to make way for the giant bull making its way down the street. The craftsmanship and detail were impeccable and hard to believe this work of art would soon be up in smoke. Hundreds of village men shared the honor of running it down the street several hundred yards before switching off to a waiting relief crew.
Following the bull were hundreds of other men in purple shirts, perhaps they were already relieved of their posts.
The massive multi-tiered bade was making its way down the road. Men perched at the front like they were on a Mardi Gras float. Underneath, hundreds of men shared the burden of the oppressive weight of what equated to a small building being carried on their shoulders. Their faces grimaced with pain as they turned to position the tower for the final stretch of road before the resting place.
As the tower passed, a monstrous face looked back at us. A mass of onlookers followed the procession and we hopped off the wall to join them.
The Royal Cremation
What felt like the full population of Ubud surrounded us, waiting and watching what will happen next. The tower was carefully lined up with the ramp and men took positions on either side where they would be handing off the casket.
But first, let me take a selfie. Professional photographers are on hand to capture the festive celebration.
The crowd thinned out as the minutes grew but eventually the body was moved to the final resting place inside the bull sarcophagus.
The royal family made their way up the platform for final offerings and blessings.
As a sign of the times, two drowns buzzed overhead. While we waited, we admired the intricate details of the tower and rested our feet, as did some members of the royal family.
The family was carefully guided downed the draped steps and their grief-stricken faces were the first time we saw sadness and was a reminder of the gravity of the situation. Among all the crowds and revelry leading up to this moment, it was easy to lose sight of what was really happening.
The staircase was pulled back and we saw the bull was now draped with several sheets.
Final preparations were made and the bull was engulfed in an orange flame. Debris from the fire rained down on the onlookers and in less than five minutes it was all over.
The next day the ashes would be brought to the sea and the cycle of birth, death and rebirth would repeat.
Sometimes death comes from being in the wrong place at the right time. This time, death brought us to the right place at the right time, to experience one of the most spectacular cultural events we’ve ever witnessed.
Here are some of the video highlights of the parade and the ceremony.