Cremation in India, `Ngaben` in Bali

Towering: Almost like a Ojia Board, while none of the bearers are in control, all of the bearers are in control - giving the tower the spooky sense of being willed towards its destination.

From behind a fence of blackened sticks at the Ganges riverbank in the ancient city of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, northern India, I watched the body of a deceased older woman being burned down to almost nothing.

As the heat of the scorching fire filled the air, I lifted a corner of my shirt to my nose against the smoke, wincing.

Hair white and whisked, lips pursed and dry, eyes closed and perfectly still, the body smoldered down to a blackened pelvis, prodded with the fire tender’s pole.

“The men burn all the way down to rib cages, while the women burn all the way down to pelvises. In the end, those things are all that's left,” a trying guide had tempted me with details.
“The river bed is full of them – pelvises and rib cages,” he added.
In the same month, I witnessed another cremation being held eight thousands kilometers away on the island of Bali in Indonesia.

Similar to India, Bali is also a Hindu stronghold renowned for its wealth of local cultures and religious rites.
Nowadays, Hinduism is no longer a foreign entity in Bali. Over the two millennia since it was first introduced into the island, the religion has come into its own, with a wealth of differences – both big and small – from the Hindu in India.

One thing, though, stays mostly the same: the cremation process of the dearly departed, or "ngaben", as the ritual is called in the Island of the Gods.

There I was in Keramas village in Bali's east coast – a lone foreign man with a camera in my hand struggling to keep up with all the bustles of an elaborate village cremation.
The shrouded body of a deceased man was carried on a litter a down a road, accompanied by a procession of his extended family.

The twenty men struggling to bring the pyre down the road were walking symbols of the support the deceased one received from his community. The strain and swagger of the towering structure seemed to dramatize the soul's journey to a better place.

Two meters above everybody, straddling the shrouded corpse, eight-year-old Agus, the deceased’s nephew, looked out over the chaotic parade.
In the shade of an old-growth tree with lush leaves, the procession circled around a few times before delivering the pyre to the burning fields. The traditional gamelan orchestra kept a steady up-tempo, bringing a cartoon-like energy to the scene.

The purpose of this circling walk may seem a little bit odd at first: the family, keeping down any wish to have the deceased “return”, disorients his body.
This “dance of the dead” may seem to clash with western ideas, but it makes sense if you just let it sink in for a while.

Why, after all, would you want your departed loved one to repeat all the grueling experiences of life on earth?

Through the circling procession, the body was delivered towards real peace, and the soul is given liberation from rebirth or Moksa in the local tongue.
Hands rose to withdraw the corpse from the pyre and to put it inside a sarcophagus shaped as a red-colored fanged and winged cow, which is then pumped full of vaporous gas.
The torches were then brought in and the family members gathered around. The sarcophagus was then set on fire.

Thick smoke rose up to choke some whirling doves and the coffin crackled and smouldered for hours.
Afterwards, the ashes are neatly contained in a smaller pyre which would deliver the grey matter into the ocean.

pedanda (high priest) then led a prayer for the departed soul, before the extended family moved seaward.

The crowd of five families and five pyres at the beach, nearing a hundred people, was not unanimously somber. Children borrowed phones to play games, men smoked kretek (clove cigarettes) and made small talk, ate a late dinner of nasi jinggo – but the intimacy of that moment, the family’s last time as a complete unit, put a damper on the usual gaiety.

The pyres and ashes were pushed out to the sea, before the five families broke off in silence beneath the rhythmic hiss of the waves.

Turning from the ocean, each person lifted their right hand, flipping it frontwards, backwards, frontwards - giving the royal wave as if waving goodbye to the departed who was off on a seafaring voyage.

Like a node at the end of a branch on a tall tree, for family, this was finality, closure. Like a teenager going to their bedroom after hours of tearing their throat out at their parents, there was sweet catharsis.

Everyone then pulled away from the beach in a contented, speechless convoy of motorcycles, with the women sitting sideways in ceremonial kebaya dresses on the bikes' backseats.
The din of Bali`s bustling, ceremonial spirit continued coloring the humid night.

(Photo by Did Arthur)
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