A.A. Mangkling’s Ngaben, Bali

The Hindu-Balinese believe the body is impure, a temporary shell, having no significance at all, except as a container of the soul and its anchor to the earth. All thoughts at the time of death are concentrated upon the spirit and its passage to heaven. The body is just there to be disposed of, and, instead of grieving, the Balinese prefer to throw a great celebration, in the process hastening their dead friend’s soul to oneness with god.

Community working together for Mr A.A.Mangkling's ngaben in Bali
Community members working together to make the bamboo stretcher.

The village community members banjar work together to make the bamboo stretcher for the first ritual, nyiramin layon the bathing of the corpse.

The head of the family, and assistant to the priestess, is making the sandalwood effigy, which is then wrapped in a cloth and decorated.

Head of the family making the effigy
Making the sandalwood effigy.

The body is bought from the families ritual building to be placed on the stretcher for bathing.

Holy water bought from the High Priestess’s home will cleanse spiritual impurities, fend off evil forces, and render the recipient immune to attacks of negative, or demonic, influences. In Bali, holy water is not a symbol, or something abstract, it is a sekala container of niskala power, and, as such, is sacred and holy in and of itself.

The body is decorated. Leaves are placed on the eyebrows to ensure a good shape so he will be good looking upon his return, a white colour flower is placed inside his nose to make him fragrant, gold signifies happiness, joy and positive thinking. The string benang from his head to toe is nice and straight symbolising a good person.

Women work for several weeks on preparing the offerings which will provide symbolic pleasure to the deified ancestors and to the spirit that will be shortly released to God. They satisfy the hunger of the evil spirits, the bhutas and kalas, who stand greedily by, ready to interfere in mans every activity. Most important, however, the offerings will implore God to purify the spirit and return it to earth in an appropriately higher and purer form.

The body is placed on the cremation tower wadah or hade ready for transportation to the cremation grounds by the banjar men. The procession is led by a young man carrying the ceremonial knife kris which has magic powers.

The long white cloth, the lancingan, stretched above the heads of a train of people is a symbol of attachment, and the connection/relationship to the family. The stuffed bird amnuk dewata symbolises the purified soul that the still unclean spirit will soon become.

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Cremation tower.

At the cremation grounds the banjar men spin the tower around, in order to confuse the spirit and make it lose its way so that it cannot return and haunt the family.

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In the Hindu-Balinese cosmology, the body of man is but a microcosm of the universe, made up of the same five elements: air, earth, fire, water, and space. These constitute, temporarily, a place for atman, the immortal soul. On the cloth is a drawing of the microcosm.

The fires are ignited by a blessed torch and the element ‘fire’ ritual is now underway, the medium by which the body is offered up as a last sacrifice.  The tower, and all of the other accessory objects are separately burned.

When the fires have died down, family members collect scraps of ash and bone from the body. Bone fragments are placed inside the yellow coconut and then it is wrapped and decorated.

The effigy is assembled on a bamboo frame about 40 cm high. The conical base is covered with leaves from a sacred banyan tree, collected in a special ceremony, and symbolising the fire that will release the atman from the sekah. The leaves must be arranged concave side down for a male effigy, the opposite for a female. The effigy is decorated with special dried flowers and a fan-shaped background, similar to the adegan of a cremation. It is then wrapped in white, decorated with gold leaves, and placed in a special shrine on a silver tray.

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The high priest pedanda performs a series of mudras, or hand gestures using his bell and other paraphernalia such as a brazier. These chants will help the release of the soul and aid it on its journey.

A dapdap tree carried in the procession to the sea is considered magical because it grows so rapidly.

Now the five elements of the body have been returned to the macrocosm whence they came, and the spirit has been released to the sea where its impurities will fall as sediment, and from which its purer essence will be summoned for the next and final major series of ceremonies, the nyekah, wherein the soul is returned to suarga-neraka, just as the body’s elements have been returned to the bhuana agung.

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Spirit being released to the sea.

Wayan Budiasa for the introduction to Mr. A.A. Mangkling’s family members, and for his input into the production of this photo essay.

Yusa Arsana Putra, head of the family, for allowing images to be made at the celebration of A.A. Mangkling’s life.

Fred B Eiseman JR’s book Bali Sekala & Niskala” Essays on Religion, Ritual and Art, in particular the chapter titled Cremation In Bali – Fiery Passage to the Afterlife which was a very reliable source of information and helped fill in the details of this photo essay.

 

About Tahnia Roberts

A Kuala Lumpur based photographer, Tahnia loves telling stories with photography. She contributes to several platforms for photography and arts, and has received acknowledgement from FWA Photo and other publications on several occasions.

5 Comments

  1. I really like your Hindu Balinese cremation story and am surprised to learn that there are quite a few similar beliefs to Buddhism. Thank you for sharing 🙂

  2. Fantastic!

  3. I found this story very interesting, a good photo journalism piece creating a well told piece. Getting personal with something like a funeral can be tricky however you seem to have caught all of the emotional elements well. well done, regards, Jay

  4. awesome and unique collection of sequence photography i love it.
    Thank for sharing

  5. I am in your Coursera class and just wanted to tell you how beautiful your pictures are and how much of a pleasure it was to read through the details for each process. I’ve always found other cultures fascinating, and this was a great way to learn about the rich details of a Balinese cremation. Keep up with the amazing work!

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