Temples, a wedding, a royal cremation, plus dessert
Before we left for Bali, I bought an audiobook called History of Bali: A Captivating Guide to Balinese History and the Impact This Island Has Had on the History of Indonesia and Southeast Asia. The title is long, but the audiobook is short—about three hours. Also, it’s part of a series from a company called Captivating Guide, but if I’m being honest, the audiobook is more interesting than captivating. I bought the audiobook because I wanted to level-up my knowledge in order to ask better questions while visiting Bali. Nerd alert.
By mentioning my extracurricular reading, I’m trying to sound smart, but in the interest of full-disclosure, I need to tell you that when it comes to Bali, I am dumb. Really dumb. I know, for example, that Indonesia is a Muslim country, but that Bali is majority Hindu. I know that the Dutch colonized the Indonesian archipelago, but I had no idea that this region—wedged between the mainland of Asia and Oceania—was once part of the Majapahit Empire, which included modern day Indonesia, as well as parts of Malaysia and the Philippines. And like any good Anthony Bourdain fan, I know that Bali is one of those places where the food tells the story of a cultural exchange that has played out over more than a thousand years.
But something I didn’t quite realize before coming to Bali was that this island, which is undoubtably influenced by the cultures that have come here to conquer, to trade, to convert, and to exploit, is above all else, unwaveringly Balinese. You could fill a library with books about what it means to be Balinese. I am in no way qualified to write any of those books. But the more Christina and I explore this island, the more I’ve come to understand that even the most powerful forces the world throws at Bali—religion, war, colonialism—can’t disrupt the essential nature of what it means to be Balinese.
That lesson came to me slowly over a few days, courtesy of our guide, Giri. On our first day together, I asked Giri what impact the Dutch had on Bali.
“Not much in the grand scheme of things,” he said. “The Dutch came to trade. They didn’t convert us to Christianity. Maybe they didn’t care, or maybe we didn’t care. Bali adapted because Bali adapts, but now the Dutch are gone, and we’re still here.”
“But before the Dutch, there were Muslim traders?”
“Yes, there are a few Muslims here, but mostly no. In Indonesia, yes, lots of Muslims. But in Bali, no.”
“So Hinduism is dominant?”
“Yes and no. We are Hindu, but…”
Initially, I understood the “but” as an asterisk, like how Catholics in Spain are different from Catholics in Ireland, but nonetheless, Catholic. But in Bali, religion hits different. A Hindu from India would recognize the gods, the customs, and the stories of Balinese Hinduism, but it’s not the same. Before Indian traders brought Hinduism to Bali, the Balinese practiced an animistic religion, and honestly, they still do. I’m not a theologian or an anthropologist, but in terms anyone reading this on the internet should be able to understand, the Balinese have their own hardware and firmware, but they’re currently running a version of Hindu software.
“The genius of polytheism,” Giri explained, “is that there’s room for everything—other gods, other ideas, other myths. We are Hindu, I think, because there’s room for Balinese traditions too.”
Those traditions, I’m learning, vary from village to village across Bali. At Goa Lawah temple, for example, Giri explained that he would have to wait outside.
“I cannot enter this temple because someone from my village died recently,” Giri said. “For other Balinese, they must wait three days, but my village, for some reason, we must wait ten days. The young people want to make it three days to wait, but the old people won’t change. I think when they’re gone, we’ll change that.”
The more we talked to Giri, the more we realized how central religion is to his life. But when I mentioned that to him, he rejected the word religion.
“Community,” he said. “Community is the word. That is what matters. That is how we live. We don’t necessarily believe the stories. They’re myths. But we learn the values. That’s what’s most important.”
We found out what Giri meant by community and values when we asked him if he could show us around the following day.
“Sorry, no. A man in my village is getting married.”
The groom wasn’t related to Giri and they weren’t really friends, but Giri explained, everyone in the village participates. Weddings, like everything else in the village, are a community project.
“I am security,” Giri explained. “We stand outside the wedding and direct traffic.”
“So you’re not invited to the wedding?” Christina asked.
“I am invited. He invited eight hundred people. I’ll go and sit with him for a little, eat some food. But then I need to be outside to help direct traffic.”
“Do people drink at Balinese weddings?” Christina asked.
“No. Well… the security drinks. We sit outside and drink beer while we direct traffic. It’s fun.”
We got the hint. The next day, we took time off from sightseeing, got massages, swam in our hotel pool, and with talk of weddings in the air, celebrated our eleventh anniversary at Room for Dessert, Will Goldfarb’s farm-to-table restaurant in Ubud, where guests feast on a twenty-one course dessert menu.
The day after the wedding, Giri picked us up to visit some more temples. But as we pulled away from our hotel, he told us we were lucky.
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“A member of the royal family died and they will cremate him today.”
Luck didn’t quite seem like the right word, but Giri insisted that a couple of tourists stopping by wouldn’t be an imposition, or weird, or even sad. Also, he explained, the deceased was a member of the royal family of Gianyar Regency (the district where Ubud is located), and that there are a lot of royals in Bali, so it’s not like a really famous or powerful person died. Basically, it was just going to be a big-budget example of a Balinese cremation, which is the ritual for most—but not all!—Balinese villages when someone dies.
“If it won’t be weird, I guess we can go,” Christina said.
And so we went. And it wasn’t weird. Actually, it was beautiful.
The idea of the ceremony—which is known as Ngaben, Pitra Yadyna, or Pelebon, is to release the soul of a dead person so that it can enter the upper realm. Depending on how the dead person lived, their soul is either reborn, or liberated from the rebirth cycle. To release the soul, they burn a cremation tower known as a wadah.
We were welcome to stay for the ceremony, but Giri explained that it would take all day. First, two hundred men carry the tower roughly two miles to the cremation site, then there’s praying, then they burn the tower, then everyone goes home, then the family goes to a temple in the mountains for a blessing, before taking the ashes to the sea.
There’s a lot going on here, and honestly, I’m not in any position to explain the rituals, let alone the meaning of the rituals. But what I can say is that it’s a good thing the whole community is involved because a Balinese cremation is a lot of work. It’s also something that impacts everyone in the community, even if they’re not directly involved in the cremation ceremony.
“The electric company is here,” Giri said. “Because the tower is higher than the power lines, they will cut the lines so the tower can pass.”
“They cut the lines?” I asked. “What about the people who need power?”
“They lose power,” Giri said. “But then they put a new line up right away. Maybe it takes thirty minutes, or an hour. No big deal.”
Where Christina and I come from, I’ve seen motorists honk at a funeral procession just to express their frustration at being delayed by a few minutes. Our neighbors don’t invite us to their weddings. And the temples are neither postcard-worthy, nor are they open for the community to use whenever they need to.
We come from Los Angeles, California, USA. Whatever it is we’re bringing to Bali, I get the sense that we’re just passing through, that Balinese who welcome us with open arms are happy to see what we have to offer, but if it doesn’t fit into their community, it won’t change Bali, not in any meaningful way anyway.
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The contrast in attitudes on funeral traffic is well-observed. I hope the rest of the journey is as eye-opening (with fewer deaths required, of course). Enjoy Bali!
I like the idea of an area that’s rooted in practicality. I remember going to Jamaica in the 70s and the electricity went off. The restaurant just used flashlights to lead us to our table in their hills and left us in the dark. We couldn’t see our meal but it was delicious.