Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, January 1999)

The Balinese way of dying: part 83

Forced to return to my New-Balinese roots, I experience for the first time, first-hand the Balinese way of grieving :
It has been fifteen years since I last slept at my adopted Balinese home, the Geria Kepaon, a small Brahman compound on the outskirts of a sleepy rural fiefdom. During the years 1975-1983 I lived at the Geria as one of seven siblings.
Although a ring-in I was never made feel different, nor allowed to- I had to sweep the courtyard floor and tend the fields like the rest of the teenagers and was rewarded with a table load of offerings, like my brothers and sisters, every Balinese oton birthday.
I had my teeth filed there, learnt about religion from my Balinese mum, an offering-merchant, and, particularly, came of age as a New-Balinese, thanks to the gently guiding hand of Ida Bagus Ngurah Susila (Gus Ngurah) alias “the Satay seller”. In the compound ¾ in those days housing two brothers in their late fifties and their descendants - ‘Gus Ngurah’ was a bit of an ugly duckling, surrounded by Prince Valiant (Gus Rai) and other long-limbed beauties. He was also corny and not too bright, but everyone loved him, because he was a true Brahman - i.e. gently coercive and true of faith, with giant hunks of humility.
From my earnings as a tennis coach and gardener to the gentrified, I put Gus Susila through Theological College: I was as surprised as anyone to see him graduate, with honours, and with a new-found determination to be his village’s first pedanda (high priest).
By the mid-eighties I was busy gallivanting around while the other brother of our team, the matinee idolesque Gus Rai, learning to run a bank: the others…………gardeners at the Bali Hyatt. It was Gus Ngurah who was holding down the fort ¾ practicing madly to be a priest, puppet master and tooth-filer.
By the early nineties, Gus Ngurah had three children, Gus Rai four (I had been unlucky in love) and the once quiet compound had become a baby factory, bulging at the seams, with in-laws and displaced Brahmans. As the ‘roving ATM’ I kept my visits during this period brief, but timely ¾ the prerogative of the prosperous, I have observed, in Balinese society. I was always proud, during my infrequent visits for a family house temple anniversary or village pilgrimage to Turtle island, to see Gus Ngurah, bell in hand, leading the extended family or the entire village lightly through the various complex rites: he had realized his dream. He was our hope and shining glory.
And then he died.

* * *

Monday, 6 July 1998, The Geria Kepaon
I cut short a trip to England and returned home to find a courtyard draped in grief: the widow Dayu wept as she described, in gorey detail, (for Hindus don’t hide human nature’ fascination for the horrible) the last days, and how, in the last hours she had cradled the wasted body of her husband in her ample bosom and bade him depart, “be off” she beseeched “we’ll be all right”.
I listened to everyone’s tales through a wash of tears, immobile until I saw Biang Agung, Gus Susila’s saintly mom, with the ubiquitous tray of offerings on her head. I put out my arms to give her a cuddle but, true to form, she ignored my sentimental entreaty and quietly put down her offering tray. She sat with us on the pavilion steps staring at the rows of empty rental chairs. “Sing nu Pak Wa” she announced after some time using the childhood name we all used to “iron over” the problem of my lower status ¾ “Mr. Uncle’s gone”.
Dad was obviously broken, but stoic, and the children, amazingly, already exhibiting the bearing and responsibility of family heads. Joy and Sorrow. Sorrow and Joy. Dignity and Duty. The Balinese are masters at it.
That night, I slept in my old bed, with the view of Gus Ngurah’s coffin surrounded by funeral wreaths from various garden business, the Denpasar Mayor’s office and the Kuta high school where he taught religion. Under the blazing neons and through the courtyard roar of dominoes games and World Cup semi-finals I kept Gus Ngurah company.

Tuesday, 7 th July 1998, the Geria Kepaon
I woke at dawn as the widow Dayu burst into my room and propelled into the courtyard by an urgency for quiet and solitude. Three tiny nephews sat dewy-eyed soaking up the morning sun. Aunty put out Uncle Anom’s prize cocks-in-their-baskets as she had every day for fifty years: I watched as the neighbors and family arrived to put up sunshades and decorations and help with preparations for the cremation, now five days off. In a haze of admiration for the tight cummerbunds of the Agung brothers (the pretties are always front and center in Balinese goings on ¾ it’s the path to enlightenment through the worship of youth and beauty) and through sips of bitter-sweet coffee I heard Dad say, with just a tinge of vanity, how the Pemecutan Palace, Bali finest, was sending their holy scripture singing ensemble on Saturday night.

Wednesday, 8 th July, Geria Kepaon
I delivered a big black and white photo from the Stranger archives of Gus Ngurah singing the Kidung hymns at his grand mother’s 1979 cremation. The widow Dayu didn’t approve : I do feel sorry for her but mountain folk shouldn’t interfere in matters of art photography. She retreated. (Weeks later a visiting old Bostonian aunty said it looked like a Bruce Weber and I was vindicated).
The mood in the courtyard had shifted from grief to intrigue: Dayu followed me into the family house shrine to complain that the bank manager hadn’t put in a penny. “It goes with the territory” I told her and suggested we just get on with the show. At 9 p.m. my old chum Dewa Kadek arrived ¾ he’s now chief of Police for the Tabanan Regency. “Gosh, Kadek” I gushed “Gus Rai’s a bank manager and I’m the star gardener but we’d both give anything for your baton!”. He had the grace to giggle.
In another corner of the courtyard the local prince was admonishing the old regime for destroying Sakenan Turtle Island: “If the armed forces hadn’t got involved, that helicopter might’ve fallen out of the sky” he offered, bravely, in a spate of criticism impossible to imagine six months ago “and Soeharto might still be president!”.
In yet another corner a brother arrived back from Sanglah hospital with another baby brahman. In another corner it was 3-1 to Brazil.

Thursday, 9 th July 1998, Full Moon, Geria Kepaon
Hundreds of villagers packed the home for the seventh night running, to “share the bad times with Gus Ngurah, as they had shared the good”. Some joined in the family group around the ngawacain circle of Brahmans and priests reciting the Balinese ‘Old Testament’ (interspersed with witty translations); groups of hard core gamblers occupied the main sitting room and most of the courtyard floor, while the outer courtyards, spilling across the river, were filled with chatting, mourners burning the midnight oil like me.
As it was purnama, full moon, a high priest was coming to Sanur to splash the coffin with holy water and bless a table load of offerings to the spirit of the deceased, but it was getting late and there was no sign.
Every half-hour their were updates of his progress — just finishing a tooth filing in Kuta; on his way to marry some Japanese at the Ritz Carlton; splashing the infirm at his house temple. How could the intelligence be so precise? “Has he got a two-way radio in his limousine?” I asked.
At midnight the house attendant, who’d been shadowing the high priest as he ricocheted around the suburbs, rang in to say that he was coming home with the holy water as the pedanda was pooped: the widow Dayu, straight backed and masterful, then took charge. A most touching purification rite was enacted with professional prowess.

Saturday, 11 th July, The “Ngajum” Ceremony, Geria Kepaon
C - day minus one: everyone was too exhausted from marathon tea-making to feel any grief but today the sense of loss would come crashing back.
I left at 9 a.m. in one car for the Pura Dalem Ganda Maya temple to collect holy water for the cremation rites: another convoy left for Sidemen in Far East Bali, to fetch the pedanda high priest who would officiate. The priest at the Ganda Maya temple, Bali’s oldest Pura Dalem, in the medieval capitol of Gelgel, prepared the holy water and then regaled us with some fabulous stories of the great healing properties of his holy water. The nephew of the last vice-president, Try Soetrisno, no less, had come for help, we were told, and stayed for two years, taking the Balinese name Putu Sastrawan. He told also the pestilence-reducing powers of Sudamala’s cooking pot, now in the possession of Cokorda “Dewa Dangin” Sidemen, Don of the dharma-bunnies and Bali’s most awesome kssatrya.
Back home, with our cache of elixir of life, we observed that the high priest from Sidemen had already set-up shop in a pavilion freshly built for the afternoon incantations. What a figure he was! Only in the drawing of Hookyas’ books on the Vedic rituals of the high priests have I seen such beautifully styled mudra hand gestures and perfect posture. As a sign of respect and thanks for the saintly soul of Gus Ngurah the offerings were immaculately fashioned and immaculately blessed.
Late in the afternoon everyone took part in the “Ngajum” ceremony: a cloth spirit effigy, symbolic of Gus Ngurah’s astral body, was laid out in the ceremonial pavilion and needless inserted, by family and friends, though the chinese coins positioned on the effigy’s knuckles and joints. Two hundred guests were then fed and I fell asleep, sitting up in a modified lotus, next to the gamelan and a replay of the France – Netherlands semifinal.

Sunday 13 th July 1998, The Day of the Pelebon, Nobleman’s Cremation, Geria Kepaon
The house had filled up with guests by 10 a.m. An angklung orchestra played in the reception court. Just before noon the widow Dayu and her children slipped away to say a prayer in the family house shrine on Gus Ngurah’s behalf, to ask leave of the ancestor spirits. It was an emotional moment as vivid memories of Gus Ngurah rushed back. For days I had been haunted by the golden memory of our not in frequent forays to Kuta on push bike, for a swim in the Indian Ocean and a sunset raid to beg for bread at Moma Dollar’s Yasa Samudra, now the unspeakably hostile (to local sensibilities) Hard Luck Café and Theme Park.
Farewell little saint, you inspired us all.
The coffin shot out the gate — I got a snap and then grabbed a corner of the coffin. The other pallbearers were unusually silent as we turned out of the village lane into the sun-bathed spectacle of three entire villages in black, the honor guards, the numerous marching bands and the golden funeral catafalque tower, with the crooked photo on its stern. At exactly noon the procession kicked off with a precision and purpose that left no time for grief. I walked with Gus Ngurah’s stoic Dad in front of tower, head bowed, in the eye of the storm of brilliant spectacle as it were, oblivious to the pelting and pounding tears streaming down my cheeks.
How many more incredibly beautiful cremations for loved ones will I have to endure?
1330 hrs, at the Village Graveyard
I had missed the body washing so needed to see the corpse: I’ve come to believe, as the Balinese have taught me, that seeing the corpse signals a release of the painful bind to the memory of loved ones.
With Gus Ngurah’s Dad at the head of the coffin, which had now been lowered into position on the pyre, I stared at Gus Ngurah’s corpse and marveled at the wave after wave of cleansing rituals taking place. As the last of the many white covers was gently laid over Gus Ngurah’s peaceful face Dad broke down. That last glance at a life’s love was too much for the grand old Brahman — he was quietly ushered away by a nephew.
In that instant the grief of the entire village was etched deeper.

1600 hrs: The Cokorda (King) of Pemecutan, Denpasar, appears at the graveyard to pay his respects to one of south Bali’s most popular brahmans
“When are you getting married Made?” bullies Cokorda Ngurah Manik, radiant in black satin jacket and chequered sash. “I’m married to football” is my weak retort. “The next time I get married, you do to. You got it?” he booms. “Yes, sir” I reply, and resume my position next to the burning corpse. By 5 p.m. all the ashes and bones have been gathered and fashioned into a ginger-bread-man like effigy, which is dressed in miniature, exquisite finery before being fashioned (another “Ngajum”) into a holy reliquary. It is then blessed by an earnest Pedanda Sidemen, peeling in perfect pitch and postures from his platform pavilion. Across the road a paupers’ circus (one man, one monkey) performs for the youth groups who have stayed by Gus Ngurah’s side for the eight days since his death.
At dusk convoys depart for the sea at Sanggaran. After final prayers the gold and white effigy is carried out into the ocean, with the same grief-quenching gusto that has typified the day’s proceeding. The batteries are falling on the megaphone as Gus Ngurah’s kidung teacher sings a sad reveille. We all return home, stunned by the extraordinary beauty and sad purpose of the day.
Aum Santi Santi Santi.

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