Souls on fire

Witnessing the once-every-5-years collective cremation ceremony in Nusa Penida, Indonesia.

It was a coincidence, but also a result of my persistent stubborn efforts to try and communicate with Kadek, who spoke almost no English, as he was giving me a ride into town on his scooter. We were driving past a small street just 500 meters from our inn, when I noticed the village was bustling with activity. I pointed and asked. He said: “Big ceremony. Tomorrow. You can take photo.” But I still had no idea how big this thing was going to be. Over the next 4 days, I witnessed the massive ceremony that the Sebunibus community on Nusa Penida Island organizes every 5 year to send the souls of their loved ones to the Gods. I always say that slow travelling has its perks; so do stubborn communication efforts. This experience proves so.

Day 0

I woke up at 7 effortlessly, had my coffee and asked Kadek for a ride to the ceremony. I was carrying both my Lumix and my Sony cameras and felt excited and ready to shoot. After a five-minute ride, we were there. I realized that the ceremony was taking place at the exact point where I had seen all the busy people going around the day before. As l walked in, the narrow unpaved street became wider and turned into a medium size lot where people were assembling and decorating bamboo structures. Two things became obvious. The first and embarrasing one was I could have easily walked there. Second one was that the ceremony was not taking place yet. What I thought to be Day 1 turned out to be Day 0, preparations day. I was already used to miscommunication in Indonesia so I wasn’t disappointed or surprised. I told Kadek I would walk back and decided to stay and have a look. Men of all ages were collaborating. Some worked harder, some seemed to be waiting for their turn. Everything occurred in the laid-back-kind-of-messy manner the island had me already used to.

Collective Effort

I started guessing the meaning of symbols and structures by contemplating and making photos. People were friendly and many of them posed for the camera while others tried to give me key information about what I was looking at because at that point, I was pretty much clueless.  The first thing I noticed were these big animal shaped sculptures. There were dozens of them, but also a lot of free space waiting for more. Most of them were red but there were also some black, yellow and white ones. They were heavily decorated and had offerings sitting at their front feet. Some of them had photos of Indonesian people in the middle of the offerings, which allowed me to guess the ceremony had something to do with deceased members of the community. A man saw me staring and said: “lembu”. He didn’t have the words to tell me anything else but I made sure I remembered that word. There were also 2 high bamboo ramps sitting in the middle of the lot and a bare structure that got turned into a beautiful tower before me. As the more crafty men finished up details on it, those who had been waiting got ready to lift it into its final position. They used the bamboo ramps to bring the tower high and, like everything that would happen over the next few days, they tackled the mission collectively. A couple hundred shots after I was ready to take shelter and download the footage. But before I left, another man with a little more English vocabulary mumbled: “fire” and “crematory”. I started walking back to my room repeating the word “lembu” to myself.

The Wikipedia Forecast

The word Lembu turned out to be a great starting point for my online research. It immediately pointed to the name of the ceremony: Ngaben. Wikipedia was my main source of information. I quickly learnt that this is the funeral for the Balinese people. Lembus were described as coffins where bodies and offerings where placed before cremation. I also read that the towers I had just seen being built are called wadahs, and are also unique to this rite. Wikipedia mentioned that although it is preferred to have the Ngaben soon after death, many people get buried temporarily while the families gather the necessary funds for the ceremony. It also said that sometimes communities organize collective Ngabens, in order for poorer people to be able to pay for it. I was pretty sure this was the case: I was witnessing the collective Ngaben of the Sebunibus village. One thing was, however, still hard to grasp. I was certain that there were no bodies inside the lembus I had seen that morning. I had, though, noticed a very precarious cemetery right on the side and people walking around it leaving offerings. If Wikipedia was accurate, bodies would have to be dug up and put inside the lembus. I was skeptical. As photos got copied to my hard drive I shook my head thinking: “well maybe they have a different more symbolic version of it.” Little did I know.


Bodies in Action

Next morning Pasku drove me to the ceremony lot before going to the dive shop he was working at. After everything I had told him the day before, he was curious and also wished he could stick around and see. The scene was very different from the day before and we could definitely feel the ceremony had started. It was barely past 7 am and the lot was already crowded with people of all ages who were busy doing different things to the sound of the tireless gamellans that were being played in the shade. Many of the people wore identical t-shirts, as if they had teams. Most action was occuring right on the precarious cemetery. Yes, they were digging up the bodies. Small to medium groups rounded up around the graves to dig up the bodies that were conveniently wrapped in fabric. Right after lifting the body, they would often put offerings in the grave and fill it with dirt again. Meanwhile the remainings got removed from the fabric, placed in baskets and cleaned with water that had herbs or flower petals in it. There was always a white clean piece of cloth setup as an umbrella over the small group performing this procedure. I saw a group in which all members extended their hands to touch the skull as they poured the water on it and sang together.

I could not help but to remember my Mom’s funeral and start identifying the endless differences with what I was witnessing. First of all, everyone was actively participating in a strong physical activity under the already hot morning sun. Some people could look serious here and there but I didn’t see anyone crying. Others would laugh and talk but mostly they were active, they were sweating, doing things with their entire bodies to make sure the souls of their loved ones reached heaven. I was jealous. Nobody was alone. Nobody didn’t know what to do. Nobody feared to touch the bones with their bare hands. What had seemed like an unreal idea to me the day before upon reading it on Wikipedia, was common practice for these people to whom religion is an everyday activityThe main emotion here was not grief. If you really think about it, emotion comes from the latin root out (e) and the verb move (movere). Everyone kept moving things, bones, offerings and lembus around. I remembered the month during which I emptied the house where my Mom and I had lived and she had died. That month of sheer exhausting practical action directly related to her death had been more healing that anything else. Worlds away, I felt like I could relate that experience with what I was seeing. Despite everyone was utterly and physically involved in what is considered one of the most important ceremonies of their calendar, there was no solemnity in the air. What I could see was sheer action and collaboration as the lot continued to get dressed in colorful symbols and offerings. The rest of the day would involve more live music, traditional dances, offerings and preparation of the bodies.

What I could see was sheer action and collaboration as the lot continued to get dressed in colorful symbols and offerings.


Stairway to Heaven


We knew the last day of the ceremony was the most important one, the day when the cremation took place. Luckily, Pasku didn’t have to dive that day so he was definitely coming with me to witness the culmitation. We arrived to the lot curious about the logistics of the massive bonfire. How would they make sure it was safe? What sort of beautiful colorful rite would they do to convince the Gods to receive the souls on fire? I had the suspicion that it would involve the wadahs (bamboo towers) because great care had gone into getting them ready and I had still not seen them play their part. The lot was even more crowded than the previous days and the metallophones were playing nonstop like usual. Everyone was wearing their sarong, the men with the twisted scarves on their heads, women with their long sleeved translucid shirts walking around carrying offerings on their heads. As if the weather had the intention to help them set it all on fire, it was the hottest day in weeks. Soon after arriving we realised my guess was right. There were two wadahs setup in the middle  of the lot and the bamboo ramps, which had been dressed in yellow and white fabrics; were positioned one next to each wadah. The first part of the morning we saw people move all the lembus to another area further into the lot. With the space pretty much cleared up except for the wadahs and stairs, the community lined up to get the bodies up in the wadahs. Bodies had been cleaned and wrapped in new fabrics. Each one had a piece of paper that seemed to identify it. At that point I thought about how complicated that could be, considering that all Balinese families use the same names for their children according to the order in which they are born. Those who carried bodies were always protected by umbrellas. The people getting the wrapped bodies up into the wadahs were dressed in red for one wadah, and in black for the other. I was pretty sure this had a meaning. I would later learn that each wadah is for a caste, which also explained the fact that one wadah had a lot less bodies and was ready for the next step in the ceremony many minutes before the red one. I would later confirm that the red caste was the lower one, hence, it had more bodies.

What came after both wadahs were filled with all the bodies was the most impacting and moving moment. The music changed as the men who had been filling the wadahs with the bodies came down, got rid of the bamboo ramps and organised themselves inside and around the bamboo grid-like structure underneath each tower. Suddenly, both towers were lifted by their corresponding group of men and they started dancing around and against each other. It was breathtaking. Each tower must have had around 50 men puppeteers making them move and on the base of the tower there were men with a microphone talking and musicians playing. There were also kids tied to the top of the towers. These were dressed in yellow and white and holding sticks with offerings, feathers, fabrics that resembled a flag. But the thing that moved me was to see the collective physical force in action. It was beautiful. The towers swayed and turned as the men started sweating and kicking up the dust. We were standing only a few meters away from them and I could actually feel their excitement as they created this meaningful and powerful dance together. The dance ended with the moving of the towers to the back of the lot where the lembus had been moved earlier. I was amazed to see how they quickly begun to get the bodies out of the wadahs and back down. Of course, it was now time to put each body in its own coffin -the lembus- before starting the fire. All that effort, all that organisation had been for a few minutes of majestic collective dance. 

The thing that moved me was to see the collective physical force in action.

The towers swayed and turned as the men started sweating and kicking up the dust.

Abundance and Flames

Bodies were taken down and placed in their own lembu. The crowd moved to the back of the lot, which offered some shade outside the 2 lines in which the around 100 lembus had been organised. As we, too, looked for shade, offerings started to flood the place sitting on the heads of women and hands of men. It was a never ending sea of offerings: clothes, money, food, flowers, everything and anything. As they came in, they were put into the coffins, but I had the impression that this operation had to be somehow blessed by members of the clergy. I sat under a tree and felt my eyes beginning to hurt from the excess of color and amazement. I was already feeling tired, which made me acknowledge the amount of energy they put into the Ngaben. They were still going back and forth organising the lembus, offerings and next steps before cremation. Of course, I told myself. This is a party. It’s a celebration of liberation. It’s a gift (or thousands of them) that the living give their dead. I was briefly jealous one more time. It took probably one more hour of them working and organising and me reflecting in the shade before, finally, they started the fire. When they did, there were some screamings. Pasku said they were saying goodbye. The heat from the massive bonfire made me take a few step backwards. After the inital screams there was silence and stillness for the first time in many days. It was finally time for them, and hopefully also the souls on fire; to rest.


After the inital screams there was silence and stillness for the first time in many days.

It was finally time for them, and hopefully also the souls on fire; to rest.