We stumbled upon this all-consuming island celebration entirely by accident, having been stranded after volcanic ash clouds emitted from neighbouring island Lombok cancelled all flights to Australia.
A different type of ash cloud hung over Bali, and had nothing to do with volcanic activity. It involved the massed burning of human bones, conjuring a rich, communal celebration of spirituality. Souls were leaving an earthly paradise to attain a higher one. It had been seven years since the previous Ngaben Massal cremation on the little-developed island of Lembongan, a 30-minute fast ferry ride east of Sanur beach. Now, with the various bereaved families across the island having saved enough money between them to pay for the necessary extravagant ceremony, 66 dead people were exhumed from a hilltop cemetery, wrapped in white muslin shrouds and prepared for a mass cremation that would be attended by the entire island, relatives from across Indonesia – and a sprinkling of foreign tourists. Ngaben is an elaborate Hindu cremation ritual that releases the soul from a dead body to continue its journey of reincarnation. The massal is a massed cremation ceremony conducted with several other families to help cover the considerable cost. It’s a lengthy three-day process that begins with the villagers travelling to Lembongan’s hilltop cemetery at night, to exhume the shrouded bodies of their long-deceased family members. The island’s fierce humidity has ensured that nothing but bare bones remain in the cloth. There is mournful chanting as the shrouds are flung from the graves, vigorously levered by a three-pronged stick cut from a dab tree – a jolt designed to wake the sleeping dead for the important ceremony to follow. The remains of each person are taken to the respective family’s compound, where the bones are washed and carefully wrapped in white muslincloth. The next day, these are carried onto towering bamboo and gaily coloured paper floats that resemble a temple (wadah). They are slowly carried by scores of men on their shoulders along the village’s main street to an open paddock, converted for the day into the cremation site. While there are no tears, this is a most serious and important earthly duty. Hindus say a soul cannot leave the body for reincarnation immediately after death – a time when ghosts of the deceased are said to hover over the village. Therefore, a dead body is of scant interest to the surviving family, as it is deemed an impure, temporary shell that merely contains the vital soul. Once the body’s five elements – air, earth, fire, water and space – are released through burning, the soul is freed. The massed cremation is therefore a festive event that will finally release the spirit and allow its passage to reincarnation. We stumbled upon this all-consuming island celebration entirely by accident, having been stranded after volcanic ash clouds emitted from neighbouring island Lombok cancelled all flights to Australia. We noticed the island population busy at work preparing the gaily-coloured wadah towers and a long row of giant paper-mache figures of buffaloes (lembu) and dragons. These were the sarcophagi that served as vessels to be packed tight with the shrouded bones and hundreds of offerings from family members. As outsiders, it was a strange honour to attend what we would assume to be a very solemn affair, yet smiling local families happily encouraged our presence and cameras at the cremation field. For them, it was a coming together of families, with vendors selling helium-filled balloons for children and food carts providing serves of nasi campur to men and women looking resplendent in grand ceremonial dress as proceedings stretched throughout the day. The long ceremony had layers of complexity and ritual that are impossible for a casual observer to understand, yet, in typical Balinesse fashion, the crowded scene that seemed entirely chaotic progressed (somehow) without barked directions. It flowed like the gentle puffs of breeze we felt on that stifling hot day. After the multitude of offerings were placed beside the wrapped bones inside the sarcophagi, an army of family members loaded chopped wood beneath the animal statues, and without warning or ceremony, were ignited. Flames took hold in seconds, and the grotesque animal masks appeared ever more menacing shrouded in a leaping mane of fire. We seemed like the only ones unsettled when the ferocious pyres began omitting deep ghostly sounds. The raging infernos produced a cacophony of ethereal sighs and groans that sounded as though tortured souls let loose anguished howls as the process of transformation by fire reached its violent crescendo. The massed cremation was a confronting experience, being painfully intimate yet gloriously public. Everyone was taking photographs and video footage. It felt celebratory and festive, yet in the pensive moments between flourishes of activity, an air of focussed spirituality gave the day the sense of gravitas it deserved. After sunset, once the scorched bones had been pounded to dust, the families took the ashes to an adjacent beach, and released them into the water in the stillness of the dark night. It was a serene, solemn, silent moment to conclude a season of intense activity that had engulfed Lembongan. All was calm on the paradise island once again.