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Pitra Yadnya: Rites for the Ancestors

Life, death, rebirth. This cyclical conception of existence lies at the very heart of Balinese Hinduism. During each life on earth the eternal 6oul occupies a temporary vessel - the physical body - which at death must be returned to the panca mahabhuta, the five elemental substances: solid, liquid, radiance, energy and ether. Only then can the soul be released and reincarnated. Of all Balinese rituals, the cremation (pangabenan, palebon) is the most complex, lasting for many days and culminating with the spectacular burning of not only the corpse, but of vast quantities of valuable ritual objects especially created for the occasion.

Calling the soul

Due to the huge amount of time and expense involved, a cremation is usually postponed for months or even years. In the meantime the body of the deceased is temporarily buried. Family members first wash and groom the corpse, then wrap it in cloths and mats. A raw egg is rolled across it and smashed to the ground, removing all impurities. The body is then transported to the cemetery on a simple bier and buried without a casket.

Once a favorable day has been set, an army of ritual specialists, artists, priests, family members, friends and neighbors of all ages and sexes is mobilized - calling upon an encyclopedia of communal knowledge in the creation of offerings and artifacts of every imaginable shape, color and ingredient and the performance of a series of elaborate rites.

Before cremation a "soul calling" ritual must be held at the grave. Offerings are made, and as the corpse cannot be returned to the house once it has been buried, the soul is taken home in a sangah urip effigy made of leaves and wood. Outside the house a paper and coconut shell lamp - a damar kurung is hung to guide the soul home.

The washing of the corpse is symbolically repeated on an adegan, a small board with a human figure drawn on it. The day before the cremation, a priest prays for favorable treatment of the soul in the afterlife. Various types of holy water are made and offerings are purified. The angenan, an eggshell lamp mounted on a decorated coconut, serves as a memorial.

The procession

On the day of the cremation, once the sun has passed the zenith, loud gong music plays and a lively procession heads off to the cemetery. Dozens of offerings and ritual objects lead the way and the body is carried in a colorful tower (wadah, bade) fashioned of wood, bamboo and paper, shouldered by scores of shouting men. Platforms at the base represent the earth, sometimes resting on the cosmic turtle and serpents of the underworld. On the back of the tower may be a winged and fanged face of the son of the earth, and higher up a goose symbolizing purity.

Above these platforms is an open space for the body, or its effigy, and crowning the tower is an odd number of roofs. The caste and clan of the deceased determine the number - 11 for royalty, less for persons of more humble birth. Attached to the front of the tower is a long, white cloth (lantaran) held by family members to represent their ties to the deceased. The tower is rotated at each crossroads, to disorient and prevent the soul from returning to disturb the living.

Release through fire and water

Arriving at the cemetery, the effigy or body is taken down and a pair of birds set free - symbolic of the soul's release. On a platform under a high roof stands a wooden sarcophagus (patulangan, palinggihan) decorated with cloth and paper, sometimes carried in procession ahead of the tower. 'Me sarcophagus is in the shape of an animal such as a bull, winged Eon or elephant-headed fish.

The sarcophagus is opened and the body or newly exhumed remains (sometimes simply an effigy) are carried around it and placed inside. The shroud is opened, jars of holy water are poured over the body and shattered. Cloths, letters of introduction to the gods and effigies are piled inside, and the sarcophagus is closed. Offerings are placed below to start the fire and the sarcophagus and corpse are consumed by flames. 'Me tower is burned separately.

Death brings with it the opportunity to fulfill all duties toward the deceased, and there is no public display of mourning if the deceased has lived a long and full life. Weeping near a corpse disturbs the soul, making it unwilling to leave. Grief is expressed in private, however, especially if a young person has died prematurely as the result of serious illness or a tragic accident.

Purification and deification

When the corpse has finally been reduced to ashes, the flames are doused and the family hunts for bone fragments, forming them into a small human shape. The bones are pulverized and placed in an effigy made from a coconut, which is taken on a bier to the sea or river and cast into the waters. Three days later another ceremony removes the ritual pollution brought by death upon the living.

Twelve days after the cremation, the soul of the deceased is purified in a ngrorasin rite, often accompanied by rites (mukur, nyekah, ngasti, maligia) to deify the ancestor. This may be delayed for several decades. A sekah effigy is made for the soul and placed in a high pavilion. In the evening, family members pray and offer their respects. Early the next morning, the image is broken and burned, and the ashes placed in a decorated coconut. A tower (bukur, madhya) then transports it to the sea for disposal.

Finnaly, in the nyegara-gunung ceremony the family express thanks to the gods of the oceans and muntains. Offerings are brought to important sea and mountains temples, after which the diefied soul is enshrined in a clan or familiy temple, awaiting its next reincarnation.


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