We have arrived to beautiful Ubud!
Ubud (pronounced ew-bood) is a town located among the rice paddies and steep ravines in the foothills of central Bali. Far removed from chaotic Kuta; it is regarded as the cultural center of the island. Much of the town and nearby villages consist of artists’ workshops and galleries (mostly pottery, woodwork and precious metal jewelry) made there or imported from all over Indonesia. My experience in Ubud, and in the Banjar Kawan Mas Village nearby, provided rich cultural experiences in Bali I had been craving.
I started the day sharing breakfast (a banana toast sandwich) with my hotel manager. I got some recommendations of things to do and set off to explore.
After meeting a few travelers and local artists, enjoying a green tea latte, and wandering quite a bit, I found my way to a restaurant that offered a Balinese cooking class; only to find that it was closed. 😦
The store across the street said that the owners may be attending a ceremony in a local village. After coming up empty handed with a back-up cooking class option, I decided to ask a taxi driver for some information on the ceremony. He offered to take me to see it, so we scooted off and I found myself one of the only foreigners in the heart of a bustling Balinese village.
We arrived to the Banjar Kawan Mas Village an hour before the ngaben masal (community cremation ceremony) began, so I spent some time wandering around the bale banjar (the community center) taking photos, speaking to locals and feeling out the vibe. The first thing I noticed were the thirty or so beautiful geganjans (colorful coffins made of wood and paper maiche) lined up down the middle of the street. The video below is a little tour of the bale banjar and geganjans.
Balinese people are very, very, very spiritual. They hold strong beliefs and superstitions about almost every aspect of daily life; to which death is no exception. They believe that the soul cannot be reincarnated if the body still present, so they cremate their dead to free the souls. The ceremony I attended was a communal cremation called ngaben masal, which only occurs once every five years. An individual cremation is called ngaben and occurs within 42 days of the death. The ngaben masal can be more flexible because it saves money, resources and brings the ska (community) together.
The beautiful geganjans you see above are the vehicles that bring the souls to heaven. Common people can choose their spirit animal vehicle, but high priests and ruling classes can only use white and black geganjans, respectively. Most were singas (winged lions) or gajah minas (half-fish-half-elephants), but you could also be a mermaid, turtle or any other animal of your choosing. This reminded me of the animals the indigenous children were “assigned” in Western Australia. What would your spirit animal vehicle to the afterlife be?
After wandering a bit, I wanted to try some authentic Indonesian street food, so I found a pedagang kaki lima (street food cart) a few meters away. Each item was 10.000 rupiah (less than $1 US); so I tried it all! I spoke with the vendors, Asih and Made Semer, to get some more information on the fluorescent food.
I bought an assortment of jajas (traditional snacks) and drinks; which were all brightly colored bites of all shapes and sizes. The ingredients used in making these desserts and the process catches a glimpse of how the Balinese utilize the environment and resources around them. The cuisine is very traditional and has been made using the same technique for generations. Jajas serve as handy snacks for workers in the rice fields, or appetizers for guests arriving to a ceremony.
The first thing I tried was pisang lawe, a bright green, glutenous steamed sticky rice flour with banana and coconut. The one I had was dyed using green food coloring, but traditionally the coloring is added from squeezed suji leaves. Fluorescent pink and green are the common color choice for desserts as it is said they please the Hindu gods. The texture of the steamed rice flour was kind of a like a chewy paste, but the sweetness from the banana and coconut compensated for its consistency.
The second confection is called jaje lapis dua, a mix of modern and traditional Balinese styles of cooking/steaming. The top, dark brown half is a solidified pudding with coffee, and the bottom was the same rice flour/sugar as the pisang lawe. It was the same texture (minus the banana) as before, but had a richer flavor and surprisingly slightly sweeter.
Next is jaje Bali, a sampler of four treats made from steamed local roots and starches. This set is pretty indicative of how well Balinese people use their regional resources. The yellow disk to the far left is a lempog cake which is a mix of steamed cassava root with sugar and salt. The dark green on top is called sagu and made from sago; a starch extracted from the spongy center of a palm stem, and then mixed with rice flour and steamed. The white is just steamed keladi (a yam/starch kind of like a potato) and the light green squiggles are jaje giling, made from the rice flour dough. All topped with grated coconut and palm sugar.
I also tried daluman, a dessert drink with green congealed watery jelly-like substance made from pressed daluman leaves. It is then added to coconut milk, homemade palm sugar, condensed milk, ice shavings and a rice flour mixture. The rice flour mixture is made to resemble the rice grains by forcing the slimy dough through a strainer into ice water. The rice flour bits hold their shape and are added to the drink before serving. The drink was quite rich and wouldn’t be my first choice of drink but it supposedly good for digestion and has many vitamins.
After sampling quite the assortment of rice flour sweets, I did a little more wandering around the village. I felt disrespectful wearing shorts, so I set off to find a vendor selling sarongs to tourists; which were in no short supply in Ubud and Kuta.
There were no carts to be found, but I was kindly pointed to a clothing warang and purchased a beautiful batik sarong. The family dressed me; wrapping the sarong up high on my waist, (the proper style appropiate for ceremonies) and tied my sabuk belt tight.
I headed back to the bale bangar to catch the start of the ceremony signified by kulkuls (ringing bells).
Crowds of people swarmed around each geganjan to lift them up, chanting as the bands played music. Children rode of the backs of the animals and decorations were strewn about. Bystanders lined the streets to watch the parade go by.
The colorful floats, party atmosphere and spirit reminded me of Mardi Gras, back home in New Orleans. I didn’t know what I was watching at the time, but I would have never guessed that all the celebration was for a mass cremation ceremony.
Here’s a short clip of the “floats” being lifted and the start of the festival.
I joined in the festivities and walked the parade in front of one of the skaa gongs (bands), smiling and waving to the onlookers. The video below is a collection of clips of the skaa gong performance and parade.
In Balinese culture, the close-knit ska (community) is very important. Everyone has a role and brings a skill of value that the rest of the community enjoys. The skaa gong I walking with in the parade was a group of school children aged musicians. They are taught to play by their parents at a young age and then train after school for weeks to prepare for ceremonies like this one. Every member has a role and skill to contribute, be it a skill in arts, to craft the geganjans, while some are trained in dancing and performance arts. Ceremonies bring the ska together to contribute towards something bigger than themselves.
The panoramas above are some of my favorite photos from the ceremony. The first is of bystanders watching the parade go by from the family temple, which I think captures the atmosphere of the village and energy from festival nicely. I took the second panorama from the side of road and was able to catch (from left to right): a family watching next to a sewage drain from behind their house (a close up is the bottom right photo), a rice paddy field, the crowd and parade, and then it may be hard to see, but the actual cremation ceremony was going on up on the hill behind the rice paddy.
It was up on that hill, at the start of the ceremony, where I met Maydena Sutena, a now dear friend of mine. Maydena is an affable young girl from the village with a warm smile, excellent English, and a lot of patience. She answered all of my burning questions and provided all the cultural context to what I was witnessing. All of my information comes from her. Terima kasih, Maydena! Suksma mewali!
Back to the ceremony: the parade carried the geganjans a top the hill, to which they were all lined up around. Family members and friends of the deceased were carrying offerings (mostly a top their heads). Babi guling (suckling pig, check out the fourth photo), sacrificed animals, and money are presented to aid the soul in a smooth and safe journey to heaven. No tears are shed, as the ceremony is a celebration of the life, not mourning of death.
Offerings, the deceased’s worldly possessions and the bones of the body are all placed inside the geganjan. To retrieve the bones, the body must first go through the decomposition process.
Shortly after death, the corpse is buried in the ground, where caterpillars eat the body’s soft flesh. The bones are dug back up before ngaben so they can be placed inside the geganjan. The smells and sights were very overwhelming.
The pemangku (holy man) then blesses the geganjan to facilitate a smooth journey to heaven. Maydena introduced me right before the blessing. He is 94 years old!
The photo above is an artist’s interpretation of heaven. Karma is the main determinant of what will meet you in the afterlife. The scene to the top left portrays a woman who didn’t have children in her life on Earth and is now receiving karma by getting her nipple bitten off by a caterpillar. Yikes.
The highlight of the event- burning the geganjans- was to occur when the sun reached its zenith, so we waited around a bit. In the spare time I went to explore some more local cuisine culture.
The dish to the right is called serombotan and is a salad made from bean sprouts, peanuts, water spinach, tofu and then topped with a peanut based dressing and, of course, grated coconut. The photo above is of all of the ingredients before they were combined– into the photo to the right.
The photos below are of chicken satay, a hugely popular Balinese dish. Although I am usually a pretty strict vegetarian I decided to try the grub. When in Bali!
The warang had a cool set-up. The first photo is a ~close-up of the mini grill with a cooling fan. The second photo shows the finished product, the grill and the wrapping station. It came with cubes of pressed rice the vendor cuts with scissors.
After the second sampler, my cab driver insisted on showing me “the best silver shop in Bali,” which was a scam and a giant waste of time. When we returned to the ceremony the geganjans were already burning and Maydena was gone. 😦
The geganjans burning was a very cool, but very overwhelming, event. I got there after the actual ceremony, so the excitement was gone. People were watching the burn on a hillside, which is the first panorama.
Thick, black smoke filled the air which was blown by the wind into my face, eyes and throat. I felt like I was suffocating in all the smoke so I left after a little to try to find Maydena, with no luck.
My driver and I headed back to Ubud so I could make it to my yoga classes at the highly recommended Radiantly Alive Studio.
I’ll continue the rest of the day in a another post, as I know this is plenty long already. Check back to learn more about Balinese culture and my time in beautiful Ubud.