A colourful procession marches down the street, narrowly avoided by scooters whizzing past. The 30-degree heat is warping the road and the exhaust fumes are melting into the thick air. Leading the group is a large throne-like structure supported by five men on either side. The throne, which is actually a coffin, has several tiers with traditional carvings and is decorated with flower garlands. A framed picture of the deceased hangs from the back, facing out to the following crowd of almost 50 people. The men, mostly dressed in black or white, wear the destar, a ceremonial headband worn by Balinese royalty since the feudal age. While the women are clad in lace dresses over sarongs dyed in reds, yellows and purples. When they arrive at their destination, music is played out of speakers, traditional gamelan, whose gongs and symbols create a deeply percussive sound.
The coffin is placed on the ground and opened. A middle-aged lady lays quietly beneath a blanket, too quiet to be sleeping, too pale to be alive, with flowers spread from head-to- toe. A priest enters, his gold jewellery and colourful garb distinguishing him as the leader, and burns incense and chants, while more flowers are added and someone flicks rose-coloured water over the body. The crowd turns silent and mourners come closer for one last look at the deceased as a sheet is spread over her. The priest lights a fire beneath, everyone stands back, and gradually the coffin, the body, and the flowers, ignite and burn, eventually turning to ash. The ceremony, that has been continued in Balinese culture for millennia, is complete, and the crowd gradually returns to the their homes.
The coffin is placed on the ground and opened. A middle-aged lady lays quietly beneath a blanket, too quiet to be sleeping, too pale to be alive, with flowers spread from head-to- toe.
Some 500 years before we started counting time based on the birth of Jesus, the “Hindu synthesis” began in India and merged a broad range of philosophies, concepts, cosmology, shared texts, sacred sites and rituals, into a common religion. Since its inception, Hinduism has spread all over the world, accounting for 15% of the its population, with India, the United States, and Indonesia, having the largest share. Each branch of Hinduism has its own unique set of precepts and practices, which distinguishes it from the others.
More so than any religion, Hinduism is grounded in rituals. With the Balinese branch being no exception. Here birth, death and marriage can be broken down into two unique forms of ritual:
Manusa yadnya – human life from weddings, childbirth, growing up and
starting a family
Pitra yadnya – for death and reincarnation
Within Masuma yadnya there are a total of thirteen ceremonies that each child goes through from life to, but not including, death. Each is a combination of four key components: placation of evil spirits, purification with holy water, wafting of essence and prayer, and occur at the milestones of a person’s life.
When a baby is born, the father takes the placenta home where he washes it and wraps it in a white cloth, along with coconut flowers and money, and then buries it outside his door. A black stone and spiky pandanus leaves are strewn on the grave to protect it from evil spirits, and then a fire is lit to seal its passage to the other world.
The baby is considered the soul of an ancestor and at 12 days old a priest visits and conducts a purification ceremony where he communicates with the ancestor the baby is a manifestation of. For the first month of its life, the baby is treated as a god, and is not allowed to touch the ground for a further 105 days. Another ceremony is held when the baby touches the ground, and as it is no longer treated as divine, earns the right to enter temples. The next important step is its first birthday, six-months after it is born, where its hair is cut and either burnt or thrown into a river, symbolising the removal of inherited ancestral karma and its passage into life.
Puberty, marked by a girl’s first period or when a boy’s voice changes, signifies the need for the teeth filing ceremony. In Balinese culture, the pointed ends of teeth are seen as evil and animalistic. The canines represent the negative attributes of humanity – greed, anger, lust and jealousy – which need to be filed down to purify the child and ensure its safe passage into the afterlife. After two-days of prayer, a shrine is created from bamboo adorned with flowers and fruits, and the community arrives to give blessings to the event. The boy or girl, dressed in ceremonial garb, is sprinkled with holy water before they are laid down on a bamboo platform, encircled by the crowd. The fear is palpable as the dentist props the jaw open with sugarcane cylinders, sweat rolling down the face of the teenager, as the canines are filed down to the match line of the teeth. Surrounding relatives sing for support and 5 to 10 minutes later, after the ceremony is finished, the saliva and filings are gathered and buried to protect them from evil spirits. The child is now seen fit to pray at temples, perform household duties, and get married.
The fear is palpable as the dentist props the jaw open with sugarcane cylinders, sweat rolling down the face of the teenager, as the canines are filed down to the match line of the teeth.
Shotgun marriages are generally the norm in Bali. While unmarried motherhood is chastised, premarital pregnancy often incites the wedding. The wedding itself is performed at the boy’s residency. On the day, the girl prays one final time at her family temple, and then makes the transition to her new home, of which she is now bound and must adopt her new ancestors as if they were her own. The ceremony is a colourful event; both wear make-up, lots of gold, and headdresses. A priest performs necessary rituals which, depending on the location of Bali, and the specific family, range from getting to stroke their faces with a duck’s bill to rolling an egg over their bodies. In more recent times, the Western idea of a reception generally takes place with music, dancing, and traditional booze called arak (rice wine). After the ceremony, the man is afforded the privilege of joining the banjar, the local council, where all important decisions about the community are made.