Now, the cremation bulls were almost complete. The great, generous wooden forms had been covered with black velvet; the horns were bound with gold. The bulls smiled and showed their mouths’ red interiors and the thin, red pizzles were thrust close along their bellies and were tasselled and lined with golden thread.They had become something else; cartoon figures. The bull that belonged to another village was sent away. ‘Theirs was the better one’, someone said and l asked why. Like a cattle judge at a country show he walked around the Ubud bull and piled up penalties:`Head too small, body too long.’
On the night before the cremation, there was a show of wayang kulit, shadow puppets, in the palace grounds. It went on to the early hours of the morning. Children squatted close to the screen and followed the story closely. The Dalang’s voice rose to grating heights and gutteral depths as he took the different parts. His torch flamed brightly behind him, his small gamelan beat out a constant rhythm.
Above was a full moon. The palms were black against a bright sky. We could see the men in the wantilan still working on the bull. Dogs barked in the distance. Once in a while a motor-bike would sputter past.
Next day, we were told that the cremation ceremony would begin at 11 a.m. maybe, and we were there on the street on time. The tower stood on the road before the palace. Two great wings spread from near its base and the pagoda-like top was crusted with carvings, gilt and coloured decoration. It stood in a carrying frame of thick bamboo poles. Along the road was the bull, also on a frame.
Tourists blocked the road and stood in the way of each others’ cameras. A Japanese family lined up in different combinations to be photographed in front of the tower. This was the great day. Time wore on. Police arrived to control the traffic. Buses put down loads of foreigners.
`Plenty of tourists’, I said to a Balinese bystander. `Too many’, he said spontaneously, then he looked embarrassed. A very white man with a small beard had dressed himself in a conical hat and a kain which he pulled up between his thin legs in the way of a warrior. A blond little girl trailed at the end of his arm and behind was his wife in slacks, a towelling hat and sunglasses.
A very pleasant Englishman leaned on the base of the tower. `What are you doing there?’ someone called. `Spoiling photographs’, he said.
Tourists arrived in cars and on motor-bikes. Plump Dutch ladies in sun hats strolled along the road and poked in and out of art shops. `When will the ceremony begin?’ `Maybe twelve o’clock’, said the Balinese.
A couple of woodcarvers wandered in the crowd, each carrying a piece of carving for sale. We knew them slightly and they knew that we were not potential customers. One came and stood for awhile with us. `How is business?’ we asked him.
The stocky, crew-cut Frenchman was there, booted and braced, enjoying the atmosphere. We had not seen him for awhile and he told us about his adventures on unruly motor-cycles. The crowd was swelling. Now there were Balinese waiting. `What time is the ceremony?’
`Maybe two o’clock.’
A gamelan arrived and the players all in small turbans and blue shirts sat on their haunches beside the wantilan. The village men, who were to carry the tower and the bull, milled about, many of them in kains with bands around their heads, barefooted. Pak Rake Suling was with them, looking not so professorial. Pak Rake, landlord, passed by, very elegant in a long kain and turban. There were boy scouts and, because the dead man was a hero of the revolution, soldiers.
We foreigners were here simply for the spectacle; we were very lucky that a man had died. . I had never known the dead man , nor had the other foreigners; but I did begin to think about him.. He had died conveniently and we were crowding into his cremation ceremony. It didn’t seem quite right.
, One of the tourists said with an air of importance: `I have arranged it so I can take a photo of the body before they close the coffin’
`Here comes the body’, said another.
The gamelan was playing dramatic passages. Reports from firecrackers sounded from inside the palace. Men came forth bearing a shape in a shroud. It was not a body, just a dummy, a decoy for evil spirits. The crowd relaxed. `That wasn’t the body.’
The real procession came quickly, again to confuse the spirits. Jubilant, shrieking shouts rose from the bearers. A small procession of stately women bearing offerings walked behind the coffin.
`That must be his family. The women are crying.’ With cool curiosity, we watched the women cry. The body was real then, and had been a man, and people cried about it.
Njoman, the houseboy, was close beside us and he stayed near for the whole of the afternoon. When we looked around he smiled at us gently. He would not be included but he stayed at a little distance, always with us. He would accept a cigarette then retire just a few paces.
The coffin was carried up a long bamboo ramp and placed in its compartment half way up the tower. Live chickens were hung by their legs alongside it. There was a great noise of yelling and yipping like, Cowboys and Indians, and the bearers took up the tower. It leaned this way and that and then moved off quickly and smoothly along the road. The bull was way ahead and out of sight. From the village to the cremation ground was a distance of a kilometer or more and every inch of the road was jammed with a slowly moving river of people. Motor bikes overtook us on either side.
In the middle of the crowd was Hans Snell and his wife and children. We saw Nyonya Raka watching the procession from a house along the way.
A handsome, haughty young Brahmana priest, with a walking stick, stalked past us. The crew-cut Frenchman forged past bravely on a motor-bike, riding pillion to a Balinese boy, his eyes glinting excitedly behind thick lenses.
We turned with the procession into the cremation grounds. The crowd was filling the green field. The tower and bull had come to rest; the bull under a decorated canopy. Sellers still mingled amongst us: melancholy carvers, women with sweet foods and fruits, women with batik printed materials in bundles on their heads. We sat on a grassy bank, far back from the ceremony but in good view. Njoman sat just a few feet away.
The coffin was carried again down the ramp and the body placed in the bull. Several white clothed men were working over it, purifying the body with water.
The Hindus regard death simply as an important event in man’s life. The man’s death and cremation were well ordered. Being of the Ksatriya or princely caste, and rich, he was able to be burned only a few days after his death and his soul was released.
Cremation is so expensive it places a great burden on the ones left behind. Wasi, a bright and pretty widow who supports herself and children with a warung on the main road, told us of the thousands of dollars it had cost to cremate her husband. A painter had sold padi fields at his father’s death, then the rest of his padi fields to pay for his mother’s cremation. Often, poor people must bury their dead and wait, often for many years, for a communal ceremony.
`The Balinese love ceremony’, we say lightly. For the Balinese, ceremony is a necessity. Religion and ceremony have preserved the harmonious community which was the Balinese way of life long before the coming of Europeans.
Tourists stood in line beside the canopy of the bull, loading up their cameras for snapshots of the dead man. Few people stayed for the firing of the bull and the tower. When the ceremonies of purification and the speeches of the army had been made, they began to drift away. So did we; it was late afternoon and we were tired. We walked back to Ubud and Njoman walked a little to one side and talked with us, giving us the Indonesian names for whatever we pointed out