February 13th: Pretiwaan and Pelebon (holy and royal cremations) in Ubud  


I hope your day is truly wonderful. 

We were fortunate to participate in the processions for not one, but two cremation ceremonies today.  Depending on the person being cremated, the Balinese words change.  Ngaben is the word used to describe the cremation ceremony for the common people, Plebon/Pelebon is the ceremony for the royal family and Pretiwaan is used for the ceremony of the high priest or priestess.

One of the sarcophagus, in the form of a beautiful white and gold cow (called Lembu), was constructed from papier mache and light wood just around the corner from our house. 

This Lembu was used in the first ceremony today, which was a Pretiwaan, for one of the two temple leaders of our Banjar.  I learnt today that the white and gold bull is for the holy man, a cow is for a woman and the black bull or cow is for the royal family.  When we asked who the cremation ceremony was for, the temple leader was never referred to as a man or a woman.  By the look of the Lembu today, I think our temple leader may have been a holy woman by the name of Mapala Bhuana Gili, as indicated on the wreath attached to the coffin.  The Lembu certainly looks more like a cow than a bull and the photo on the back of the Wadah is definitely a woman.  

The day of the cremation is carefully chosen by the local priest.  Often the cremation will be months (and in the case of the less wealthy, years) later.  The Balinese cremation ceremony is considered the most important ceremony of a person’s life, it is the last ceremony for a Balinese person’s human cycle of life.  The purpose of the elaborate cremation ceremony is to transition the person from this life to the afterlife, in preparation for their next incarnation into this world.  

People line the streets to watch the parade pass and will often join the procession for the rest of the way.  All the Balinese women and men who want to join the parade are dressed in their adat, their traditional ceremony dress.  Some of the women are carrying offerings.  The very young children are also usually dressed up.  Full traditional dress is not required for participants.  However, as a mark of respect, all those who want to follow the procession into the cremation grounds are required to wear the traditional sarong with a sleeved shirt or t-shirt.  Unfortunately, this respect is not shown by all visitors attending the ceremony.

At our local Banjar assembly place in Jalan Sri Wedari, there is a gathering of the strongest and fittest local men dressed in orange and white t-shirts with their tradition adat.  On the back of the t-shirts are the words “Pelebon Ibu Nelly Sukawati 13 February 2017 Puri Kantor Ubud”.  They are receiving a pep talk in readiness to carry the very important royal Bade.   Drawing near to the first cremation procession, I turn back to see the men assembled on the road primed for their march to the Royal Palace, led by the intrepid Made Mako (one of our local characters) on his scooter.

First off the mark was the temple leader’s Lembu which is transported to the cremation site on a bamboo pole structure sitting on top of some of the men’s shoulders.  Often, as was the case today,  a family member rides the bull to the cremation site. 

The body is transported to the cremation site in a coffin within a Wadah, or Bade, which is a tiered tower made of light wood and papier mache.  On the front of the Wadah is the mythical bird of Garuda, symbolizing the human world.  This structure is built on bamboo poles and is carried on the shoulders of many of the local men.  This gives a whole new meaning to the responsibility of pall bearers.  Several holy men, carrying their ornate torches, stand on one of the upper tiers to accompany the coffin.  A long white cloth (lancingan) is held high over the heads of dozens of people leading the tower to which it is attached.  As some of the relatives are not able to carry the tower itself, holding the white cloth symbolises this act.

Unlike the towers of other beings, the Wadah of a Pedanda (Hindu priest belonging to the Brahman caste) does not have a roof.  The priest is considered to have already reached the level of union with Siwa (or Shiva), the dissolver and recycler of life, who is one of the three main gods in Hinduism.  Therefore, the priests and priestesses do not need as many funeral rites as ordinary people do.

As the structures are lifted by a large group of grunting, laughing shouting men, the gamelan play to a crescendo to assist in the lifting of the heavy load.  Water cups are thrown into the air in celebration.  The gamelan players accompany the structures in the procession to keep the pall bearers motivated and enthused on their arduous march.

At each intersection, the Lembu and the Bade are rotated three times.  Apparently, this is to confuse the evil spirits and keep them away from the deceased.  The tower regularly tilts at a very precarious angle and the holy men that are up with the coffin hold on tight.  Fortunately, the coffin is tied onto the Wadah with white cloth.

When the Lembu arrives, the top is cut open with a special sacred knife in readiness for the paraphernalia which will accompany the body into the afterlife.  The body is removed from the coffin and placed inside the Lembu.  After circling the Lembu three times, women carry their offerings to the beast, including many clay pots carrying holy water.  The clay pots are emptied into the cavity and then thrown to the ground to shatter.  The rest of the accoutrements are also added into the cavity and the back of the beast is then put back into place.

This is the first cremation we have seen that is part of our local community and it is with pleasure that we spot our neighbours and several other people we know from the area.  Our neighbour, the duck farmer, is so busy trying to direct everyone that he doesn’t see us.  He looks a little bit out of place as he is the only one in a dark t-shirt, all the other men have on white or light business shirts to compliment their adat.  He has quite a personality and epitomises the typical Balinese farmer.  The Banjar chief is also walking around very importantly checking to see if everything is properly prepared.  Badra, the chief’s father, is happy to stand on the sidelines and watch the spectacle evolve. 

Coconut fibres and accelerant are used to help ignite the Lembu and its contents to keep it burning.  This pyre results in a cloud of thick smoke descending over all of the spectators.  This thick black smoke can be seen from quite a distance.  We do not wait around for the fire to be lit.

While we are waiting for the next cremation, we slip into Sayuri’s for a cold drink.  Unfortunately, before we could get our juice made, the electricity was cut off.  This often happens because the power lines are too low and the Wadah can’t get through.  The power lines are dropped until the procession is over.  It sometimes takes a few hours for the electricity to be restored.  Coconut water will have to do… I know, poor us!

The next cremation parade is for Ibu Nelly Sukawati who passed away on 25th December 2016, at the age of 98.  She is the first non-Balinese to be given a royal cremation in Ubud.  Nelly Luchsinger came from the Netherlands to Indonesia in 1947 to teach, first in Jakarta and then in Makassar.  While teaching in Makassar, the commissioner of police, Tjokorda Ngurah Wim Sukawati approached her with a request for her school students to make flags for the police vehicles.  Tjokorda Ngurah Wim Sukawati was the son of the then President of East Indonesia (NIT), Tjokorda Gde Raka Sukawati.  Tjokorda Ngurah Wim Sukawati and Nelly Luchsinger were married on December 19th 1949 in Ubud.

Tjokorda Ngurah Wim and Nelly Sukawati had one daughter, Tjokorda Istri Vera Partini Sukawati (Vera) and on son, Tjokorda Raka Sven Sukawati.  Throughout the 1950s to 1979, Tjokorda Ngurah Wim was posted in several diplomatic roles in Europe and Ibu Nelly and his children accompanied him.  This enabled Ibu Nelly to keep in contact with her family and friends in the Netherlands.

Tjokorda Ngurah Wim and Nelly Sukawati were married for 64 years before he passed away on 21st February 2013 in Jakarta.  Unfortunately, Ibu Nelly’s declining health meant she was unable to attend her husband’s cremation ceremony as she was bedridden in Bali.

The cremation ceremony of Ibu Nelly Sukawati would have started at the time of her death.  At this time, the local villages would have started preparing their offerings and feasts in celebration of the transition of Ibu Nelly.  Several days ago, Ibu Nelly’s family gathered for their last loving gesture in this life, the ritual bathing of her remains.  At dawn this morning, Tjokorda Raka Sven Sukawati was found praying at the cremation ground with a special blessing in readiness for his mother’s departure.

As the procession is heard coming up the street, we rush out to witness the spectacle of the procession coming up the street.   As with the Pretiwaan for the high priestess, the Lembu in the shape of a beautiful life size black cow, arrives first.  The Lembu is quickly followed by the rotating Wadah coming around the corner.  It takes a lot of male villagers to carry the Bade bearing Ibu Nelly Sukawati’s body from the Puri Saren (Ubud Royal Palace) to the cremation site at Dalem Puri (Temple).  This one is a very high nine-tiered Bade with many roofs, in keeping with the wealth and caste of the family.  The lean on the Bade is quite pronounced as it is bounced into position.   The people in the tower hold on for dear life.

For this Pelebon (cremation ceremony for royalty), a ramp is already in place at the site.  Because of its size, it would be awkward to carry.  The ramp is used to remove the coffin from the Bade so it can be placed in the Lembu.  The Bade is moved into position and, after much ado with all of the men alighting, the coffin is untied and transferred down the ramp to be carried to the Lembu.  

The close family, with the women dressed in green kabaya and orange sashes and the men in their formal white shirts, carry a rope as they circle the Lembu three times.  They are accompanied by other women dressed in grey kabaya and purple sashes carrying offerings.  Four women wait with the items the priests will need for their ritual to help send the soul off to the afterlife.  The offerings are to provide pleasure for the deified ancestor and to appease the evil spirits who wish to interfere with the proceedings.  More significantly, the offerings are to plead with the Gods to purify the soul so that it may return to earth in a higher and purer form.  

Once the body is smothered with holy water and all of the ceremonial trappings, the lid is put back on the bull, it is lit and the pyre blooms thick black smoke over the crowd and the surrounding area.

Grateful for another day.


You are the universe, expressing itself as a human for a little while.

Eckhart Tolle

See the photo gallery for more photos of the cremation ceremonies.

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