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Ngaben: The happy funeral festival of Bali

By Dhrubaa Ghosh,

Death is a celebration for people of Bali. Want to know why it is so? Read on.

Ngaben is a cremation ceremony to send the souls of dead Balinese people to heaven. Image: Bay Ismoyo/ AFP

All religions are concerned about death. Once the body ceases to exist, what happens to the soul? Ngaben is a festival to send the souls of dead Balinese people to heaven. No one cries at funerals since death is a temporary phase, and the soul is soon to be reincarnated or released finally of the cycle of birth and death, i.e. find moksha.  

What happens at Ngaben?  
A priest is consulted as soon as someone in Bali dies. The priest suggests an auspicious moment for the Ngaben ceremony. During the ceremony, the body of the deceased is placed inside a coffin, which in turn, is placed inside a sarcophagus or coffin holder, shaped like a buffalo or a temple. This is a beautiful, bright structure made of paper and wood. It’s carried in a procession where people sing, beat drums, carry decorative items, and even distribute sweets. The procession does not move in a straight line, as they want to confuse and get rid of any bad spirits following them. Then the buffalo or temple structure is burst in the funeral pyre in a grand ceremony. All this while, no one cries; everyone remains happy as the soul is in a better place.  

Why does the Ngaben happen?  
Balinese Hindus believe Ngaben is a ceremony celebrating the joyous release of the soul from the confines of the body to the Panca Maha Butha or 5 elements, where we belong. The released soul is also freed of sins in an elaborate ceremony called Nyekah. Good karma is stressed in this ceremony, and the living and dead are encouraged to accumulate good deeds, so that they can merge with god. Going by Balinese philosophy, it’s more important for the cleaned soul to merge with Brahman or god than to live happily in heaven or return for a better birth on earth.   

Is Bali holding Ngaben post pandemic?  
Yes, there was a mass funeral ceremony, i.e. a big Ngaben this October. COVID 19 protocols of health and safety were maintained, with family members wearing masks and maintaining social distance. Only the vaccinated could enter the venue, with visitors scanning a QR code using the government's COVID-tracing app at the entrance.