The three giant black bulls had been sitting in state outside Ubud Palace for a day or so, golden necklaces adorning their necks, their dangling balls covered in gilded hair and their pink felt penises complete with a string so celebrants could wiggle them at will.
The occasion? Why, a cremation.
These three gilded sarcophagi were awaiting the auspicious moment when the three royal siblings who died within a month of each other could be consigned to flames. A date determined by the Balinese calendar, where weeks lasting from 1 to 10 days run concurrently with each other, and the stars count too.
They moved to the street early in the morning, lashed onto bamboo carrying frames, maybe 30 foot square. Behind them, two tall, sparkling funeral towers, adorned in gorgeous papers, shades of greens and reds and white and gold — incredible quantities of gold — the demonic face of the bhoma guardian glaring brightly down.
There always were a lot of kings in Indonesia. Still are, in fact. Tiny fly specks of islands support multiple sultans, or, in Hindu-dominated Bali, rajahs — some of whom still sit in government as elected representatives.
Densely populated, rice-rich Bali holds a myriad royal families. The kingdom (kingletdom?) of Peliatan is so near to Ubud that it’s impossible to tell where Peliatan ends and Ubud begins. Mengwi, with its grand and beautiful temple, is 30km away at most.
And the people still come out in droves for royal funerals.
You learn a lot about a culture by their approach to birth and death. And in the unique Balinese take on Hinduism – add a dash of Buddhism, plenty of animism and a hefty slug of ancestor worship, shake well – there’s a lot of earthy humour.
It’s the sort of realism that sees cigarettes, biscuits, loose change and plastic-wrapped Mentos mixed in with the flowers and rice of the offerings to the demons that litter every street corner, even in the package holiday hell of Kuta.
For the Balinese, a cremation is just one of many rituals that mark the passage from life to the spirit realm. It’s elaborate, and expensive. Families will spend all their cash reserves, and more, to give the ancestor a good sendoff and placate the spirit that will take up residence in the family shrine.
Even non-royal funerals can cost eight or nine thousand dollars, in a country whose per capita GDP is under four thousand dollars a year, meaning the vast bulk of the population live on much, much less than that.
And, as we’ve grown accustomed to in Indonesia, it’s a weird combination of the elaborate, the traditional, the contemporary and the plain shambolic.
There’s a mass orchestra of gong and gamelan, men in silk turbans and formal sarongs, hammering out ancient rhythms in pentatonic tones. Yet plenty of them have fags in their hands…
As they play, young guys amble in, carrying more gongs, and set them up. Children clamber over the bulls; a man with a hammer fixes a technical hitch around one hoof. Kids chase out a dog that has been napping in a temporary sidewalk shrine.
Women in bright lace tops carry elaborate offerings high on their heads like Ascot hats, crafted from flowers, bamboo, palm leaves – and food. Sticks of the spicy minced kebab known as sate lilit, whole sucking pigs, little sculptures of coloured rice dough pinned on palm baskets…
In one corner, the priest sits in bright white clothes and dark red head-dress, blessing offering after offering surrounded by lenses.
It’s not a funereal atmosphere. Not in the slightest.
The guys from the banjar, the village associations, are there in matching khaki T-shirts, complete with today’s date, disparate sarongs and head-dresses, and some mean shades. Chatting over walkie-talkies outside the palace gates or strutting down the road past their scooters, they look like something out of Reservoir Dogs.
Women with stacks of sarongs on their heads push them at western tourists. Others carry buckets of ice and drinks. Ibu Oka’s sucking pig shop, almost opposite the palace, is doing a roaring trade.
The fire engines which will attend the pyres roll up. A gamelan-player takes up position on each funeral tower. An MC gees up the crowd from the base of one of the bulls.
A street orchestra takes shape. Men with walkie-talkies push the crowd back. The guys in their green T-shirts square up to the giant bamboo frame which holds the bulls.
One big heave. And they’re off!
At a run, whooping and yelling. The first bull charges high above our heads, one young guy perched vertiginously on top and clinging for his life as he rounds the corner, the MC still projecting from the base, one guy waving a loudhailer with an oscillating siren like someone at an early 90s rave.
The second bull goes. And then the third.
Why the speed? Outrunning the demons, of course.
They’re not the smartest, Balinese demons. And they’re very bad at corners (which is why Balinese compounds have a blank wall directly inside the main gate).
Outside the palace, the green-shirted photographers who’ve immortalized proceedings from a bamboo ramp, make way for the pyre, over a tonne of it.
A coffin emerges from the palace, and onto the bamboo ramp. Guys lash it into the funerary tower with strips of fabric. One of the chaps sat astride the coffin, as matter-of-factly as if he were mending a boat, beckons for a hammer for some last minute adjustments.
They will ride atop the coffin, in the centre of this tonne-plus tower, on the shoulders of the banjar men.
I’m amazed by the strength involved, the coordination. The guys put their shoulders to the bamboo frame. Heft over a tonne of pyre, with six men on it, and process to the corner.
The drums and gongs build to a crescendo.
The men spin, and spin, and spin again.
The tower spins with them, wobbling high above the rooftops and the pylons.
Demons shed, the bearers run towards the funeral temple.
The second pyre comes. Two coffins in this one.
It spins, and moves.
The crowd surges forwards. The Balinese mount scooters, which follow the procession at a suitably stately pace, engine fumes merging with the day’s fierce sun.
Outside the funerary temple, the Pura Dalem Puri, the fire engines have hosed the road with water to keep folk cool. The hot tarmac sends a sauna steam into the air.
It’s a surprisingly open space, a Balinese temple. The bulls stand, in regal splendour, atop a stone platform, their bamboo framework sawn away.
Men clamber over them. One takes his kris, a ceremonial knife with magical powers, and with a gesture remarkable for its matter-of-factness cuts off the top of the first bull and hands it to the ground.
Men run up the ramp to the funerary tower. They hand the coffin down. Another progresses with a white-wrapped bundle, the last effects of the deceased.
They are piled, unceremoniously, into the body of the bull sarcophagus.
In fact, it’s hard to see the bulls now for the numbers of people scrambling over them. More padding — or kindling, rather. Sacred oils.
Under parasols not dissimilar to those which shade the statues of the gods, dressed for the day in chequered cloth and golden sashes, the women of the royal family wait, neatly colour coordinated like so many bridesmaids at a Western wedding.
Lines begin to form. Young men in white carry portraits of the dead men; an older man carries a stuffed bird, symbolising the deceased’s soul. Women of all ages balance elaborate offerings on their heads. A coloured rope binds family member to family member.
They wind across the square, less procession than disorderly queue, and deliver their offerings, which pile up high within the bulls, around the bulls, on the very steps of the pyre.
More processions. More offerings. It’s a festival of conspicuous consumption, an object lesson in religion as materialism.
One woman is weeping, perhaps the wife of a dead man. Perhaps a sister.
Meanwhile, children clown with feet and masks scavenged from the funerary tower.
The priest makes purification gestures. Says some words.
The petrol comes out, unromantically, sprayed from a high-pressure hose.
And the bulls go up!
It takes a lot of heat to consume a human body utterly. A lot of heat. Great chunks of ash and fabric go swirling into the sky. The bonfire pushes the audience back.
The fire brigade pull out the hoses, wet down the platform, contain a blaze that would otherwise reach several storeys into the sky.
It’s common to compare the scent of burning human flesh with roasting pork. And, in truth, the smell is not dissimilar. Just with a note of char-grilled hair, as well.
When the bulls’ stomachs give way, the bodies tumble down to the platform base. You can hear the hiss and sizzle of boiling fat, see the charcoaled toes disintegrate, feet become stumps…
The funeral flame throwers come out, then. Metal gas burners on long handles. Men clamber onto the pyre and administer super-heated gas, one at either end.
The remnants that will process ceremoniously to the sea must be sufficiently burned.
When we leave, passing the hawkers vending bright dyed chicks and ice creams, the bodies are still burning, awaiting their transformation into ash.
And, on this most auspicious day, the sky not just in Ubud but in southern Bali too is full of the smoke of funeral pyres.
Headed this way? Check out some places to stay in Bali.