Bali’s highland village keeps the deceased above the ground

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BALI: In the mountainous village of Trunyan in Bali, corpses are lying at the foot of a fragrant banyan tree and left to decompose in the open. A villager who died almost two months ago is the last member of the lakeside cemetery, where the centuries-old funeral tradition has remained alive despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“You can still see the face,” village resident and local guide Ketut Mawon told Arab News during a recent visit. It showed a corpse dressed in traditional Balinese clothing and whose face appeared to be intact.

To reach Trunyan it is necessary to take a 15 minute boat ride from the main road to reach the other side of the crater lake Batur.

In this northeastern side of Bali live the Bali Aga people, known for their unique and sacred burial rite where the bodies of the deceased are left above the ground under a banyan tree, which they say absorbs the pungent odor of the bodies. decaying.

Even though the global COVID-19 pandemic has forced drastic changes in funeral rituals around the world, a solemn farewell, as they have always known, remains an option for the villagers of Trunyan.

The public health crisis meant corpses had to be wrapped in layers of plastic, before being placed in a body bag, and then in a coffin. The transformed ritual often denied family members a chance to take care of the bodies of loved ones one last time, instead leaving a quick burial performed by funeral directors dressed in full protective gear designed to prevent the spread of the disease. coronavirus.

However, the people of Trunyan still ride by dugout canoe to the nearby cemetery, which is only accessible by boat and only allows men to participate in the ceremony.

“The pandemic hasn’t changed any of the rituals, but we wear face masks and maintain our social distance from each other,” Mawon said.

In the isolated cemetery, each corpse is partially protected by a small woven bamboo cage. Despite the visibly decaying bodies and bones, there was no putrid smell. Coins, banknotes, snack wrappers and other daily necessities, as well as photos of the deceased, are left strewn around the site, placed there by family members for the dead to take away. in the afterlife.

While their skeletons are scattered on the ground, the skulls are stacked atop a nearby stone altar. When there is no more room, the oldest corpses are taken to a nearby ossuary to make room for new corpses.

“This cemetery is only attributed to 11 corpses. If there’s less than that, that’s fine, but it can’t be more than that. That’s what our ancestors told us, ”Mawon said.

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Residents of the village continue to maintain the centuries-old tradition, even though funeral rituals have changed dramatically in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To be granted a final home in the special cemetery, the deceased must meet certain conditions: either be a village priest, or have died of natural causes and be married. Of the 11 places, four are reserved for the priests of the village, with the bamboo huts marked by a white fabric cover.

A separate cemetery is located not too far away and is specially reserved for babies and singles. There is also another space for those who died of unnatural causes or whose body is scarred.

“In the second cemetery the corpses are also left in the open but there is no fragrant tree there so they smell, but in the third we bury them,” Mawon explained.

In October, two villagers died in a landslide following a 4.8 magnitude earthquake that struck Bali. They were among those buried in the third cemetery, according to Mawon.

Every five years, the villagers perform the last part of the Balinese funeral ritual known as Ngaben, a final sending of souls to the next life. However, the version made by the residents of Trunyan is a little different.

“Unlike the rest of the Balinese, we do not cremate the effigies during our Ngaben ceremony, but float them with their belongings which are left scattered here to the lake,” Mawon said.

The Bali Aga people are the indigenous people of Bali, whose ancestors are believed to predate the 16th century Majapahit Empire.

Their unique funeral rites were quite the tourist attraction, especially among foreign visitors. Up to 20 boats each carrying eight passengers were heading to the cemetery every day, before the pandemic.

In 2019, over 6 million international travelers visited Bali.

“After the pandemic, we only had local visitors,” Mawon said.

Although Bali International Airport has been officially open to foreign visitors since mid-October, the island has yet to host a direct international flight. The relatively few foreigners visiting Bali arrived in Jakarta on a special business visa, before continuing the journey on a domestic flight to the province.

The popular holiday destination has instead seen a surge of domestic tourists vacationing for Christmas and New Years, but calls for a change in requirements for international arrivals are growing.

Bali’s deputy governor, Tjokorda Oka Artha Ardhana Sukawati, is among those who have urged the central government in Jakarta to reassess the current demands.

“We don’t want to differentiate ourselves, but the market segment is different. Domestic tourists are concentrated in southern Bali, ”Sukawati told a panel discussion on December 17,“ while foreign tourists their stay is more spread (in other parts of Bali) ”.

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