Sanur, Bali – the spirituality of everyday life

Well, we are sitting on our small terrace at the Little Pond Homestay in Sanur, Bali soaking up the 30 degree heat and enjoying the calls of tiny birds in the trees. The transition from Sydney to Bali did not go as smoothly as one would have hoped, though. We made it to the airport in plenty of time – in fact, about 4 hours before the flight – and were quite near the front of the lineup to check in; unfortunately, when the airline agent asked us for our itinerary showing a flight back out of Bali, we didn’t have one. Neither of us had realised that we needed an onward ticket in order to get into the country and we did not have one – damn! Consternation! What to do!? We rolled our luggage trolley away from the check in counter and frantically around the airport trying to get an internet connection so that we could buy a ticket so that we could get on the Jetstar Bali flight. After trying a few different locations in the airport with no luck we finally got online and managed to buy two tickets through Air Asia to Bangkok 30 days hence – joy! We rushed ourselves and our trolley back into the lineup and, after 20 frantic minutes at the checkin counter trying to pull up the itinerary PDF, were able to demonstrate our onward travels and got our boarding passes in time to actually catch the flight … gong show and major stress.

On arrival at Denpasar airport we purchased our 30 day visas on arrival with no difficulty other than an enormous lineup, emerged into the baggage area only to be descended upon by 3 – 3(!) – porters who refused to relinquish our bags and held out their hands for money after transporting them about 20 feet. Luckily, our transfer driver was still there waiting with a sign for us and we hopped into a nice van for our one hour journey to Sanur and the Little Pond Homestay. The Homestay is a small place of about 15 rooms off the main drag through Sanur; it has a lovely small pool, the room is small but serviceable (and very inexpensive) and we have free internet. It is our home base until tomorrow.

Sanur itself is a seaside town on the south coast across the peninsula from Kuta Beach, the main tourist centre on Bali. While waiting for our breakfast place to open, Ty and I wandered along the main street and watched while several shop keepers installed small flower and incense offerings to the gods on their doorsteps. We also noticed two large and very elaborate tower-like structures which, when we saw the pictures affixed to them, we realised were funeral objects to transport corpses for cremation. These were parked curbside and with them were crowds of men dressed in their batik funeral headgear and sarongs. They liked Ty’s look and posed for pictures with him.

After breakfast at a local cafe, we packed our beach bags and headed out to find the ocean. Along the way I marvelled at the elaborate sculptural decoration of the buildings and the many small temples and carvings of gods almost everywhere, each of which was adorned with colourful offerings of flowers and fabrics.

Along the three km length of Sanur Beach runs a paved footpath past many restaurants, bars and shops – many shops! And in front of each was stationed many vendors, mostly women, who were relentless in their pursuit of buyers and attempts to get us to come into their shops.

After having found out our names, there was no escaping from them; each time we walked by during the day came the call to visit their shops – “Remember me, Monica – number 31”. We had walked quite far down the path when we decided to stop for a drink and the shop-keeper told us that we were lucky because the funeral procession for one of the dead was going to come right by where we were sitting. I had been wondering about the Balinese cremation ceremony and was very interested to be able to see it.

Across from where we were seated was an area of grass in which two banana wood furnaces had been built, one of them adorned with a head and tail of grasses. These were to be the pyres for the bodies.

Around the corner we could hear music and shortly a procession of people arrived, beautifully dressed in batik and lace, some of whom were banging drums and other percussion instruments and others who were balancing offerings on their heads.

Several men carried the temple structure holding the deceased. When they arrived at the pyre location they walked several times around the banana wood furnace before depositing the white wrapped body in it.

After removing the wrapping from the body, a group of men gathered around the furnace anointed the body with flowers, oils, food stuffs, water and beautifully coloured fabrics in a series of ritualised movements.

Once the body was fully covered with these offerings the two large propane tanks (tiger torches) were fired up and the corpse, with all its offerings, set alight. As the pyre burned a couple of men simply threw the temple-structure onto the garbage heap nearby.

We didn’t watch the entire ceremony but apparently after the corpse is completely consumed by flames, the ashes and bits of bone that are left are carried to the sea and disposed of. Rather than the sad and mournful mood of funerals with which I’m familiar, the mood here was light and almost joyous. As the body burned the crowd played music and chanted.

The Ngaben, or cremation ceremony, is the “last and most important ceremony of every Balinese life, in which the soul is released entirely from the body to ascend to heaven and to be reincarnated”. When the body of the deceased is carried to the place where the cremation is to take place, the temple-like structure carrying the body, called a Wadah, is shaken and turned by the people carrying it, to “make sure the soul doesn’t find its way back home”. Although this ceremony is Hindu, it reminded me of Buddhist practices such as sand mandalas designed to speak to the ephemerality of earthly life. In these practices much effort is spent on creating beautiful objects only to destroy them in the end – apt analogues for the human body and reminders that nothing stays the same, everything changes, so no point in clinging to anything in the earthly realm. In both belief systems, the immaterial soul is released from the material body, hopefully to a higher and better place.

Read more about the Balinese Ngaben here.

Later we sat on the beach and watched the women recruit people for massages and shopping while playing with their small children and swam in the warm ocean.

After a really tasty dinner of Nasi Goreng and Spicy Chicken at the Little Bird Warung just down the road, we walked back down to the beach from a different direction and came upon a wonderland of bonsai plants – an ocean of them in every size and twisty configuration. They must represent untold hours of work by the unnamed gardener – fabulous!

From the bonsai garden we walked to the Reggae Beach Bar and collapsed on their oceanfront bean bag chairs to listen to a Bob Marley cover band – Bob, long dead, lives on here in South East Asia.

Tomorrow at noon we leave for Ubud, the arts centre of Bali, about an hour’s drive north of here.

See more pictures here.


3 Replies to “Sanur, Bali – the spirituality of everyday life”

  1. My friend isn’t back from Bali yet! So I am looking at some of our favourite places and things we did, glad you had a good time – it’s been a long time, I had a good time – hope to go back there.

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