High spirits in Bali
The girls have just begun to learn Rejang, a dance so holy that it can only be enacted within temples. 'This has to be performed with great passion,' says Luh Mas. 'The more slowly the movements are made, the more clearly they can be expressed.' Pendet, a dance to welcome guests, is next. The girls' teacher looks proud as she says, 'They so enjoy dancing, they have such a great time.' As she again sings, their tiny arms sway in unison, casting flowers out from an offering bowl - sweet-scented frangipani, rose petals, the blooms of a hydrangea. In this still and sacred place, it's a blissfully cheerful sight.
Luh Mas explains that while some boys learn to dance, more prefer to join a gamelan band. This is an orchestra of many wooden- and brass-keyed instruments, typically accompanied by bamboo flutes, drums, gongs and cymbals. The gamelan needs perfect synchronisation between its members. The music they create is intended to act as the soundtrack to the strangest dream you ever had, something otherworldly and mystical.
Wander through the villages of Bali and on most days you will happen upon a ceremony of some sort, played out to the shimmering sound of a gamelan. That could be a tooth-filing ritual: a celebration of coming of age where teenagers have their front teeth slightly flattened - pointed incisors are a sign of possession by demonic spirits. Or a Barong dance, in which the equivalent to a Chinese dragon battles with an effigy of Rangda the witch, bringing spiritual balance to the place where it's performed. Or today, as the sun tips back towards the mountains, a mass cremation.
On a lane straddling a rice paddy and a coconut grove in the village of Klusu, the gamelan goes into overdrive. 'They are energising the spirits of the dead,' shouts Agung Rai, as the volume mounts.
The purpose is to give the dead the most positive send-off imaginable, preparing them for reincarnation. Family members and neighbours have spent the past two weeks crafting spectacular sarcophagi, each representing the caste of the person whose recently exhumed remains will be carried within. Lined up ahead, these take the form of two black bulls, a white bull and a scarlet tiger. Offerings are blessed by a priest - water from Bali's holiest places, a stuffed bird of paradise to help transport that person's spirit upwards, a choice of sarongs to be worn at the moment of judgement.
The gifts to the gods are paraded towards the graveyard by the women of the families of the dead, while up to 25 men raise each sarcophagus aloft on a bamboo cradle. The men cheer as they surge forward, spinning around at a crossroads to shake off demons, ducking beneath a power cable, driven on by the music of the gamelan.
The sarcophagi are arranged at the graveyard, with offerings laid inside and firewood stacked below. An ice-cream seller is drawn to the crowd and pulls up on a motorbike, a synthesised nursery rhyme playing from a pastel-pink speaker slung over the side. The plinky-plonk tune accompanies the lighting of torches, the smoke of the burning funeral pyres soon blackening the sky. 'The spirits will now be purified,' says Agung Rai. 'It is a reason to smile.' The families will be hoping to greet those same spirits in the future. A month after a child is born, a priest will be asked if they are a relative returned.
As evening approaches, the ashes from the cremation are placed in a river, in the same waters that have cleansed the villagers and irrigated their rice fields. The azure ocean awaits these final mortal remains. For now the visit to this blessed island is over for the spirits of the loved ones lost; they leave in the certainty that they will always be welcomed back.
Peter Grunert is the editor of Lonely Planet Magazine and was visiting Bali for the first time.
Photos & videos
Denpasar / Ngurah-Rai