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Death And Cremation

Cremation rites have remained practically unchanged for the last three hundred years, except perhaps for the suppression of the notorious Indian custom of suttee, the sacrifice of widows of deceased notables, burned alive on their husband's pyre. This custorn seems to have enjoyed great popularity at one time among the Balinese aristocracy, although today it has become Merely a legend. A hundred years ago the pioneer historian of the Malay Archipelago, John Crawfurd, gave us the first English account of a widow-burning that took place in 1633, when the Dutch sent a mission to Bali to gain the prince of Gelgel, then sole sovereign, as their ally against the Sultan of Mataram, who was driving attacks on Batavia. The Dutch found the Balinese king making preparations for the cremation of his wife and his two eldest sons. The manuscript account of the mission was translated by a Monsieur Prevost and published in an early histoire des Voyages. Among the passages of the Dutch narrative quoted by Crawfurd are the following:

... About noon, the queen's body was burnt without the city with twenty-two of her female slaves. . . . The body was drawn out of a large aperture made in the wall to the right side of the door, in the absurd opinion of cheating the devil. . . . The female slaves destined to accompany the dead went before, according to their ranks . . . each supported behind by an old woman, and carried on a Badi (tower), skillfully constructed of bamboos, and decked all over with flowers. Before them were placed a roast pig, some rice, betel and other fruits as an offering to their gods, and these unhappy victims of the most direful idolatry are thus carried in triumph, to the sound of different instruments, to the place where they are to be poignarded and consumed by fire. There, each found a particular scaffold prepared for her, in the form of a trough, raised on four short posts and edged on two sides with planks. . . . Some of the attendants let loose a pigeon or a fowl, to mark that their soul was on the point of taking its flight to the mansions of the blessed. . . . They were divested of all their garments, except their sashes, and four of the men, seizing the victim, two by the arms, which they held extended, and two by the feet, the victim standing, the fifth prepared himself for the execution, the whole being done without covering the eyes. . . .

" Some of the most courageous demanded the poignard themselves, which they received in the right hand, passing it to the left, after respectfully kissing the weapon. They wounded their right arms, sucked the blood which flowed from the wound, and stained their lips with it, making a bloody mark on the forehead with the point of the finger. Then returning the dagger to their executioners, they received a first stab between the false ribs, and a second under the shoulder blade, the weapon being thrust up to the hilt towards the heart. As soon as the horrors of death were visible in the countenance, without a complaint escaping them, they were permitted to fall on the ground . . . and were stripped of their last remnant of dress, so that they were left in a state of perfect nakedness. The executioners receive as their reward two hundred and fifty, pieces of copper money of about the value of five sols each, The ' nearest relations, if they be present, or persons hired for the occa. sion . . . wash the bloody bodies . . . covering them with wood in such manner that only the head is visible, and, having applied fire, they are consumed to ashes. . . .

" The women were already poignarded and the greater number of them in flames, before the dead body of the queen arrived, borne on a superb Badi of pyramidal form, consisting of eleven steps, supported by a number of persons proportioned to the rank of the deceased. . . . Two priests preceded the Badi in vehicles of particular form, each holding in one hand a cord attached to the Badi, as if giving to understand that they led the deceased to heaven, and with the other ringing a little bell, while such a noise of gongs, tambours, flutes and other instruments is made, that the whole ceremony has less the air of a funeral procession than of a joyous village~fcstival. . . . The dead body was placed on its own funeral pile which was forthwith lighted. The assistants then regaled them selves with a faast while the musicians, without cessation, struck the car with a tumultous melody, not unpleasing. . . .

" At the funeral of the King's two sons a short time before, 42 woman of the one, and 34 of the other, were poignarded and burnt in the manner above described; but on such occasions the princesses of royal blood themselves leap at once into the flames . . . because they would look upon themselves as dishonoured by anyone's laying hands on their persons. For this purpose a kind of bridge is erected over a burning pile, which they mount, holding a paper close to their foreheads, and having their robe tucked under their arm. As soon as they feel the beat, they precipitate themselves into the burning pile. . . . In case firmness should abandon them . . . a brother, or another near relative, is at hand to push them in, and render them, out of affection, that cruel office. . . .

when a prince or princess of the royal family dies, their women Or slaves run around the body, tittering cries . . . and all crazily solicit to die for their master or mistress. The King, on the following day, designates those of whom lie makes choice. From that moment to the last of their lives, they are daily conducted at an early 11our, each in her vehicle, to the sound of musical instruments . . . to perform their devotions, having their feet wrapped in white linen, for it is no more permitted them to touch the bare earth, because they are considered as consecrated. The young women, little skilled

in these religious exercises, are instructed by the aged women who accompany them. . . . Those who have devoted themselves, are made to pass the night in continual dancing and rejoicing. . . . All pains are taken to give them whatever tends to the gratification of their senses, and from the quantity of wine which they take, few objects are capable of terrifying their imaginations. . . . No woman or slave, however, is obliged to follow this barbarous custom. . . ."

The remainder of the narrative proceeds like any other of the great cremations that are held today. Another interesting account of widow-burning is given us by an eyewitness, the scholar Friederich, of the cremation of the Dewa Manggis, Radja of Gianyar, which took place in that town on December 22, 1847:

" The corpse was followed by the three wives who became Belas. A procession went before them, as before the body. . . . They were seated in the highest storeys of the Bades. . . . After the body of the prince had arrived at the place of cremation, the three Belas in their Bades, each preceded by the bearer of the offerings destined for her, with armed men and bands of music, were conducted to the three fires
" Their Bades were turned around three times and were carried around the whole place of cremation. The women were then car. ried down steps from the Bades and up the steps of the places erected for their cremation. These consisted of squares of masonry three feet high filled with combustibles which had been burning since morning and threw out a glowing heat; the persons appointed to watch them fed the fire, and at the moment when the women leaped down, poured upon it a quantity of oil and arrak, so that it flared up to a height of eight feet and must have suffocated the victims at once. Behind this furnace stood in erection of bamboo in' the form of a bridge, of the same width as the square of masonry about forty feet long and from sixteen to eighteen feet high; steps of bamboo led up to it in the rear. In the centre there is a smaall house, affording a last resting-place to the victim, in which she waits till the ceremonies for her husband are finished and his body hasbegun to burn.

The side of the bamboo scaffold nearest the fire it protected by a wall of wet Pisang (banana) steins. Upon the bridge lies a plank smeared with oil, which is pushed out a little over the fire as soon as the time for the leap draws near. There is a door at the end of the bridge that is not removed until the last minute. the victim sits in the house on the bridge, accompanied by a female priest and by her relatives. . . . Then she makes her toilet; her hair especially is combed, the mirror used, and her garments newly arranged; in short, she arrays herself exactly as she would for a feast. Her dress is white, her breasts are covered with a ,white Slendang (scarf); she wears no ornaments, and after the preparations to which she has been subjected, her hair at the last moment hangs loose.

When the corpse of the prince was almost consumed, the three Belas got ready; they glanced one towards another to convince themselves that all was prepared; but this was not a glance of fear, but of impatience, and it seemed to express a wish that they might leap at the same moment. When the door opened and the plank smeared
with oil was pushed out, each took her place on the plank, made three Sembahs (reverences) by joining her hands above her head, and one of the bystanders placed a small dove upon her head. When the dove flies away the soul is considered to escape. They immediately leaped down. There was no cry in leaping, no cry from the
fire; they must have suffocated at once. One of the Europeans present succeeded in pushing through the crowd to the fire and in seeing the body some seconds after the leap - it was dead and its move merits were caused merely by the combustion of the materials cast upon the flames. On other occasions, however, Europeans have
heard cries uttered in leaping and in the first moments, afterwards. . . .

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" During the whole time from the burning of the prince till the leap of the victims, the air resounded with the clangour of numerous bands of music; small cannon were discharged and the soldiers had drawn up outside the fire and contributed to the noise by firing off their muskets. There was not one of the 50,000 Balinese present who did not show a merry face; no one was filled wit], repugance and disgust except a few Europeans whose only desire was to see the end of such barbarities."

It was only the wives of princes that were thus sacrificed; the Brahmanas did not consider it necessary for the redemption of their wives, and tile common people were not interested in a practice that was foreign to them. There were two sorts of widow-sacrifice: one reserved for noblewomen, the mesatia (" truth," " fidelity "), in which the noble widows stabbed them. selves as they jumped into the same fire with their dead hus. bands; the other, for the prince's low-caste wives and concubines, the mabela (" to die together with the master ") , the one described by Friederich, which consisted in jumping into another fire apart to be burned alive. A woman who died in mesatia became a Satiawati, " The True One," a deity.

From the time their decision was made, the widows were regarded as already dead and deified. They lived a life of constant pleasures, exempt from all duties and constantly attended by the other wives. Their feet were not supposed to touch the impure ground and, like goddesses, they were carried everywhere, lavishly dressed and half-entranced. A Brahmanic priestess was constantly at their side, encouraging them to their sacrifice with flowery descriptions of the beauties of life among the gods. Friederich tells that when tile time came, they were so thoroughly hypnotized that " they jumped into the fire as if it were a bath."

However shocking this practice may seem to us, it is not difficult to understand why it was acceptable to die Balinese; the scriptures not only sanctioned it, but even encouraged the sacrifices, and to the victims it was a short cut to attain the higher spiritual state ever so much more important than their insignificant physical life on this earth. Both the early Dutch narrative and Friederich make it clear that no compulsion was used and that the women to be sacrificed had to make their decision by the eighth day after their husband's death. They could,, neither withdraw nor volunteer later.

The Dutch did all that was in their power to stamp out this practice and set a strict prohibition on widow-sacrifices. The last, official cremation in which a woman was burned took place just after the conquest of South Bali; we were present, however, at a cremation in Sukawati at which we were told by a reliable in former that the noble wife of the deceased prince had died conveniently in a mysterious manner three days before the cremation in order to be burned together with her husband. Despite the Dutch claim of having suppressed widow-sacrifices, it seems that the custom was already dying out, like many other extravagant practices that became too costly. Nearly one hundred years ago, during two years' residence in the island, Friederich witnessed only one case of widow-burning, that which he describes.

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