Ngendag, finding my lens cap
by Colin Decosta, baliwaves resident writer
Thanks to John Witzig for the edits
I’ve lost my lens cap. How is that possible I think as I retrace my steps, I had it in my pocket? For the second time I walk to the empty warung at the edge of the ocean. Nothing. I walk over the little concrete bridge again and check the long grass near a bale I’d photographed. Nothing. My mood is rapidly deteriorating after feeling very pleased with myself and the sunrise photo I’d taken.
I’m annoyed at myself though resigned to buying another cap. It gives me the shits when I lose things and I’m cursing my carelessness. Suddenly I realise people are walking down the road, this is weird. I hadn’t seen anyone since I came down to the beach and there’s a lot of people.
The Balinese walk quietly along the road toward me, some are carrying a woven mat and all are in temple dress. What is happening? What are they doing? The Balinese appear to not even notice me or if they do I’m irrelevant. I stand quietly and for once don’t offer any of my very ordinary Bahasa morning hellos. The Balinese appear really focused and I know something really unusual is happening.
The first of the Balinese wade into the shallow water and they group around the folded woven mats. I’m trying to be inconspicuous and walk a bit closer to get a look. I feel like an intruder. I’m very aware that I am an outsider, I don’t know why and I don’t usually feel like this around the overtly polite and friendly Balinese. They usually have no problem having a chat to the ‘bules’ almost any time. I feel reluctant to speak.
I’m close enough now to see the mats are filled with soil and what appears to be twigs. It takes a few moments to process what I’m looking at. Seeing but not believing I slowly understand that the mats are filled with bones, human bones. Men, women and children are gently, carefully removing the bones, washing them in the river and then laying them on another clean woven mat. In my distraction I hadn’t realised that the Balinese are talking, chatting away as usual and their voices sound happy. How is this possible? My camera is in my hand and I want to take a photo, should I? Will I cross a line with them, break a taboo or cause some problem with the dead.
I stand at what I feel is a polite distance, set my exposure and shoot some images. A man looks me, waves at me to come closer. He says his name is Wayan and the bones in front of him are the remains of his grandfather. He says “come take a photo” and indicates me to his preferable view. I move into the crowd, take the photo and finally comprehend that there is no sadness or tears and the Balinese seem almost casual.
Freed by the invitation of Wayan and my reluctance I wander among the growing crowd who continue to arrive with the remains of more relatives. Wayan patiently explains to me that the village is preparing their dead for cremation. “When? Where?” I quickly ask him. Of course it’s in the cemetery and he indicates the area directly behind my guesthouse, 8am. I politely thank Wayan and his family and walk away feeling that I’ve witnessed a remarkable event.
This is the ngendag or awakening of the dead. Where there should be no manifestation of disgust or grief. “Da kanti yeh peningalan kena ked ke sawa, sang pitra lakar nemu jalan ane belig” – “Don’t let tears touch the corpse,” goes the saying, “lest the dead finds a slippery road to heaven”.
I later attend the cremation where the fire is the next moment in this process, the ashes later scattered into the, the soul sent to the abode of the dead above the holy mountain.
After the cremation I walk back to the now empty bridge, push aside the long grass and there’s my lens cap. In Bali karma is very real and manifests in strange ways. I know it was karma lead me to the Ngendag, the awakening of the dead and to finding my lens cap.