Diana Darling attends a press conference for the upcoming cremation at Puri Ubud.

On Friday afternoon, Puri Ubud convened a press conference about the upcoming cremation on November 1st of Tjokorda Istri Sri Tjandrawati, wife of Tjokorda Gde Putra Sukawati, the head of the Ubud’s ruling family. It was a gracious reception by the three leading men of the family and two sons, with information sheets in almost flawless English, press passes, and lunch. Claude Chouinard, who runs the popular Bridges restaurant (which is owned by the family), was on hand to act as general host and make people feel welcome, something he apparently can’t help doing.

Puri Ubud was crawling with men splitting bamboo, constructing the funeral tower, decorating various palanquins and pavilions with gilt paper, and generally working furiously to a very short deadline. A cremation of this scale would normally take two or three months to prepare. This one is being put together in two weeks.

The reason for this is pressure in the ritual calendar. The lady died on the 14th of October, the week before the big Galungan holiday. Ubud will hold a very big temple festival at its Pura Puseh in December. Auspicious days for cremation were scarce: only November 1st and 27th, two days before the temple festival gets underway. The next date would be in February. The family decided to go for the 1st of November, so that by the time of the temple festival, the soul of Tjokorda Istri will have been released and purified, united with the other deified ancestors.

Aside from the prestigious location of the press conference, in a pretty pavilion in a northern courtyard, it was a modest and relaxed affair. Only eleven people from the press showed up. Sophie Digby from The Yak made the trip from Seminyak. There was a photographer-and-journalist team from the Bali Times. The rest of us were freelancers (or freeloaders, depending on how you feel about yourself).

Before things got underway, Claude made a disarming apology for what he called a mistake in the email invitation, which spoke of “the King” and “Queen” of Ubud. As everyone knows, he said, there have been no kingdoms in Bali since 1945. The proper title for Tjokorda Putra is “Penglingsir” (which means “elder” but still implies considerable heft). To raise a question about the frequent use of the term “royal” — since Ubud has never actually been a kingdom — would have been churlish (although someone did bring up the issue of buses in Ubud, to general amazement).

Then Tjokorda Gde A. A. Sukawati, better known as Tjok Ace, opened the discussion by saying he would like to put forward only two points: the nature of Balinese cremation; and the relationship between the palace and the community. “To Balinese, life is a debt,” he said. He explained that people feel indebted to nature, to their parents, and to their teachers. Cremation is the occasion for repaying those debts. The body is returned to the elements of the universe, and the rituals are an opportunity to pay homage to one’s parents or teacher. Someone asked about the great expense of the rituals. He said, “The more we have, the more we pay.”

As for the relationship between the palace and the community, a ritual of this size calls for a tremendous amount of labour. Some 800 people come every day to help in the uncountable tasks that comprise this immense production. They come, he said, because the palace has been active the cultural affairs of the people. “We call it ‘social investment’,” he said. People feel obliged to offer their labour because the palace has previously supported communities in the renovation of temples and other works of sponsorship. There will be 7,000 people helping on the day of the cremation — 2,000 to take turns carrying the cremation tower from the palace to the burning ground at Pura Dalem Puri.

Tjokorda Gde Raka Sukawati (Tjok De) took questions about what people do about their jobs when they are helping out at the puri. He said, “They put their work aside. This is the community in Bali. It’s understood.”

One of the sons, also called Tjok De, went over the ritual schedule, noting that only the Nyiramin ceremony on Wednesday the 27th would be closed to the public. At this intimate family ritual, the body is bathed in holy water and adorned with an array of magical symbols in the first stage of releasing the soul from its shell. Successive rituals of almost indescribable complexity conduct the soul through further stages of refinement. The big day of the cremation itself is a grand public spectacle to which everyone is welcome.

“Are there any more questions?” the princes asked sweetly.

“Where’s the best place to watch?”

The group broke up for lunch, exchanging tips for the best vantage points along Ubud Main Street. Hint: the second storey of the market. Dress code: temple clothes and running shoes.