photos and text by Rio Helmi


This morning I wandered down to Localista and the gallery to have a quick coffee before attempting my first shot at a work-out in weeks. Disheveled, and in appropriately (for the gym that is) grubby day-before t-shirt, I got caught out. There, just down the road in front of Puri Saren they were getting ready to put up the tiered roofs of the cremation tower. And as anyone who has been in Ubud for more than 24 hours knows, they make big-ass royal cremation towers in this town.


Throwing my gear at the café staff, I rushed down the street like a lemming left behind by his buddies. There were already all manner of lenses pointing up in the air. Even Vera Sukawati, my fellow ‘half breed’ (she’s half Dutch) and  daughter of the late Tjokorde being cremated had her blackberry purposefully angled up to catch the decisive moment. She has been an indefatigable force, quitting her job to look after her ailing elderly parents, and now organizing things behind the scenes for her beloved father’s last rites. My old photog friend Fendi Siregar, who is documenting the whole series of rituals for Vera was of course videoing the scene, he had at last doffed his trade mark cap and replaced it with the traditional Balinese udeng.


All eyes, royal, pleb, or just plain tourist, were fixed on the tower. But I couldn’t slip by Vera’s sharp eyed  brother Sven without him commenting at my unshowered look: “What, you just got up?” Dang. Thank goodness scratch and sniff hasn’t hit Facebook yet.


In amongst all the Cokordes and banjar members stiff necking at the sky I spied Tjok Gede, who has long come into his own as an undagi (an undagi is a Balinese blend of architect, civil engineer, master of traditional building code, and master artisan) specializing in these enormous royal cremation towers.  And yeah, there was just a touch of nervousness showing through the calm veneer. And who could blame him. This is the trickiest part of the whole several meters high construction. Two to three meters wide wings? No problem. Building the tratag  staircase that has to lead from the courtyard over the wall right up to the central portion where the body will go on it’s short ride to the cremation ground? Piece of cake.


But this bit of monster meccano set assembly always has everyone holding their breath. First you have to wrestle what must be a ton of  tiered roofs up the ramp while not destroying any of the delicate tinsel paper cut out filigree stuff. Then you have to get 20 guys to manoeuvre it exactly into place so that when it goes up it more or less slots unto the base (for obvious reasons it is never designed to be a tight fit). Then you slowly carefully hoist it up with teams of men pushing on long poles in concert, each team right behind the other, while down the back another team tries to avoid rope burn while holding on to stay lines for dear life  (you really don’t want the thing to keep going past vertical point!).


You might think that the Balinese are super confident as they have done this a hundred times before. Hmm, maybe. But I notice how no-one below is standing anywhere near the opposite side, or for that matter anywhere near any possible trajectory. Except for maybe the odd fool tourist or over-enthusiastic photographer. As the Arab saying goes, “Trust in God but tie  your camels”.  On the ground a district chief regales me with a story of one tower in another village where top tiers just kept going, toppling to the ground with a mighty (and embarrassing) crash. For one brief, exhilarating moment I start wondering what that might look like. Before I can suppress the urge, I find my self checking my camera settings to make sure they are ready for “action”. We photographers can be such animals.



Finally, after lots of shouting and fine adjustment, six meters up on the ramp, the men finally start actually hoisting up the top tiers. Slowly carefully, and in manageable stages. Then after another round of shouts and commands criss-cross the air in typical Balinese fashion,  comes the final push, ever so tensely, ever so delicately (that’s a lot of wood and tinsel up there) the top half finally settles into place with hardly a wobble. Men scurry up the inside to tie it all down to the base.


Phew. A group of early bird tourists clap in delight. Tjok Gede finally relaxes, his face just a tad flushed as a tiny bead of sweat rolls down his forehead. He flashes a big grin as I tease him about the nightmares he must have been having the last few nights. But really: Bravo.