Indonesia: Bali, behind the lens

 

[words and photograph © Mark Eveleigh]

It is not easy to get to the ancient Balinese cemetery near Trunyan village. It’s accessible only by boat and even under a bright Balinese sun, the voyage can be an eerie one. Giant monitor lizards, big as crocodiles, inhabit the lake and as we round the point a sudden wind picks up, threatening to push our little rowing boat towards the rocks.

The old man who acts as cemetery guardian helps me off the boat and I flip open a pack of cigarettes. Almost anywhere in Indonesia it is folly, even for a non-smoker, to arrive in a village without a pack of cigarettes to share around. The guardian takes one for himself and places two more in front of the skulls that guard the stone steps that lead up to the tree-shaded cemetery. The Bali Aga people here are known as ‘Hindus of the wind’ and they lay their dead out to decompose in the highland air.

As several of the corpses are still relatively fresh I had imagined that the smell could be overwhelming and had anticipated that, should it be necessary, I could break with the habit of a lifetime and smoke one of the clove-scented Gudang Garam cigarettes myself rather than risk offence by having to cover my nose. But it’s one of the mysteries of the Bali Aga that there is no odour here at all. The great tree that throws its shade over the bodies is called taru menyan and it is said that the name of Trunyan village derives from the words which translate as ‘sweet smelling tree’.

“The dead can only be brought here when our priests say that the omens are right,” Nyoman, my boatman, explains. “Sometimes they have to be kept in the village for more than a week waiting and the smell of rotting flesh makes everyone sick. But the strange thing is that as soon as they’re brought here the smell completely disappears.”

 

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