The birth of a baby in Bali heralds a time for rejoicing and is marked with great reverence and significance; but also obligates families to pay tribute to the invisible world by honoring their ancestors, gods and spirits by way of prayers, multiple offerings and rituals. However, when a child dies prematurely, very little occurs in the tangible world; rather, the unseen world of spirits and magic becomes paramount, instilling fear in some grieving families, while providing comfort and solace to others.
WHEN A BABY SURVIVES…
Occasionally even prior to birth, rituals are undertaken to ensure a safe pregnancy.* For example, after a woman learns that she is pregnant, a megedong gedongan (garbadhana samskara) ceremony may take place 210 days – or seven months – from conception. This ceremony occurs in the home and family temple, with offerings made and ancestors invited to bless the fetus, prevent miscarriage and ensure safe delivery.
Immediately following delivery, the focus shifts to the placenta – the baby’s sibling. As such, its spirit survives as long as the child and must be cared for. The father washes the placenta (using only his right hand) and places it into a payuk or periuk kecil (container) in front of the family balé. Alternatively, if a payuk cannot be used, the placenta is placed into a coconut, which is then buried in the earth.
Offerings are made and a white piece of cotton is placed on the earth, onto which the Balinese omkara and amkara – powerful symbols asking for the gods’ protection – are inscribed. Flowers are laid on the cloth, and some add a pen or pencil – to ensure that the child will grow to be wise. Often, when a newborn is fed, so is his placenta.
The connection to the buried placenta is honored in other ways as well throughout childhood: When a parent buys candy for a child, it will place one on top of the placenta. When a child leaves the compound, a parent will take a bit of dust from the mound under which the placenta is buried and place it on their child’s forehead.
The umbilical cord is not always removed at birth; it could take up to one week for the cord to be removed or, preferably, to shrivel and fall off by itself. While the cord is still intact, the mother is sebel (impure) and thus must rest and stay within her quarters, while others attend to her daily needs. When the cord detaches, an offering for the gods who protect the baby – called banten kumara – is placed in a spot behind the baby’s sleeping area. The offering itself is kept for a few days, however the dish that holds the offering, will remain in situ up to six months.
The day that the cord comes off, the husband or mother-in-law will often visit a balian, who will check the lontar (ritual obligations and prescriptions carved into palm leaf) to determine which of the family’s ancestors has been reincarnated in the newborn.
Other major ceremonies take place twelve days, and forty-two days, after birth. The village pemangku blesses and names the baby at a ceremony called ngelapas hawon; major cleansings of the kitchen, family temple and compound are undertaken; and in some instances, gold and silver jewelry is given as gifts. In some villages, at forty-two days, the macolongan ceremony takes place, when a parent appropriates – and the high priest cleans and blesses – a neighbor’s baby chicken so that it grows with the baby. Forty-two days also marks the day on which the mother is no longer deemed sebel, and is permitted to re-enter the temple and prepare offerings.
Three months from birth marks the moment when a baby’s feet first touch the ground – a ceremony marking this transition is celebrated widely and with great ceremonial pomp. Often the baby is placed under a rooster basket and its hair, as short as it might be, is shaved off, to demarcate his or her transition into a new phase of infancy.
At six months of age, one of the key rites of passage occurs when a baby celebrates her satu oton, first otonan (birthday), which thereafter – and until death – is marked every 210 days, or one year according to the Balinese calendar. Offerings are made at the family temple, showing gratitude to the gods and ancestors for protecting the baby in its first year of life.
Sometime after the satu oton, when a child’s first teeth appear, the ngempugin ceremony is held, with offerings at the family temple, to pray for the rest of the child’s teeth to grow in, strong and healthy. When a child turns six(or thereabouts), a ceremony is held to celebrate the falling out of his first tooth (tumbuh gigi). This normally coincides with the time that children begin their studies, so parents prepare offerings and pray for their child’s ability to learn and acquire knowledge. More ceremonies mark rites of passage such as menstruation.
WHEN A BABY DIES…
As childhood turns to adolescence, the ceremonies and rituals continue, right through adulthood, old age and death. But when death comes early (or before birth), not only is a husband and wife struck with sudden grief and sadness, but the entire gamut of ceremonies and rites of passage that are inextricably tied to the life cycle in Bali, is quashed in one fell swoop.
Typically, when a baby dies, the body is carried immediately to the cemetery, covered in a white cloth and buried in a grave in the separate children’s section; this is attributed to the fact that babies and young children are sacred and, as such, must be buried apart from adults in order to avoid potential contamination.? If a baby has died in hospital, the family is obligated to undertake the burial prior to returning home; otherwise the journey of the baby’s soul spirit could be tampered with by black magic.
The death of a newly deceased baby is not reported to the head of banjar, nor is the kulkul (traditional wooden bell) rung to inform all villagers of a death – as is done when an adult villager dies. No special ceremony is done. A mother who has buried her child is deemed sebel and is therefore barred from entering a temple for 42 days; the father can return to work and enter a temple after only twelve days.
The only ceremony that approaches the symbolic importance of an adult’s death is the ngelungah (or ngerapuh), which is similar to the ngaben (cremation) that is performed for adults. But not all families mark the death of a child with a ngaben. Still, like with adults who have died, only a symbolic representation of the baby is conveyed to the village’s communal cremation that takes place every five years.
Such will be the case when Ubud resident I Madé Budiartha and his family join the ngaben with the remains or effigies of his wife Komang and newborn baby – sometime in the next three years. Last year, Komang’s pregnancy and delivery resulted in the birth of a healthy baby. But, as a longtime asthma sufferer, she and her newborn remained in hospital under observation for five days. The baby began to experience breathing difficulties and died soon after. Madé buried the baby with relatives and members of his banjar.
Komang, who was already home, was fine but feeling short-winded. One night, shortly after her return, her heart-valve exploded; but since neither she nor Madé recognized the symptoms, they returned to sleep. The next morning, after showering, Komang collapsed and died. Madé buried her the same day. Since last year, and until the ngaben, he continues to bring offerings to his wife’s and child’s graves during major festivals and holidays.
Offerings are, in many cases, the only way that an infant is memorialized. I Ketut Pardana and his wife Nyoman live in a village close to Kintamani. After his wife’s miscarriage, Ketut visited a balian who said that the fetus was a boy, and that they had to prepare offerings to the gods and spirits; these offerings were key to subduing Nyoman’s sadness, and to ensure that she would not be haunted by the baby’s spirit.
Still today, a spot is reserved at the head of Ketut and Nyoman’s bed, for the rantasan, a ceremonial dish piled with baby boys’ clothing, shoes, a comb and a child’s toy.? Each morning, Nyoman lays an offering on the dish in memory of their baby’s death, and every afternoon she disposes of it. Whenever food is prepared, a portion is also laid on the baby’s dish before the family eats.
Unlike Made and Ketut, who offer no spiritual explanations for their loss, others attribute their baby’s premature death to inexplicable or invisible forces. Two years ago, after an emergency C-section, and three days of incubation, Wayan Sitri and her husband Komang learned that their baby died. While the baby was still on life support, Komang kept watch outside the NICU. “I felt the earth shaking three times,” he says, “but every time I looked down the corridor and outside at the street, nobody was paying attention, everyone was doing their normal things. I was the only one who felt the shaking.”
Wayan is still visibly shaken by the memory and rises to leave as Komang continues: “When the baby died, the doctor didn’t let Wayan touch the baby, because it would make her sad. He didn’t want her falling tears to bother the baby’s spirit as it left the visible world of sekalah to the unseen spiritual world of niskalah.” It also proved problematic to leave the hospital with the baby: “He died in the middle of the night, but we Balinese cannot bring a baby – dead or alive – outside at night, so we had to wait until the morning to leave. But then I had problems to find a taxi to take us home, because the drivers didn’t want to carry the body of a dead baby if its spirit could make trouble for them.”
Upon further reflection, Komang recalls a powerful dream from the night before his baby died: “I dreamed of a woman from my village who was known for doing black magic. She brought me a babi guling to eat. When I woke up, I knew that it was a bad sign because we believe that eating food made by someone we don’t know can bring evil spirits into our house and harm our family.”
Dreams, visions and other signs might be considered superstition to some, but to many Balinese, they are omens, warning of real threats and dangers ahead – and, as such, are heeded.
Before Kadek Manik’s baby was birthed (with complications in utero), she and her husband Ketut already knew that he would not survive. Still, the tiny fetus, not yet six months when delivered, continued to breathe – and hold onto Ketut’s thumb – for fifteen minutes, before passing away. Kadek believes that driving her scooter on bumpy roads was instrumental in leading to his premature death, and feels somewhat responsible for his death. She says “his soul came down to earth, but didn’t want to stay.” Ketut also believes that their baby’s soul came to greet them, but didn’t intend to stay.
In death, as much as in life, Balinese children are sacred beings. When a baby dies, life goes on, but the mandatory waiting time for a ngaben – and for some kind of closure – is often long, and the grief, undoubtedly, everlasting.
*It is important to note, that offerings, ceremonies and rituals – in life and death – may vary from one village to another.
Copyright 2013 Bali Advertiser
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