Tarzan in lycra

This is a story about an old friend, Nyoman Suradnya, and the insensitivity that tourists visiting Bali often demonstrated towards his culture and traditions. I use the past tense here because the story is told from the perspective of Nyoman’s cremation.

The first part of the story follows;

Tarzan in lycra

His perch on an intact grave afforded him a wide view. Dressed in a Javan farmers hat, swimming trunks, and Mala beads, he rattled off shots. Macaque swung above on drooping branches waiting for an opportunity to scoop up edible offerings, now scattered about the graveyard. Below him, kerosene burners roared, and flames enveloped bodies.

“Look, Tarzan!” Nyoman exclaimed.

Lifting my own camera, immortalising the insensitivity,  I wondered how Nyoman could be so sanguine, so humorous.

Already a traveller, who had journeyed beyond the certainty of Balinese ritual and cosmology, Nyoman had entered the third space. From this vantage point, like many before him, he attempted to make sense of the dissonance and the consonance.

Nyoman as he was in those early days of knowing him. Photo by Matina Pentes

Thirty-four years on it was Nyoman’s cremation. Outliving him felt strange though during these last four years I watched his health slipping away. Only sometimes was he up for a long chat, but long became 30 minutes when once it was hours.

Nyoman was the first Balinese person to explain that his body like mine was a microcosm of the universe, comprising five elements: air, earth, fire, water, and space. Yet all was transient.

“The body is only a temporary place for the immortal soul, the atma,” he explained. “We believe that according to the principles of samsara the soul will find another home.”

“You mean in another person,” I asked.

“No, just another home. It depends. If the person has led an exemplary life the soul might become one with God.”

“But a soul who isn’t in such a state can be reborn, right? They might be born into something lowly?”

“Yes, of course, and may be reborn over and over until they get it right.”

Nyoman had a knack of explaining his cosmology and religion with clarity and patience.

Thinking about him a lot that day, I recalled another explanation he had given me.  It was pertinent in the moment.

“When we die, we don’t immediately go on into the next stage. Maybe the soul hangs about near the body, even creating problems because it doesn’t want to leave, and it’s reaching out to the family. Often someone in this process of moving on needs help.”

“How can they be helped,” I asked.

“We help by holding special ceremonies, called Pitra Yadnya.”


Nyoman had died a few weeks before and was buried, awaiting this auspicious day. He was to join others, recently deceased, in a mass cremation. It was an obvious day for a cremation as it was Yama[1], in the eight-day week.

Pitra Yadnya ceremonies have several stages. I decided to miss the earlier ceremony with the Pedanda[2] and move straight to the cremation ground. Wanting to make my contribution I wore Balinese ceremonial dress, the least I could do for Nyoman.

I found Nyoman’s family standing by a shallow open grave with his barely recognisable form lying below.

[1] As a syncretic society Bali has an ancient foundation of Austronesian beliefs in theology it principally a fusion of Buddhism and Hinduism. In Buddhism, Yama is believed to judge the dead while in Hinduism he is the first mortal to have died so became the ruler of the departed.

[2] Balinese Brahminic high priest