Bodies Below the Banyan Tree

Death and travel.

Outside the cemetery is a hand-painted sign, in wonky English.

“This place remind all of us will die. Because of that:
Don’t be proud.
Don’t be spite.
Don’t be greedy.
It’s important to be seen by the human being who realise they will die.”

A pair of pantomime effigies, arms limp like dolls, beckon in the living. One is a man, with lips framed into a juicy smile. His suit jacket is rotting away, revealing the warped bamboo frame of his body. His partner is a woman. Her yellow dress has been eaten by the rain.

These soggy sentinels guard a dark entranceway framed by knotted creepers and flanked by two stone columns. On top of each sits a human skull. Real ones.

A bit of mise en scène for you. I’m deep within a volcanic caldera, and have just been rowed across a black lake by two boatmen. It’s pure Halloween, or would be, were it not summer in Bali. But I’m a long way from the tattoos, traffic jams and outlet stores of the coast. This is the island’s dark heart. From Google Earth, the crater, 20 kilometres across, looks like a giant beady eye. The black lake, Danau Batur, is the iris, staring east. And the cemetery is a speck of dust atop it, a tiny clearing between cliffs, accessible only by boat.

I’m inside the cemetery now, stepping over the roots and twisting trunks of a fabulous banyan tree. One of the boatmen tells me it’s a thousand years old. It can’t be, I think. Regardless, this giant started life as a fig. The seed of a fig, as small as a grain of sand. And now it shelters the dead.

Unlike us mortals, banyan trees seem to cheat death. They strangle their hosts with love, then spread outwards, sometimes becoming a whole clonal colony, a forest of genetically identical trees.

Eastern religions revere them. Buddha sat under a banyan tree for seven days, pondering his enlightenment. Hinduism celebrates the banyan as a tree of immortality, likening it to the shelter given by God to his devotees. But it is also associated with Yama, the God of death.

This banyan tree, though, has a certain other usefulness. The locals call it taru menyan, meaning something like tree of fragrance. They believe it absorbs the reek of the dead as the bodies rot. Like a giant version of one of those pine-scented air fresheners that dangle from the rear-view mirror of a family sedan. Taru Menyan Fresh®.

Because, in the cemetery of Trunyan village (the name supposedly a derivation of taru menyan), the dead are not buried. They are right here, on the ground, next to me. The most recent corpse has been in residence for four weeks, wrapped in a white sarong. I try not to look. I fail.

“See, there is no smell!” grins the boatman. The bodies rest in simple bamboo cages to keep them safe from wild animals. It’s called mepasah, the flesh returning to the earth, while the souls are carried up towards heaven by the birds, as offerings to the gods. When new dead come in, arriving by boat in solemn ceremony, the bones of the longer-serving tenants are gathered up and stacked all around the small clearing, or pushed into folds and hollows of the tree.

There are leg bones, arm bones, and skulls by the score. This isn’t as horrifying as it sounds. As a species, we scrub up quite well in bone form, I realise. Alive, the lucky are handsome and shapely; the unlucky probably look better as skeletons. But underneath the meat and the hair, we’re all just slightly goofy marionettes.

Other creatures not so much. Rabbits, for example. No rabbit ever looked comelier sans fur or floppy ears. Cut them off, peel it away, braise what’s left in a five spice broth, and they are pure horror. I once ate two and a half rabbit heads at a place called, appropriately, Grandma Wang’s Rabbit Head Restaurant in Beijing. (Summary tasting notes: tongue = chewy as hell, cheeks = OK, brain = delicious blob of foie gras.)

Don’t be greedy, the sign said.

It’s quiet, under the tree, with the dead. The cemetery clearing is about the size of a squash court, which might sound like an incongruous metric, but the particular dimensions of a squash court correlate to the claustrophobic depth here. And the sweaty humidity. And the creeping sense that life, like bouncing a ball really hard against a wall, is somewhat futile.

The loudest noises are our footsteps, each one crunching the detritus of the departed. Cigarettes, coffee cups, bowls, plates, old shoes, tubes of toothpaste, toothbrushes. Toothbrushes! Brushing twice a day is dull enough for the warm-bodied. I crouch to brush aside layers of dried banyan leaves, and find the floor carpeted in money. Useless low denomination notes, 1,000, 5,000 rupiahs, even a few old Chinese coins cut through with square holes.

“You can take a photo!” grins a boatman, who surely realises he will die. Perhaps he thinks I don’t, just yet. But it’s dawning on me.

I realise I will die. Kind of. I mean, I kind of realise I will die, yet I hope I will only kind of die. I hope something will stay behind after I’m gone. Some artistic legacy, positive spiritual vibes, or failing that, kids. Does that make me proud and greedy? Pretty sure it doesn’t make me spiteful.

These bodies and bones belong to the original Balinese. The people of Trunyan village call themselves Bali Aga, old Bali, claiming to be the first islanders. They predate the arrival of Javanese Hindus, and now survive in just two inland villages. This is the cemetery of one of them.

The Bali Aga are withdrawn and suspicious, the guidebooks say. They beg for rice and money. Only a few thousand survive. Around 400 families live in the village, the boatman tells me. Also practically inaccessible by road, it has survived repeated eruptions from Gunung Batur, rising 700m above the caldera, because the lava just fizzles into the lake. The last eruption was in the year 2000.

A legend of the Aga refers to a king with the ability to cut off his head and reattach it without pain. But one day it fell into the river and was swept away. A pig was quickly decapitated by a resourceful servant and the king’s head replaced.

I wonder if a pig’s skull looks very different to a human’s.

Unlike everyone else here, we leave the way we had come, by boat. “Caldera” is Spanish for cooking pot, but chill mists are filling the crater now, and the temperature has dropped.

The boatmen remind me to take more photos. I look back at the skulls one last time as we drift away. They grin back at me. Death, the eternal punchline. Eventually, we all get the joke.

I realise I will die.