Nyepi is the name of the Balinese Hindu New Year. It is the only place on earth that observes 24 hours of silence and for me a whole day of silence was absolute bliss and a once in a life time experience. No-one is allowed on the streets, no-one is allowed to make noise, the local TV station is off-air, no-one is allowed to light fires, no-one is allowed to have their lights on, no pleasure, no sex, no electricity and there is definitely no working. Exceptions are only granted for people with life-threatening illnesses or women about to give birth who may need emergency access to a hospital.
That equates to about three million people all indoors observing silence and self-reflection. It’s a one of a kind experience. Nowhere else in the world is silence observed like this on such a grand scale and for such a long period of time. Even the Bali International airport is closed for 24 hours and all of the harbours and ports.
The pecalang, the traditional security men from the villages, patrol the streets to ensure that the religious ritual is being observed. Even non-Hindu’s, fellow Muslims and Christians, on the island observe the tradition.
All the village councils, banjars, make an ogoh-ogoh, a demon or mythical creature made from papier mache and wood. Their purpose is to purify the environment of any evil spirits and also pollutants emitted from the activities of humans on the island. During the day, on the eve of Nyepi, I would highly recommend a drive through the local villages to see the final touches being made on these extravagant, colourful and extremely creative monsters which have taken months to create. Some of the young teens in the village are starting to create more modern interpretations of their own versions of evil.
This ogoh-ogoh with his Bintang in his hand, his beer gut and appendage on show, was certainly the most frightening that I saw. The message is fairly clear. If you’ve ever traveled to Bali, you may have seen one of these ‘visiting demons’ for yourself in Kuta.
Starting just after dusk, the ogoh-ogoh are carried on a platform built of timber planks and bamboo on the shoulders of the young men from that village. The procession is accompanied by an amazing ruckus of Indonesian gamelan (brass musical instruments and drums). It feels like you are witnessing one giant exorcism.
During the procession, at each street intersection, the ogoh-ogoh are rotated counter-clockwise three times. This is to confuse the evil spirits so that they leave the island and cease harming human beings.
The streets are crowded and lined with parents and children to view the parade. It really is an amazing sight and one of the highlights of any cultural experience in Bali. After the parade, the ogoh-ogoh are then taken back to the villages and set alight. From just before sunrise, around 6:00 am, the whole island is silent for the following 24 hours.
Nyepi is commonly held around mid-March and like all ceremonies in Bali, it is dependant upon the moon and the timing of the Balinese calendar.
For those who think that 24 hours of silence sounds more like torture, never fear. Most hotels respectfully observe the religious ritual from the street but behind the hotels’ facade you are free to do as you wish as long as it does not involve copious amounts of noise.
For me, the day was spent sunning myself poolside reading my favourite book. I wholeheartedly embrace the start of a new year in this way but it did make me reflect about the way most Westerners celebrate our New Year. We too spend most of the day in silence, but usually because we are nursing a thumping hangover.