In many more ways than one Bali is the exact opposite of the West; While Westerners open the New Year in revelry, the Balinese open their own New Year in silence. This is Nyepi Day, the Balinese Day of Silence, which begins on the day, following the dark moon of the spring equinox, and opens a New Year of the Saka Hindu.
On Nyepi day proper, which starts with sunrise, don’t expect to be able to do very much at all. You will have to stay within the grounds of your resort. No traffic is allowed, not only cars and motorbikes, but also people, who have to stay in their individual houses and are not permitted to leave for anything short of an absolute emergency (panic not anyone in need of medical attention – the hospitals are fully operational during Nyepi).
Light is kept to a minimum, radios and televisions are tuned down, and no one works, of course. Even lovemaking, this ultimate activity of all leisure-timers, is not supposed to take place, nor even attempted during Nyepi. A whole day simply filled with the barking of Bali’s wild dogs, the shrill of insects and simply a long, long period of uninterrupted quiet. A welcome day of serenity, of calm and an opportunity for the island and it’s people to rest.
Nyepi is a religious event. Bali is a Hindu society, one that believes in the karmapala principle, according to which the dynamics of life, and of Man’s individual fate, is set in motion by ‘action’. Man is in the midst of a Samsara cycle of incarnations, each of which is determined by the quality of his actions (karma) in his existence. His ‘ideal’ is thus to put the system to rest, to control one’s actions, and thus to subdue one’s inner demons. Only in such a way can Man hope to achieve ‘deliverance’ from his cycles of life (moksa) and eventually merge with the Oneness of the Void, the Ultimate Silence of Sunya.
The Day of Silence is a symbolic replay of these philosophical principles. At the beginning of the year, the world is ‘clean’. It has been cleansed in the previous days. All the effigies of the gods from all the village temples have been taken to the sea or to the river in long and colourful ceremonies. There they have been bathed by the Neptunus of Balinese lore, the god Baruna, before being taken back to residence in their shrines of origin. On the eve of Nyepi all villages also hold a large ceremony of exorcism at the main village crossroad, by lore the meeting place of the demons.
There at the crossroads a Siwa priest addresses the gods, a Buddha priest, the middle world and a Sengguhu priest the netherworld. At night the demons of the Bali world are let loose on the roads in a carnival of fantastically crafted monsters – the Ogoh-Ogohs.
Thus, on the day of Silence, the world is clean and everything starts anew, Man showing his symbolic control over himself and the ‘force’ of the world. Hence the mandatory religious prohibitions of mati lelangon (no pleasure), mati lelungan (no traffic), mati geni (no fire or light) and mati pekaryan meaning that nobody may undertake any work, even Ngurah Rai airport remains closed for business for one day of the year.
There is more than mere religion, though, to Nyepi. Twenty years ago, there was still fun to it. Traffic was discouraged, but there were almost no cars anyway, and people would walk freely around, visit friends and the like. But now, Nyepi has become a demonstration of identity. Faced with urbanization, large-scale migration of non-Balinese to the island and a withering of its agrarian basis, not to mention the millions of tourists visiting the island, the Balinese use Nyepi to remind all those visiting guests of who exactly is ruling the land.
And they do it so gently, as with almost everything Balinese, in the most peaceful manner. Think of the Balinese demons. Which other people in the world take its demons in the streets in a non-political carnival, as the Balinese do in the Ngrupuk cavalcade of the night preceding Nyepi.
This cavalcade of demons is as relaxed as Nyepi proper is serious. The parade is held all over Bali, but the most fantastic one is undoubtedly that of Denpasar. There all the banjar (ruling village heads) neighborhood participants and hundreds of youth associations make their own Ogoh-Ogoh monsters. Banjar neighborhoods and youth associations, who raise a special ‘tax’ for the purchase of the needed glue, bamboo and cowhide, make the Ogoh-Ogoh. Some work at it for weeks on end and spend millions of Rupiah on their creations, hoping to have the most beautiful effigy of the village or of the entire neighborhood.
Some are giants from the classical Balinese lore, while others are guitarists, bikers or even AIDS microbes. All with fangs, bulging eyes and scary hair. Thus, when they all come out at sunset, illuminated by torches and with the accompaniment of the most demonic gamelan music (bleganjur) of the Balinese repertoire, Denpasar becomes another, gentler Rio Den Janeiro. Heading for Gaja Mada street and the Puputan square, they surge suddenly by the hundreds, more ‘horrible’ the ones than the others, each carried on the shoulder of four to thirty youths, jerking this way or that way so as to give the impression of a dance, or suddenly turning in a circle, much to the fascination of the spectators.
This is not a small procession, it lasts for three to four hours, as if Bali has an inexhaustible pool of demons. All the Ogoh-Ogohs eventually head for the Puputan square, where they are burned. The world is then cleansed and ready for the day of Silence, a day without demons.
Today’s Ngrupuk festival has lost some of its symbolic religious meaning. Youth see it as an occasion for merriment and creativity, travel agents as a business opportunity, Banjars and youth associations as a means to assert their ’superiority’. Fights sometimes erupt with politics never far beneath the surface. For this reason the present tendency is toward the control of the Ngrupuk festival and its demons.
Let’s us hope, though, that the Balinese demons will always remain as gentle as they have throughout the centuries and that the world at large can be inspired by Nyepi, a very sacred and inspirational day of peace.