When I first heard about Nyepi I didn’t quite get it. Like there is a day in Bali when everything shuts down and no one is allowed in or out? Seaports and airports are closed and planes are even banned from flying overhead? Cars, and in fact people, aren’t allowed on the streets and everyone has to stay home (or in their hotel) where they can’t turn on the lights or watch TV?
Well, it’s the truth for once a year this resort island closes down for 24 hours while everyone observes the Hindu Day of Silence, which is the first day of the Bali New Year. On this day, everyone follows the ‘four fastings’: No electricity, No work, No travel, No amusement. This year it was March 23.
The Balinese believe everything has a place in the world and even the evil spirits need to be kept in check. They do this by getting them off Bali before Nyepi and tricking them into thinking no one is there by keeping the island dark and quiet for one day. If it works, then the demons go elsewhere and the New Year brings good luck and peace.
If you think it’s all a bit daft and decide not to go along with it, you can forget that because there are religious police on the streets to enforce it. They wear black and white checked sarongs and if they see just a bit of light coming through your window they’ll be knocking on your door. Foreigners and nonbelievers must stay inside too. If they go out, they’ll be made to clean the local temple and have to buy everyone living around it a kilo of rice, so I’m told. At the very least they’ll be forcibly brought back to their hotel or home.
Before Nyepi, the Balinese want to get rid of the evil spirits that are already on the island. They do this through a Melasti purification ritual when they make their way to the ocean or if they live in the mountains, to a lake. Seawater is a symbol of purification so it washes away problems along with the demons.
This ceremony usually takes place the third day before Nyepi because the number three is regarded as sacred in the Hindu Balinese faith. Many of them walk to the sea as part of a procession; others arrive by car or motorcycle. Everyone I saw was carrying offerings and a few had temple paraphernalia. It was raining rather heavily in Denpasar that day but that didn’t seem to matter although everyone seemed to be dressed in their finest traditional clothes.
The night before Nyepi—Balinese New Year’s Eve—there is the final effort to chase the demons away. Streets are closed to cars and motorbikes and grotesque creatures with exaggerated features constructed of wood and covered with paper mâché move into the public spaces. They are called Ogoh-ogohs. Children have great fun checking out the various demons while their parents find a place for the family to kneel in front of a temple before the ceremony starts. Priests come out on the street to sprinkle holy water and offer blessings. A fire was built close to me and a small, black pig carried in and sprinkled with holy water. Was it to be sacrificed? Musicians started playing and several men were in a trance and restrained by those around them. I was forced to kneel so as not to block the view and found myself up against a wall with a Moslem family.
Suddenly everyone was up, chanting and carrying the Ogoh-ogohs down the street, some so frightful that they were sure to scare off any leftover demons before being burned at the beach.
Nyepi Day starts at 6:00 am and lasts 24 hours. Entrances to the hotel where I am staying are blocked. I make my way to the roof and look out on the vacant street. Not even the religious police can be seen. The hotel tries to keep guests happy with a Nyepi program. One activity is “Silent Pool Volleyball”. The coordinator wears tape across his mouth as a reminder to everyone to be quiet. This doesn’t work for players scream whenever someone makes a score and people start to feel edgy.
A buffet dinner has been arranged. By the time it gets underway it is so dark out that no one can see what’s being served so a few candles are strategically placed. In the end everyone seems satisfied to have made it through the day, perhaps not in contemplation but still not so bad for being on an island when the whole place comes to a complete halt.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2012