For one day a year Bali gets back to its true nature. Electricity is cut off. The roads are empty. You can see the stars at night. No interference from artificial light. For a day those two stroke Hondas are silenced. No one is asking you for a taxi, a massage, or anything for that matter. Birds sing. There’s no competing noise.
Another era descends on the island. Silence prevails.
Nyepi is the Balinese New Year . It falls on the new moon of the Lunar Cake calendar. On this day, the Hindus believe that Yama, the lord of Evil in the Ramayana, opens his gates, releasing a horde of evil deities onto the island.
On the eve of Nyepi , the Balinese build elaborate floats made from foam and paper mache, representing evil in its many guises There’s a mommy wearing Ray Band Sunglasses. Previous years have seen George Bush, and the Bali bomber, Amorozi, paraded in the streets.
These giant effigies of evil incarnate are mounted on giant bamboo platforms — including traditional demons such as Rangda — and are marched out onto the main road by Balinese dressed in sarongs and T-shirts. It’s believed that these effigies that are ornately decorated, are suppose to capture the evil spirits through traditional dances and Hindu incantations. Sealing the fate of Yama’s miscreants, the floats are burnt down at Kuta beach later that evening before Nyepi begins at six am Saturday morning. It’s believed the evil spirits are purged from the Bali Island for another year. While others believe that the offering and parading of these monsters may also placate them.
At immigration, getting stamped into Bali at Denpasar International Airport, I tell the officer I’m here for Nyepi festival. “You won’t go anywhere,” he advises. He wasn’t being mean about it. At the time I didn’t comprehend what he meant, but would find out in a few days. All I knew was that there would be a Hindu festival. There’d be a steep learning curve over the next few days.
Days leading up to the festival Kuta is a flurry of activity with little missions to the temples where Balinese finalize preparations for the big day. The city seems partially closed. Not quite asleep. Compared to a month ago when I was here, Bali was now preparing for a 24 hour period of silence and contemplation.
Many tourists, use to the hustle and bustle of Bali, the Bintang beer, and night life, were making other arrangements. Flights out of Bali were booked out. “Many tourists aren’t use to the quiet of Nyepi,” said one travel agent. “ They just want to come to Bali to party. And when they can’t party, they feel that the 24 hour imposed silence is a form of a torture.” One Javanese, who flies regularly to Bali for holidays, was trying to find an escape route. “The idea of being confined to my hotel room, with out electricity, isn’t my idea of a holiday.”
Boats to the nearest Lombok and Gilli islands were booked out. “At least you can party on Lombok,” said a French tourist, who hoped to escape the imposed curfew by spending the Nyepi period on the predominantly Muslim island. “How can I live without music and aircon,” he said, adding, “I’m on holidays, and don’t want this inconvenience.”
The hotel I stayed at would provide cheap meals during the 24-hour period that Nyepi ran, from 6am Saturday morning till 6 am the following morning. In preparation, I stocked up on provisions: noodles, chocolates, bread and cigarettes.
Three hundred and sixty four days of the year, you can hear techno blasting on Laguna Street, and touts offering you all kinds of illicit services. “You want ganga mister.” At midnight the discos are boarded up, and the mini marts are sealed off with black plastic. On this night, its designated for warding off evil spirits.I can only assume that the evil spirits wont find a safe haven while the Balinese purge them with their elaborate rituals and ceremonies.
On Saturday, there were no flights entering or leaving Bali. The Ogoh Ogoh Festival began at 8 pm, a clash of the monsters, and traditional colorful competition that has religious significance.
I’m at the front of the crowd of a major intersection. The monster floats are being maneuvered in crazy moves, three times, anti clock wise, in an effort to capture the evil spirits in their floats and to win the judges attention.
“Get back,” says the pecalang, a village elder dressed in his trademark checked black sarong. He can hardly be heard over the noise of gongs, drum roles, and chanting of Ramayana epics. “It’s for you own safety,’ he adds, as he steers a western male to safely, as one of the large floats of Shiva whirls around the intersection like a banshee without a driver’s license.
The large float heaved in violent thrusts of the men who were controlling it by bamboo poles. A formidable sight that I’ve never seen any where in South East Asia. Then out comes a devil, from a float, with fire works. He is the devil incarnate, and does an ornate dance, to the sound of drums and a growling chant from the speakers. Theatre doesn’t get any better than this. And the last float has until 2 am before Ogoh Ogoh contest wraps up.
My battery on my camera ran out. During the festival, I had my MacBook out and was filming it. The Balinese were so gracious about it. They didn’t care that this eccentric foreigner was documenting the event with his laptop. They seemed to feed off the interest us foreigners had in their unique festival.
Eve of Nyrepi
I head home at midnight in preparation for the Silent Vigil.
“Yesterday was very heavy, very introspective,” said an Italian tourist, the day after Nyepi. “First time I came was in 92. I have been coming every since. Some time twice a year. So this year is the first time I’ve experienced Nayepi.” So what were your impressions?
“Strong! in the sense of its tradition. The whole thing is strong. What I personally noticed, the atmosphere, the silence, speaking in low voices, you are almost afraid of speaking aloud. No fans, no lap tops, no lights, no electricity. It was very heavy, thick energy in the atmosphere,”
I could see lights flashing, in the intense dark as I lay on my bed, I told the Italian. “That’s the energy! They are all the negative energies that float around the night of Nyapi,” he answered.
And the next morning I did feel feel cleansed and charged for another year, knowing that the Balinese had sorted out the demons and evil spirits the night before.