Nyepi—The Silent Balinese New Year
Nyepi* is the Balinese-Hindu new year celebration rooted in the belief that the island must be ridded of and protected from evil spirits at the beginning of each year. Spirits are scared away on the days leading up to Nyepi through prayer ceremonies and the procession of scary effigies called ogoh-ogoh. The island then remains silent on the actual day of Nyepi so that returning spirits will think the island is deserted and pass over.
Like most things on Bali, Nyepi was attractive. It was full of beautiful fabrics, burning incense, gamelan, great craftsmanship, and excitement. Unlike most things on Bali, however, Nyepi was not meant for tourists. Certain practices, such as the closing of Denpasar’s international airport and the police-enforced tradition of keeping locals and tourists inside their dwellings are anathema to the modern catering culture of Bali.
*sepi=quiet, still; menyepi=to become still, to become desolate (Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Bali)
(all photos courtesy of Nicole E.)
The festivities surrounding Nyepi started several days before the holiday with temple gatherings and offerings. For three days, I watched many Balinese women carry large cornucopias of food up and down streets to community temples. A majority of these offerings, as it turned out, were being dedicated for the local temple’s anniversary. The services were exposed to tourists in central Ubud allowing Oma, Nicole (+photos), and I—along with a few other curious visitors—to step inside for a closer look. Day-to-day temple activities are generally open to the public in Bali so long as the visitor completes full adat—-sleeves, sarongs, and headscarves for both men and women. Most tourists don’t have sarongs or headscarves with them, and a good number of them don’t have sleeves either, but folks can borrow all of the proper attire from a donation-based booth outside of many Balinese temples. An older Hindu man at the temple gate tied a headscarf for me, and we proceeded to the back of the complex where we watched hands clutching flowers move from chest to forehead and back down again through a series of mantras.
The event was typical of Bali’s religious practice: both beautiful and welcoming. The colors, the flowers, the incense, and the mantras were all aesthetically pleasing. The people were willing to have us there and willing to explain details about different hand positions for prayers to ancestors, the creator, or the supreme being. Everything about this temple ceremony, and most things about Balinese Hindu practice, was out in the open. Another example of the public pervasiveness of Bali’s practice are the daily offerings. It’s impossible to walk around Ubud without accidentally stepping on small offerings placed on the sidewalks outside every home and business. I spent a good amount of energy fretting over where my feet landed before a Balinese man explained that there was nothing to worry about because the gods consumed the ‘essence’ of the offering instantly leaving the remains as mere physical objects.
You have to wonder how Bali’s tourism boom has affected religious practice on the island. The expectation is that a traditional culture withers with a large influx of outsiders, but I have the impression that foreign visitors have strengthened Bali’s religious custom—at least on a surficial level. It’s not hard to imagine; Balinese practice is beautiful, and thus (bizarrely), marketable. Even if the temple entrance comes without fee and the adat attire only requires a donation, the serenity that is produced is in demand by Bali’a tourists, and Ubud can use the atmosphere to sell the art galleries that line its streets.
At some point in our wanderings, somebody told us about a free theatrical performance that would be held at the main hall later in the evening. Ubud, by night, is full of venues that package compressed wayang, barong, and kecang performances for Rp. 50.000 a pop. We decided that it would be worth taking advantage of the price and the association with the temple celebration. The only start time we could solicit was “after the temple offerings,” which we were at least able to gather should be finished around seven in the evening. By eight, Oma was ready to call it a night leaving Nicole and I to loiter in and outside of a bookshop for another hour before the show began.
It was quickly apparent that the act was not going to be the same as the condensed shows that are sold each night. There were only a few foreigners on-hand when the show began at nine o’clock. At this point, I realized that there had been no advertisements for the event, and that our information had come from a family we had befriended outside of the temple earlier in the afternoon. Most of the audience consisted of traditionally dressed Hindu families, many of whom had come straight from making offerings. Because this was an event associated with the temple anniversary and not apart of the nightly series, it should have come as no surprise that the dialogue was not held in English. Several of the few tourists left almost immediately. I strained myself to follow the story to no avail for five to ten minutes before realizing that the show wasn’t in Bahasa Indonesia either. All of the dialogue was in Bahasa Bali, and though that really shouldn’t have come as a surprise either, it did send a clear message to me who this event was for. Unlike every other night of the year, this performance was catered only for the locals. The cost allowed Balinese of any class to attend while the language kept away most of the tourists. The dance, slap-stick humor (which didn’t need translation), and people-watching kept me entertained for a full hour, but even this started to lose its luster. Somehow, Nicole and I lasted until eleven thirty, at which point we began to fear that the comedy routine was going to be of the all-night variety typical to Java and Bali. The only thing keeping me glued to my seat at that point was the pride of sticking around until the end, but it didn’t seem to be worth another several hours. We snuck out the back leaving the duration of the show a personal mystery that will go unsolved for the rest of my life.
The next day was the eve of Nyepi, and a good number of places around Ubud were already closed. Oma, Nicole, and I caught word that there would be prayer ceremonies to dedicate the ogoh-ogoh, so in the afternoon we wound our way back to the community center where we had seen the half-constructed effigies the night before. The ogoh-ogoh were finished and standing outside on square platforms of lashed bamboo. Families had gathered together in front of the ogoh-ogoh to make offerings similar to those we had seen at the temple the day before. Two men wielding canes walked circles around food offerings placed at the front and then curiously knocked them over when the mantras were finished.
A few bule rubber-necked as they passed by on motorcycles, but the only foreigners in attendance besides ourselves were another couple with a young child decked out in a Balinese headscarf. During the thirty minute ceremony, there was also a blonde kid who walked back and forth down the street twice carrying Circle-K grocery bags on each of his return trips. The second haul contained what had to have been at least fifteen 660 ml bottles of Bintang, which were surely going to be purposed with making sure him and his buddies didn’t have to remember an eventless day locked in a hotel on Nyepi.
This blonde kid became our coincidence at dinner as Oma, Nicole, and I ended up sharing a table with him in what had become Ubud’s hottest establishment since it was owned and kept open by a Christian family. It turned out that Blondie’s only companion in Bali was his mother but that our guess for the beer was otherwise dead-on. The mother-son pair had not heard of Nyepi before checking into their hotel a few days prior. They seemed nonchalant but astonished that Bali, a resort island catered to Australians and Europeans, would actually close their airport and keep people off the streets for a holiday.
Blondie and his mother wavered on the prospect of watching the evening’s parade, so Oma, Nicole, and I left them to finish their meals in order to find a prime spot on the main route. The parade, where each community’s ogoh-ogoh would be hoisted around in order to scare away the evil spirits, was the last major event before Nyepi began. We followed six or seven ogoh-ogoh as they snaked through the main streets of Ubud. It took about forty-five teenagers to carry each platform and effigy. Through coordination and footwork that had to have been rehearsed, each youth-group twirled their ogoh around in circles, made it bounce up and down in the air, and swayed it from side to side. Sometimes, two groups of youths—usually a group of boys and a group of girls, who I presume represented the same community—would face-off in the middle of the street, and shake their ogoh at one another.
The most intense moments were when the group of students took five or six hard, synchronized steps to either the left or right. The momentum of the entire platform and statue was too much for the float-bearers to stop themselves, so there were always two or three beefy adults on either side of the base to lean a shoulder into the mass so that it didn’t fly into whatever convenience store lined the road. My favorite ogoh was a fat, blue, warty character with Rastafarian dreadlocks. The hair was attached to the head as ropes allowing it to sway, bounce, and whip around as the kids shook the platform.
After the theatrics were done at each stopping point along the parade route, the ogoh-ogoh were carried down the street and around a corner. The tops of most of these constructions reached well above the power lines, so a few men with tall, triangle-topped poles lifted the cables so the ogoh-ogoh could pass through. The scariest moment of the night was when I realized I was standing right under a power cable that had gotten momentarily snagged on the head of an ogoh.
Free from incidents of electrocution or electric fire, the parade ended in Ubud’s Sacred Monkey Forest—a tourist attraction with a bunch of Peace Corps Volunteer-attacking monkeys* by day—where the ogoh-ogoh were burned with gasoline. Mythically, the ogoh-ogoh consume evil spirits along the parade route, and thus need to be purged. The nicer specimens were spared and would be displayed in the community center for the duration of the year or maybe longer, but most of the giants were set aflame.
The bonfire caps the festivities of Nyepi, which give way to another spiritual side of the holiday. From sunrise to following sunrise, starting on the day of Nyepi, Bali is supposed to be silent. The Balinese-Hindus are traditionally supposed to fast, turn off the electricity, and remain silent except for reciting blessings. The tradition applies to everyone except emergency facilities and vehicles, and it is allegedly enforced by police. Tourists are not allowed out of their hotels, and even Denpasar’s international airport is closed for the day.
I had made an ill-resolute commitment to honor the tradition when I went to bed after the parade, but the good company (and a bag of peanuts) got the best of me no more than one hour after I woke up. My plan to spend the day reading hungrily soon felt introverted and not introspective. I had too much desire to take advantage of the rare opportunity to converse with my Peace Corps peers from Indonesia and two Volunteers from the Philippines who had flown in the night before. The weakness of my self-commitment could probably be best described by the later consumption of multiple Philipino beverages that made me wonder how Blondie was fairing and an omelet. Just as I was feeling a maximum level of guilt for all of this, I stole a glance of our hotel’s headscarf and sarong wearing staff sipping Bintang in front of cable television.
*Yes, one member of ID-5 spent her January 1 New Year’s celebration in Surabaya getting precautionary rabies treatment after an over-zealous, banana crazy monkey grabbed and burst a large blister on the Volunteer’s leg.