Yesterday I was fortunate enough to not only witness but participate in the Balinese New Year celebrations known as Nyepi. Unlike most New Year celebrations on the planet, the Balinese people invite their New Year in by welcoming it with a day of silence and contemplation after a night of cleansing and revelry. It is one of the most anticipated days of the year, and all inhabitants of the island, including any visitors fortunate enough to be present on the day, must participate by following a strict set of traditional laws that are enforced by the Balinese government as well as local watchmen, or patrol officers. The Balinese New Year falls several months after the western New Year due to their belief and accordance with the hindu Sasih calendar. While the Balinese have adopted the Gregorian Calendar for business and government purposes, they use the Sasih as well as the Pawukon calendar for all religious activities and events. The Pawukon calendar, which stems from the word “wuku” or “week”, consists of thirty weeks, the first of which is known as “Sinta” and the last of which is known as “Watugunung”. This calendar is considered to be the traditional Indonesian calendar and was brought to Bali from Java in the 14th century. The Sasih calendar, a parallel system of Western Indian origin, is a twelve month calendar (the word Sasih means month in Javanese) and is based upon the lunar cycle. It starts on the day of the Vernal equinox, Nyepi day, and is equally important to the Pawukon calendar in determining when to pay respects to the many Balinese gods. The Sasih, also known as the Saka calendar, is 78 years behind the Gregorian calendar, which means that Bali and other followers of the Saka calendar have just entered the year 1940.
Nyepi consists of three main events spread out over three days. Three days before Nyepi itself, also known as the day of silence, is Melasti. This day is meant to be a time of cleansing, specifically geared towards the cleansing of village deities and temples. The ceremony’s aim is to cleanse all of nature and its contents and bring the local people closer to god. On Melasti whole villages gather and begin a pilgrimage to the closest body of water, be it the ocean, river, or a lake, and form a large procession where they cary offerings, parasoles and stone statue effigies of their deities to these bodies of water to cleanse and purify them. These Melasti Pilgrimages are renowned throughout Bali and many tourists and curious onlookers gather to watch and catch the event on camera. Whole villages, clad in traditional white dress and serongs, march with colorful baskets and bamboo flags chanting in prayer and traditional song as they make their way towards the water to purify their gods. They believe that by washing their effigies in the ocean, rivers, or lakes the Neptune of their gods, god Baruna, will wash them clean of any lingering bad spirits and also endow them with a piece of “Amerta”, the source of eternal life. After the purification and cleansing ceremony, participated in by youth and elderly alike, the villagers march their newly cleansed gods back to their rightful places in the village temples and people’s homes.
The day after Melasti is Tawur Kesanga, the Balinese New Years Eve. This is one of the most famous days of Nyepi and is where most of the fun takes place. For the Balinese people the morning of Tawur Kesanga is spent cleaning every corner of the house and blessing it with incense and offerings. The afternoon is then spent cooking and performing blessings at the family temple that can be found in almost every Balinese home. After the blessings each family member takes turns participating in the Pengrupukan ceremony, where the family chases away the malevolent forces known as Bhuta Kala that hide in their homes by making loud noises with pots, pans, instruments, and fiery bamboo torches. After the individual exorcism of each home the village comes together for the main event. The parade and burning of the Ogoh-Ogoh. For the last two months every village has spent their evenings working together to build giant bamboo and paper mache monsters that can stand up to 12 feet tall and sometimes taller. These incredibly intricate works of art characterize the many demons and monsters from Hindu and Balinese folklore. All have fangs, bulging eyes, wild hair, and are positioned into violent stances as if in the midst of a wild battle against invisible forces. The Ogoh-Ogoh monsters symbolize the evil spirits that live in our environment, homes, and sometimes bodies. They are placed in the middle of the main streets close to a cross road and are meant to draw the Bhuta Kala, bad spirits, that have been chased out of people’s homes and imprison them inside. Once the sun sets and everyone has performed their individual Pengrupukan ceremonies the whole village crowds the streets and begins to parade their elaborate Ogoh-Ogoh up and down the main road. The Ogoh-Ogoh are hoisted up and carried on bamboo platforms by the men of the village while the women hold torches to light the way. The monsters illuminated by the flickering torch light make for quite the frightening sight. Members of the village that aren’t holding the monsters or torches are armed with drums, gongs, and other loud instruments to keep the procession on beat. It seemed to me that the louder, brighter, and more dramatic your parade was, the safer your village would be from the bad spirits that following year. Even children get involved and are given the task of carrying smaller Ogoh-Ogoh down the street until they reach their final resting place back at the original crossroads where they first started. Here the village crowds around at a safe distance and the many torch bearers make their way to the proud standing Ogoh-Ogoh and set the awe-inspiring creations on fire. It seemed to me a shame to burn such incredible creatures, but I was later told that the burning of the Ogoh-Ogoh was the only way to ensure that the evil spirits would not return to the village during the coming year for all the Bhuta Kala would be trapped inside by the end of the night and would then be burned alive. The rest of the night is filled with the sound of fireworks and the exultant cries of the locals that are saying goodby to the old year and welcoming in the new. However, these festivities are short lived for only an hour or two passed midnight everyone heads back to their individual homes for the day of silence is soon to begin.
The first day of the Balinese New Year is by far one of the most unique and prepared for days of the whole year in Bali, the day of silence. It begins at 6am and ends the following day at 6am. For twenty four hours the whole island is silent and appears deserted. All stores are closed, there is not a single vehicle on the street, even the internet is shut off for the duration of the day. Traditionally Balinese Hindus follow the “Catur Brata Penyepian Ritual” also known as The Four Nyepi Prohibitions. These are:
- Amati Geni (No fire)
- Amati Lelungan (No travel)
- Amati Karya (No activity)
- Amati Lelanguan (No entertainment)
Nyepi day is meant to be a day of total relaxation, reflection, and self introspection. The list of traditional rules also state that those religiously observing the day of silence must fast, abstain from sex, and not leave their homes or step outside for the entire day. However, when asking a local Balinese Nyepi observer about these rules I was told that very few people actually go as far as to fast or meditate for the whole day. Most of the population simply sees Nyepi day as a day to stay in, sleep, eat, and do absolutely nothing but enjoy some time to yourself. Traditional community watch patrols called “Pecalang” and police are the only ones out patrolling the streets. They ensure that everyone stays inside their homes, off the beaches, and keeps their lights turned off particularly after sunset.
Nyepi is also considered a time for mother nature to reboot herself after 364 days of human pestering. On Nyepi day the air and earth is cleaner than any other day of the year for no vehicles are out creating smog, electricity use is at an all time low, and even the airport is shut down and airspace above Bali is closed to decrease air pollution. Due to Nyepi falling on the night of a new moon, and all lights being shut off on the island, light pollution is virtually non existent and the stars after sunset on Nyepi day shine brighter and clearer than you’ve ever seen them before. I did venture outside into the backyard of the villa that I am currently staying in, only after being told that it would be okay as long as I stayed inside the fenced in area of the property, and what I saw, smelled, and heard, took my breath away. Everything felt fresh and crystal clear. There was no sounds other then the waves, birds, and the barks of a few dogs. When your breathed in the air it smelled sweet and fresh and filled your lungs until they were completely full. From my spot on the porch you could see across the jungly valley to the tall mountains which loomed big and emerald green over my head. You could make out the individual trees that littered the hillside while only a day before the whole mountain had just looked like a grayish green mass of foliage. I’d never heard so many birds at one time, you could see them flying in large swarms above the watered rice paddies, while insects hummed beneath them forming an orchestra of sound that seemed to scream, “This is life! This is how its supposed to be.” Nyepi is not only a day of religious and personal contemplation, it is also a day to make and keep balance with nature itself. It’s a day to try and make amends for all the harm we’ve caused our planet. On Nyepi almost one million liters of fuel is saved and CO2 emission are drastically reduced. Nyepi even inspired the world wide day of silence that occurs every year on March 21st. I was curious to why the Balinese upheld the day, other then it being a wonderful day to give back to the earth and take a personal day off. One local Balinese rice farmer told me that legend had another reason for the day of silence. He said that silent day was created to trick the demons that had escaped the fires on Tawur Kesanga, New Years Eve, and make them think that their was no life on Bali and therefore no reason for them to stay on the island. “Do you think it works” I had asked him, “well we still have to get rid of them every year so i’m starting to think that it’s sort of pointless.” He had answered with a toothy smile.
The day after silent day, Ngembak Geni, is meant to be a day of forgiveness. On this day all the local temples are filled with villagers who join each other in prayer and song. Different communities often visit each other on this day as an act of forgiveness and to show communal acceptance and love. After a day of silent contemplation and deciding on one’s core values on which one should live her life, much like the western New Years resolutions, you are meant to share your internal findings with your community and loved ones and break bread with those you have wronged.
Nyepi is a beautiful tradition that benefits not only the Balinese community but the world. Giving yourself time to breath and think, as well as the world time to rebuild, is the kindest thing you can do for yourself and additionally our planet. As well as being quite a sight to behold, from the torch lit monsters to a totally quiet and peaceful day, it is an idea and a tradition that should be promoted and utilized by communities and countries around the world. Just one day of total bliss for yourself and one day of rest for the land we call home. Nyepi is a once in a lifetime experience that you should most definitely not miss out on, and if you can’t make it to Bali it wouldn’t be a bad idea to simply uphold the tradition on your own.