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Celebrating Nyepi in Bali

I was staying in Pejeng Village, on the outskirts of Ubud for Nyepi. All week I had been observing industrious workers chiselling, sawing and gluing huge giant creatures together on the side of the road. These creatures are called Ogoh Ogoh, and they are totally grotesque, ugly and demon-like in appearance. They parade for one night only, on the eve of Nyepi. The date of Nyepi changes every year, as it is set according to the lunar calendar and the time of the dark moon. This year it was in March. Bali is the only place in the world that shuts down its airport and harbour for 24 hours. If you are in Bali for Nyepi, there is no way in and no way, out on this given day of the year.

Photo: Nyoman Pujawan

On the eve of Nyepi, tension and excitement started to build in the village as dusk slowly rolled into evening. First came the sound of the gamelan, heralding the parade, and a procession of musicians made their way through the village. There was vigorous clanging of symbols and loud beating of drums. I was told it is necessary to make as much noise as possible to lure lurking demon spirits before they can then be expelled from the island by curses. I was the only foreigner in the crowd. This was indeed a very authentic experience and the reason I love Bali – the closeness you feel to the culture.

Photo: Nyoman Pujawan

The parade was a vibrant, spectacular display of scary Ogoh Ogoh figures raised high into the night sky on bamboo platforms carried by strong adolescent men (it’s a ceremony that is youth-based). Witches sat perched high on top of towers with giant protruding bloody tongues, followed by white ghosts balancing on swings and ugly babies with ghastly features challenging the crowds with slime dripping down from their bald heads. These fictitious monsters paraded through the streets in anticipation for the highlight of the celebration: the burning of the Ogoh Ogoh’s later that night at the cemetery. No, I did not stay for that, because I wanted to boot it quick smart back home on my motor scooter before midnight. I had been warned – no one is to be out after midnight.

The ritual recognises negative forces and sends them back to where they belong, keeping harmony in the universe. The next day is the Day of Silence. Nyepi is a day primarily set aside to stop the spirits from returning to cause mischief by pretending that there is no one left on the island. It is also a day of reflection, meditation and gratitude. This Balinese ritual actually inspired World Silent Day on 21 March 2012 and also Earth Day.

Photo: Nyoman Pujawan

On Nyepi Day, everyone stays indoors, and no one is allowed out on the streets (except for security and medical emergencies). Special pecalang or community police patrol the deserted streets and will escort anyone back home - or to jail - who is found out. Even the Bali dogs don't bark and somehow disappear.

Peace and quiet descend on Bali on this day, and indeed it is a remarkable feeling knowing no one is going about his or her normal business and daily life. It is a day when all public activity simply ceases. Planes are stationary as the airport is closed, and the harbour is non-operational. Lights go off, and fires cease burning. The night sky is beautiful.

In the lead up to Nyepi, I was talking with Nyoman, a local hotel worker. He told me, “If you have a special letter from the Banjar (village), you can, in fact, be out on Nyepi day.” Being a shift worker in the hospitality industry, he had a letter. At night, after finishing work, Nyoman had to walk 2 kilometres home. He confided to me, “I was scared. I could not use my motorbike, as it is not allowed, and, of course, the streets are incredibly dark. It felt eerie. I bumped into another person, and we both screamed. He was also out with a special permission letter, but we were both so terrified. What forces made us collide, on this night when the likelihood of that happening was very slim?” He added, “I will never go out again on Nyepi. It was too frightening.”

Photo: Nyoman Pujawan

I was very lucky to hear about another celebration around Nyepi time. Two nights before Nyepi, the Government hosted a grand event: the Ogoh Ogoh Festival in Tegalalang, a village located twenty minutes out of Ubud. This involved an Ogoh Ogoh parade on a huge scale. Seven banjars (villages) participated, and 1,500 dancers performed on the night. The training of the dancers took eight weeks, and all the villages had to perform and tell the same legend, but present it in a unique way. Giant horse statues were brought onto the stage, surrounded by dancers in the most elaborate costumes. Gamelan orchestras played and danced at the same time and fireworks announced some of the more elaborate presentations. The Government paid for the whole event. Those of us sitting in the VIP area, which all foreigners were welcome to enter, got a free snack box, followed by a dinner box later in the night. It was a fantastic showcase of Balinese culture, generosity towards guests and foreigners and, overall, a spectacular evening.

After all the festivities, burning and noise, the next day, Nyepi, allowed for peace and silence to descend on Bali. The island was purified and cleansed of any demon spirits.

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