I got to experience Bali’s Nyepi festival (also known as the day of silence) on 17 March. Frankly, in the days leading up to this significant observance for Hindu’s in Bali, I didn’t know why signs kept shooting up about it, and wondered if it was some kind of carnival or festival. It was not until my host explained to me it was the Hindu new year which is celebrated with silence in Bali, and with majority of the islanders being followers of this faith it was eagerly anticipated.
I wondered how the day of silence would affect non-Hindu visitors, would they be expected to observe the restrictions that were customary for the duration of the festival? My philosophy is ‘When in Rome do as Romans do’ so that meant no working, no entertainment or pleasure, no traveling, and, for the most devout there would be no talking or eating. My host advised me to get snacks in my room as restaurants would be closed for 24 hours. She even explained that the internet would be cut off to the island which didn’t sit well with me. I thought could this really happen in a major international tourist destination? Yes it does.
On the eve of Nyepi I experienced one of Bali’s most colourful blends of tradition and culture. The streets were adorned with decorations made from palm fronds, flowers and fruits. The streets became a lively canopy of colours and richly-painted decorations as believers made offerings to their gods.
As evening approached there was the eagerly awaited Pengrupukan ceremony centering on the Ogoh Ogoh statues which most tourist were keen to get a snapshot of using their cameras or phones. The Ogoh Ogoh are giant monster figures made of wood, bamboo, paper and Styrofoam by Balinese artisans. They are carried on bamboo platforms through the community and in my area they were taken to a local parade ground. I was keen to get a ticket for the ceremony at the ground but they were sold out. I did, however, manage to take pictures as the statues were carried along.
The statues take the shape of mythological, evil creatures and spirits to represent negative aspects of society. The monsters often have multiple arms and heads and carry swords or pitchforks. Ogoh Ogoh is a Balinese word meaning ‘shaken’ – an appropriate word for a period of time where normal routines comes to a standstill and believers stop and confront their lives through self-reflection, fasting, meditation and forgiveness. Despite all the hard-work and months put into making the figures, it is burnt at the end of such parade or often displayed for the public for some weeks before being set ablaze.
The next day was the Nyepi festival. It was so deafeningly quiet that all you could hear were the sounds of nature. To the Balinese it is a time for self-reflection. The internet was indeed cut of and I spent my time thinking and occasionally reflecting upon life.
The streets were patrolled by ‘traditional police’ who were keen on making sure the streets were empty. Offenders not observing the day of silence were fined. The airports were closed so there were no incoming or outgoing flights. Some tourists who couldn’t comprehend the thought of having to spend a whole day inside fled to the surrounding islands of Gili and Lombok to continue their vacation. A wanderer like Jo, however, who traveled to learn about and experience the world’s diversity wanted to see discover what this unique tradition was really all about.
In the evening electricity was available but was against rules to turn the light which was especially challenging due to my aversion to being in a room filled with darkness. On reflection, however, I was glad to have experienced this festival unique to the Balinese people that continued until the sixth day when the rituals were completed and the people had welcomed the new days to come in a spirit of forgiveness and faith.