The Eye of the Storm: Nyepi, Bali’s Hindu Day of Silence

If previous New Year’s Days have seen you waking up with a crippling hangover and trying to remember what you did the night before, maybe it’s time you headed to Bali in March. Nyepi – the Balinese Day of Silence, and the start of the Hindu Saka New Year – is a day, a night and a day you’ll never forget.

Think of it as Bali’s Earth Day – 24 hours of natural light and dark – and a time for reflection, rest and meditation. Just as day cannot exist without night, good cannot exist without evil. And on Bali, spiritual harmony is everything. If there is a time to honour the Gods, then there is also a time for recognising and appeasing the malign spirits that balance them. Nyepi, and the days surrounding it, ensure that this cosmic harmony of black and white is restored.

The Lead-Up to Nyepi: Melasti Processions

As with all major ceremonies on Bali, Nyepi isn’t just about a single day. Three or four days before the Saka New Year, Balinese Hindus across the island perform Melasti – an annual cleansing in the sea of their temples’ most sacred objects along with effigies of the Gods and receptacles containing deified ancestors.

It wasn’t long ago – in the early Eighties – when columns of Hindu devotees would snake their way down from Besakih Temple to the coast on foot. Today, you’re more likely to see convoys of open-topped, 4-ton trucks packed with pilgrims dressed to impress – heads and udeng and wide smiles poking over the trucks’ sides with a crashing gamelan orchestra in full swing leading the way. It can be a surreal sight.

There is no ceremony more colourful, or more festive on Bali than Melasti. Wave after wave of village communities swarm the beaches dressed from head to foot in white and carrying aloft their gods, banners, ancestors and gamelans. Each is ritually dipped into the waves and blessed by a high priest before gathering for solemn, communal prayers on the sand.

Most Melasti ceremonies happen three or four days before Nyepi – some the day before. The busiest southern beaches to watch a Melasti ceremony are at Sanur’s Mertasari Beach, on Kuta Beach and at Padang Galak just north of Sanur. If you’re in the north, try Buleleng’s Sangsit Beach or Lovina. Get there before dawn – it’s a morning thing.

Women and girls carry offerings during a Melasti procession on Bali
Women and girls carry offerings during a Melasti procession on Bali.

 

Women carry offerings to the beach during a Melasti procession on Bali
Female members of a banjar carry offerings to the beach during a Melasti procession in the lead-up to Nyepi, the Hindu Day of Silence.

 

Trance, processions, music, offerings and prayer during a morning beach-side Melasti procession on Bali.

The Day Before Nyepi: Mecaru, or the Appeasement of Bali’s Lower Spirits, and Ngerupuk

Hindu New Year on Bali is a time for cleansing and renewal – and of Mecaru (‘meuh-charoo’) – the pacifying of the bhutas and kalas, the malignant spirits that forever try to disturb and hurt the living. First, delicately constructed bamboo shrines packed with bantenofferings – are placed outside a household’s gate to honour the higher Gods.

Before sunset, woven coconut-leaf mats groaning with more banten are left at crossroads – traditionally places where evil influences gather. The lower spirits are naturally greedy: and the promise of rice and cooked duck, exotic fruits and sacrificed chicken is far too much to bear. Once lured to the spot, they are unceremoniously cast out with powerful mantras and prayers from the community’s highest priests.

The end of the Mecaru signals the start of the fun and organised riot that will last well into the night. After all, the evil bhutas and kalas need to be kept on the back foot. Drums, tin cans, pots and pans are beaten to make the most noise possible. In a family compound, several generations will form a conga-line and shout and beat the ground with burning coconut branches.

Homemade bamboo cannons explode into the darkening air; walk around the outlying community banjars of Ubud or Sanur and you’re sure to jump out of your flip-flops as a knot of village boys let one off as you pass. Fireworks begin to light up the evening sky – from noisy starbursts to the cheap crack-crack-crack poppers that are thrown, with bursts of laughter and impish grins, into the paths of oncoming scooters and cars.

The Evening Before: The Rise of the Ogoh-ogoh

If bamboo cannons are the old-school way to cast out demons, ogoh-ogohs are the new kids on the block. Ogoh-ogoh – giant monsters paraded on the eve of Nyepi – aren’t exactly an ancient tradition. In fact they’ve only been around since the mid-Eighties. And to say they’re environmentally unfriendly is an understatement – built from papier-mâché and Styrofoam on a wire skeleton, they’re not going to win any green awards. Every banjar – village community – builds at least one for Nyepi.

Ogoh-ogohs are never short on bawdy, close-to-the-bone humour. From six-breasted Rangda witches suckling their devil-babies to sabre-toothed pigs and dangling boobs galore, these mythical monsters are carried through the streets on bamboo plinths – embodiments of evil that, technically, should be burnt at midnight as a symbolic purging of wickedness.

Ogoh-ogoh monsters on the eve of Nyepi
Ogoh-ogoh monsters wait their turn to be paraded during Ngerupuk on the eve of Nyepi.

Noise and organised chaos during one of Bali’s thousands of ogoh-ogoh processions on the eve of Nyepi, the Balinese Day of Silence.

Nyepi, The Day of Silence

And finally – the eye of the storm.

With ears still ringing from the cannon explosions and gamelan of the night before, the stillness of Nyepi comes as a relief. The Balinese are experts at letting their hair down when the time is right. They’re also masters of meditation and discipline.

As evil spirits soar over Bali’s earth for a day and a night, and see no lights or fires and no-one around, they’ll think the island is deserted and leave it in peace for another year

Nyepi is derived from the Indonesian-Balinese word sepi meaning ‘quiet’. And it is. Nyepi’s New Year, for a devout Balinese Hindu, is a time for self-discipline and the strict observance of amati karya – all are forbidden to work. There must be no lights or fires – amati geni – and no entertainment – amati lelanguan. To achieve this, there can also be no travel – amati lelunganan.

Which means that no-one is allowed out of their house or hotel for a full 24 hours. Pecalang (‘peuh-cha-lang’, or Bali’s traditional community security guards) patrol the island’s ghost-town streets in their distinctive black-and-white-checked sarongs. If they find someone breaking the curfew, they’ll escort the transgressor back home where he’ll pay a fine. The only exceptions are pregnant women about to give birth, and emergency illnesses requiring a trip to the hospital.

For a visitor, Nyepi can be heaven or hell. If you haven’t done your food-and-drink shopping the day before, or if you’re stuck in a pokey city room without a view, you’ll be climbing the walls by lunchtime. Choose your hotel and your company wisely. If you’re going to drink alcohol on Nyepi, the Gods might just forgive you – but grab a stash the day before. There’s no dashing out to the shops at 9pm for the last bottle or two. If you’re a meat-eater, why not buy a couple of roast chickens and some decent bread the evening before – remember that there are no fires allowed over Nyepi, so cooking is out and cold-cuts and salad are in.

Nyepi night sky
With no artificial light-pollution for miles around, Nyepi’s night-sky blossoms into a flickering, silent patchwork of stars and constellations.

Strict Curfews…

Don’t be tempted to go out for a romantic, the-Earth-is-ours walk during the day. Apart from incurring the polite (but very firm) wrath of the pecalang when you get caught, you risk diabolical possession and a lot of bad luck. Yesterday’s mecaru and ngepuruk weren’t just for show: the demons are well and truly out in force today, and outside the protection of your compound you’re fair game.

It’s not fair on the Balinese, either. The point of waking up the evil spirits isn’t just to appease them with feasts. As they soar over Bali’s earth for a day and a night, and see no lights or fires and no-one around, they’ll think the island is deserted and leave it in peace for another year.

… and Bliss

If you’ve chosen your spot well and you’re stocked with food and drink, Nyepi on Bali can be one of the most satisfying days in the world. It’s as if humans, just for a short while, have vanished – leaving the world to its natural order. Waking up on Nyepi morning feels like the first day on earth. During the day, you can hear the grass grow. And as dusk falls, and keeps getting darker, you begin to remember that ‘day’ means activity and ‘night’ means rest. It’s humbling to see how uncomplicated life can be without the electronic distractions that humans have become so accustomed to.

And it’s humbling to feel like a real human being again: not superior to other animals or birds, but part of the bigger family picture.

The Day After Nyepi: Ngembak Geni, Pilgrimages, Kissing and Manis Nyepi

The day after the Balinese Day of Silence is known as Ngembak Geni – literally ‘to strike a flame’ – and life returns to earth with a bump and grind. The buzzing of insects gives way to the familiar hum of passing motorbikes. Cars and tourist buses, which for a day seem to have been dispatched to the dustbin of history, return to the road in snaking hoards.

For Balinese Hindus, the raucous Pengerupuk of pot-banging and riotous ogoh-ogoh parades of two evenings ago have long been quenched by the silence of Nyepi, and the peace continues through Bali’s Day After. Today, Manis Nyepi – or ‘Sweet Nyepi’ – sees hundreds of Hindu faithful rise before dawn to climb sleepily into buses and onto pick-up trucks for pilgrimages to shrines and temples from north to south.

A day-pilgrimage may take in four or five temples and several hours of praying; northwards, via Tabanan to the little island of Menjangan off Bali’s north coast; southwards, across the bumpy sea to Nusa Penida and her stunning underground temple of Goa Giri Putri. Sacred water is collected from springs and blessed by high priests to bring back home ready for rituals later in the year: a memento of shared meditation, prayer and spiritual travel.

Abandoned ogoh-ogoh litter a Balinese street the day after Nyepi
Two days after the chaotic Ngerupuk and the morning after Nyepi, abandoned ogoh-ogoh litter a Balinese street.

 

Balinese Hindus pray in Goa Giri Cave Temple on Nusa Penida, Bali during Manis Nyepi
‘Manis Nyepi’ – the day after Nyepi – is a time for calmness and reflection. Here, Balinese-Hindu pilgrims gather in the cave temple of Goa Giri Putri on Bali’s Nusa Penida island for prayer and meditation.

Nyepi on Lombok and Java

Nyepi isn’t just celebrated on Bali.

A significant population of Balinese Hindus live on nearby Lombok, and the island’s capital of Mataram holds a large, spectacular ogoh-ogoh procession on the eve of Nyepi. And although Lombok’s Hindu residents will stay home during the Saka New Year, it’s business as usual for everyone else.

On Malang’s Balekambang Beach in East Java, Balinese Hindus have their own version of Melasti – Jalani Dhipuja. Four days before the Saka New Year, Malang’s Hindu faithful gather overnight at the beach with offerings to appease and balance the ‘small universe’ – of people and animals – with the ‘big universe’ of infinity and beyond. The noisy ogoh-ogoh procession in Malang usually centres around the city’s Gajahyana Stadium.

And while you’ll still be able to catch an ogoh-ogoh parade in Central Java’s Prambanan Temple on the day before the Hindu New Year, it’s usually a more prayerful, religious experience here…

The Uniqueness of Bali’s Nyepi

It’s a given that a day like Nyepi couldn’t be enforced or celebrated anywhere other than a tiny island – the logistics would be unthinkable. But even on a small island like Bali, it takes a collective integrity to make the Day of Silence work: a process of cleansing, riot and meditation, and a day when Bali’s entire population is in synch and harmony. A day when humans from every background are pushed to pause, if only for a little while, in the eye of life’s rowdy storm.

A real-life getaway for a day? The only real deal is on Bali.

Glossary

  • banjar – traditional Balinese community group
  • bhuta and kala – malign, unseen energies and spirits
  • gamelan – A traditional instrumental ensemble of Indonesia, typically involving numerous bronze percussion instruments
  • hari raya nyepi – The Indonesian Public Holiday of Nyepi
  • manis nyepi – the day immediately following Nyepi
  • med-medan – traditional Balinese tug-of-war between boys and girls
  • nyepi – from the Indonesian/Balinese word sepi, meaning ‘quiet’
  • melasti – communal pilgrimage to a holy spring or beach to cleanse a temple’s effigies in the days leading up to Nyepi
  • ogoh-ogoh – giant, mythical Balinese monsters made from papier-mâché and Styrofoam paraded on the eve of Nyepi
  • pecalang – traditional Balinese community guards
  • pengerupuk or ngerupuk – the drawing together and driving out of evil spirits on the eve of Nyepi
  • tanggal merah – Indonesian public holiday
  • udeng – traditional cloth headband worn by male Balinese, particularly on religious occasions

In Photographs: Melasti Ceremonies, Ogoh-Ogoh Parades, Nyepi and Manis Nyepi

Young family during a Melasti procession
A young family make their way back from the beach after a Melasti ceremony.

 

Male members of a banjar sit with their offerings before a Melasti ceremony.
Male members of a banjar sit with their offerings before a Melasti ceremony.

 

Banners and offerings are carried through a Balinese street during a Melasti procession
Banners, offerings and effigies are carried through the streets during a Melasti procession in the lead-up to Nyepi.

 

Villagers leave offerings at a crossroads in Ubud, Bali
Villagers leave offerings for the lower spirits at a crossroads in Ubud the day before Nyepi, Bali’s Hindu Day of Silence.

 

alt="Offerings are left during a Mecaru ceremony"
A husband and wife leave Mecaru offerings outside their compound for the lower spirits.

 

Balinese Hindus perform melukat at Sebatu Holy Springs
Balinese-Hindu faithful perform a melukat, or bathing in sacred water, at Sebatu Springs on the day after Nyepi.

 

Balinese girls and monsters prepare for Ngerupuk in Ubud, Bali
Young Balinese girls and monsters gear up for a night of fun, mischief and Ngerupuk on the eve of Nyepi in Ubud.

 

An ogoh-ogoh monster is paraded on the eve of Nyepi
A toothy ogoh-ogoh monster is paraded on the eve of Nyepi, Bali’s Hindu Day of Silence.

 

Locals spit fire during a lively Ngerupuk procession in Ubud
Locals spit fire during a lively Ngerupuk procession in Ubud.