Once a year the tropical island of Bali plummets into a 24-hour silence in an attempt to reconnect on Nyepi, its holiest of days, but not before the island expresses itself with the sounds, vibrancies and colours of the ogoh-ogoh procession.
Nyepi, which marks the Balinese New Year, is Bali’s holiest day and offers visitors the opportunity to participate in a celebration unseen outside of the small tropical Indonesian island. Observed in silence, this holiday encourages those on the island, both visitors and Balinese alike, to participate in self-reflection, meditation and the appreciation of the natural world as the Balinese New Year begins. But staying true to the colourful and flamboyant culture that is uniquely Bali’s, the day of silence only begins once a rollicking night of parades, music, and performances has left wide-eyed onlookers bleary and craving the subsequent 24-hour journey into quietude.
“…those who have chosen to stay on the island during this day of silence are treated to fresh island breezes, pollution-free blue skies, and a noiseless evening of serene stargazing.”
Following the Balinese lunar calendar, Nyepi usually occurs in March (this year it falls on 28 March), and though dates are never fixed for the holiday, traditions are. Starting at midnight, an island-wide silence falls and soon the lone airport is closed, roads are cordoned off and deserted, power drops down to minimum usage and the faint dancing of candles begins in otherwise dark windows.
The island shuts. Bali is closed.
Enforcing this island closure is the sarong-clad Pecalang, or village patrol. Chosen individually from their respective villages, the Pecalang members stroll the empty roads and alleyways of villages and towns around Bali making sure that no light is too bright, no voice is too loud, and that the only company they have on the roads is the occasional stray dog or chicken rummaging for food scraps.
Originating as a holiday in which the Balinese didn’t eat, speak, work, or use fire, Nyepi has since relaxed in its attentiveness to the observation of these rules. While the quietness of the day is still preserved and enforced, outright fasting, withholding from the use of fire and power, and opting to not speak have all become a matter of personal choice. In fact, though some families still choose to follow these older and stricter traditions, the use of candles and communal family eating have become increasingly common on Nyepi.
And yet this the centuries-old day of commemoration has retained its core tenets—silence, purity, and cleansing. And as a result of this preservation of tradition, and perhaps most pleasantly for travellers, those who have chosen to stay on the island during this day of silence are treated to fresh island breezes, pollution-free blue skies, and a noiseless evening of serene stargazing.
As an added bonus of making the journey to Bali for its holiest day, travellers also have the opportunity to experience the ogoh-ogoh processions that take place on the eve of Nyepi. Unlike the subsequent ‘Day of Silence,’ the jaunty ogoh-ogoh parades take on a personality that celebrates with colour, music, acting and a vibrantly loud social scene.
On a night focused on cleansing the island, Bali’s roads become filled with wide-eyed tourists and locals who gawk as parades of demonic effigies bounce and spin in whirling frenzies to the loud clanging and rattling from the traditional gamelan in tow. These bamboo and papier–mâché ogoh-ogoh, which are made to purify and cleanse the island of evil spirits and the spiritual pollution from humans, are constructed over the course of several months leading up to the celebration by male-only youth groups around Bali.
Bathed in colourful paints, fabrics, neon lights and even disco balls, these grotesque representations are then mounted on bamboo platforms and paraded down the roads around Bali. Carried by anywhere between eight and 25 boys and men, these vibrant monstrosities take centre stage during the procession when, at intersections and T-junctions, they are spun wildly to face each direction to chase away the evil spirits and unwanted spiritual pollution that linger. This parading, which is accompanied by a number of traditional gamelan orchestras, and is followed by short skits from the youth groups who created the ogoh-ogoh, offers not just a colourful and chaotic look into Balinese Hindu traditions, but also a platform for the citizens of Bali to voice community concerns about governmental and environmental policy.
“It’s our chance to reconnect with Bali asli,” he smiles, “original Bali.”
However, due to worries over the public expressions of such grievances (especially those in regards to the acting government), the national government in Indonesia’s past disallowed the parades from proceeding. But with the passage of both time and governments, the celebration has resumed, along with the voices, complaints and concerns of the many participants in the parade.
“It’s an opportunity to make our voice heard before the New Year, to try and purify the problems in Bali and in Indonesia,” says Made, 16, one of the ogoh-ogoh artists in Ubud. “It’s our chance to reconnect with Bali asli,” he smiles, “original Bali.”
As such, this two-day period puts on display the vibrant, colourful and diverse tradition that has, for so long, helped make Bali the destination that it is today. And while many parts of Bali are becoming increasingly consumed with tourism and foreign influences, both the semi-political, purification-based ogoh-ogoh parades and the quiet introspective day of Nyepi offer those on Bali a day to reconnect. Thus, as Bali indeed does close, it seems only to close for those who don’t understand where they are in the first place. For the tuned-in travellers, however, it is the one time each year that Bali—original Bali—truly opens.
(Featured image and all Ogoh-Ogoh images: Ogoh-Ogoh, which are made by all-male youth groups across Bali in the months running up to Nyepi, are paraded down streets across Bali to ward off both evil spirits and the unwanted spiritual pollution left behind by humans. Made in the form of evil spirits themselves, Ogoh-Ogoh are made of bamboo, papier-mâché, paints, lights and various other decorations such as fabrics and disco balls.)