Life in Bali revolves around ceremonies, and one of the major highlights is Nyepi, the Day of Silence. The three to five day period leading up to Nyepi Day is one of the most exciting, colourful and festive times on the island. However, from the stroke of midnight on Nyepi Day everyone stays indoors. No one is allowed out on the streets, except in special circumstances such as medical emergencies. Pecalang or community police patrol the deserted streets and will escort anyone found outside back home – or to jail. Even the Bali dogs don’t bark and somehow disappear.
The Ubud area is a great place to be based for celebrations leading up to Nyepi, as it is the cultural heart of Bali. Ubud is a 1½ hour drive from the airport, and the town itself is getting quite congested with over 700 restaurants, and bars plus many hotels crowded into the central Ubud area. Staying in a little hotel or a private villa in a traditional village just out of town provides a richer experience of Nyepi. Many village streets are buzzing with activity in the lead-up to the day and locals are very happy for you to be involved. Keliki Village has lovely accommodation options, as does Pejeng Village.
I was in Pejeng Village, located 4.5 km out of Ubud, during the week before Nyepi and observed industrious workers chiselling, sawing and glueing fantastic giant creatures on the roadsides. These Ogoh Ogoh are colourful, grotesque demon-like figures.
On the eve of Nyepi, in Pejeng Village the excitement started to build around the local village as dusk slowly rolled into the evening and the whole village turned out to be part of the event. First came the boisterous sound of the gamelan orchestra, which heralds the start of the parade. Next, a procession of child musicians then made its way through the village, accompanying the Ogoh Ogoh with the vigorous clanging of symbols, loud beating of drums and fireworks. It is necessary to make a loud noise, as the point is to lure lurking demon spirits out of their hiding places. All of them must be summoned before they can be expelled from the island using special curses.
My experience at Nyepi is one I will never forget. I was the only foreigner in the crowd in Pejeng Village, and being part of this local celebration was one of the most authentic cultural experiences I have had. The parade was a vibrant, spectacular display of scary Ogoh Ogoh raised high into the night sky on bamboo platforms, typically carried by strong adolescent boys (it’s a ceremony that is youth-based). Witches with long protruding bloody tongues were perched on top of towers, followed by white ghosts balancing on swings and ugly babies with ghastly features starring at the crowds with slime dripping down from their bald heads. These monsters paraded through the streets in anticipation of the highlight of the celebration: the burning of the Ogoh Ogoh, which would take place later at the cemetery. No, I certainly did not stay for that, because I wanted to make sure I got back home to my villa before midnight. I had been warned.
The Nyepi ritual recognises negative forces and sends them back to where they belong, keeping harmony on the island of Bali and further afield, out to the universe. On the next day, the Day of Silence, Bali must look empty. The bad spirits have been rounded up and sent off the island. So, to trick them and prevent them from coming back, Bali must look devoid of all activity. It is a day of reflection, meditation and feeling gratitude.
Peace and quiet does indeed descend on Bali on this day, and an extraordinary sense of calm comes with knowing no one is going about their regular business and that all public activity has simply stopped. Planes are stationary at closed airports, and the harbour is non-operational. Lights go off, and fires cease burning. The night sky is beautiful in Bali on this night.
This Balinese ritual inspired the first World Silent Day in 2012, which is now honoured by many people internationally every year on March 21. Nyepi also inspired Earth Day, which is another planetary, worldwide celebration honoured in more than 193 countries, on April 22.
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 council), 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 two 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 terrified. What forces made us collide, on this night?” He added, “I will never go out again on Nyepi. It scared me.”
The many parades and pre-events leading up to Nyepi make this a perfect time to visit Bali. Grand public events are held in areas just out of Ubud, like The Ogoh Ogoh Festival in Tegalalang. At these big events up to 1,500 dancers perform dressed in elaborate costumes entering the stage on giant horses or dragon figures. There is live music, and fireworks to finish off the evening.
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 is March 28, 2017. Bali is the only place in the world that shuts down its airport and harbour for 24 hours for an annual event. If you are in Bali for Nyepi, there is no way in and no way out on this day.
This is Indonesia – a land of many islands, rich culture and events like Nyepi come around only once a year, so don’t think twice – jump a plane, come and meet the Ogoh Ogoh and join in a unique celebration of Balinese culture.
David Metcalf is hosting a Bali Nyepi Photo Tour March 25-27, 2017. Please join for a fun filled three-day photography workshop. You can join for one day or all three days, just take your pick. The three days before Nyepi are action-packed, full of colour and great photographic opportunities. Non-photographers are welcome to join and enjoy the cultural festivities. The workshop is designed to challenge you as a photographer, and teach you new skills and techniques under the watchful guidance of two photography tutors, Nyoman and David. Capture amazing images and gain a great insight into Balinese culture at a very special time of the year.
Nyepi Tour Date: 25-27 March 2017
Pejeng Village – 4.5 km out of Ubud, Bali
Story by Stephanie Brookes
Photos by David Metcalf
Stephanie Brookes is a travel writer and blogger with tales from Indonesia and beyond. Please see http://www.travelwriter.ws
David Metcalf runs photography and cultural tours in Java, Bali, India, Myanmar and USA. David operates Taksu Photo Gallery in Ubud, Bali. By taking a workshop or tour with David, you help support education and health programs in Bali and Kalimantan.