Nyepi in Bali is unique. It is known as the Day of Silence. The three to five day period leading up to Nyepi Day (a Balinese Hindu ceremonial religious day), is one of the most exciting, colourful and festive times. However, from the stroke of midnight on Nyepi Day, everyone must stay indoors. It is a time for introspection and meditation. No one is allowed out on the streets, except in special circumstances such as medical emergencies, and the Pecalang or community police patrol the deserted streets. You will be escorted back home or to jail if you are out. Even the Bali dogs don’t bark and somehow disappear. There is no activity on Nyepi Day and silence descends.
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. With the travel restrictions in the last two years, there is not the usual bustling of restaurants and bars crowded with tourists, however, the Ogoh Ogoh parade is planned to go ahead (in a more modified low key way this year) on the evening of March 2, 2022.
The week leading up to Nyepi, you can observe 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, the excitement starts to build. For my last Nyepi, I stayed in a local village, Pejeng, just 5 kilometres from Ubud. As dusk slowly rolled into the evening, the whole village turned out to be part of the event. First came the boisterous sound of the gamelan orchestra, which heralded the parade’s start. Next, a procession of young musicians made its way through the village, accompanying the Ogoh Ogohs 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. These dark spirits must be summoned before being 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, 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 youth-based ceremony). 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 celebration’s highlight: the burning of the Ogoh Ogoh, which takes place around midnight at the cemetery. I certainly did not stay for that because I wanted to make sure I got back home to my villa way before midnight. I had been warned evil spirit activity is lurking everywhere.
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, and it is seen as a trick, to prevent them from coming back. Bali must look devoid of all activity. It is a day of reflection, meditation and for some, fasting and allows for a feeling of gratitude.
Peace and quiet indeed descends on Bali on this day. An extraordinary sense of calm comes with knowing no one is going about their regular business and that all public activity has ceased. Planes are stationary at closed airports, and the harbour is non-operational. Lights go off, and it is not allowed to light a fire. The celestial night sky is beautiful on this night.
This Balinese ritual inspired the first World Silent Day in 2012, which is now honoured by many countries internationally every year on March 21. Nyepi also inspired Earth Day, which is another planetary, worldwide celebration held 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. After finishing work, Nyoman had to walk two kilometres home in the dark. 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 terrified me.”
The many parades and pre-events leading up to Nyepi make this a perfect time to visit Bali. Many hotels offer Nyepi Day specials. Within the grounds of a hotel, you are free to roam around and if the hotel is on a river, you can plan to have your silent day in nature, as long as it is within the hotel property. Possibly this creates more freedom than being locked in your villa, so many local people take advantage of these hotel specials. Grand public events (pre-COVID) of the past, were held in areas just out of Ubud, like The Ogoh Ogoh Festival in Tegalalang. Up to 1,500 dancers would perform at these big events dressed in elaborate costumes entering the stage on giant horses or dragon figures. Live music and fireworks would finish off the evening. This year, in 2022, that will not be happening.
The date of Nyepi changes every year. It is set according to the lunar calendar and the time of the dark moon. This year it is March 03, 2022. 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 of the island on this day.
This is Indonesia – a land of many islands, diverse rich cultures, and rituals. Nyepi in Bali come around only once a year. Be on the lookout for those Ogoh Ogoh’s on the loose.
Story by Stephanie Brookes
Stephanie Brookes is a travel writer and blogger with tales from Indonesia and beyond. Please see http://www.travelwriter.ws