Indeed there is nothing like it in any other country in the world
Wednesday March 25th on the island of Bali in Indonesia, they celebrated the new year – everyone there, residents and tourists alike, were required to stay in their homes or hotel.
This is Nyepi, The Hindu Balinese “day of silence” – for the Balinese it is a day of self reflection and meditation on the virtues of humanity, love, patience, and kindness.
It is observed every year on the day following the dark moon of the spring equinox and opens the new year of the Saka Hindu era which began in 78AD.
You cannot fly in or out of Bali’s international airport on that day. You cannot arrive or depart at any one of the several seaports, or ferry ports, also closed; everyone is at home.
No cars on the streets, no motorcycles, nor any pedestrians or bicycles. No work, no cooking, no electricity, no TV, no entertainment, and no pleasure, just silence.
The start of the Balinese New Year is quite contrary to many other countries’ celebration of the New Year: the Balinese usher in their new year in silence.
Of all the ceremonies and holy days in the Balinese calendar, Nyepi is the most important, and the restrictions are taken very seriously. The only people allowed out on the streets at all are the PECALANG, (pronounced pechalung) the traditional Balinese “neighbourhood watch.” In their black outfits they patrol the streets and neighbourhoods around the villages and towns to make sure that everyone adheres to the restrictions of no light, no noise, and no going out.
Origin of Nyepi
The Nyepi tradition apparently comes from King Kanishka I of India who was famous for his tolerance of Hinduism and Buddhism. Kanishka I never actually came to Indonesia, but it is believed that Aji Saka the one that introduced the Saka calendar starting in 78AD did, hence the years as per Saka. He brought Hinduism to Indonesia, along with the Nyepi ceremony, and eventually the religion followed the Majapahit kingdom when they came from Java to Bali in the 14thcentury. Nyepi has been recognized in Bali only, ever since.
Unique the world over is Nyepi. The name Nyepi itself comes from the root of the Indonesian word “sepi” meaning quiet or still. Indeed there is nothing like it in any other country in the world.
Tourists staying at the 5-star hotels are free to come and go, within the complex, but they also cannot leave the grounds. The beautiful lighting in the tropical gardens is turned off for the night, as is the lobby lighting.
No tours, no going out to restaurants, no surfing, no going to the beach. The hotels are required to offer meals cooked the day before, and accommodation for their own staff that cannot leave to go home on that day.
As outside influence in this popular South East Asian tourist destination increases, the fervour of the Nyepi restrictions also increases. The airport closure was added as recent as 1999 and for the last several years, television transmissions have been stopped. Those turning on their televisions simply got a snowy screen on all channels.
Electricity is not shut off entirely, but rather turned down, so when you turn on the lights, they are like night lights, and when you turn the fans on, they go around very slowly.
During the weeks and months before the day of silence all the local community centers, or Banjar as they are known, are abuzz with activity as local youth groups, known as Seka Taruna, build huge statues called Ogoh-Ogoh, to be paraded around the night before Nyepi.
Effigies of monsters, and evil spirits, they come in all sizes and all shapes ranging from the traditional Barong (a witch like creature with long hair) to huge statues in the likenesses of well known cartoon characters. One could even see modern forms such as wild looking skateboarders or surfers, most often with bulging eyes, fangs and scary hair. The Ogoh-Ogoh creatures symbolize the evil spirits in our environment that need to be exorcized from our lives. They are the imaginings of the local youth and made from bamboo, paper mache and now required to have organic materials.
After sunset, the Ogoh-Ogoh parade begins. Illuminated with torches, the huge Ogoh-Ogoh statues, carried by the youth groups are paraded down the closed off streets accompanied in some cases by Balinese gamelan music, or drums and cymbals. They go to the nearest main crossroads which is considered the meeting place for evil spirits where the priests will also put offerings to lure the demons.
The locals play loud music, banging on pots and pans, or set off fireworks and then finally use torches to set fire to the Ogoh-Ogoh statues in order to scare away the evil spirits.
Nowadays the Ogoh-Ogoh parades have become so elaborate that there are teams of youth carrying the huge statues, and dancers that go along with it. They put on a real production with music and dancing some places are so crowded that officials must erect huge TV screens so that everyone can see what is happening. After the noise and production of the Ogoh-Ogoh parades, everyone goes home and hunkers done for 24 hours of silence.
Unofficially, it is said that traditionally the Balinese hoped that making an intense amount of racket the night before would scare all of the demons away. hen the Balinese would get the last laugh by staying silent the next day so the returning demons would bypass Bali as an empty island and carry on to the neighbouring islands of Java and Lombok. Many people in the villages still believe this folklore, but the real intention is to move the demons to the positive side.
The day after Nyepi which is known as Ngembak Geni is a day of restraint and purification, people spend the day visiting friends and family to ask for forgiveness of their past mistakes.
One unique ceremony occurs in Sesetan a village in the capital and main city Denpasar that holds a fun tradition called Omed-omedan where young single adults, girls and boys have somewhat of a kissing contest.
The boys are lined up on the street on one side, the girls on the other. The adult leaders pick a boy and a girl and signal the other side. They then start to rush towards each other and as the two groups get closer, they lift the chosen boy and chosen girl on their shoulders and bring them close to kiss.
Usually, in this modest society, some of the shyer kids are embarrassed when they see who was chosen, but quite often, the adult chaperones know who likes whom and pick accordingly.
The fun part is that the kiss is not just a peck on the cheek, but usually a full on embrace and total lip lock, to the fun and entertainment of all.
Everyone cheers and jeers, and quite often once the couple embraces they can only be pulled apart by being splashed with water by the onlookers. This event is guaranteed to have everyone laughing and joking and an effective way for the young adults to come together in a society that doesn’t encourage casual dating.
Many families have been started as a result of this festival, and even though Sesetan is part of a modern city now, many people believe that if the Omed-omedan ceremony is not performed it may promote negativity in the village. Now, with social distancing norms, it remains to be seen what will become of this particular ceremony.