March 22, 2015
UBUD, Indonesia — For an island which is largely fuelled by tourism, the Balinese make the bold choice to seal themselves off from the world while they usher in a new year. During this unique Hindu Holiday, called Nyepi, residents and visitors are encouraged to stay indoors, and out of sight. Daily routines are brought to a halt. No one should work, or cook, or clean. Airports and seaports are closed down. Once congested roads become eerily devoid of any traffic. In most districts, electricity, radios, and internet signals are switched off, while the pecalang, or neighbourhood security guards, patrol the streets. All efforts are focused on a quiet, united introspection to bring in the new year.
Of course exceptions always exist. The guards act as points of emergency contacts during the day's non-events, bringing persons to hospital as needed. And The Bali Times ran two pages of advertisements highlighting posh Nypei getaways at coastal resorts, offering unending buffets, wifi, television, and restful spa treatments, perhaps in an effort to sieve off cyber-hooked vacationers.
Many will visit the temples before the big day, cleansing in water and giving offerings, preparing for the transition.
Those who stay in the villages, are treated to sights of giant and grotesque demon effigies, ogoh-ogohs. They have been constructed over months leading up to the event. Fashioned from bamboo, coconut husks and cement, with bulging eyes, dripping saliva, and unsettling teeth, the demons will be paraded around the night, then burned afterwards.
It was a New Year’s Eve unlike any other. As the sky grew dark, residents lined the streets for the Ngerupuk ritual. The ogoh-ogohs are dispatched from the periphery of each neighbourhood. War-like drumming patterns sound. Young girls carried torches, lighting the path for each personified demon perched on top of a bamboo grid, carried by over sixteen, sweaty, robust youth. Together, they moved a few meters, took dramatic pause, released ghoulish cries and more ceremonious music.
The drum beat quicken. Another ogoh-ogoh is in sight. Carriers charge, hoping to terrify another ogoh-ogohs with jiggles and shakes and trembles. Barely stopping to catch their breath, dripping in sweat, the sculptured-demon-carrying squads taunt each other, while the pecalang help to prevent any major collisions. All villagers are in the streets while the manifestations are brought into the open; there is no hiding from any darkness here.
Not wanting to draw reason for their demons’ return, the Balinese retreat to their homes, to begin their day of silence. Wishing any disruptive evils spirits to pass, there are no lights, no fire, no work, no sounds, and certainly no more ruckus!
Only roosters and insects and birds dare to break into the morning's early chorus. The sky, with its puffy white clouds overlaid rainy grey patches and shifting light, became the best show in town. The odd neighbour did sneak out for a quick smoke or whispered phone call, only to be shushed.
In addition to fostering in a peaceful mindset for a new year, instead of a clouded hungover, Nyepi reminds its participants that electricity, fuel, and material consumption are not as necessary as habits would dictate. Closing off from the rest of the world out of their own volition, the Balinese unintentionally model a community effort which campaigns like “Earth Hour”, “LightsOut”, or “Buy Nothing Day” could look to for inspiration. When Balinese culture and tradition becomes a non-negotiable, if only for one day, we are reminded that life is about more than the distractions that we create.