It’s New Year’s Day here in Bali, the day known as ‘The Day of Seclusion’ or ‘The Silent Day’. There is absolutely no Western cultural equivalent to what is going on here at the moment… It’s strange and fascinating and a little eerie…
Balinese culture is a culture of spirits, ghosts and visiting ancestors. Much is done every day to either appease or ward off these supernatural forces and Nyepi (New Year) seems the culmination of it all. Nyepi seems to me (a random, ignorant outsider) the ultimate display of Balinese people’s devotion to and belief in balancing the forces of good and evil and the relevance of the spirit world in everyday life.
It all started last night when each banjar (local community groups, of which every married Balinese is a part of) gathered together to hoist massive, elaborately made ogoh-ogoh (demons) onto their collective shoulders and parade them down the main streets accompanied by raucous gamelan music. This part of Nyepi symbolises driving the demons out and it’s a crazy, chaotic affair. Thousands of people gather on the main roads of Bali as the groups roar and yell and dive and swoop with these massive ogoh-ogoh on their shoulders! (In typical Balinese style, there is no easily discernible traffic control so the roads just get completely blocked- the main roads on the whole island – completely blocked! Ha!) The energy is reminiscent of New Years Eve is Oz and yet, it is impossible to ignore the cultural/spiritual undertow. These demons aren’t being paraded around just for the fun of it, it’s a deeply important tradition. The maintenance of the balance of good and evil quite literally rests on the locals’ shoulders. Cycling through the streets yesterday afternoon as everything was shutting down reminded me so indisputably that I am living in a foreign culture and really, I have so little understanding of it all. The complexities, the ceremonies, the subtleties, the expectations, the feeling of what it’s like to actually live within this culture is nigh on impossible for a foreigner to grasp…
(An Ogoh-ogoh – image courtesy of Google and The Bali Post :))
So the ogoh-ogoh are symbolically driven from the streets on Nypei Eve and then they are burnt… I’m sure most of us can get our heads around this so far, we have cultural equivalents for that kind of parade, big fireworks etc…It’s what happens on Nyepi Day that’s really interesting. Everything shuts down. I’m not talking about your typical New Year’s day, everything is closed, kind of shutdown. I’m talking about the biggest, most collaborated shut-down you have ever seen. The airport is closed for 24 hours. Every single shop is closed. The ATMs are turned off. Petrol stations are closed. Windows are covered in black plastic. No one is allowed outside except for emergencies. There are specially selected patrols on the streets making sure that people stay indoors. Why? After having driven the demons away last night, we are now convincing them that we too have deserted the island and that there’s nothing here for them and would they kindly go and inflict strife elsewhere.
So the whole island is completely shut-down. I know reading this you might have random thoughts like ‘Hey, that’d be an awesome time to go for a ride or to the beach when there’s no one there!’, trust me, I’d thought them too! But now, being here, I hardly even dare think those thoughts. Even talking on the phone seems sacrilegious. Everything is quiet and still. It literally feels abandoned. It’s an incredible feat to shut down an entire bustling island and have 100% compliance, purely out of cultural respect. I can’t imagine any Western situation in which the whole population would voluntarily spend a whole day completely indoors unless they were physically threatened. Even though I have no belief at all in ‘demons’ and therefore see absolutely no need to spend a day hiding and convincing them we’re not here, there is a massive respect in me for this culture in which the traditions are so strong (and generally committed to peace and balance) that they stand steadfast. This tiny Hindu island, in the middle of a Muslim majority country, saying to the rest of the country, the rest of the world – These are our traditions, this is what we’re choosing to honour and we will not abide anything less than respect.