Happy New Year! Yes, I know it’s March. No, I’m not losing my mind. Just recently, we celebrated the Balinese New Year known as Nyepi. Much like the Chinese New Year in China [been there] and the Thai New Year in Thailand [done that], the Balinese New Year is unique and special to their own beliefs, culture and traditions. I have to admit, I’ve never had a new years like this before!
The preparation for the New Year begins several days before. Families are cooking, purchasing supplies, preparing offerings, and building the community ogoh-ogoh. The ogoh-ogoh is the icon of Nyepi. They are giant paper ache monster statues representing evil, which the Balinese believe contain the evil spirits on the island. Every neighborhood community fundraises & builds multiple of these ogoh-ogoh for a New Year’s Eve parade.
I joined our Balinese neighbors for our neighborhood parade. Before we left their home, they performed a Hindu cleansing ceremony to rid their property of evil spirits. From prayers to chanting to tying a red string around their toe to banging a wooden stick and lighting torches, I would say the evil spirits were sufficiently scared away. [Fun fact: While they were banging the sticks together and walking around their property, all I could think of was that scene from The Parent Trap where they tricked their dad’s fiancee into believing that you scared off mountain lions by banging two sticks together!]
We waited anxiously for the parade to begin. I remembered as a kid, awaiting the start of our town’s Fourth of July parade. I would hold my bucket tight, ready to fill it with candy and prizes that would be thrown by the passing floats. This was parade was not like that parade. After the sun had fully set, the moon had risen, and the street lights illuminated the crowds, the parade begin. Each “float” was accompanied by loud music, often rave or heavy metal. The float bearers would bring the float slowly past the bystanders, and pause at the center of the intersection. At the intersection, the music would change or get louder, and the float would begin to spin and lurch wildly. Parts of the floats would break off. The crowd went wild. Large demons, enormous cultural characters, and even outrageous tourists were depicted through the different floats. Perhaps the most eerie was a dramatic portrayal of a demon being defeated by a reincarnation of a Hindu deity. It was unsettling to watch.
And then, just like that, it was over. We walked home with our neighbors, talking about the different floats we’d just seen. I was amazed to see that even the littlest kids were out with their parents. In my mind, I had just seen something straight out of Halloween Horror Nights, and here were 3-year-olds walking home with mom & dad. I went home and went to home, hoping my dreams would not be filled of what I had just seen and curious about the day of silence to follow.
The next morning, I noticed the silence immediately. Normally from my bedroom I can hear airplanes taking off & landing, motorbikes zipping by, car horns honking, temple bells, the mosque call to prayer, and voices, always voices. But Nyepi Day, Balinese New Year’s Day, I heard none of that. Silence. It was a silence that invaded my ears. I was afraid to talk above a whisper. But then I got out of bed, opened our doors and relished the quiet. The Day of Silence is quite significant for the Balinese New Year ceremony. After an evening of loud noises & monster parades, they believe the demons had been chased off from Bali, and now, for 24 hours, they needed to remain silent so the demons wouldn’t come back. Silence meant no going outside of your home, no lights, no cooking, no entertainment, and no sounds. We followed *most* of those rules. But the Balinese take them very seriously. The Bali airport is the only airport in the world to close for a regular holiday. The Hindu police roamed the neighborhoods making sure no houses were too loud or too lit.
I was most excited for the evening. Sure, our house would be pitch black, but I wanted to see the night sky. With every outdoor light in Bali turned off, I was expecting the sky to explode with stars. And it did. I was not disappointed. Stars covered almost every inch of the inky blackness. As I laid under the bright night sky, I was thankful. Thankful to be living in this new culture with it’s sometimes strange traditions. And thankful to be seeing the beauty of Creation flung across the universe before me. What a blessing.
The day after Silent Day was back to normal. The morning people began disassembling their ogoh-ogoh, and some even burning them on the beach. Balinese Hindu legend believes if you don’t burn them within the month, the demons will come to life. So just for safety sakes, everyone burns them. Offerings were left at the temples. Prayers were said. And life began again in a new year.