Monday, March 2, 2009

Nyepi….Happy New Year in Bali

The new year in Bali is celebrated with 24 hours of total silence. It is like a miracle on this hustling, bustling Island. But it actually happens. The Balinese day does not start at midnight as in the west. It starts at sunrise and ends 24 hours later, again at sunrise. So at 6 a.m. on Nyepi morning, wherever you are is where you stay for the next 24 hour period. The streets are totally empty, all businesses are closed, and a great silence envelops the island. Hotel guests must stay on their hotel grounds and may not venture out. The ‘pecalang‘, (I have always referred to them as the ‘temple police’ because one of their main jobs is to direct traffic during temple ceremonies, cremations and other busy religious activities) are the only people on the roads and their job during the day is to insure that no one else is out.
As impossible as it sounds, the airport is closed! Only medical evacuations are allowed or, heaven forbid, an emergency landing. Scheduled incoming or outgoing flights are 100% cancelled.

During this quiet day, the truly devout fast and meditate. Lighting fires is not allowed which means that traditional kitchens in compound that normally burn firewood to cook cannot be used. Expats with sensor lights at their homes place tape over the sensors in preparation for the night.
Because Bali wants to take good care of its visiting foreign guests staying with us in hotels, special dispensation is given to hotel staff. They must arrive at their place of work before 6:00 a.m. and also stay on the grounds for 24 hours, but staff is allowed to provide service to guests including making sure they are well fed! Guests may continue to use all of the hotel facilities….after all, just the lack of electricity that night will be enough of a cultural shock for visitors. But everyone is asked to chat quietly and to observe this quiet day with respect.
As evening falls, darkness takes on a whole new meaning! With no electricity ANYWHERE, many visitors are surprised at how deep a darkness can be experienced. Accompanied by total silence (except for the occasional barking of dogs…they never get the message) it is awesome. Hotel guests sip a last cup of coffee or tea and watch the oncoming night. In compounds, families lull their children to sleep and then soon join them for a night of much needed rest. The temple police patrol the streets, rebuking the occasional person who dares to have lights and making sure the villages and streets are dark, empty…and safe.
And then it is morning again! At 6:00 a.m. the island returns to its usual activity, the lights go on, the kitchen fires are lit, workers head for their jobs. But the calmness of the previous 24 hours still is felt. We speak more quietly, we are calm and we are happy to know that Nyepi will come again in a year.
In contrast, the day before Nyepi is one of extraordinary activity! And it is far noisier than any normal day. Villages have been preparing huge papier mache demons, ranging from scary to terrifying in appearance. Firecrackers are heard in the distance. And the Balinese are visiting their family and village temples for prayer. For me, I started the day with prayers at my house temple, then to the crossroads of Ubud for prayer with the entire village of Ubud, next to Pura Desa in Ubud, on to the family temple at Saraswati, then to Pura Desa at Peliatan. Hurrying back to my house to shower and change it was then prayer at my village Pura Desa Temple, a procession to Pura Dalem with all of the villages deities, including the mystical and powerful Barong and then on to the banjar for a last blessing. The entire village participated and at the close of this last ceremony we all returned to our homes for one last ritual. Making huge noises by banging on pots and pans, using a hollow switch to beat the ground, hitting the bamboo kul-kul, we circled the property yelling at the top of our lungs. A lighted torch led the way and finally everyone ended up at the driveway where the torch was allowed to burn out accompanied by the hollow switch and many offerings that had been placed there earlier. Our house was ready for Nyepi.
In Ubud, a huge parade of Ogoh Ogoh, those scary papeir mache demons, started about an hour before nightfall. Each village had done their best to make their Ogoh Ogoh the scariest of all. And each was a spectacular piece of hand made creativity, splendid in size, spectacular in color and totally demonic in appearance. Each of the Ogoh Ogoh needed many strong men to carry it into the village and then to the Ubud crossroads where the Ogoh Ogoh were made to dip and sway and go about in circles. Because one of the demons was so huge, the power lines had to be raised, resulting in a brief electrical outage for the entire area! It was a precursor to the darkness that would be experienced during the Nyepi 24 hour period. At the close of the parade, the Ogah Ogah were taken to a central and safe location and set afire. All those weeks of work, up in flames! And then everyone scurried home.
So why all the noise and activity preceding Nyepi? A central tenet of the Balinese Hindu religion is that of balance. Good is balanced with not-so-good. All cannot be good without some bad as counterbalance. After all, without some bad, everything would be perfect! Impossible! Consequently, just as there are good and helpful deities, there are also many not-so-good spirits lurking about and wanting to make mischief. So at our homes we make all that noise and burn torches to frighten the bad spirits away. The Ogoh Ogoh are intended to do the same…and they are indeed frightful! And finally, Nyepi is quiet and dark so that bad spirits passing through Bali at this time of year and looking for places to make trouble, will believe the Island is deserted and simply move on.
To maintain the balance, the Balinese revere the deities who protect them and the Island and respectfully acknowledge the existence of the bad spirits, albeit by trying to frighten them away…and then we all quietly settle down for 24 hours until they have moved on.
And Nyepi provides that special quiet time when each of us can introspectively examine ourselves, ask forgiveness for past bad behavior, think about how to be a better person in the coming year, and ask for guidance to find the ‘right way’.

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