Balinese New Years Pt.2: Nyepi


9:00am                                                                                                                        Today’s sunrise brought the New Lunar Year and the start of Bali’s day of silence: Nyepi. Right now evil spirits are swirling around Bali and hopefully, finding it devoid of human life, will decide to leave the island alone for another year. To keep up the illusion everyone abides by a few basic rules: no going outside, no loud noise, no open flames, and no visible light. Beyond those guidelines the spirit of the day seems to be up for interpretation. For some, Nyepi is a time for solitary reflection and even fasting, for others a time for enjoying good food and catching up on household chores. Many of the young people I know plan to hole themselves up with their friends and drink all day. That is, unless they get too loud and the pecalang, a kind of traditional police force, come confiscate their alcohol.

Yesterday had the feeling of the day before a hurricane strikes. Everyone was buzzing about visiting friends and stocking up on supplies. Most homes in Bali buy their meat and vegetables every morning, so even one day without shopping requires extra preparation. By the early afternoon, the stores that were still open had been thoroughly picked over. I had spent the morning watching a ceremony so now I will be eating rice and beans along with a few bruised tomatoes. Most women woke up early today to do the day’s cooking before the sun came up and all flames had to be extinguished. I wasn’t feeling so ambitious so my beans are stewing in the rice cooker instead.



Bali is a noisy and busy place. I can usually hear children screaming and motorbikes rattling down bumpy roads. There is always a construction project pounding away somewhere or an airplane humming overhead. Most evenings I can hear a gamelan group practicing in the distance or the Hindu epics being broadcast from temples and community halls. Today the silence is only broken by the birds and dogs, which are doing their best to pick up the slack. Likewise, the air, so often heavy with fried spices and burning garbage, is clear of human smells.
I have seen a few people poke their heads outside in defiance of the curfew, but for the most part the streets are empty. Apparently the silence is more strictly enforced in the villages, where the pecalang make regular patrols. I live in a more modern neighborhood where the traditions and community institutions are not as strong. Still, as I write, the only sounds I notice are the chirping birds and the hum of my refrigerator, more audible now that it has no competition. For once I wish I lived in the city so I could see the deserted streets and rows of boarded up store-fronts; or by one of the resort beaches that are momentarily devoid of sunbathers and hawkers.


Around eight o’clock the pecalang made a pass through the neighborhood checking that everyone had their lights out. I could see their tell-tale black and white checkered sarongs in the light of their flashlights. One large house across the street seemed to be defying the black-out, shining like a beacon with every bulb bright and every curtain drawn. But now it too has gone dark. I have allowed myself a single lamp to read by, but I shut the curtains and hung a sheet over the door just to be sure.
The Lunar Year starts on the new moon, so the darkness outside is complete. The animals finally take a hint and pipe down. Nothing stirs for minutes at a time; the stars and crickets are the only thing saving us from total oblivion. I think every place could use a day like this.
              –March 23, 2012

Balinese New Years Pt.1: Ogoh-Ogoh


The Balinese Lunar New Year comes in a frenzy and goes out in silence. This time of stark contrasts is packed with special traditions and ceremonies to insure the spiritual health of the coming year. The most dramatic of these rites comes on New Years Eve when giant puppets are carried through the streets in a carnival-like parade. These ogoh-ogoh (sounds roughly like ‘go-a-go’) are depictions of evil spirits often in the act of wicked deeds. They are viciously thrashed about by the young men who built them and typically burned at the end of the night. This destruction doesn’t literally signify the death of these malevolent forces, but it keeps them in check, maintaining the appropriate balance of good and evil that the Balinese believe essential to life.

(If you follow the YouTube link you can find lot’s of great ogoh-ogoh videos)

The journey of these oversized figurines began almost two months ago. At night, young men and boys gathered in community halls to sketch out ideas for their ogoh-ogoh. They brought their blueprints to metal working shops where craftsmen welded a basic frame out of scraps of rebar and fence posts. Sometimes I would to watch these groups of youngsters huddled around what looked to me like bizarre works of modern sculpture: jumbles of iron bars jutting out at unlikely angles. Over the coming weeks these skeletons were fleshed out with styrofoam and paper maché till they bulged with sinewy muscles and monstrous breasts (I am not kidding, huge boobs seem to be an essential feature of female demons). The sculpting was generally a solitary task undertaken by the group’s leader. Here is my teacher’s nephew, Gede, fitting a final wedge of foam into his creature’s thigh.


Once Gede finished sculpting the form, the ogoh-ogoh became a community project. The head, which is usually carved separately from a single piece of foam, was united with the body, and the whole creation was moved to a large community space that could accommodate its considerable height. In the last few weeks before New Years the ogoh-ogoh underwent a rapid transformation from ghostly outlines to intricately decorated characters complete with cloths, props, and scenery. Around this time I could hear the air compressor running every night as detailed color was sprayed on in stages. I also saw the neighborhood kids out soliciting donations to buy clothes for their project (most of these ogoh-ogoh cost almost $1000 to make). Here is my teacher’s nephew with the finished product of his labor.


On New Years Eve the young men mounted their creations on bamboo platforms and placed them out in the street so that they could be appreciated for a few hours before their demolition. Some groups kept tweaking details till sunset but most found a shady spot and passed a bottle of palm liquor while passers-by stopped to admire the display. I took a bike ride around my area and saw dozens of ogoh-ogoh in the space a few miles. The artists were incredibly proud of their creations and usually insisted that I take lots of pictures as well as a shot of liquor. Here are some highlights from the neighborhood. The last two pictured seem to offer some social commentary: a beer swilling tourist and a Celuluk demon with an iPhone (if you look closely you can see he is logged onto Facebook).



Just after nightfall the parade commenced, with each float making a few passes through the neighborhood before heading out to the main road and ultimately destruction. The display has a religious function, and a priest always accompanies the procession, but for the young men and children this is a chance to let loose and show off. They holler and sprint around in circles while their parents’ pound drums and cymbals to match the energy of the group. The motion is coordinated but unplanned, giving the ­ogoh-ogoh a mind of its own as it dances above the crowd.  A few men blow whistles and try to keep things in order but most of the spectators just keep their distance, content to let the kids have their fun. After all, this is their last chance to get in their kicks before the New Year arrives and silence falls over Bali.