The island of Bali celebrates Nyepi – and the population remains in silence for 24 hours
In the days leading up to Nyepi, the ‘day of silence’, many sidewalks on the island of Bali are blocked by enormous monstrous figures being assembled, made of papier-mâché, all sorts of exotic accessories and lots of paint. They are called ‘ogoh-ogoh’s’, are up to three meters tall, in fantastic forms and with mostly plump bodies, equipped with talons and horrifying fangs; they emerge in all colors and shapes, grim and evil looking. On the day before Nyepi, they are lined up on the roadsides, pointing towards the direction in which they will be carried in the evening, complete with bamboo foundations. They are part of a celebration that makes sure Bali will be purified of all evil spirits and devils lurking around.
Nyepi marks the first day of the Balinese New Year, and allegedly also the end of the rainy season (one hopes; there’s been lots of it). Just to keep the avid reader’s mind on edge, the Balinese also consider Galungan (another holy day) as New Year, and they are most likely the only tribe known who celebrate a New Year twice within a calendar year. Not only that, they celebrate Galungan every 210 days.
The Balinese solar-lunar year is based on the ‘Saka’ calendar which has its origins in South India, dating back almost 2,000 years ago. Nyepi is celebrated every solar-lunar year, marking also the spring equinox and falling on the day after the ‘dark moon’ (called ‘tilem’) that ends the ninth lunar month. Go figure.
A very special day before Nyepi is the observance of Melasti, when the Balinese walk to holy springs or to the ocean for the symbolic washing of small statues called ‘pratimas’, which are receptacles for gods and deified ancestors. Finding oneself on any of the roads that lead to the beach, a beautiful and humbling sight touches one’s heart: hundreds and hundreds of women, men, and children attired in temple dress, walking gracefully along, focused on their inner task, appearing like gods and goddesses.
One of the many legends regarding Nyepi has it that Yama (Lord of Hell for Balinese Hindus, Lord of Death for Indian Hindus) cleans up hell of all devils, who in due course descend on Bali, which makes it necessary to implement a huge purification ceremony. It seems that Yama must have been cleaning up hell on a daily basis this entire last year, because so much evil has descended on the entire planet! However, this event symbolizes a great exorcism, to bring back into harmony the macrocosm and the microcosm as we know it (or should).
On an esoteric level the Balinese are responsible for continuous purification of the blood of this planet Earth, therefore the night before and the day of Nyepi itself have a very special function also globally.
Back to the eve of Nyepi. Woven coconut leaf mats are placed on village crossroads and other major intersections, with vast assortments of offerings to the ‘bhutas’ and ‘kalas,’ the evil spirits that always try to interfere with human activities.
The parade of the ‘ogoh-ogoh’s’ starts before sunset, is very well organized and quite disciplined. Everyone involved in this event bangs on drums, pots and pans, to make as much noise as possible. Firecrackers, although outlawed, are fired off, and flaming torches add to the heat. Thus a ruckus is raised to scare the evil spirits to such an extent that they push off, totally unnerved. At least this is the commonly shared version.
There’s another interpretation related to us by Fred B. Eisemann in his well-known publication, Bali, Sekala & Niskala. According to Hindu scholars, the noise is not designed to scare the demons away. The noise is, in fact, intended to wake them up so they will see the offerings that have been laid out for them. The quietude on the day after is not intended to trick the demons into thinking that everyone has left, rather it is a matter of showing contentment that the forces of evil are satisfied and will not bother the general populace.
This does make sense as in the balance of things the absence of evil would also ultimately mean the absence of good. So definitely some demons ought to be left on the island!
It will be worthwhile to find a spot along a road in the evening to see the parade and marvel at the creativity put into the creation of the effigies, at the strength, energy and enthusiasm of all those boys and young men who carry them for hours, kilometers at a stretch, lifting them up from time to time among shouts of encouragement, showing them off. And to look at the children staring at those monsters, wide-eyed and enthralled, yet seemingly not scared at all, sitting comfortably on the arms of their elders, watching the show.
One image after the other will be coming by, maybe a green monster with lit-up bug eyes, a grim reaper complete with scythe, a biker on a Harley-Davidson, a punk sporting a spiky hairdo, most likely various sculptures of ‘rangda,’ the awesomely toothy and horrific figure representing the negative side of man, a grinning colossus standing on his hands, a giant goblin type in bright purple, a enormous insect painted in red hues, a yellow basilisk-like apparition from hell, a Gorgon painted Prussian blue, and a multitude of other appearances from the far side.
Waking up in the morning on the day of Nyepi has a similar special feeling as waking up in Europe to a mountain of snow that hadsduring the night. It is so still. There are a few birds twittering away here and there but that is it. Even nature seems to be holding her breath. No airplanes (the airport is closed for 24 hours), no cars, no motorbikes. No people on the roads. Just silence. Imagine, a population of more than 3 million being quiet, being in silence?!
Everybody remains indoors. It is permitted to speak among one’s own four walls yet people are encouraged to look within, to review the last year, what to improve, what to forgive and for what to seek forgiveness. In order not to attract any of the evil spirits that have been driven off, there are no fires allowed (so they can’t see the island), no noise (so they can’t hear the island), and no food to be cooked (so they can’t smell the island). If this sounds difficult, it really isn’t. People simply prepare food a day beforehand and enjoy the peace and quiet among their family. It is a great day for meditation and no-mind. Of course this also means no electric lights or even candles, so it’s a good idea to head for bed early because the sun sets at 6.30 p.m. and darkness falls quickly in the tropics.
The reward comes the day after when the sun rises again and smiles down on a purified, spiritually squeaky clean island.
“…Meditation is something you do to yourself. And when you are transformed, the whole universe behaves differently to you, because the universe is nothing but a response to you, whatsoever you are. If you are silent, the whole universe responds to your silence in thousands and thousands of ways. It reflects you. Your silence is multiplied infinitely. If you are blissful, the whole universe reflects your bliss. If you are in misery, the same happens. The mathematics remains the same, the law remains the same: the universe goes on multiplying your misery. Prayer won’t do. Only meditation can help because meditation is something to be done authentically by you, it is a doing on your part.”
Osho, Vigyan Bhairav Tantra Vol. 2, Ch 33
Bhagawati for Osho News