It’s Nyepi in Bali, New Year, otherwise known as Silent Day. In almost every other place in the world, when the new year arrives there is an explosion of sound, light, colour and revelry that can last long into the new year’s first morning. But not in Bali.
“It is important that you be quiet. You cannot go on the street,” says Agus, the manager of my Ubud hotel. “If you want to have some food and something to drink tomorrow, you have to buy it today. All the shops will be closed and you have to stay inside the hotel.”
Even though I’m a regular visitor to Bali, I’d never heard of Silent Day.
The Balinese have countless sacred days but Nyepi, which occurs in March, is the most sacred. For 24 hours from just before dawn on Balinese New Year’s Day, the whole island goes into shutdown. Not a word is allowed to be muttered, no sounds should be made, and barely a soul is permitted on the streets. Hotels are open, but all staff have to arrive before 6am, when it’s still dark, and remain until 6am the following day, when the curfew is lifted.
See no evil
“We do this to trick flying evil spirits to think our island is empty,” says Puspa, a local. “If the evil spirits don’t hear anything or see anything moving they’ll keep flying over our island and leave us alone.”
Everyone must respect the tradition. Children are given books to colour in or read. No cooking is done because electricity cannot be used. Only the special watchmen or police can be outside. They walk the streets and if they see a light in a house or hear noise they will knock on the door and tell the people to turn off the lights and be quiet.
“If they see tourists on the street, they can get a fine. It is not good if the tourists are noisy or on the streets,” says Puspa.
Tourists are allowed some latitude. They can talk but only quietly, and they can eat at restaurants if their hotel happens to have one. But other than that, they are expected to observe the same rules as locals.
Nyepi is a six-day festival of which Silent Day is but one event. Perhaps a day of silence is necessary given it is preceded by a boisterous and mindboggling parade on Nyepi Eve that is held in every village and town in Bali.
Just before dusk on Nyepi Eve, I go to Ubud’s main street to join hundreds of tourists and locals to watch the parade of ogoh ogoh, giant statues embodying wickedness made from bamboo, polystyrene and paper.
Noise before the calm
There are more than a dozen ogoh ogohs, all snarling, some with huge or multiple breasts, horns or teeth and claw-like feet and hands. They are spectacular. Each has been built by villages that make up Ubud and placed on a bamboo grid that requires dozens of men to carry down the street. All this is accompanied by loud music and noises.
The statues sway to and fro as their carriers aim to scare the crowds, and the closer they get to their final resting place – a soccer pitch – the louder and more unbearable the noise becomes.
Puspa tells me the noise has to be loud to scare off any lurking evil spirits so the island can have a chance to start the new year in harmony with nature and the Hindu gods.
At the end of each parade an ogoh ogoh is often burned, a symbolic way of scaring off evil. But sometimes an animal is sacrificed in an offering to the gods – a chicken, duck, pig or cow.
At dawn I awake on Nyepi to the sound of a waterfall and birds. Outside there is not a motorbike or car or a child or dog to be heard. Every shop and restaurant and market will be closed, and farmers will be away from their fields. The airport is shut and the lights turned off. Nyepi has transformed Bali into a one-day ghost island.
Story: Verica Jokic
Published in RoyalAuto Feb 17
Nyepi Day is the Balinese New Year celebration, when the whole island goes quiet. It usually takes place in March.
In 2017, it falls on 28 March.
In 2018, 17 March.
In 2019, 7 March.