Nyepi – Celebrating the Balinese New Year

In all my travels, never have I encountered a holiday tradition as unique as Nyepi. It’s the Balinese ‘day of silence’ that is commemorated every new year following the dark moon of the spring equinox – which lucky enough for us, happened during our stay on the island.

What made this experience so special, is that the Hindu island of Bali, lies in a country that is dominantly Muslim, the the largest Islamic country in the world actually. Here, the beliefs of the Balinese are very different than the rest of the country because the Hindus believe in animism and ancestor worship, therefore spirits are at large in Bali, and take many forms.

The day before Nyepi, is a loud one. Citizens all over Bali try to be as noisy as possible. They bang on drums, gongs, pots, pans, and other percussion instruments, creating a cacophony of sound to alarm the spirits of their whereabouts, and to lure them into the cities. Once the sun goes down, out comes the magnificently scary puppets, or ‘ogoh-ogoh’, that the locals have spent weeks leading up to the ceremony creating.

Evil spirits created for the parade, then set on fire
Evil spirits, or ogoh-ogoh, created for the parade

I had been watching the progress of these large demons as they came to life over the previous weeks. They started as wiring, then styrofoam was added, then sculpted and paper mached; then came the paint, hair, and decorations. I would sit and watch the people huddled under the canopy of their local temples, all collaborating in happy glee, like it was an honor to aid in the creation of these giant monsters. At first I had no idea what it was all about, so I’d inquire with many of the locals, each giving their own version of the story, and in the end I had a decent idea of what was going on… Everything this island does during this special day (and the days before and after) is to try to eradicate the evil spirits from plaguing the cities. The Balinese try their hardest to tempt the sinful demons in, so they can try to kill them off, leaving their spaces more peaceful and full of good energy. They create these giant monsters in the forms of the human ego. Many of them resembling the sinful, lustful, ravenous side of humanity often depicted in animal form with long scraggly fingernails. To them, these are what the bad spirits have transformed into. One friend told me he saw an evil spirit taking a selfie. I guess it’s creator thought technology was leading locals in a bad direction.

The Balinese, who are a very ceremonious bunch, follow many traditions leading up to Nyepi, or New Years Day. They have been conducting these rituals for decades. Objects get purified at temples by sacred water acquired from the sea – an important resource to the natives. Chickens, ducks, pigs, and goats are sacrificed in different villages and districts throughout Bali. Various plants and crops are used as offerings to appease the god of the underworld, as well as serving to remind the Balinese about the importance of harvest and cattle. Offerings both large and small can be seen all over the villages, all specific rituals leading up to Nyepi Eve.

Offerings to the good spirits and the ancestors
Offerings to the spirits & the spirits of the ancestors

Once the sun sets on the eve of Nyepi, the small cities fill with even more chaos. Bamboo bombs are shot into the air, music blares through the streets, and finally the march of the evil spirits are paraded through the narrow lanes. These massive paper puppets are held at the base by a team of men, sometimes young boys, walking down the street in their grid of bamboo scaffolding to help support the demon towering above them. Processions of men, whaling on their instruments kept the music blasting. Young girls danced through the parade, decked out in traditional clothes, performing the customary dances with their eyes wide open. Most of the women were alongside the tourists on the curbs of the streets with the children, whose faces beam with the cutest, most entertained smiles on their faces.

At the end of this procession, the main ritual happened, the paper demons were set to flames, the burning symbolizing the eradication of evil influences in life. During this time, shamans and gurus meditate. As their spirits leave their bodies, they go and battle the evil spirits as a sort of exorcism. We were told this is a very dangerous time for them, and some who are ‘hurt in battle’ will never be the same, unable to ‘reconnect’ with their natural selves. After the burning of the man-made evil spirits, everyone returns home to prepare for the pinnacle of the New Years celebration – a mandatory day of silence the following day.

Evil dragon spirit paraded through Ubud, Bali
Evil dragon spirit paraded through Ubud, Bali

It is on Nyepi day that Bali comes to a complete standstill. We were educated by many locals for weeks leading up to the event that during this day we must stay in our houses, that everything will be closed, and that we must be prepared to have all the food and water we will need ahead of time, because we are not allowed to leave for any reason. No electricity, no wifi, no noise, and certainly no roaming the streets. It is reserved for a day of silence and mediation. Flights don’t even come in or out for this 24 hour period that lasts from 6am to 6am the following morning. It is a very serious holiday. All the shops, restaurants, and businesses are closed, and no one is allowed on the streets or beaches, except for the local watchmen in their black and white checkered skirts who patrol the roads making sure these practices are followed.

Whatever demons didn’t get killed or burned during the ceremony the previous evening, are said to soar over the town, trying to find people to torture, but when they don’t see or hear anyone, because we are inaudible and unseen, cooped up noiseless in our homes, the spirits will assume nobody lives here and will move on allowing the inhabitants another year of peaceful existence.

When I woke up on Nyepi Day, I could immediately sense the calm and tranquility around me. Most people on this island the size of Connecticut are at home in peaceful silence, dedicating the entire day to connect with themselves more closely. Self-introspection is the priority of the day to reflect upon values and be mindful of their lives, actions, and thoughts. Anything that might interfere with this purpose is strictly prohibited. No use of lighting once the sun goes down. No pleasuring of appetite. No physical work other than spiritual cleansing and renewal. No traveling, except for those in life threatening situations or women giving birth. And no forms of entertainment or general merrymaking.

Calm and contently reflecting in deep self-reflection
Tranquil surroundings during a day of self-reflection

As I sit here this beautiful afternoon writing this post, I haven’t eaten a thing nor spoke a word all day. My belly is growling, reminding me to eat, and even though I stocked up on food beforehand in the event my willpower fails (which it normally does), I’m ignoring it. I want to abide by the local customs I respect. Also, as I sit here on my laptop, which I fully charged the night before, I’m choosing to ignore the fact that writing this article to share with ItsBohemian followers might classify as general merriment. I am certainly taking the time to meditate and reflect on my life this day, but also indulging in the fact that I have a quiet day to myself, where extracting all the thoughts from my mind, and making them digital is possible and healthy for my brain :) However, I will stay strong to my day of silence and fasting (with the exception of water, my body really needs to rehydrate from the strong Balinese sun) until 6am tomorrow morning.

Today, as I reflect on the next year of my life, I feel hopeful. I’m certain good things will happen because I’m staying true to my will and my desires. I will spend most of this year continuing my travels to experience new cultures, meet new people with new perspectives, eat new foods, discover new ways to live, and ultimately complete my 3rd circle around the globe while gaining invaluable enlightenment of the world, a wealth of knowledge I would never have had if I stayed put back home.

I laugh when I compare the New Year’s traditions I always knew, to the ones I’m experiencing now. Back home we get get glammed up, boozed up, kiss at midnight, and watch a giant ball drop. Here, they are creating demon spirits, to lure more out so they can kill them, then they reflect on their lives without the presence of evil. They kill the spirits instead of drink them. I think I actually prefer the Balinese New Year.

Nyepi serenity in Bali, Indonesia
Nyepi serenity in Bali, Indonesia

I have never experienced the serenity that today offers. Here, now, in Bali, Indonesia the lush greenery blows gently in the wind. Colorful pops of bright flowers shine vibrant in the sun. Chirps of birds, cock-a-doodles of roosters and quacks of the ducks in the rice fields behind my guesthouse, can all be heard. The sky is baby blue with very charismatic clouds floating and swirling at large. Dragonflys dodge and dip in and out of view, coming in as quickly as they left. The nature around me is loud, but the humanity is quiet. Not a car or motorbike is buzzing around. I haven’t heard a single voice all day. No hammering or building. No haggling or cooking. Today, humanity is hushed, and nature reigns. Today is a chance for Mother Nature to ‘reboot’ itself after 254 days (lunar calendar) of human pestering. I am lucky and thankful to have experienced this, only in Bali.

To see the full gallery of the sights and sounds of Nyepi, the Balinese New Year, Click HERE.

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