Yesterday evening, as I crouched against the sidewalk at an intersection in town, I overheard a brief exchange between a barefoot and distraught and yoga-mat toting tourist and a flashlight-wielding pecalang (village security guard). Where do I go… I’m looking for the go-gos! The bewildered guard, dressed in the customary poleng-style sarong, black t-shirt and udeng, directed her to his partner standing nearby. She pleaded with this guy too, where are the go-gos?! He chuckled and replied, ah, you look for ogoh-ogoh, ya? He barely had a chance to point down the main road before she sped off on foot.
I held back from interfering to explain to her that ogoh ogohs were at that very moment marching down the side road, towards us. In fact, even under the cover of darkness, they could be seen everywhere. All around Ubud, all around Bali. You’d pretty much have to be cooped up indoors to miss any of the.. go-gos!
Today is Nyepi in Bali. The Lunar Near Year – according to the Balinese Saka Calendar, a day traditionally devoted to fasting, self-reflection and meditation. It is also the island-wide Day of Silence, a day on which all human activity comes to a full stop. Cars, motorbikes, trucks, bicycles, all transport is rendered immobile for 24 hours. Even the airport in Denpasar shut down from 6 o’clock this morning until the same hour tomorrow; indeed, Ngurah Rai Airport is the only in the world that closes all operations for a full day. (Apparently, this annual one-day curbing of all transportation on the island has been scientifically studied, and estimated to significantly reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.)
The days leading up to Nyepi are equally full of ceremony – and water, holy water that is. Starting from Melasti, the day on which the Balinese head to beaches around the island, bringing sacred objects from their village temples to be cleansed in the ocean. A procession of Balinese, their priest, elders and village chiefs head to the ocean’s edge for a sacred ritual, to dip the holy objects into the water thereby symbolizing their purification.
After a high priest has chanted mantras, conducted prayers and sprinkled holy water on the hundreds gathered, the villagers amble down to the ocean (the women, often carrying high towers of offerings on their heads) with plastic bottles and cups in hand, to scoop up water deemed holy by virtue of the priest’s presence and prayers.
The evening before Nyepi is known as Ngerupuk, when massive sculpted figures are paraded through towns to exorcise demons.
The buildup to the great ogoh ogoh parade starts in late February, when the young single men of each banjar begin planning and building their respective ogoh ogohs – the monstrous-looking fabulous fiends and assorted creatures, constructed out of wood, foam, wire, paper and gobs of paint. These giant figures, some based on classic Balinese myths, have fangs, bulging eyes, bulbous breasts, and massive heads of hair.
Local children gather around the construction areas, more enchanted than frightened off by the towering creatures. Parents regularly ferry their infants and young children on motorbikes, stopping in front of countless works-in-progress in banjar after another, to marvel at the larger-than-life monsters.
The ogoh-ogoh effigies are designed to be as ghastly as possible, to scare off evil spirits thought to be lurking around the island on the eve of Nyepi. Mounted onto bamboo platforms, and carried by a dozen or more youth, they are paraded around every village, creating a spectacle that attracts locals and tourists alike.
Often, upon reaching an intersection – where, according to superstition, evil spirits are well known to linger – the carriers will swing the platform around wildly a few times to shake off bad karma. If you didn’t know better, you’d think the circus is in town.. and it’s gone mobile, bringing the carnival atmosphere to a banjar near you.
By the time the processions end, the precisely-made offerings – with burnt coconut husks, flowers, eggs, fruit and rice – have all been placed on fanciful trays, shrines and on the street; the ogoh ogohs are set alight, the locals and travelers turn in for the night, the streets are strewn with used plastic bottles and cups, many lights switch off and the usual rumbling of bikes and cars winds down.
Once in awhile, strange things happen in the days and hours leading up to Nyepi: a chicken is seen crossing a roof (probably to see the ogoh ogohs on the other side), a dog is spotted on top of an entryway, or the power goes out – as it did last night, as if a reminder to all of the coming darkness.
And then, today, a true gift from the island of the gods, a day of unparalleled silence, a stillness that almost defies description, a lighter load, a large swath of peace.
In the early morning, I quietly saunter out to where the path meets the road, but mindful not to step onto the road. The bamboo curtains of the warung across the road are tied up. A dog sleeping on the road looks up at me momentarily, as if to challenge my presence in taboo territory (dogs, apparently, are exempt).
I glance down the road in one direction, then the other – whereupon my eyes land on the pecalang out on morning patrol. With staff in hand, he silently motions to me to return from where I came, and I gesture back a promise that I will not step out further. The dog settles back down, but keeps watch until I turn back.
Nyepi is arguably my favorite day on the Balinese calendar. In fact, it’s the day that I most long to prolong on this island; with its endless precious hours of quiet, clear sky, glorious birdsong – unheard on most days, chirping cecak and the unmistakable sound of palm leaves fluttering in the breeze.
It’s a blissfully enforced day of contemplation, reading, reflection, solitude – or a day on which you can immerse yourself in… absolutely nothing. But even more than a day of rest for the population and deities, it’s a much-needed break for the earth, sky and water.