I first learned about Nyepi while touring around Ubud last year. As I motored though village after village, I spotted boys and teenagers constructing huge demons that rivaled any Hollywood creation. I began to film what captivated me.
Each village funded the construction of demons, called Oguh-oguh monsters. I mean, is there anything better to most boys than making larger-than-life demons? It was like they took the doodles off their school papers and gave them life. The Oguh-oguh monsters represent Bhuta Kala, malicious spirits that inhabit Bali on Nyepi to turn people toward evil. In days gone by, night was considered the time for supernatural beings. Malignant spirits, bhuta kala, and witches filled the darkness of the night. Older Balinese see the night as a dangerous time for traveling outside the house compound, though gamelan is held in the evening but it never lasts until late at night on Bali like it does on Java. Even to this day, my Balinese friends told me that I will not see a Balinese family out with their young children at twilight. They see twilight as the time when evil spirits can take control over people’s lives.
The designs of the Oguh-oguh spoke to their creators’ incredible imaginations and their craftsmanship spoke to how seriously villagers take their monsters. Most were big-breasted ghouls with fangs, some with blue skin, some with very long hair and nails. It was surreal motoring the streets of Ubud, passing demon after demon after demon in varying states of construction. Seeing their creative process was as fascinating to me as seeing the finished creatures parade down the streets of Ubud on Nyepi. The actual day of Nyepi is determined by when the “Tilem Kesanga” falls, the darkest moon.
I had taken a trip to Gili Air to go remote for the weekend right before Nyepi. I just couldn’t wait for the silence, I guess. Gili Air gave a great respite from the frenzy of Java and bustle of Bali as there are no mobiles or motors there. I traveled by horse-drawn carriage when I wasn’t walking. In fact, I could walk around the tiny island in under an hour. When I returned to Bali to celebrate Nyepi, all the tourists were crowded on the docks of Bali ready to party on the Gilis instead of getting “trapped in the silence” of Nyepi. I happily sailed the nearly empty boat back to Bali. I wanted silence. I needed silence. On the eve of Nyepi, Bali was anything but.
Gamelan and clanging filled the air. The Oguh-oguh monsters, great ghouls, paraded down the streets of Ubud while hundreds lined the streets watching the fan fare. All along the parade route, beautiful sarong-wrapped girls carrying torches kept a vigil with pieces of tape placed over their mouths. Some of the passing demons had dozens of boys animating them, holding large bamboo platforms. They raised the Oguh-Oguh up and down battling other demons in the parade. Since it’s believed village crossroads are where evil spirits linger, the boys spin the Oguh-Oguh monsters counter-clockwise to confuse the evil spirits. People bang pots and pans, cans, and honk horns to force the evil spirits to leave. Later the effigies are burnt in cemeteries as a symbol of purification. Cock fighting is permitted on the eve of Nyepi, because the spilling of blood is necessary for purification.
And then, Bali went dark and quiet. The moment otherworldly.
3/31/2014 – Pondock Pundi Village Inn
I’m not supposed to be outside, but I have to look at the stars. While I stare at the kind of darkened sky most people will never see in this light-filled world, the silence bathes me. It’s more than a moment of “unplugging,” it’s freeing. Nothing needs to be done or thought about or planned for in the next twenty-four hours. Outside my door meat and alcohol offerings are left in the streets for the evil spirits to feed on in the hopes that they will pass deserted Bali by.
When I reached The Pondock Pundi Village Inn earlier this afternoon—only a few inns were open for tourists as most left Bali for Nyepi—I was asked for my meal preferences for the entire next day. It was explained to me that I was to return to the Inn before midnight and afterwards I was not to go outside. I was not to use the electricity. The staff would bring my meals to me. I was to observe the four abstinences:
“amati geni” no lighting fires or using lights
“amati karya” refraining from working
“amati lelanguan” refraining from indulging in leisure activities
“amati lelungan” refraining from traveling outside the house
Bali hopes that in the silence all the evil spirits will fly over their island. As they sit inside, they reflect on how to purify their minds and their bodies with yoga and meditation. My experience of Neypi is life-changing. Never have I spent a twenty-four hour period in silence. Those that know me would be laughing right about now. It’s the perfect time to reflect on where I’ve been and where I’m headed.