A travel story.
With a leap into the unknown, embark on a tale of mystery and wonder from one of the most spiritual islands in Indonesia. Travel through words and discover more about this incredible Balinese ceremony and the night before. Nyepi marks a fresh start and new beginnings with its uniquely special parade.
I have been lucky to experience four Nyepi (Silent Day) celebrations over my time in Bali. Each one unique and special in its way.
The night before Nyepi is always the most special part of the festival for me. Street parades bring Bali roads to a halt as villages perform dances with their homemade ogoh-ogoh’s. Something catching is in the air as you follow the ritual through the streets, bustling shoulders with the locals in the crowd.
It Was The Night Before Nyepi
Last light is fading in orange and pink hues, casting across the sky canvas by the setting sun. A coolness grasps the air as dusk falls. The island is in final preparation. Weeks of secretive planning all build-up to today, this one special night.
The excitement is catching as I find myself packing a small bag of essentials, water and salted peanuts, before hitting the streets with the masses of other foreigners and locals. Roads are on lockdown with revellers, peddlers and parades.
This is the night before Nyepi, the procession of the ogoh-ogohs.
Quickly I caught up to a crowd ushering my steps forward faster and faster leaving my house behind. I beg my feet to move even quicker.
“Where are we going? What’s is happening?” No one turns to answer me.
Instead, we keep following like ducks in the rice fields, moving as one body towards the main intersection.
The traffic light junction is only a short walk away from where I live. No more than 1km. Here we met up with another crowd on the other side who approached down from the North. A large space formed in the middle cleared for what was about to come.
Slowly, the attractions of the night appeared.
Giant puppets displaying evil two-headed monsters, half-man half-beast concoctions, demon faces, and ruined women enter centre stage. Each ogoh-ogoh is accompanied by individual traditional kulkul band and dance troop. They take turns to tell their story through dance and fire processions. A commentator recites the tale in the Balinese dialect, adding to the mystery.
Each puppet embodies the evil Bhuta spirit, putting it on display and parading through Bali’s streets. It is the belief that other cursed spirits are collected and banished in this annual process. Essentially, the night before Nyepi is a cleansing ceremony for the island.
Throughout the night we watch united as more and more ogoh-ogoh’s pass through with their temple puppeteers controlling each vivid movement. Each one is more impressive than the last.
As the commentary is in Balinese, I can only follow through body language, the crowd’s enthusiasm, and my limited vocabulary picking up the odd word. Hours have passed before we are on the move again, this time all together trailing behind the final ogoh-ogoh, coursing towards the beach.
While we walk, I notice every household has a burning ceremonial offering at their entranceways.
Incense smoke layers the streets in a fog, adding more eeriness to the evening’s processions. The smell rises to my nostrils, filling deeply with sandalwood and jasmine. This burning is to ward off the evil spirits from entering the home, banishing them to follow the procession out of the village and down to the beach.
All the streets filter down to the sands, as if estuaries and streams to the ocean.
Ogoh-ogohs are dotted along the coastline like beacons to the island. Then, one by one, they are lit up. Torched and burnt. Together with the clouds of incense, the air thickens as it swirls skyward. Billowing and escaping from our small island, taking with it the evil spirits from the past year.
Relief rolls through the crowds for a momentary pause.
But then the next tension and challenges arise. We all need to get back to our respective places before 6 am before the 24-hour lockdown falls on the island.
The roads quickly become chaos with scooters emerging from every crevice. Scattering like locusts, everybody is swerving and dodging to get back fast. The Pecalang, (local law enforcement), blow their whistles in an attempt of control. Their hard expressions are a prelude for the stern rules of the coming day – Nyepi, Day of Silence.
In a blur, I find myself safely back home with all my supplies I stocked the week before. After the excitement of this night, I welcome a day of rest.
Traditionally the Balinese use this day to meditate and focus on self-reflection. Anything that could interfere with this is prohibited – work, travel, cooking, entertainment. It is believed the evil spirits return to the island after the night, searching for new hosts. So you must remain indoors to keep safe.
The Pecalang are the only ones allowed to walk the streets to patrol and ensure the community is sticking to the rules.
No noise, no light.
Words cannot describe the serenity of the new day and the mystery of the night. Only an experience of the magic can give insight.
On this day of silence, dogs rule the streets, empty waves roll to shore, and stars light up the night sky canvas.
One slice of light escaping your room at night can lead to having the Pecalang knocking on your door. I make sure my curtains are seamless while only having candlelight for company.
The day after Nyepi, Ngembak Geni, is the start of the New Year. Fresh beginnings and forgiveness are asked by the Balinese from their families and friends.
The roads come back to life, bakso trucks continue to be pushed with a fresh new smile beaming out.
Ding, ding, ding.
The island returns to normal, but with fresher air and clearer skies.
Unfortunately, 2020’s Nyepi was a different twist. Parades were not allowed to wander in the streets at night. The typical 24-hour lockdown rolled on to a 48 hours before the unofficial quarantine began. Social distancing put Bali to a halt instead. The night before Nyepi held other, darker reservations.
I wrote this short travel piece one month before the world came to a stillness.
I have always said, I believe the whole world should have a taste of Nyepi and take a pause. Never had I imagined that would come to pass.
So now you have experienced, to a certain extent, my favourite day on the Balinese calendar. Can you begin to picture the surreal atmosphere that falls over silence? No traffic noise, no stereos. Just the wind and nature calling over the land, healing scars we as humans create.