If you happen to be in Bali in March, you are in for a real treat. This is the island’s most auspicious date of the year featuring spectacularly chaotic ritual followed by an equally dramatic anti-climax.
Nyepi, or the “Day of Silence,” is the start of the Balinese ‘Caka’ year and is a religious ‘celebration’ like no other. Hindu Bali has its very own unique take on this and even in the predominantly Hindu Indian sub-continent, there is nothing quite like it. Just like Bali’s famed dance dramas, its origins date back to the mythical times of gods, evil spirits, witches and bizarre superheroes.
A precursor to Nyepi itself is the Melasti Festival, held in every town and village. It is in simple terms a symbolic spring cleaning of Bali’s spirit in readiness for the big day. Large effigies of the gods are hauled to rivers and the sea for ritual bathing, prayers and religious offerings. From an outsider’s standpoint, all the main action takes place the day before Nyepi proper.
This is the time for the first sighting of the fearsome Ogoh-Ogoh – huge papier-mache effigies of evil monsters. Expect big bulging eyes, contorted faces and hands and enough fake blood to give young kids sleepless nights. These are carried through towns and villages in a traditional procession to the cacophony of deafening drummers, claxons, gamelan music – basically, the idea is to make as much noise as is humanly possible in order to scare off all evil spirits. After dark these effigies are ceremoniously burnt, followed by much communal debauchery (for Balinese standards) into the night. Drinking, dancing and feasting takes place in a rather chaotic fashion, all with the aim of driving these evil spirits far, far away, or at very least driving them insane.
Day of Silence
Now for the big day of Nyepi itself. This could hardly be any more different. After a night of over-the-top excess, the whole island basically transforms into a ghost town. This is the famous Day of Silence, which is to ingeniously fool the evil spirits into thinking Bali is completely empty. When they say a “Day of Silence”, they are certainly not joking. This whole island, populated by over 3 million, quite literally resembles an eerie, post-apocalyptic world with not a soul to be seen, or a voice to be heard.
If you are thinking of arriving or departing Bali on this day, or even taking a stroll by the beach, think again! The whole island switches off – quite literally. The airport is completely closed, no travel is allowed, whether by motorized means or using your own two feet, all household electricity is banned and any kind of noise is a big no-no. It is a day for introspection and reflection for Balinese families and the most traditional folk will even abstain from talking to each other for the whole day. There are no shops or businesses open at all during Nyepi, the only exception being emergency medical services.
Visiting tourists are not spared either. The only sign of life on the street is the menacing sight of the Pecalang (Nyepi police) who patrol local areas in search of wayward locals trying to sneak out but will also politely but firmly escort curious tourists back to their hotel. In some smaller hotels, you will be completely left to your own devices without so much as a single candle and certainly no food or water for 24 hours, so plan ahead and stock up with some munchies and liquid refreshment. Larger establishments may well provide a few more comforts such as electricity and the opportunity to get a bite to eat behind closed doors but you will still be a virtual prisoner for the day.
Experiencing Nyepi Day
For many expats and tourists who have experienced Nyepi, it is either a massive inconvenience or a delightful excuse to do absolutely nothing. It’s an ideal opportunity to catch up on some sleep or read that book you have been putting off for so long but for single travellers, it promises to be a lonely 24 hours. A large proportion of travellers head over by boat to the nearby Gili Islands for a few days either side of Nyepi to escape and these three tiny tropical islands get very overcrowded as a result. Book your accommodation and transport a few days ahead at least.
At Nyepi in Bali, it is best to simply go with the flow, enjoy a little introspection yourself and if you are staying in one of the hectic tourist resorts such as Kuta, savour the once-a-year novelty of utter peace and quiet. Nyepi is a unique experience and there is no other day like it anywhere else in the world.