The year is 1934. Shop owners still use weigh scales, the butane lanterns of food sellers spotlight herds of cattle on city streets, and wifi is free with your purchase at Mini Mart. Here on the island of Bali, the Saka New Year has just begun, and as this first lunar month spans mid-March until mid-April, fervent daily ceremonies still echo a calendar change of great local importance.
The religious sphere here balloons with interest, like the fractal designs on Balinese temples. Maybe Fred B. Eiseman, JR. can back me up here. In BALI Sekala & Niskala, he states originally wanting to write about the country of Indonesia, then focusing on Bali Island, and finally, narrowing his focus to the southern half of Jimbaran village. His detailed essays on inseparable religious and cultural traditions in half of this one coastal fishing village spans nearly 400 pages, rarely going out of bounds. As for Nyepi New Year however, traditions island-wide just might be similar enough to allow a generalized account – of real magic.
In the sandi kala witching hours the day before Nyepi New Year’s Eve, devotees trace alleyways with bamboo torches, banging pots, pans, and gallon drums. Before the fresh start, they rustle crowds of cowering, immaterial squatters, forcing them to the streets. The next afternoon welcomes Bali’s very visible evils, both hulking and endearing: the ogoh-ogoh.
The Hindu sphere, with around 3,000,000 spin-off gods and deities, has more than a few demons. A local tartan, checkered black, white, and grey, details their three-part worldview of good and evil meeting in a grey area. This thinking beyond dualities is reflected in the peculiar love story of Rama and Sita. At the end of the story, the King gets his Queen back from an evil giant after a long battle involving flying, white monkeys – then outright ostracizes her; better that then his followers suspecting her of infidelity.
In this grey area, things just are what they are, and manifestations of our collective inner-beasts emerge, twelve feet tall and staggering, made of rebar, Styrofoam, rubber, fur, and papier-mâché. Some of the mechanized ones with glowing red eyes, spinning axes, peeing water on the crowds, cost upwards of two thousand dollars – a stubborn show of tradition, for a developing country; after all, these aren’t school buses trailing bows and ribbons.
As these fanged, nude, vulgar effigies spin around intersections, they are said to entrap the wandering loiterers evicted the night before. After a round around the roundabout, the ogoh-ogoh, livid with ill will, are carried out of the city in hopes they’ll never be seen again. The celebration is dubbed ngropokan, the base word, kropok, onomatopoeic for shrimp crackers. And yes, as it serves to cleanse the island of lurking evils for the coming year, the crunch plays loudly. Some of the ogoh-ogoh trail mobile DJ booths, spinning Dubstep, mounted on grids of bamboo and carried on the shoulders of tens of grinning, sweat-soaked devotees.
Standing at catur muka, the four-faced statue – also zero kilometer of the local navigation system – I fall into old habits of trying to make sense of things. If the island-wide ceremony is meant to lead demons away from the city, why did I just see Angry Birds, Sponge Bob, and even Tom & Jerry, enormous and swaggering by? And how about that fat white girl in a bikini, beer and cigarette in hand, who gave a whirl while tinkling on the crowd? Is that tourists – like me – they’re marching out of town, perhaps to be burned in the local cemetery?
It once was a given that all of Bali’s monsters would be burned before sunrise in a sort of exorcism. After all, that is the point of ngropokan. More than a little symbolic of the evils in the popularizing, materialistic worldview, once the Government started donating money to the cultural event, many neighborhoods now leave these grandiose ghouls on display for months to come, until destroyed by the elements. Those giant effigies of drunken tourists, after being paraded around, are here to stay.
Long after sundown, the last planes touch ground at Ngurah Rai, and the airport closes down. Crowds at intersections break up and go directly home. After the great crackling of ngropokan, a stillness falls. The dizzy demons should think the island is abandoned now – or else they might wish to return. On Nyepi Eve, it’s said late-night amblers will encounter these ghouls and fireballs on the dark streets. Hearing this, I hit the road with a friend on my 150 CC Honda. Eastbound, two wheels take us 20 minutes through littered alleyways, desolate highways, and five-way intersections to seaside Sanur. We were told perang ilmu hitam, an exchange of black magic, was ongoing between two islands. The tail of an exploding firework fizzles out in the direction of the neighboring island, renown for its dark arts. A towering temple, like an open-roofed nest of white-robed devotees, incense, gong, camplung trees, and offerings made of flowers, is busied protecting us from this interference.
Sunrise sees organization in a way that seems very foreign here. Religious police, pecalang, patrol their streets in gallant sarong and udeng, keeping nearly every person on the island in doors. Peace is enforced, and aside from said privileged bipeds, only quadrupeds and ambulances are free to enjoy the open roads.
After the crackle of ngropokan fades out comes Nyepi. The name of Bali’s New Year’s Day is from the word sepih, meaning silence. In atmosphere and ambience, Nyepi is clean – traditionally a time to meditate, clearing your mind without fear of metaphysical squatters and loiterers, aforementioned. Seasoned Bodhisattvas arriving in Bali have said the place is otherwise too busy with niskala, or unseen energies. Reasons aside, a long and hot day of silence is a welcome calm on this frantic island, and the tradition – now being paired with all things eco-friendly – is a source of local pride.
The weeks leading to Nyepi are full of confusing small talk as people over-plan the coming day. The thought of all that silence has people fleeing, boating, even flying to other islands. Black-market DVD stands are cleared out. According to my Japanese neighbor, brothels euphemized Café sell out supplies of ecstasy and other illegal narcotics the day before. For many, the ostracizing of demons is just so much symbolism and wishful thinking.
I watch from my doorstep as a cat follows the coo of a lost kitten in a storm drain – a coo that wouldn’t have registered, any other day. Somewhere out there beneath the clear blue sky, the three individuals who would have otherwise met their deaths on the roads of Bali to fulfill traffic statistics today have been spared.
After sundown, we lay a mattress outdoors to watch the star show on a side street of Denpasar city. Some of my mates count the years it’s been since they last saw a shooting star, making wishes.
The day of silence ends with a card game by candlelight, the pecalang trekking the streets enforce darkness and silence, though chattering loudly in Bahasa Bali as they go. A local friend points out the reason for this: the holy men are terrified. What a great and heavy silence – and what more, unseen – surrounds these bearded men as they make their rounds. Sometimes I’m glad I’m not a believer.
Finally, at around 5 in the morning, the first engine turns over, and a thousand more follow. New Year has just begun on The Island of The Gods.
Today is the first day of 1934.