The streets of Bali are awash today with the sounds of gamelan and the clouds of white kebayas floating towards the ocean for Melasti ceremonies. This is the beginning of Nyepi, the Balinese lunar new year celebrations.
Famously known as ‘the day of silence’, Nyepi is the first day of the new year and is recognised by absolute peace. No sounds except those from nature, no light other than the sun's, no activity except meditation - a day to wipe the slate clean and begin again with self-reflection.
But before the calm is the raucous storm of celebration culminating in the Ngerepuk ceremony where huge monsters are paraded through the jalans of every banjar on the island. One of the most incredible displays of cultural artwork in the world, the monsters, known as ‘ogoh-ogoh’ are giant effigies made by young boys from their local villages.
For months before Nyepi, behind huge curtains, each banjar secretly builds an ogoh-ogoh from chicken wire, papier mache and bamboo to be revealed to the village people on the night of the parade. These ogoh-ogoh are macabre visions of horror supposed to represent the 'Bhuta Kala’ - the spirits and creatures of evil. Sometimes more than 15 feet tall and often hilariously twisted, they may be three-headed monster-men with bosoms drooping to the floor while slaying a dragon or a giant lizard with a 2m tongue drinking Bintang beer. Regardless of form, the painting, detail and creative vision of these creatures is worthy of a world gallery tour.
The night before the island goes dark, music is fired up and the ogoh-ogoh are stomped through the villages on floats to coax all the evil spirits to come out to play. And just when these spirits are lured out and lulled into a sense of frivolity, an exorcism is performed by burning and tearing apart the ogoh-ogoh. These extraordinary art forms, months in the making, are destroyed in one fell swoop.
The hope is that when the surviving evil spirits recover and awake, they will ascend over Bali and see that, with no light, no sound and no movement, there is no-one home on the island so they will pass by and move on.
Not only are the ogoh-ogoh a beautiful manifestation of the traditional skills and valued creative nature of the Balinese people, they are also a wonderful reflection of the lack of attachment to material things that is so much a part of Hindu culture. No matter your leaning, Nyepi is a truly fascinating and meaningful holiday to be part of.