It’s still a few weeks before the celebrations of Nyepi, the Balinese New Year, but we know it can’t be long because there’s movement in the banjars.
The date is determined rather like Easter is in the west – to do with the lunar cycle – and will always occur in March or early April. This year it will be 28 March, and like the marking of a new year everywhere there will be fireworks and festivities.
But Balinese new year is very different too. Just how, I will get to, but first the preparations that are beginning in every banjar on the island. A banjar is the smallest political unit and consists of all the married men in the jurisdiction. One village can have several banjars. Mostly ceremonial these days, the banjar also oversees the governance of its area with elected officials and is responsible for passing on the culture with youth programs of music and dance.
Right now the teenagers and young men are erecting platforms and creating bamboo armatures that over coming weeks will become gigantic, ugly monsters. The ogoh-ogoh of Bali.
On Nyepi eve these monsters will be paraded with a great deal of noise to chase away any nasty spirits that might be lurking*. It’s huge, raucous fun but it’s what happens next that is remarkable.
At 6am the island shuts down for 24 hours. Literally. The planes don’t land; there are no cars or bikes on the road apart from emergency vehicles; electricity should not be used or fires lit; nobody should leave their premises and no loud talking or music is permitted. Hotels observe these rules as closely as possible for guests, providing cold or buffet food and minimal service. The night sky, if it is cloudless, is dazzling. The Day of Silence. Unique to this island.
For the Balinese this is a day of reflection as a new year begins. Many foreigners hate the idea of Nyepi (all that creepy silence!) and escape to neighbouring islands or to Singapore, which probably says more about their boredom threshold than it does about the silence. Time for introspection and self-awareness is becoming increasingly elusive. Here it is a gift.
For 24 hours each year Bali can show the world:
1. An Earth Day that has been happening for centuries. A day of minimal ecological impact. Imagine if it could be emulated everywhere. Stop the world for a day and reap the rewards. Can’t see it happening but we who live here are lucky enough to be able to savour the specialness of the Silence.
2. Community. Not only Nyepi but every ceremony brings the banjar together. People working together for the common good. We need more of that.
3. Tolerance. If Nyepi falls on a Friday, the Muslim community may walk to the mosque. No bikes. No cars. No chatter. In return the silence is respected by no call to prayer. Win win. Mutual respect. Are you listening, World?
*A charming rationale for Nyepi tells that should the bad spirits return after being hustled away by the noise of the night before, the island will appear empty and boring. Nothing to see here, folks. We’re off to somewhere else. A bit like the Nyepi escapees, I guess.