The Sound of Silence

Bali was closed yesterday. The lights were off and everybody was at home. Air traffic stopped, the motorbikes were silenced, not a human sound was heard. Even the dogs and roosters seemed to know it was time to be quiet. Tuesday was Nyepi, the Balinese New Year, and it is always marked in a truly unique way – a day of silence.

But first, there had be noise. And lots of it. The black and white check cloth (poleng), that you see all over the island, symbolises the duality of existence: life and death, good and evil, light and dark, noise and silence. On Monday evening we had the the noise in spectacular Ngrupuk processions.

For weeks, young people in villages had been busy constructing huge monsters, ogoh-ogoh, that are carried through the streets on bamboo litters in Ngugrup, a colourful (and very noisy) procession.

Once it was just spoons and saucepans that frightened the bad spirits away. These days it’s fireworks, gongs, and although not encouraged, ferocious bamboo cannons that could probably deafen anybody standing too close. Children get into the act with smaller litters and monsters, practising for when it’s their turn to join the grown-ups. At each cross-roads in the village the monsters are turned 360 degrees to confuse the evil spirits. Every village has a procession. The many small villages that have merged into the entity known collectively as Ubud collaborated for a huge procession with large crowds of spectators near the Palace. We always prefer the camaraderie of our small village. There might only be half a dozen ogoh-ogoh but the spirit is genuine in a non-touristic sense, noisy and huge fun. This year the young people excelled themselves with exceptional dance performances and, for the first time, the young women joined in the ogoh-ogoh fun. We heard that this also happened in other villages, so history has been made. No going back now, so watch out in Nyepis to come.


The idea of the ogoh-ogoh is to really frighten those bad spirits away for another 12 months. Sure, they will come back on Nyepi Day, but when they hover over the island and see nothing happening, they’ll take off again. Too boring to stay. I love this notion, and the consequences are all to the good – a cultural day for the environment. Earth hour, times 24.

It has been estimated that Nyepi Day reduces carbon dioxide emissions in Indonesia by 20000 tonnes, and electricity consumption is reduced by 60%, or 290 megawatts. Fuel savings are estimated at 500000 litres. (Source: Brilio). Imagine if this were to be a worldwide event. Well, the United Nations has been inspired by Nyepi, reportedly declaring 21 March an annual World Silent Day. I say ‘reportedly’ because although I can find a number of references to this, I can find nothing official. Pity.

Monday’s noise started to fade after midnight when the effigies were burned. In another positive move, polystyrene has been banned and construction must now be all natural materials, like in the old days. At 6am, the silence began, with the sounding of the village kul-kul,  the ancient communication system of hollow logs, tapped to different patterns. The silence that follows is so profound that it has its own energy. People must stay in their homes or yards, not play music or talk loudly and theoretically not cook or use electricity. They do, of course, but it is all very discreet. Hotels still provide amenities for guests who will enjoy a quiet day by the pool or reading. Anybody who ventures out will be firmly escorted back to their residence by the pecalang, village security men, who are the only people around although emergency vehicles must still do their job if needed. At night, curtains must be drawn with no light visible, but if the weather is good it’s magical to sit in the garden and watch a star show that won’t be seen properly for another year.

Devout Hindus use the day to pray and meditate on the year just passed, and atone for any wrongs. Some don’t eat for the duration. We love this day, but many Westerners can’t abide the idea of such a period of silence and head to Singapore or one of the other islands for a few days. Even so, the day is respected as a national holiday throughout Indonesia, without the Bali silence. I find it extraordinary that a population of more than four million people, plus however many tourists, can find the self discipline to observe this unique Bali Hindu tradition, even though there are many faiths on the island. It gives me hope in a troubled world.

At around 5.59am this morning, we heard the first hum of a motorbike, so we have now welcomed the year 1939 in the Balinese calendar. Crazy, noisy, busy but refreshed and rejuvenated until next Nyepi on 17 March, 2018, according to the lunar cycle that determines the date.

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