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Ousting demons to usher in new year

Kadek Krishna Adidharma, Sanur, Bali
The Jakarta Post, Features - April 02, 2006

It has been unnervingly quiet on the tourism front in Bali of late -- many have been laid off or put on part-time -- giving the Balinese more time at home, more time to just be ... Balinese.

Nyepi, a day of silence marking the first day of the Saka calendar, is the only nationally observed Balinese holiday, perhaps for the practical reason of being one of the few that only fall once a year, or the fact that a 30-hour curfew is imposed on the island from midnight until dawn the day after. I continue to find out that there is much more to the day, both in its preparation and in its continuation.
Many a columnist from Bali to New York has reveled at the concept of Nyepi, remarking on the island's peaceful calm when the Balinese observe catur brata penyepian -- the four abstentions of Nyepi: food, travel, work and fire.

To me, "fire" refers not just to cooking and illumination, but to technology in general. There is something reassuring about knowing that for one day, I am encouraged to refrain from turning on my mobile phone and my laptop, two companions that I invited into my circle as guests for ease and comfort but have now become masters, dictating how I spend my time.

The life of a techno-freak aside, the continuation of holy days, temple anniversaries and celebrations that define Balinese life run on two calendars: Sasih, a 12-month lunar calendar that also encompasses Nyepi on the Saka calendar, and the 30-week Pawukon calendar, brought over from Java during the 14th Century. These form a complex cycle of numerological conjunctions providing the basic schedule for ritual activities on Bali, particularly governing the traditional rice-growing cycle as well as determining good days to build houses, have wedding ceremonies, hold death and cremation rites and other regular activities.

Historically, the beginnings of this holiday can be found in India in 78 A.D., when King Kaniska, famous for his wisdom and religious tolerance, established a calendar. It was the pilgrim Aji Saka who brought this calendar to Indonesia, where it is known by his name.

Thus on March 30, 2006, on the first day of the tenth lunar month of Bali's Sasih calendar, the Saka New Year 1928 was celebrated in Bali as Nyepi.

Those discussing Balinese religious philosophy often view Nyepi as the most important of the island's religious days: a day of self-introspection, in keeping with this island's cultural tendency to search within for the reasons of the world's ills.

While I enjoy my day of silence, the most beautiful day in Bali for me occurs three days prior, during Melis, when villagers gather at their temples in the dark early hours for the honor of carrying effigies of their deities and temple artifacts to the sea or lakes in a dawn procession of white. It is a large family affair, and most of the village makes an effort to turn up in their best. At the sea, the temple artifacts are ritually bathed and prayers and offerings are given to Ratu Baruna. It is a prayer to the sacred purifying powers of water, for all life came from the sea; a confirmation of why Balinese-Hinduism is often called "the religion of water".

Tawur Kesanga, literally the sacrifice held on the ninth dark moon, is held exactly one day before Nyepi. All villages in Bali hold a large exorcism ceremony at the main village crossroads, the meeting place of demons. In the evening, Ngerupuk is performed after offerings and prayers, and the whole family makes noises and lights up the night with burning torches to wake up the evil spirits, or Bhuta Kala.

A carnival parade of demons is held all over Bali following sunset. The ogoh-ogoh, representations of monsters or evil spirits symbolizing our inner and outer demons, were particularly fantastical this year.
Luck found me high in the mountains by Lake Bratan, 75 kilometers from home at this hour, and my one-hour journey to Sanur dissolved into three and a half as I observed, at each main village thoroughfare and crossroads, the riotous Bleganjur gamelan, accompanying the dance of giants taken from classical Balinese lore.

But the Balinese don't limit their imagination to the past. Our pantheon of evils now include mutated versions of Spider-man, blonde bimbos riding Harley-Davidsons, and doped-up punk-rock-smoker-drinkers. All have fangs, bulging eyes and spiky hair, and are illuminated by bamboo torches and bonfires.

It is a New Year meets Halloween and Guy-Fawkes all-in-one for the island's youth. Children as young as 10 are out in force, proudly prancing their own mini-monster creations.

Just like in the West, New Year's eve is celebrated with a melee of noise. However, the Balinese open the day with silence and contemplation. The prohibitions against working and leaving the house are taken seriously. Hotels are exempt from Nyepi's rigorous practices, but their guests must stay inside.

Every street is quiet except for occasional checks by the pecalang (traditional wardens). As darkness falls, the birds' evening chorus seems louder than ever. Street dogs howl. Lights are turned off or blacked out from exterior view.

The whole day is a simple, long quiet day in the calendar of this otherwise hectic island. On this day, the world is given a chance to purify itself and begin anew.

On Ngembak Geni, the day after Nyepi, families visit each other to catch up, forgive and forget past wrongs. It is also a day for Dharma Canthi -- reading ancient moral stories in poem and song. There is gladness and fresh air for new beginnings.

No matter what the world may bring, Bali awakes on the dawn of each New Year with revived energy, its demons put to rest.


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Last updated Saturday 2 June 2007 at 12:05 PM (+8 GMT)

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