We are currently in Bali and have just visited Ubud. The last time we were in Ubud (in 2013) coincided with the Balinese New Year, known as Nyepi. This celebration occurs on the first new moon after mid-March.
Before Nyepi, Balinese villagers are busy making ogoh-ogoh. These are demonic statues that symbolise malevolent spirits. Made from bamboo and papier mache, many sport bulging eyes, wild hair and claw-like finger nails.
On the day before Nyepi (called Tawur Agung Kesanga) the ogoh-ogoh are taken to the village square or sports ground for a ceremony. Here’s a short video of ogoh-ogoh arriving at the Ubud soccer field: http://youtu.be/kIzlk_8IV2w
The ogoh-ogoh were indeed fearsome. Our favourite was an effigy of an old hag who dripped bodily fluids from her fangs and (disturbingly, given that children are involved in the creation of ogoh-ogoh) from her wild pubic hair.
In the evening the ogoh-ogoh are paraded around the village on bamboo poles in a raucous ‘ngrupuk’ procession. This parade involves gamelan orchestras and much singing and shouting to frighten away evil spirits. Afterwards, following prayers and speeches the ogoh-ogoh are burnt, symbolising freeing the island of evil spirits.
Nyepi is observed for 24 hours from 6am the next morning with a day of silence and self-reflection. Everyone stays in their homes, there are no fires, lights are out or dimmed, and no working, travelling, entertainment or pleasurable activities are allowed. Bali’s streets are empty, everything is closed – even the airport, there is no noise and few signs of activity. Pecalang (village security men) patrol the streets to make sure that no one is out.
Although Nyepi is primarily a Hindu celebration, non-Hindu residents and visitors also have to comply. Visitors are free to do what they want in their hotel or guest house but are not allowed to leave it. Only emergency services are exempt from the restrictions. The idea of having a day of inactivity following Tawur Agung Kesanga is that the evil spirits will decide that Bali is uninhabited and leave the island alone for another year.
The day after Nyepi, known as Ngembak Geni, is celebrated as New Year’s Day. It is a social day where families and friends get together to ask forgiveness from one another, and perform religious rituals.
We were staying at a small guest house in a traditional compound. There were only four guest rooms and no pool. We initially thought that visitors were allowed to go out and had planned to take advantage of the empty streets and explore on our pushbikes. By the time we discovered that visitors were confined to their guest house it was too late to move to a bigger place with a pool.
We spent Nyepi in our room. Although this was very comfortable with air con, TV and DVD player and ensuite, the time dragged interminably. We had bought a few DVDs so watched those, we chatted, read, slept and lazed around. Every couple of hours we checked the time. We like chilling out on holidays, but not for 24 hours at a time. The guest house provided us with lunch and dinner as well as breakfast as there was no other option, and dinner was served by candlelight.
Afterwards we discovered that other travellers who stayed in larger compounds with pools had spent Nyepi in and around the pool, chatting to other guests and having a great time. My advice, unless you really want to spend a whole day on your own in self-reflection, is to avoid Nyepi or stay in a bigger place with a pool. Also, make sure you don’t need to travel on that day.