Silence descends upon Bali as the island welcomes a new year with ritual purification.
Words: Beverly Rodrigues Photography: Adam Lee
A shadow passes overhead, and I look up into the snarling face of a monster, fangs bared, eyes bulging. Demons are everywhere, glowing in the fiery light of bamboo torches and gyrating to the beat of the traditional musical ensemble known as gamelan. I’m at the ogoh-ogoh or demon parade in Seminyak. It’s the eve of Nyepi – the day of silence – and the people of Bali have gathered to banish evil in a dramatic ritual that fuses the physical realm with the spiritual one.
Starting at the crossroads – the meeting place of good and evil – the banjar (hamlets) of Seminyak and Legian are putting on a spectacular show. It takes as many as 60 men and boys to hoist a single bamboo platform bearing a heavy sculpture of an ogoh-ogoh weighing some 200kgs. As the performers chant and sway to the rhythmic gamelan music, lifting and dipping the platform in perfect synchrony, the ogohogoh come to life. Some are illuminated with brilliant lights while others emit smoke and creepy sound effects. These larger-than life ogres and beasts are rotated counter clockwise three times – an act that some say confuses and wards off evil spirits.
While there seems to be a few strange additions to the parade – I spot what appears to be Lamb Chop locked in a fierce battle with Pluto – for the most part, the villains are as one would expect any self-respecting monsters to be – frightful!
DARK MOON RISING
Curious about the role the fearsome ogohogoh play, I track down Purwa Sidemen, a lecturer at the University of Hindu Indonesia in Denpasar. Specialising in the evolution and philosophy of Hinduism and the sociology of religion, Pak Purwa is the perfect target for a barrage of questions on ritual and reason.
He explains that on the day before Nyepi, an important ritual called tawur kesanga is conducted to appease Bhuta Kala – the personification of negative elements. This ritual is necessary to restore harmony and purify the island. Tawur means ‘pay’ while kesanga denotes the ninth month in the Balinese calendar, which is related to the dark moon or Tilam Kesanga. This month is believed to be the worst period of the year, and one badly in need of divine intervention.
When the dark moon rises, exorcisms are performed throughout Bali with simple offerings made by families at the gates of their compounds and grander affairs done at the village level where elaborate sacrificial offerings are required to appease demons; these gifts include five chickens with feathers that vary in colour. Exorcisms for the latter level are done at the main crossroads of villages, which are said to be the meeting place of demons. On the provincial level, the tawur kesanga is held at Bali’s Besakih temple; added to the requisite chickens are ceremonial offerings like a water buffalo, goat, black pigand goose with black and white feathers.
In the evenings, the ogoh-ogoh appear for a ritual called Ngerupuk. According to Pak Purwa, before the 80s, the dramatic Styrofoam ogoh-ogoh we see today did not exist. “I remember back when I was a kid, one day before Nyepi, we would walk around our compound with bamboo torches, beating frying pans and making loud noises. We would chant ‘Go way, bad spirits. Come, good spirits!’ We would put arak (liquor) on the ground and say ‘I give you arak. Please go from here.’ This was an offering.”
The myriad forms of fearsome ogoh-ogoh represent Bhuta Kala, and over the years, youth organisations throughout Bali’s banjar have gone above and beyond to ensure their villains are as dramatic as possible. Since 1985, craftsmanship of the ogoh-ogoh has gone into hyper drive, and the sculptures have evolved into exquisite works of art. Some are so detailed that I find it hard to believe that they’re fashioned from material as mundane as Styrofoam.
This ritual purification serves not just to dispel the evil within nature or as the Balinese call it Bhuana Agung, but within the self too or Bhuana Alit. “In us all, there is Bhuta Kala. If you get angry or sad or drunk, that’s Bhuta Kala controlling you.” says Pak Purwa. Hence the exorcism of darkness is twofold. The Balinese believe that to truly be rid of it, one must look within.
The Ngerupuk usually ends with the burning of the ogoh-ogoh. “In Bali we believe in the concept of stuti, stiti and pralina – birth, life and death. Make it, maintain it and destroy it.” As flames lick the snarling beasts, decimating the last vestiges of evil incarnate (well, at least in Styrofoam form), the Balinese offer up the darkness within.
CLEANSING BY WATER
However, to truly embrace the light, cleansing is required, and this is what happens on Melasti, an event preceding Nyepi. Having followed a procession of white-clad locals to the Double Six beach the day before the ogoh-ogoh parade, I’d watched as throngs of Balinese bore pratima or sacred statues of deities from the Hindu pantheon and religious paraphernalia upon palanquins, shaded by ceremonial umbrellas known as tedung agung.
With the pink sun dipping into the deep and the sea breeze ruffling their sarongs, the pratima bearers carried their sacred objects to the water’s edge, hovering over the warm, life affirming element. This is done as symbolic purification. On Melasti, the Balinese travel to bodies of water to cleanse their symbols of God and purify any statues that protect them, be it the sacred Barong or the Ratu Rangda, the symbol of the Goddess Durga.
DEN OF POWER
While the average Balinese adheres to the concept of create, maintain and destroy, there are those who believe that the ogoh-ogoh are art forms to be preserved. Artist I Ketut Nuada is one of these people; he began collecting ogoh-ogoh in 2012, and has already amassed quite a collection from some 25 banjar. He selects the best for his museum, and dishes out as much as IDR10 million for a single sculptural artwork.
We meet at the Ogoh-ogoh Bali Museum in Badung, and as I Ketut Nuada sweeps aside the black curtain to the museum, I’m transported to another realm where he is the ring master and the statues, his performers. Super heroes and fierce villains from the Hindu epics Mahabharata and Ramayana are caught in battles as old as time. Their bodies, crafted to convey fluid movement, are suspended midair, and you can almost feel their energy.
Alone, Abimaniu of the Pandavas dies in agony at the hands of four Kauravas, while just a few feet away, I see Lord Shiva astride a bull. Nearby, the pure hearted Yudhistira armed with bow and arrow brings down a monstrous giant with multiple heads – a symbol of the magic of Chandrabhirawa. I’m particularly fascinated by the powerful Rahvana seen leaping in the air in a powerful, angry stance; in the Ramayana, Rahvana is said to have been so powerful that he became arrogant and eventually kidnapped Sita, leading to his demise at the hands of her husband, Rama. Also within the hall of ogoh-ogoh are sculptures of Rahvana’s brother, Kumbakarna; the mother of the universe, Durga Dewi; Krishna; and Bhima slaying Duryodhana, the main antagonist of the Mahabharata. Everywhere I look, the fight between good and evil, light and darkness, plays out in the dim hall.
Interestingly, characters from Balinese folklore mingle with the heroes and villains of the Hindu epics reflecting the uniqueness of Balinese culture. I see Rangda, the queen of the le-aks or black magic practitioners. With bulging eyes, long fangs, a lolling tongue and the droopiest breasts ever, Rangda is a sinister sight. Also showcased here is the embodiment of a black magic practitioner known as Celuluk with equally pendulous breasts. The evil Celuluk is distinguished by its balding head surrounded by long, unruly hair. In the sculptures here, the local story of Geranyam unfolds. This true story tells of an infant boy who was saved from being sacrificed by his own mother and grandmother in the name of black magic. Bali is a mystical island where the struggle between good and evil seems real and ongoing.
AN ISLAND AT REST
On the day of Nyepi, I am instructed to draw my curtains and turn off all the lights by 6.00pm, and reminded not to switch on my balcony light. I am told that this is to trick the bad spirits into thinking the whole of Bali is deserted, but there are other reasons too. After a whole year of plundering the Earth’s resources and polluting nature, the rituals surrounding Nyepi allow the planet to rest and rejuvenate.
Observing Nyepi means adhering to Catur Brata – strict rituals that govern the day. The first ritual, Amati Geni, forbids the lighting of fire, which symbolises energy. The Balinese control the fire or energy in their bodies to refresh themselves for a new year, and go so far as to refrain from using electricity, cooking and driving, ensuring no smoke or exhaust fumes pollute the environment. This gives the Earth a day of rest to cleanse itself.
The ritual of Amati Karya forbids work, encouraging the Balinese to relax, while the ritual of Amati Lelunganan prohibits travel except in cases of emergency. Lastly, the ritual of Amati Lelanguan requires the Balinese to fast, abstain from pleasurable activities and practise self-control. Many turn inward and meditate on self-improvement.
All these rituals serve to purify the body and rejuvenate the earth for the coming year. There’s a hush over the island of Bali, and for the first time in years, I’m forced to do absolutely nothing but revel in the peaceful silence and prepare myself for a new beginning.
GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to Bali from various destinations. Go to www.airasia.com for details.
During Nyepi, no one is allowed to gallivant. In accordance with rituals that forbid travel and energy consumption, no cars are allowed on the road and even the airport shuts down for a day! Should you wander out onto the road, you will most likely encounter traditional guards or wardens known as pecalang, who are charged with managing traffic flow during religious ceremonies, maintaining village security, keeping the peace and upholding prohibitions. These friendly volunteer guards ensure that the rituals of Nyepi are respected, and will redirect you back to your lodgings should you break curfew. At times, fines are imposed.