It’s a familiar scene to most of us: high noon in a deserted town, the streets empty of people and vehicles, with only the low buzz of insects and faint birdsong breaking the silence. If this were a John Wayne movie, the hero would turn to his companions and quip “It’s quiet—too quiet,” suggesting that the unnatural absence of noise and activity may bode ill for him and his posse.
While my introverted nature takes exception to the thought of a situation being “too quiet,” it is unusual to actually find myself in the middle of such an environment. However, there is one place, on one day, where it is perfectly normal for everyone to experience this absence of noise and activity. Known as Nyepi, the celebration of the new year in Bali, Indonesia is a day during which the entire island shuts down, retreats indoors, and maintains almost absolute silence.
Saka to Me
Nyepi is the first day of the Saka calendar, a twelve-month lunar cycle that usually begins in March or April, around the time of the vernal equinox. (In 2007, Nyepi falls on March 19.) The Saka calendar originated in South India in 78 CE, and was brought to Indonesia around 465 CE; it is therefore offset by roughly 78 years from the Gregorian calendar (2007 marks the beginning of Saka year 1929). Bali also uses the Gregorian calendar for business and government purposes, as well as the Pawukon calendar, a 210-day system introduced from the island of Java in the 14th century, which determines the proper days for religious rituals to take place.
Whenever the new year is celebrated, most cultures see the changing of the year as a chance to let go of the past and to move forward with renewed energy and optimism, as is the case with making New Year’s resolutions. (For more examples of New Year’s rituals, see Eight New Year’s Rituals from Around the World on SenseList.) It is no different in Bali, where the Hindu symbolism of Nyepi lies in the act of spiritual cleansing, both of the self and of the outer world. As part of this, in the three days leading up to Nyepi, the Balinese observe Melasti, a time when sacred objects and effigies are brought to local rivers to be ritually cleansed. The day immediately before Nyepi, known as Tawur Kesanga, has more of a Mardi Gras-like atmosphere, with revelry sometimes lasting well into the night. However, all revelry stops before sunrise, when Nyepi begins.
Observed from 6 a.m. until 6 a.m. the next morning, Nyepi is a day reserved for self-reflection and as such, anything that might interfere with that purpose is restricted. The main restrictions are: no lighting fires (and lights must be kept low); no working; no entertainment or pleasure; no traveling; and for some, no talking or eating at all. The effect of these prohibitions is that Bali’s usually bustling streets and roads are empty, there is little or no noise from TVs and radios, and few signs of activity are seen even inside homes. The only people to be seen outdoors are the Pecalangs, traditional security men who patrol the streets to ensure the prohibitions are being followed.
Although Nyepi is primarily a Hindu holiday, non-Hindu residents of Bali observe the day of silence as well, out of respect for their fellow citizens. Even tourists are not exempt; although free to do as they wish inside their hotels, no one is allowed onto the beaches or streets, and the only airport in Bali remains closed for the entire day. The only exceptions granted are for emergency vehicles carrying those with life-threatening conditions and women about to give birth.
On the day after Nyepi, known as Ngembak Geni, social activity picks up again quickly, as families and friends gather to ask forgiveness from one another, and to perform certain religious rituals together.
Although we do have celebratory gatherings with friends and family to mark the New Year in North America, in every other way Nyepi stands in stark contrast to our own rituals. Instead of silence and inactivity, the sounds of loud music, cheering, horns blowing, and friendly chatter more closely describe our typical New Year’s Eve experience. Being interested in quieter pursuits, I am drawn to the type of New Year’s celebration that involves more periods of silence and reflection, and fewer moments of drunken gaiety.
I’m sure there are others out there like me, people who would rather sit and talk quietly, perhaps over a glass of wine, with other like-minded individuals. And when midnight rolls around, you’ll know who we are; we’ll be the ones off to the side, standing perfectly still and observing a celebratory moment of silence. —Morgen Jahnke
Thomas Hogue’s article in the International Herald Tribune, “In Bali, a holiday for the ears” is an entertaining description of his experience of Nyepi.