When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.
Bali is a bustling island with travellers from all over the world, who come to savour the fragrant lives of the Balinese people. The roads get crowded and restaurants, cafes, and shops are abuzz with activity. The village halls are packed with local children dancing and young boys practicing the gamelan (a traditional instrumental ensemble in Java and Bali, including many bronze percussion instruments).
But for one day in March, Bali does a cleanse of silence – 24 hours of compulsory stillness where even the flicker of a refrigerator light could land you in trouble with traditional authorities. Electricity is prohibited, the internet is turned off, talking is not allowed. Even the international airport in Denpasar shuts down and no plane whatsoever is allowed to land or take-off. Instead, fasting is encouraged. It is Nyepi – the Day of Silence.
Considered to be the Balinese New Year, Nyepi falls on the day after dark moon, in the ninth month of the Saka lunar calendar that dictates many agricultural rituals and auspicious events. For an island as densely populated as Bali – both in a physical and a spiritual sense – this precious day of solitude is hugely important. It allows every person living on the island, regardless of their age, nationality or religion, to disconnect from the stimulation of everyday life and go inward.
By practicing silence, we enter a state of self-introspection. We ask ourselves “how can I live more consciously, who do I need to forgive, and how can I forgive myself”. Nyepi is about voluntarily retracting from mortal pleasures such as sex or eating, activities such as working and cooking, and any undesirable traits and actions. So, amati geni – the prohibition of fire – also equals the diffusion of heated or passionate thoughts. Amati lelanguan, the practice of non-indulgence, goes beyond fasting from food, and into the realm of total mind-body purification.
By practicing silence, we enter a state of self-introspection. We ask ourselves “how can I live more consciously, who do I need to forgive, and how can I forgive myself”. Nyepi is about voluntarily retracting from mortal pleasures such as sex or eating, activities such as working and cooking, and any undesirable traits and actions.
The benefits of Nyepi, however, reverberate far beyond the individual. The silence touches every insect, plant and grain of soil on the island. It allows nature to breathe. This means no vehicles on the roads, less power usage, and minimal sound pollution. No one except for the local pecalang officials are allowed outside their homes; airplanes are forbidden from leaving or landing. For one whole day, Bali regenerates to make way for a new, pure, and hopefully prosperous, cycle.
Put simply, this is a day for reflection. We acknowledge our vices, our impact on the land and others, our spirits and our gods. And by consciously accepting everything we co-exist with – the good and the bad, both outside us and within us – we can, hopefully, learn to live in balance. On the eve of Nyepi, households across Bali drum up a formidable din, hitting gongs, hooting and shouting, and blowing into conch-shells to dispel evil spirits. As darkness falls, giant demonic effigies called ogoh-ogoh are paraded through the streets, channelling the lowly energies of bhuta kala. At the close of the procession, the figures are burned in a symbolic purging of these negative forces, making way for the following day’s mass-cleanse. This is a wonderful example of how Balinese culture embraces and deals with life’s challenges. Instead of denying the undesirable, we recognise it, and through rituals such as Nyepi, find ways to purify and create lightness within and around us.
What this tradition teaches us, is that tolerance is the key to harmony. By subduing our thoughts and actions we make room for goodness that impacts not only ourselves, but every other living or spiritual being invested in our lives. Nyepi bridges different cultures, economical gaps and religions – and unites a whole island for an entire day, through the simple act of silence.