I spent a magical week in Bali during Nyepi, experiencing riveting rituals to rid worshippers of evil, cleanse their souls, bless the environment and restore harmony between the gods, demons, mankind and nature. If you want to immerse yourself in Bali’s exotic culture and its age-old, sacred, spiritual philosophy for life – Tri Hita Karana – then mark your calendar to witness the distinctive Hindu celebrations that commemorate the beginning of the Saka Lunar New Year – falling over six days every March.
The Balinese ceremoniously kick off Nyepi with Melasti, a highly devotional affair in which villagers purify both Bhuana Alit (the small cosmos hosting mortals) and Bhuana Agung (the greater universe) to chase away malevolent spirits and sanctify the mystical deities. With immense orchestration, every Banjar (hamlet) is pre-assigned a precise beach and ritual schedule leading up to the New Year.
I hired a guide and set the alarm for 3:30 a.m. to commence our journey to the seaside to join a festival at Padang Galak in the Sanur area. There was a continuous stream of celebrants with the men dressed in conventional, formal, white attire – each sporting an udeng or elaborate headdress. Meanwhilst, the women flaunted their most exquisite kebaya – a long, fitted, lacey tunic, complemented with a decoratively embroidered under-corset and cinched with a fanciful outer cummerbund. This ensemble was paired with an ankle-length sarong – secured with a wide sash at the midsection, called a sabuk. A convivial, yet sober mood prevailed as about 1,000 neighbours gathered to pay their respects.
Everybody brought offerings. Gold or silver carved bowls were perfectly balanced on the ladies’ heads – brimming with colourful home-made bantens, cakes, fruits, flowers, betel leaves, bits of lime, slivers of areca nuts and rice. The gents hauled all sorts of classic parasols, consecrated sculptures known as pratima, and cone-shaped floats containing their temples’ hallowed paraphernalia – swords, barongs, traditional dance clothes and rangda statuettes.
These objects were meticulously arranged on a gigantic table in front of the shrine overlooking the ocean, as waves crashed on the beachfront below. Practitioners relaxed in prayer on the cosy platform, as plumes of sandalwood incense wafted overhead. The rhythmic melodies of the beleganjur orchestra’s various gongs, cymbals and drums overwhelmed my senses.
Sitting cross-legged on an elevated throne, the village’s highest-ranking Brahmin priestess led the puja – chanting mantras, twirling frangipani petals in her fingers, and ringing her prayer bell gracefully. Community elders vigorously flicked holy water and grains on the sacrosanct accessories and devotees to purge negativity and attract prosperity.
During the two-hour rites, the drizzle ceased and the sky slowly awoke. A soft amber glow transformed the horizon, with a magnificent display of radiant tangerine, persimmon, scarlet, crimson and violet. The fiery sunrise gifted us with dramatic views of the offshore isles – Nusa Penida, Nusa Lembongan and Lombok – as well as the legendary, misty-crowned Mt. Agung volcano. As the warm morning rays bathed the entire open-air temple, my heart was bursting with gratitude to have experienced this precious, solemn service.
Two days later, on New Year’s Eve Day, Pengerupukan, every district excitedly put the finishing touches on their hand-crafted, ferocious-looking effigies – nicknamed Ogoh-ogoh – to celebrate Bhuta Yajna. These grotesque creatures measuring nearly five metres (16.5 feet) tall had been creatively constructed over several months – using gaudy wood, papier mâché, styrofoam, cloth and tinsel. Representing mythological figures, they symbolised adverse human energy and were used to rouse any dark forces lurking nearby, so offerings could be made to be appease them.
The major parade in Ubud began with an animated evening street party. The residents jubilantly carried the Ogoh-ogoh on bamboo platforms – relentlessly shaking them as they rotated them, in hope that the demonic spirits would give up and disappear. Time-honoured gamelan bands, drummers and traditionally dressed maidens with offerings added to the merriment. The procession zigzagged for blocks from the Ubud Royal Palace down Jalan Monkey Forest to the football field, where everyone mingled into the night.
Starting at 6 a.m. the next day, the Balinese celebrated 24 hours of Nyepi, a Day of Introspection, when everything came to a grinding halt and the focus was simply on detoxing and renewal. Throughout this period, each citizen practiced the four precepts of Catur Brata Penyepian:
Amati Geni (no fire/light), which means Bali plunges into pitch blackness at night, expelling afflictive emotions – like anger, hatred, jealousy and greed
Amati Karya (no activity), wherein physical work is banned, and all businesses are closed, except emergency public services
Amati Lelunganan (no travel), resulting in everybody staying at home – emptying the roads, ports and even the airport
Amati Lelanguan (no entertainment), forbidding recreation, talking and social media
Suddenly, Bali’s intense hyperactivity was replaced by sweeping tranquillity. Its people gave back to Earth – hidden away, fasting, meditating and making New Year’s resolutions – in a bid to regenerate the island. As a guest, I was confined to my hotel’s premises, though I was able to enjoy the facilities, dine in the main restaurant, and turn on low lights in my room. That restful day, I tuned into the quietness and noticeably cleaner air – indulging in a holistic reboot with yoga, meditation and massage.
But, the icing on the cake was after sunset – when the cloudless, moonless heavens majestically showcased the huge arc of the Milky Way. As I lay by the pool, it seemed as if all four billion of our galaxy’s stars were glittering above me, reminding me how tiny we are within the universe’s grand architecture. This awe-inspiring New Year grounded me and left me feeling so connected to the magic of the Island of the Gods.
Immediately following the Day of Silence was Ngembak Geni, a day of contemplation on loving kindness and patience. Though all the hustle bustle resumed, the lion’s share of Balinese extended their rejuvenated purity by dropping in on friends and family to ask for forgiveness and make a fresh start going forward.
Unquestionably, not all travellers will be interested in visiting Bali during Nyepi; but for me, it was a sublime opportunity to submerge myself in the unique traditions and observances honouring the relationship between the divine, society at large and our planet.
Note: Nyepi always begins at 6 a.m. and lasts for 24 hours:
2020 24 March
2021 14 March
2022 3 March
2023 22 March
2024 11 March
2025 29 March