You must go to a resort for Nyepi – only two or three days,” urged our former housekeeper Komang, as the Balinese Hindu New Year approached during our first year of living on the Island of the Gods, place of extreme personal and regional disparity in its commitment to the rituals of Silent Day.
“You no stay in the home,” she insisted, asserting that heeding the 24-hour moratorium on lighting, noise, cooking, computers and general activity would be beyond our atheist aptitude. The patrolling pecalang security personnel would discover our transgressions and our bule-standard fines would be “very, very big.”
We booked a seaside bungalow at Candi Dasa, planning an early departure to avoid the chaos on the roads created by the island-wide and sometimes violent ogoh-ogoh parades on the eve of Nyepi. Ogoh-ogoh, by the way, in which effigies of good spirits are pitted in inevitably successful battle against giant and grotesque effigies of bad spirits, which eventually burn, is an easy concept to grasp. Just think: Oh Go! Oh Go! And you’ll get the picture.
The ensuing 24 hours of dark, quiet and stillness in Bali, as well as providing an environment for reflection and meditation, is designed to convince any remaining evil spirits that no one is at home for them to bother, so they should leave the island in peace for the coming year. Oh Go! Oh Go!
As our first Nyepi neared, Komang – with all the disarming naivety so often shown here by people who go to great lengths to plot elaborate ploys and invent unlikely excuses – unashamedly revealed that her own observance of the sacred day would involve a candlelit gathering of friends in her rooms at the secluded back of our home, with hot food and music. She’d planned an all-night party. While the cats were sent away, the mice would play.
A few years later, after commemorating Nyepi in her new husband’s Tabanan village, Komang reported with dramatic disbelief that the villagers there simply went about their daily business for the 24 hours, their only concession being not to leave the village (a tradition also kept at Tenganan in Karangasem).
Our current housekeeper did not observe the recent Nyepi at her family home but spent it at the house of her brother, preparing offerings for his impending wedding ceremony. She belongs to our banjar (local community), which delivered a Nyepi advisory to homes imparting the equivalent of: Thou Shalt Not Work or Engage in Activities.
Until this year, we have regularly exiled ourselves to the Candi Dasa refuge from which, on a cloudless Nyepi night, we’ve marvelled at the multitude of stars and counted the lights still operating on Nusa Penida. Last year’s experience, though, in the absence of the foreign owner, was a touch off-putting.
Conscious of staff desires to retire and reflect, we arrived at the resort’s only restaurant at 6.30pm, intent on helping people to close up early and retreat to mull and meditate. The restaurant would close promptly at 7pm, we were told gruffly, and indeed the shutters were coming down even before we were reluctantly rushed to a table. We managed to get a bowl of instant soup and a bit of old bread before being hustled off to our poolside room. All was quiet and black as we sat later on the terrace identifying stars and ships at sea, until the silence of the sacred night was broken by initially stifled and then raucous giggles and energetic splashing in the darkened pool.
How rude. Which insensitive tourists could so basely violate the lore of one of the holiest times in the Hindu calendar? I crept forward to investigate and, straining my eyesight in the blackness, made the unhappy discovery that those frolicking freely and boisterously in the pool that had been closed to guests were the same staff members who had denied us a proper dinner and sent us to our room. They’d even brought out for their recreation the resort’s full range of floating pool toys.
This year, the Playmate and I were delighted to be invited to reside over Nyepi in the tremendously classy club and suites wing of a most elegant Tanjung Benoa resort. Here, we believe, the expatriate management went far beyond the minimum requirements for the observance of Nyepi in a designated tourist area. All guests were given torches, public areas were almost exclusively lit by candlelight and only a minority of restaurants operated under restricted conditions.
We know Bali presents a puzzling contrast of “strict” adherence to age-old rituals while being flexible, tolerant and accommodating. But it is indeed a bit rich, and not in the cultural sense, when Balinese can dictate the behaviour of visiting non-Hindus at sacred times and then violate their own traditions.
Are we seeing a concerted attempt to maintain the facade of the Island of the Gods, or the sad demise of an integral tradition which the leaders who “close” the island for Nyepi refuse to acknowledge? I hope it’s neither, but it’s worrying to see foreigners making a greater effort at compliance than many locals.