The COVID-19 outbreak in Indonesia has undeniably impacted how religious communities observe their traditions.
On Wednesday, Balinese Hindus will observe Nyepi (Day of Silence), which marks the Balinese New Year and is reserved for self-reflection.
In Bali, Nyepi is synonymous with deserted beaches, empty streets and lights switched off at night. Nyepi is the only day of the year when Bali’s airport and seaports close. Everyone, regardless of their religion, must remain in their house or hotel during Nyepi.
The isolation during Nyepi in a way resembles social distancing, unlike the rituals prior to and following Nyepi, which usually involve large crowds.
Amid growing concerns over the COVID-19 outbreak, Bali Governor Wayan Koster has banned all ogoh-ogoh (menacing-looking giant effigies) parades across the province, not even a short march around small neighborhoods, during this year’s ngerupuk ritual on the eve of Nyepi, is allowed.
“No ogoh-ogoh parade in any form [is allowed],” Koster said last week while announcing his policy.
Ngerupuk is the island’s biggest street parade, in which the local youths compete with each other to create the most magnificent ogoh-ogoh.
Ogoh-ogoh were first introduced in the 1980s and have since become a permanent fixture at Nyepi spectacles across Bali, the only Hindu-majority province in Indonesia which relies much on tourism.
“Actually, the ogoh-ogoh parade is not part of the original Nyepi rituals. So, we are not obliged to hold the parade,” the head of the Indonesian Hindu Religious Council’s (PHDI) Bali chapter, I Gusti Ngurah Sudiana, said, urging all Balinese Hindu communities to obey the call.
The PHDI, Bali Customary Village Council, and Bali governor also urged Balinese Hindus to host the melasti — a procession that features pilgrimages to the sea to purify temples — and tawur agung rituals with a smaller number of participants.
“Because the virus is highly contagious, we urge people to adjust the rituals to make our island safer for all of us,” Sudiana said.
Bali, a province with more than 4 million people, has six confirmed COVID-19 cases with two fatal cases as of Monday, all of which authorities said originated outside the island. The province has yet to confirm any local transmission.
One day after Nyepi, Balinese Hindus perform the ngembak geni ritual, in which they travel to their hometowns or visit relatives to exchange forgiveness.
But on Monday, less than three days before the ngembak geni ritual, Koster issued another notice advising people to stay at home on Thursday.
In Jakarta, the country’s epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak, Nyepi’s series of ceremonies were held with similar adjustments to the number of participants.
Less than 30 Hindus — all wearing masks — gathered at Aditya Jaya Hindu temple in Rawamangun, East Jakarta on Tuesday to observe the tawur agung ceremony, held a day before Nyepi.
Jakarta’s Nyepi organizing committee chairman Ida Bagus Nyoman Banjar said smaller celebrations did not reduce the meaning of Nyepi.
“We will follow the government’s call to limit congregational [rituals] and keep a distance. But the meaning of the rituals is not diminished at all,” he said after the event on Tuesday.
The committee has also canceled the ogoh-ogoh parade to prevent large crowds.
“We already have the ogoh-ogoh here, but we will keep them for next year’s event,” said Banjar, who is also a doctor.
As a doctor, Banjar said he understood well the importance of following the government’s call to maintain social distance.
“Social distancing is our collective effort to fight COVID-19,” he added.
Jakarta’s Hindu community performed a melasti purification ritual in Segara Cilincing Hindu Temple in North Jakarta on Sunday. It was also attended by less than 30 participants.
I Gede Ngurah Utama, a Hindu who lives in Cempaka Putih, Central Jakarta, said that Tuesday was the first time he went to the temple after the PHDI had urged Hindus to pray at home, in line with President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s instruction to self-isolate.
“It was quite empty. Usually more people come,” he said.
Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan, after a meeting with religious leaders in the capital, announced on Thursday that the city would limit Nyepi ceremonies and other religious practices for the next two weeks.
“During Nyepi, Hindus are required to stay at home and reflect on themselves and this is in accordance with the social distancing measure called for by the government,” said I Nengah Dharma of the PHDI’s Jakarta chapter.
The policy has been put in place to stem the transmission of the coronavirus disease, as Jakarta continues to see a rising number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, which stood at 377 as of Tuesday. Jakarta also recorded 32 deaths.
Several other regions also canceled ogoh-ogoh processions and limited rituals ahead of Nyepi, including Yogyakarta and East Java’s Surabaya.
Many Catholic, Christian and Muslim communities have also adjusted their religious traditions to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.