The Night Before Nyepi

by Abigail Leach (Indonesia)

A leap into the unknown Indonesia


Last light is fading in orange and pink hues. A coolness grasps the air with dusk falling. The island is in preparation. Weeks of secretive planning all build up to today, this one night. Excitement is catching as I find myself packing a small bag of essentials, water and peanuts, and hitting the streets with the masses of other foreigners and locals. Roads are on lock down with revelers, peddlers and parades. This is the night before Nyepi, the procession of the ogoh-ogohs. Quickly I caught up a crowd ushering my steps forward faster and faster leaving my house. “Where are we going? What’s is happening?” No one turns to me, only a consensus of ‘they are coming, we need to get to the intersection, they're almost here’. The traffic light intersection is only a short walk away from where I live. Here we met up with another crowd on the other side who approached from the North. A large space in the middle, resembling a fight pit, was cleared for what was coming. Giant puppets displaying evil two headed monsters, half-man half-beast concoctions, demon faces, and ruined women enter center stage. Each ogoh-ogoh is accompanied by their own traditional kulkul band to tell their story through dance and fire processions. An embodiment of the evil Bhuta spirit put on display and paraded through Bali’s streets. Throughout the night we watch united as more and more ogoh-ogoh’s pass through with their temple puppeteers controlling vivid movements. Each one more impressive than the last. With the commentary being in Balinese I can only follow through body language and the crowd’s enthusiasm. Hours have passed and we are on the move again, this time all together trailing behind the last ogoh-ogoh heading towards the beach. As we walk I notice every household has burnt their ceremonial offerings at their entrance ways. Incense smoke layers the streets adding more eeriness to the evening. This burning is to ward off the evil spirits entering the home, banishing them to follow our procession down to the beach. All the streets filter down to the sands, like estuaries and streams to the ocean. Ogoh-ogohs are dotted along the coastline as the island beacons. Then one by one they are lit up. Torched and burnt. Together with our incense the air thickens as it swirls skyward and escapes our small island, taking with it the evil spirits from the last year. Relief rolls through the crowds for a momentary pause. But then arises the next tension and challenge. We need to get back to our respected places of stay before 6am, before the 24-hour lock down. The roads quickly become chaos with scooters emerging from every crevice. Everybody is swerving and flowing to get back fast. Local law enforcements, the Pecalang, blow their whistles in an attempt of control. Their hard expressions are a prelude for the stern rules of the next day – Nyepi Day of Silence. In a blur I am safely back home with all my supplies I planned out the week before. After the excitement of the previous night, a day of rest is welcome. Traditionally the Balinese use this day to mediate and focus on self-reflection. Anything that could interfere with this is prohibited - work, travel, cooking, entertainment. The Pecalang are the only ones allowed to walk the streets to patrol and ensure the community is playing by the rules. It is believed the evil spirits return to the island after the last night and are looking for new hosts, so you must remain indoors to keep safe. No noise, no light. Words cannot describe the serenity of the day and the mystery of the night. Only experience of the magic can give insight. Dogs rule the streets, empty waves roll to shore, stars light up the night sky canvas. The day after Nyepi, Ngembak Geni, is the start of the New Year. Fresh beginnings and forgiveness are asked by the Balinese from their families and friends. The roads come back to life, bakso trucks continue to be pushed with a fresh new smile beaming out. Ding, ding, ding. “Transport?” The island returns to normal, but with fresher air and clear skies.