Monsters. Demons. Evil Spirits.
The things usually associated with nightmares are commonplace in the New Year’s celebration in Bali, Indonesia. I had seen photos of this holiday before I even moved to Bali and found the celebratory decorations both horrifying and fascinating. As I learned the language while living in Bali, I began to understand more about the culture, and, consequently, began to understand the customs.
The Balinese Hindu New Year celebration, Nyepi, is unlike any other holiday in the world. And the monsters are just the beginning.
The night before New Year’s Day, every community in Bali holds a monster parade. Giant demon-like statues are paraded through the streets and spun furiously at intersections before cheering crowds. These monsters are believed to chase evil spirits from the island in preparation for the coming new year.
The Balinese Hindu calendar is lunar-based, so the date for the New Year Nyepi is usually around March or April, but is celebrated on a different date every year. However, you can tell when Nyepi season is approaching even if you don’t have a calendar. On street corners, in community centers, throughout every neighborhood, monsters are being made.
The design of the monsters, or ogoh-ogoh as they’re called in the Balinese language, is decided months in advance by a unanimous vote from a committee. The youth organizations of each community are heavily involved in the design, construction, and presentation of their monster in the parade. Once an idea for the design is established, the youth committees begin building their monsters.
This year, the Balinese government decided that all ogoh-ogoh should be made primarily from recycled materials like paper, trash, and plastic, as well as traditional bamboo. In past years they were made of styrofoam, a material especially harmful to the environment.
It’s not uncommon for a single monster to cost over $1,000 USD, and each youth committee is responsible for raising these funds from around the community. This itself is quite a feat when the average daily wage in Bali is around $7 USD. The money raised covers the cost of all supplies need to build the monster, and even the food and drinks for the team building it.
Making a monster is an all-consuming project. Usually, the monsters are built by the boys and young men of the community, although sometimes girls are part of the construction, too. The ogoh-ogoh can take weeks or even months to complete depending on the size and detail of the design. Some monsters are merely built and painted, while and others are clad with lifelike clothing and hair.
A few weeks later, New Year’s Eve arrives and the monsters are carried to the community temple for a blessing ceremony before the parade. The ogoh-ogoh are an important part of the Balinese Hindu faith as most locals believe in maintaining the balance of good and evil on their island and in their daily lives, and these demonized monsters represent the evil. Even if some designs look silly, their role in Balinese society is serious. The Balinese Hindus believe these monsters take on the evil spirits as they are paraded through the city streets, which is also why the monsters are burned after Nyepi.
The parades begin at different times around the island, but the one I attended began after dark.
While waiting for the parade to start, the atmosphere wasn’t one of fear, but of anticipation. It reminded me of waiting for the Fourth of July parade to begin on Independence Day as a child. When I was little, I would anxiously stand beside my parents, holding a bucket and waiting to collect candy while daydreaming about the parade floats that were going to pass by. The Balinese children had the same expression on their faces, waiting anxiously for a parade of monsters.
Finally, the first monster is seen coming down the street.
Groups of young men carry the upright ogoh-ogoh on a framework of bamboo. As they approach the intersection, the boys begin to run, shaking the ogoh-ogoh wildly. They spin and fling the monster in all directions.
This is how the ogoh-ogoh got it’s name, as the word itself means “rocking” or “shaking.” This spinning lasts for a minute or two while the crowd cheers. Everyone has their phone out, poised to take photos. Then the police, the pacalang, direct the monster to move along and make room for the next.
One by one the monsters parade, each more elaborate than the next. Some feature severed heads, grotesque animals, or even sexual elements. Some monsters arrive with a performance — a cultural dance or traditional musical performance.
It’s dizzying. The crowd is loud, and the young men carrying the monsters are even louder. As the monsters spin faster and faster, the crowd begins to laugh. The monster shakes and parts of it look like they’re about to fall off.
It felt like organized chaos, like watching a perfectly choreographed routine. Each member knew exactly where to hold the monster and exactly when to spin.
After an hour or two, the final monster passes by and the parade is over, but the Nyepi New Year is just getting started.
The day after the monster parade is the first day of the new year. On New Year’s Day in Bali, no one is allowed to leave their homes. No one can use electricity or lights. No one can cook food or watch TV or call their friends. Everything is closed.The Balinese airport is the only in the world to close regularly for a national holiday.
Nyepi Day is meant for reflection. Balinese Hindus reflect on the past year and look toward the coming year. Quietly. The pacalang are the only ones out on Nyepi Day. They keep the peace and make sure no one is sneaking out of their houses or leaving their light on. They carry a different authority than the government, or state, police force. The pacalang are cultural enforcers, and are responsible to keeping the Balinese Hindu cultural traditions in order.
I’m not a Balinese Hindu, but I do love this holiday. It’s quiet and peaceful in a place that can often feel like a crowded island with too much noise.
But not on Nyepi Day.
It’s serene. It’s simple. When it gets dark, the stars begin to shine. I love laying outside and staring at the star-filled night sky. Just because I’m not Balinese Hindu doesn’t mean the rules don’t apply to me, so I also take the day to reflect and process. Out of respect, I also keep my lights off and don’t leave my property.
I love the practice of a day of rest. It’s something valuable to my own faith as well. I come from an American culture, one that celebrates productivity and accomplishment. Our American holidays are filled to the brim with partying, planning, decorating, and doing. But I love that this special holiday, on a tiny island, is celebrated by stillness.
This year, I took the day to reflect on my journey in Bali thus far. I’ve lived here for two years now and was able to look back on the goals I had set and accomplished and looked toward the year ahead, at the hopes and dreams yet to be realized.
The next day, the monsters were taken to the beach, deconstructed, and slowly set on fire. This is the final step in cleansing the island of its demons.
Now, the Balinese can start a new year free of evil spirits.