Nyepi: The Balinese New Year

I stayed true to my island hopping ways by venturing over to Bali, Indonesia, after Thailand where my plan was to relax, do yoga, and surf for a few days before going to the Gili Islands. But if there’s anything I’ve learned from traveling, it’s that nothing goes as you thought it would. When I first outlined my travels in the U.S., I had everything planned through the middle of March. In retrospect — while it was good to have a road map to follow, especially for the first couple weeks — I probably planned too far in advance. Who goes straight from Thailand to Indonesia? I didn’t even touch Laos, Cambodia or Vietnam.

Anyway, what I failed to do before booking my flight to Bali was to check and see if there were any holidays or festivals going on. Turns out, I arrived in Bali just in time to celebrate the Balinese New Year known as Nyepi. To celebrate the holiday, the Balinese have a day of silence where the entire island forgoes electricity and Internet. You’re also not allowed to leave your house. Everything shuts downs. And according to tradition, you should sit in silence all day. The idea is that once a year the Balinese dedicate one day to self-reflection. You’re supposed to ask yourself questions like, “Am I where I’m supposed to be?” “Am I happy?” and, “What can I do better this year?” It’s also a time for cleansing. Since Bali’s economy heavily relies on tourism, resorts are typically lenient with these rules — but you still can’t leave your resort or you will be fined by the Indonesian police who patrol the streets.

I stayed at Serenity Eco Guest House which is run by a local Balinese woman — and draws a yoga-friendly crowd — so we were encouraged to celebrate Nyepi the local way. Fortunately, I had a couple days to prepare, and a few parades to watch before sitting in silence for an entire day.

My first taste of the holiday happened while I was walking down the beach to meet two friends who I met in Thailand, Eliza and Daisy. As I walked down the beach to meet them at their hostel, I spotted large floats and people dressed in white and checkered robes. This was quite surprising since Bali is a pretty touristy place now. I wasn’t expecting to see anything cultural or authentic while I was there. I asked a local what was going on and he told me it was a festival for Malesti, which is the term to describe all of the celebrations before Nyepi. I wasn’t exactly sure what was going on, but I was told to come back later to watch a man stab himself. Surely, I thought some sort of miscommunication occurred.

Once I met up with Daisy and Eliza, I told them about what happened. We had a drink and quickly made our way back to the celebration. Once we arrived a few more Westerners found it as well, so we sat by them and watched the sacrifice begin. At first, everyone formed a circle and danced like they were in a conga line to the beat of the drum. Then a couple of women entered the center of the circle, laid down fruit and leaves to a shrine that they would ultimately float in the ocean — which they believed would be absorbed by the gods. It was really interesting to observe because the men and women were so emotionally enthralled in what was going on that they’d pass out. I asked a local why and she explained it was because some people would become possessed by the gods during the ceremony. When this happened, their friends and family would have to usher them to the ocean to be cleansed, and freed of the demons that temporarily took over their bodies.

After about forty minutes of this, a duck and pig entered the scene. We knew something big was about to happen since the music became louder and the drums beat faster. And sure enough in one second, both of their heads fell to the ground. Blood splattered everywhere. Their dead bodies became another part of the shrine.

Then it was time for the alleged human sacrifice. One man picked another man from the crowd, and handed him two Balinese swords. The music turned louder once again as the man danced in the middle of the circle with both swords in his hands. He turned the back of his palms towards the ocean and stabbed both swords into the sides of his neck.

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He later ended up bleeding to death.

Just kidding. 🙂 The swords were made out of bamboo. And even though bamboo can be really sharp, these weren’t sharp enough to puncture the skin. This was a relief because we honestly weren’t sure if we were going to witness a human death or not. It was quite terrifying.

The next two days were filled with yoga classes, surfing, witnessing another Malesti parade, and then the day of silence. I spent it doing yoga, meditating and reading. That night I laid under the stars with some friends from the guest house. I truly have never seen stars so bright before in my life. It looked like a cluster of galaxies painted in the sky. I’m happy I got to experience Nyepi in Bali. Despite all the ways in which cultures celebrate the new year, I think it says a lot that we all celebrate it. It’s one thing — of many — that connects us all around the world.

Here are some more pics from the celebration:

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A little Balinese boy

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Women contributing their offerings

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Eliza and I