Bali’s Silent Day: A Time for Contemplating Navels – But Only Your Own

by 8 Degrees of Latitude

Friday this week (March 23) is Silent Day in Bali – Nyepi, the Balinese Hindu New Year. It is called Silent Day because for 24 hours, from 6am on the nominated day – the date varies, being on a lunar calendar – until 6am the next day, everything stops.

Well, not quite everything. Since Bali is part of today’s interconnected world the airport remains operationally open although no one can begin or end an air trip here over the silent 24 hours.  Transit flights continue and emergency landings are permitted, should that need arise. The seaports also close. All road traffic ceases, unless for emergency purposes.

This is the first Nyepi during our now lengthy residence in Bali that we’ve chosen to spend at home.  (We were living in Lombok in 2007, where Silent Day is silent for the local Hindus only in their own homes.) But the Silent Days of 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 were spent  at tourist accommodation exempted in part by the authorities – and presumably also by the bad spirits that in Hindu tradition are supposed to find Bali in darkness, conclude there is no one here, and move on to work their evil ways elsewhere – from the lights-out-no-noise rules.

These sojourns themselves have provided illuminating moments in our Bali experience, especially in 2010 when, at a small resort bungalow property at Candi Dasa in East Bali, dinner finished at 7pm and the staff chivvied us all back to our rooms (where we could have lights on if the windows were blacked out by curtains). Fine, we thought; these guys are really devout and we should naturally support their beliefs.

So it was something of a surprise when shortly afterwards the (no longer) on duty crew  arrived at the pool – just outside our little bungalow – with all sorts of pool toys and had a great party.

It reminded us of 2006, when our housekeeper firmly suggested we should disappear to a hotel for the duration and then let on that she and her friends would be having a “quiet party” at our place in our absence.

This year, our present housekeeper seems slightly discomfited by the fact that we’re staying home in the dark. She has several times mentioned that it would be much better for Mr and Mrs to go away. We’ll be having our quiet party, of course, with our headphones and our Kindles, our low-set lanterns and our blind-sided cooktop; we just shan’t be telling anyone that. (We’ll turn the pool filter system off for the day but the main pump’s staying on since it runs the water and the lavatories.)

Times and traditions change, of course. In our own western tradition, you’ve only got to look at Christmas and Easter with any sense of religious or social history to understand that point. And despite claims that Bali Hinduism is strictly keeping to its set-in-stone liturgy and traditions, it’s not.

This year, not for the first time, the local government and Hindu hierarchy have warned against turning the pre-Silent Day tradition of Ogoh-Ogoh – a religious celebration in which young people produce giant representations of demons and other entities which symbolically fight it out in the streets – into an occasion for secular point-scoring.

Ogoh-Ogoh requires that the “good spirits” always win. But “anti-korupsi”, a popular theme nationwide and also of this year’s Ogoh-Ogoh representations, is not a spiritual matter – neither, apparently, is corruption itself – and does not earn a mention in the sacred texts.

Two years’ running, the local government has monstered the radio and television companies into blacking out broadcasts on and to the island over Silent Day. Only people with parabola dishes (those not tied to a particular provider’s satellite service) win on this one. Hey, we’ve got a parabola.

The official island-wide rules for Nyepi are strict. Tourists for example are confined to their accommodation for the duration, and what level of service – and lighting – they get is largely up to the management of the establishment. Early dinners and minimal lighting are inevitably the result, even at plush five-star resorts.

Lack of lighting is not necessarily a problem for local expatriates. Those without generators have been well trained by the state power monopoly company in how to blunder around in the dark.

In recent years the effort to keep strictly to the ancient requirements of Silent Day have been given some prominence outside the Hindu community by global greenies who see it as an exemplar for the world – everyone should turn the lights out, it would be a jolly good thing – and the more lunar-connected among local expatriates.

And totem-fixated greenies and the lunar-connected aside, the push to revitalise Nyepi by returning to ancient precepts is fine, except that in a society as diverse as Bali’s – speaking of the Hindu population only: others, including other Indonesians who are not far short of making up half the island’s population nowadays, have a very limited role in discussing such matters – those ancient precepts are pretty diverse themselves. There are villages, for example, where the local tradition is that life continues as normal over Nyepi – including lighting and cooking and doing all sorts of other normal activities – except that on the day, you remain within the village boundaries.

There are “relaxed” Banjars (these are local community based traditional organisations) and more traditional ones. Ours, on the southern Bukit, is rather traditional. We never really hear from them unless they remember to come and collect the Rp25,000 a month (about $2.80 at the moment) we’re supposedly levied for the privilege of living among them. (It is a privilege and we’re glad we do and happily pay – apparently whenever the beer money runs out.)

We do hear from them at Nyepi, however. They send round a circular that sets out in fine detail what you can do (contemplate your navel is about the extent of it) and what you can’t. You cannot work; you may not use electricity or naked flame; or play games or entertain yourself. And if you do commit any of these offences the village security force (Pecalang) will find out; count on it.

Specifically, this year, when we troubled to read the document fully as we’re staying home for the non-festivities, we learned that while you are encouraged to contemplate your own navel you must on no account consider the merits of anyone else’s: Lust is also on the no-no list.