Silence! Well, Sort Of

Richard Laidlaw

Bali, Mar. 7, 2019

IT’S Nyepi today in Bali. Tomorrow, Mar. 8, 2019 CE, it will be the first day of 1941 in the Balinese Hindu Caka (say Shaka) calendar of 210 days. We’ve been more or less fixtures in Bali since 1926.

Our first Nyepi, back in the Roaring Caka Twenties, was an eye-opener. We had a live-in housekeeper that first year and, come Nyepi, she sent us away to a designated tourist hotel. Nyepi was not for Bules; too difficult, she told us. We thought she meant Bules were too difficult rather than that Nyepi was, but demur we did not.

Bules are foreigners; usually white ones. The word is informal, which is to say it’s rude, which is probably why these days you find it used even in court proceedings when some silly white person has got into trouble, as too many do.

But we were curious, and asked her how she proposed to spend Nyepi (in our house). The answer was instructive: having a quiet little party with a few of her friends who would move in for the magic 24 hours.

Several years later we decamped to a favourite seaside resort for Nyepi – these days we just stay home, because it’s easier and really no trouble – where we and other cultural refugees were shooed out of the restaurant after a very early dinner so the place could plunge properly into darkness.

We had booked our usual poolside bungalow. And while we sat quietly on its terrace, making sure the lights in the room behind did not escape to alert any bad spirits that there were people around, the hotel staff arrived en masse with all the pool toys and had a lively party in the H2O.

In more recent times Bali’s authorities have tightened up on Nyepi observance. The Internet is “closed” for 24 hours – 6am to 6am – though that’s functionally the mobile Internet. Hence the appearance of this little piece today, brought to you by the fixed installation at our house. The airport is closed for 24 hours and only police and public order and emergency vehicles are allowed on the roads. The day after Nyepi dawns nearly pollution free.

Actual observance is governed locally, though there seems to have been a shift recently towards a more universal code of practice. Effectively, everyone stays at home and does nothing, or does something very quietly, spending time in contemplation of sins and the meaning of life.

Our banjar (local “adat” precinct) disappointed us this year. We didn’t get the usual “no light no noise no sex” letter they stick on your gate before Nyepi. The nearest one I saw yesterday, returning from a late supplies mission, was on the gate of a house about 250m from ours. They must have miscalculated stock required.

Over recent years the concept of Nyepi has attracted the interest of locally resident lovies and the wider global diaspora of chakra-shakers and the like. It’s been touted as a sort of extra-powerful Earth Day, an idea that everyone who isn’t a Balinese Hindu should immediately take up as a gift from the List of Gaia’s Preferred Myths. It would do us all good, it is said. Yeah, right.

In the warp and weft of modern western life, not to mention its supposed yins and yangs, eastern philosophies have gained new traction. It’s always been a syncretic process, religion, in which beliefs formed in the early forest faerie sector have leached from one into the other. The founding Abrahamic influence in Christianity is by no means remote from this factor. Nonetheless the mysticism of eastern religions has new attractions for westerners whose culture has staled and whose civilisation is in cyclical decline.

Bali, of course, is the latest leitmotiv in chief of this phenomenon. Its unique syncretic Hindu religion – part Majapahit, part Buddhist, part animist – emphasises karma and incorporates eroticism that many outsiders, not all of them westerners, confuse with sexual licence. A whole cottage industry is now devoted to servicing the desires of western women to have their chakras adjusted. For the most part these desires are misplaced and too often have been fuelled by pulp-faction Eat Pray Love-style self-awareness books. The women get touched up both literally and figuratively.

Needless to say, none of it has anything to do with Bali’s Silent Day or the Hindu beliefs from which it springs. Nyepi is not an early Earth Day concept that the consumer-capitalist world should seize upon as a corrective to its many ills, real or imagined. To assume Silent Day is a formula for social renewal outside of its specific rites, or, worse, to actively suggest that should be so, is disrespectful of Nyepi rather than respectful of it.

For unbelievers, the requirements of Nyepi are more honestly observed in their quiet breach. The Internet for example is a utility, a function of modern life. If the religious authorities believe Hindu adherents shouldn’t use it on Silent Day, then that’s a matter for religious instruction. The faithful should wish to forgo it of their own volition.

Nyepi is not an opportunity for unbelievers to submerge themselves by specious acquisition into the sublime wonders of an imaginary world without intrusive technology. They can do that any time they like, by switching off their phones. It is for Balinese Hindus. It is a rite that flows from their belief system and it deserves honour and respect from everyone, unbelievers included.

It doesn’t demand detailed participation. Silent Day requires that certain measures are applied to your dwelling place and behaviour, and that’s fine. Observing the letter of these things, such as showing no lights or playing music that would be audible beyond your boundary, is no more difficult than, say, taking care not to publicly contravene Ramadan fasting restrictions in a majority Muslim community.

That’s chiefly a matter of courtesy and common sense. We could do with a lot more of that, everywhere.

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

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.