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One Day, Will We Commemorate Nyepi Day With A Minute’s Silence?

March 18, 2012

Nyepi Day – the “Day of Silence” – marks the Balinese New Year. It is both a cultural imperative and an iconic event of powerful significance, and it literally stops all activity on the island for one full day of the year. The airport and all transportation hubs are closed and everyone is confined indoors. Working is not permitted. No-one, except for the black-clad pecalang, the traditional keepers of village order, is permitted on the streets. Apart from emergency vehicles, no traffic is allowed.

Silence rules the day. Noise, TV and music is strongly discouraged. No fires can be lit, and at night, lights – if used at all – must be kept low and not be visible from outside a residence. Entertainment and bodily pleasures are prohibited, as is  travelling. Some communities may fast, others may ban talking altogether, while still others may even disconnect the electricity supply to whole villages.

The twenty four hour period is dedicated to introspection and reflection, and the day’s restrictions are designed to eliminate all barriers to achieving that aim. Mythologically, it is a time when evil spirits emerge from the sea to fly over the island, looking for signs of human activity that might provide a receptacle for their evil. With no lights, no noise and no activity to be seen, there is nothing to pique their interest and encourage them to linger. In this way Bali remains free of the forces of darkness for another year.

Although primarily a Balinese Hindu occasion, non-Hindu residents of Bali have always honoured the tradition as well. Perhaps not to the same extent as the Balinese in terms of fasting, not watching TV and engaging in reflective practice, but they have always arranged their activities to avoid being out in the streets, and in keeping residential noise and light emissions to undetectable levels. Tourists get more leeway, as long as they confine themselves to activities within hotel grounds. Even so, no-one has traditionally been allowed on the streets or beaches, with alert pecalang keeping a careful lookout for transgressors who may be counselled, disciplined or fined.

Some of my foreign acquaintances, both tourists and residents,  choose to leave Bali during Nyepi, or to check into a hotel with spacious grounds to give themselves a little more personal freedom. I can understand this, especially if they have kids.  It’s difficult, if not impossible, to keep them quiet for 24 hours without the stimulation of activities, the soporific effect of TV, or the comfort of air-conditioning.

However for me, Nyepi is a highlight. It always has been during the time I have been living in Bali. I enjoy the quiet, the lack of chaos and the sense of complete spiritual peace that descends on the place. I don’t mind being sequestered in my villa for a day and a night. I welcome the time for thinking, for reading and for reflection. I don’t see the restrictions as an impost, I see them as an opportunity. My great fortune is that I cannot remember ever having been bored, and this stands me in good stead on Nyepi Day. A rich internal world is truly a blessing.

Government authorities here generally use sanctions to encourage the observance of the day’s restrictions for everyone, even to the extent of sometimes going too far to ensure this. This year, their call for cable TV providers to shut down all transmission for 24 hours was well-meant, but not particularly well thought-out. It’s not just Bali’s Hindus that would be affected by such a shut-down – it would also be the  patrons of hotels, which are already allowed to provide some reprieve from Nyepi restrictions  for foreigners. After all, surely devout Hindus can simply choose not to watch cable TV?

So given the purported strength of the Bali government’s conviction about the sanctity of Nyepi Day, why are we starting to see an erosion of restrictions? Why is a day that is central to Balinese core cultural beliefs being gradually changed to accommodate special interests? Already reports are coming in that, despite beaches always having been off-limits on this day, an exception is now being made for surfers, who will not have to abide by Nyepi restrictions, on Bali’s far west coast.

Now, in the interests of “religious harmony” – or maybe pressure from elsewhere in the archipelago – Bali’s Governor has announced that Muslims will be permitted to use the streets to attend Friday prayers. Mosques have been “requested” not to use amplified calls to prayer, or amplified sermons on the day. However, it seems that no actual prohibition has been put in place to ensure silence in the surrounding community. Interestingly, there appears to be no corresponding relaxation of Nyepi restrictions for members of any other religious faiths to attend services.

I spoke to a Muslim acquaintance about this, because I was curious as to why it was necessary to physically attend a place of worship on the one day of the year where such attendance might conflict with a different set of religious and cultural imperatives, especially in a Hindu-majority region. His response was one of disbelief. “But we must go to prayers”, he said, “this is our religion.” I assured him that I understood, and gently pointed out that, for the Balinese, Nyepi Day and its attendant prohibitions concerning silence – and not using the streets – were also an integral part of their religion and culture.

“You don’t understand”, he said. “It is our religion and we must pray. For Bali people, it doesn’t matter. It is just a ceremony.” He’s right; I don’t understand. Not being an adherent of any faith, I guess I hold the mistaken belief that a person’s communication with their god occurs in their heart, and not necessarily in a specific geographical location.

And before people start moaning and shrieking that I am picking on a specific religion, relax.  My point is not about religion, it is about Nyepi Day and its observance in Balinese culture. It is a precious and rare event, the importance of which should not be eroded by surfers, or prayer-attendees, or anyone else who decides that their personal wishes should trump the observance of this day.

What’s next? I fear that as more vocal groups start demanding that they be allowed to go where they want, and do what they want on Nyepi Day, its significance will continue to erode in the same way that Bali’s cultural landscape is already eroding. What will be left of this day in ten years? Just another public holiday with a mandatory one minute’s silence to commemorate the ghost of Nyepi?

I hope not. I really hope not.


FOLLOW UP POST: Post-Nyepi Reflections – where it all went wrong


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12 comments

  1. Its a bit weird tv broadcast has to stop, while surfing and going to the mosque is allowed.
    I would say go for the Hindu religion, as this is the Balinese religion and it should be fully reespected by everyone. Those who want to go tot the moque, go to Java for the weekend, those who want to surf, the beach, shop, … go somewhere else.

    Its a bit sad those exceptions are made, the tradition and respect to Hindu people should be kept!


  2. Friends tell me that the west coast Nyepi Day surfing phenomenon has been going on for years.

    Others say that in their villages, away from Greater Kuta, everyone is out and about celebrating and having fun during the day.

    A Singaraja local tells me that all are allowed out in the streets from sunrise until about 9.30 am, when they are herded back inside by the pecalang.

    It appears that in Bali, nothing is as it seems, and variations of ‘ironclad’ customs are both common and flexible.

    I would hate to think that the much-vaunted ‘rigid’ Nyepi Day restrictions are just another bit of tourism puffery.


  3. It’s a tough one. Tougher than it may seem at a first glance. It sure has many readings. This is just one: When two or more traditions, cultures or religions collide in an irreconciliable manner, one will have to make concessions to keep the harmony. One would think that in this case the visitor should oblige, yet there is a lot to say and learn from a good host. Specially in a case like this where harmony and tradition are at stake on opposite sides and at the same time harmony is tradition.
    I am a bule and a surfer, and I personally like Nyepi day. I wouldn’t like to see it fade away. But then again, I’m just a guest.


  4. Very interesting post. Your last 4 paragraphs spoke volumes.


  5. Yes the Medewi surf thing has been going on for years I aggree as well, make everybody stay indoors, surfers and the religous lot.
    Glad to hear that for one day we will have some respite from the loud speakers that are amped up every morning @ 5am.The one here in Canggu is louder than an fighter jet at takeoff…maybe l can arrange the guy from Lombok, to come here and pull the plug out of that bloody speaker.


    • Personally, I am not of any religion, I like to pick good things from different beliefs and go forth with them. The first day in Java, I was forced awake at 4am to the local apotek to get valium and earplugs.

      When I returned to Bali I missed hearing the mosque calling.

      However, one of the most special things about Nyepi day was no matter who you were, how much money you had or how much your hotel room cost a night you were forced to abide by the local beliefs – no matter how much this may cost the island.

      I hope they harden up on this next year, no mosques, the surfing thing has always been around though.

      If you dont like it you can travel 1.5 hours to padang bai and go to lombok or 3 hours to gilimanuk and go to java.. not that hard!


  6. just further to this does anyone remember the “Fuck Nyepi Day” facebook status created by a Javanese kid a few years back now? within 8 hours this guy had 50,000 indos joining a page discussing his death..


    • Yes l remember that…what a dumbo, sure way to make friends…not


  7. i’m balinese. and i just want to say thank you. you care about us. not just see us as a commodity.


  8. I’m sorry to say but I find this blog entry to be annoying and entirely missing the point of Hindu Agama as it is practiced here in Bali by the Balinese. Nyepi is in no way intended to restrict the religious practices of other religions, and by the way, this Nyepi wasn’t the first time that Nyepi has fallen on a Friday!

    It is only natural, and right, that Muslims on Bali would be allowed to attend mosque for Friday prayers. The request, (and it was followed very well) was that those Muslims who wanted to attend Friday prayers (on Nyepi) do so by getting there on foot as opposed to motorized transport. It was further requested that the mosque’s loudspeakers be turned off.

    Compliance to these requests was near 100%, and that’s no surprise either.

    I strongly urge caution to my fellow expats when pontificating about Balinese religious matters, especially so if they are not practicing Hindu Bali Agama themselves. All too often such misguided and totally erroneous conclusions only contribute to misunderstanding.

    Om Santi, Santi, Santi, Om


  9. really fascinating article, thanks 🙂

    Indonesia has a variety of religions, that’s why Indonesian people, or in this case Bali’s people are accustomed to tolerate another religion. so, as you said Nyepi is in no way intended to restrict the religious practices of other religions. i believe this is a good thing to keep the inter-religious tolerance in Bali, and of course it is not intended to interfere Nyepi day.


  10. just want stop by and say something a lil bit about the friday prayer. lets not make it looks like the muslims in indonesia selfish or something.
    here is the thing :
    fundamental law/rules order about carry obligations for Muslims Friday prayers written in the Quran that reads

    “O who believe, when they are called to prayer on Friday, then immediately you remember Allah and leave your trading. That is better for you if ye only knew. “(Al-Jumuah: 9),

    then the Prophet SAW said:

    “Whoever leaves Gomaa prayer without any hindrance or danger, so he wrote to the hypocrites in a record that will not be deleted and will not be in the exchange”. (narrated by Abu Dawud and Nasa’i).

    however, since Islam is a religion that doesn’t bother his people, and understanding from the argument above,we can say if there are situations where it is impossible (there are obstacles) for a Muslim man to perform Friday prayers at that time, like as there is a job that contains a large beneficiaries who can’t be achieved except keep working or if keep doin’ the Friday prayer then there will be great danger (danger arising out of the house, etc.) then let pick the decision that brings good greater.

    in this context (Nyepi) measures remain at home and then carry dhuhur than Friday prayers would be better to bring goodness, me personally if in that situation would prefer to replace the dhuhur Friday prayers at home.

    then why are there still someone insist on going out of the house when the local rules forbid it?
    for this I think is because some of the possibilities,
    the first one:
    we can’t avoid that each person understanding in interpreting religious instruction could be differently,
    maybe people who insist to do it doesn’t mean Nyepi day as an ‘obstacle’ in obligations run Friday prayers, maybe they feel stay at home rule was intended to be given to the Hindu’s, not Muslim. its like, we are islam and pray 5 times a day, when you stay at our house are we oblige you to pray too?

    or the possibility of a second:

    those who insist it was already missed two Friday prayers times in a row before, so if he missed it again Friday prayers and he will go down leaving Friday prayers 3x in a row.

    so what if it is not Friday prayers 3x in a row?

    narrated from Usama bin Zaid ra, the Prophet said, “Whoever leaves three Friday prayers without udzur (legal reasons), surely he recorded in the class of hypocrites.” (Saheeh Hadeeth, contained in Saheeh Jami’us Sagheer no: 6144 and Thabrani in al-Kabir I: 170 no: 422).
    and one of the companions of the Prophet, Ibn ‘Abbas ra said: “Whoever leaves the Friday prayers three times in a row, really he has thrown Islam behind his back.” (narrated by Abu Ya’la, authentic by al-Albani in Shahiih at-Targhiib No.. 732).

    This case emphasizes the importance of Friday prayers, and for Muslims surely leaving Friday prayers in 3 times in a row is very avoidable.

    or a third possibility:

    The only people who insist on trying to practice the religion he embraced. he just did what he knew.

    I believe that people who go Friday prayers during Nyepi has one of the reasons of the three possibilities.

    and I am sure that there was no intention to eliminate the culture of Bali.

    I understand that your concern is why there appears no room to maintain the culture of tolerance, but in my opinion as Indonesian, as people who born and raised here, as people who living and travel throughout this country, we are working as hard as possible to do the best for our country.

    you can’t generalize the attitude of the people you’ve asked is the same as the attitude of the whole groups would be.
    because for me personally, if there was one day where we as citizens of Indonesia must stay at home, no cook, no work, no sleep, no fire, etc. because that day is Nyepi day and we had to do it in honor as fellow Indonesian and that act as a form of efforts to preserve the culture bali i would love to.
    but thats just for me you know,
    and for some people that I know well.
    but we can not ask any other people to do as well, can we?

    I stopped by to respond here because at the end of your posts I feel a glance that Muslims in Indonesia as a ‘vocal groups’ are selfish and don’t care about the culture, which was not the situation.

    thanks hope you are good 🙂

    Best regards,
    Handrio Damanik



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