It’s 6 a.m. on a Saturday at Bali’s Sanur Beach. A handful of tourists strike poses on the sand as the sun slowly creeps up from behind the horizon. Today, however, the seaside strip isn’t just the domain of revelers and the hawkers that closely follow them.
Droves of Balinese are arriving at the beach. They are in a procession, dressed in traditional garb and accompanied by the sound of gamelan music. Women are carrying offerings on their heads, men are holding tall, curved bamboo poles called penjor and colorful tedung umbrellas used to decorate temples.
Some arrive by foot, others by motorcycle. More come, literally, by the truckload, having traveled from inland villages in the early hours. The large trucks park a few blocks away from the beach and at least 50 to 100 people start piling off each vehicle, using rickety plastic chairs for ladders. The children, elderly and gamelan gongs are passed from one helping hand to another.
The pilgrimage part of Melasti, one of the rituals held in the lead up to the Saka New Year, which is celebrated by Bali’s predominantly Hindu population. Melasti is a purification ceremony where temple instruments and holy symbols are brought to the ocean or river to be immersed in the waters.
“It’s about making sure that the sacred objects are free of impurities before the new year,” says Putu Sunari, a local resident of Sanur. “It’s about cleansing the spirit and starting anew.”
Melasti is usually held three days before Nyepi, a day of silence that falls on the Lunar New Year. However, some groups conduct the ceremony four or five days earlier in an effort to avoid overcrowding and traffic jams.
Along the vast stretch of beach at Sanur, makeshift altars are set up at close intervals and motorcycles and trucks continuously vie for parking space. The ceremonies and processions continue in shifts until late in the afternoon.
While Melasti is marked by all Balinese Hindus, customs vary in different areas of the island. In parts of eastern Bali, for example, it is not uncommon for villagers to make the long journey to the sea by foot as a show of faith, sometimes enduring a 12-hour return journey under the heat of the sun, carrying heavy temple sculptures of deities on their shoulders. Traffic police clear the way and — in something unusual for Bali — drivers seem to lay off from honking their horns despite the delays.
Even though the colorful processions might be distraction enough for drivers, there is another curious phenomenon on Bali’s street sides during this time of year — giant structures of bamboo and papier mache or cloth over the last few weeks have gradually evolved to become full-fledged, brightly-colored monsters.
Known as ogoh-ogoh , the large effigies symbolizing malevolent spirits and demons usually take about a month to complete. They range from traditional depictions of scenes from the Hindu epic Ramayana, to the more modern wild-haired demons riding surfboards, jetskis and motorcycles. In Padangbai on Friday, Dede, a Balinese man, was perched on a plastic stool under a tarpaulin on a side street. He was putting the final touches on a blue devil ogoh-ogoh riding a fierce straw-maned lion. He has been working on the project with his partners for about three weeks.
“Each year, we want to make them better and better. It’s very creative,” he says.
On the day before Nyepi, the ogoh-ogoh are noisily paraded through the main intersections of cities and villages. They are later burned, a process designed to purge the island of evil spirits.
After all the noise and commotion comes complete quiet. On Nyepi, which this year falls on Tuesday, the entire island of Bali descends into silence. Devotees follow four strict principles on this day: no working; no fires or light; no traveling; and no entertainment.
Starting at 6 a.m. on Nyepi, for 24 hours the airport is closed and the streets are left empty except for traditional security guards on patrol. Tourists are advised to remain inside their hotels, and the island becomes shrouded in darkness.
In a place where the bustling tourism industry is the main bread-winner, some hotels and resorts have tried to capitalize on the holiday by offering special packages for guests, including meals and yoga classes during the lock-in period.
But as Nyoman Suwidjana, the vice chairman of the Bali Tourism Board explains, the day quite simply has “nothing to do with tourism.”
“It is tradition,” Nyoman says. “It’s to recognize the beginning of everything. As Balinese, we take time during this holiday to reflect and think about whether we’ve been saying the right words, doing the right deeds and the right actions.
“In the beginning, we came from darkness and nothingness. Through Nyepi, we recognize this and welcome the new year in quietness. We don’t do it for tourism and we would always do [the day of silence] any way we could, whether there are tourists here or not.
“I think the international community respects our traditions and we respect theirs, and tourists that are here can enjoy the quiet with no shops open.”
Even though visitors cannot go out on the day of silence, Nyoman says that they are welcome to observe the celebrations in the lead up to Nyepi, especially the colorful ogoh-ogoh parades, which are held all over the island.
“Just ask around to find out where,” he said.