The Dance of Demons and Ghouls

It’s 3:00 in the afternoon, still early, but I’m impatient. The air sizzles with excitement, and the methodical background of gamelan holds a promise of things to come. I grab my camera and head for Hanoman. I’ve been told the ogoh-ogohs are already lining up there. Last year I had no idea what to expect so I found a cafe by the street and waited for the parade to come to me. Not this time. I want to be at the starting line. I want to catch the action from its inception and merge with it, lose myself in it’s ferocious intensity.

Nyepi, the Balinese New Year, is a celebration like none other. For weeks leading up to Nyepi Eve, in villages all across Bali, young and old work feverishly creating mosters of enormous size and hideous countenance. Artistic genius is unleashed to create it’s worst nightmares. In parks, garages, and banjars a framework appears first. The next day it has a penis or two immense breasts clinging to it’s skeleton. Every night the gamelan players whip up a frenzy of sound to cheer on the workers. They have already done a full day’s work at their real jobs, but the driving music propels them to slave feverishly on into the night, building a fiend that will storm through the streets at dusk, restoring a peaceful balance to the energy of the island.

As I turn the corner from Dewi Sita onto Jl. Hanoman I catch sight of the first ogoh-ogoh.

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Suckling pigs are used as offerings for the more auspicious Hindu ceremonies. This particular dark spirit looks hungry!

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Notice the man standing to the left. Once the framework is hoisted onto the shoulders of an army of Balinese men, these statues do battle with the utility wires that span the streets.

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This one has fuzz by his toenails. Where does the inspiration for that come from?

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Remember the breasts I mentioned? The flimsy red skirt doesn’t hide much either.

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This dude is enormous. He has to be 20 feet tall, at least.

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The mammoth boar comes complete with sound effects. It’s either a recording or a human inside who may not be able to talk again for a week!

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The attention to detail is astounding.

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This team puts on a show! They twirl thier monster, dipping and swaying. They run forward then side to side making their diabolical looking golden buddha appear to be very much alive.

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King Cobra is even more stunning after dark. His head and entire body are outlined in lights. His eyes flash red and his mouth glows green.

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This one may be my favorite, although that screeching boar is pretty awesome!

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I want a skirt like this! Not the tail, just the skirt.

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A pack of tomorrow’s leaders sport special hair in honor of Nyepi.

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“My dad’s an artist too…!”

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Ogoh-ogohs surround the field that is filled with curious onlookers. Notice the mysterious little orbs floating about. My camera does not have a dirty lens. These only seem to appear when I’m taking photos in temples or at ceremonies. ?!

By dusk the teams and their ghouls have all arrived. Now it’s time for the real cacophany to begin hearalding the march to the cemetery where ritual burning of these sinister entities will ensue. One by one the gamelan that accompanies each team plays a frenzied percussian as their group exits the field. The crowd roars its approval while the players hammer out the complex sycopations. Just when I think it can’t get any better than this, the next gamelan begins, racheting up the volume, pulling out all the stops until the roar of the crowd and the ecstatic pounding beat drowns out the memory of anything else.

It is glorious. I walk home through streets, deadly quiet, contemplating the immensity of the moment. All of that, the pageantry, the noise, the hours of preparatory labor, is a grand performance to maintain the balance between good and evil. The Balinese don’t just make offerings to the high spirits. The eve of Nyepi is meant to wake up both the benign and the malignant so they will see the abundance presented on their behalf and be at peace for another year. It feels primal, and right for this place that sits so close to the equator that dark and light, both literally and figuratively, are in balance here.

The next morning I awake to the sounds of Ibu. I shuffle, sleepy-eyed, out of the bedroom, then scurry back for my camera. She has outdone herself. The offerings on this day are heaped with fruits and flowers.

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 She piles them on top of one another, sumptuous and bountiful. She is elegant in her temple clothes, but I know she has crossed a river where there is no bridge, and walked through the jungle to bring these gifts and bless my house today.  The incense drifts lazily in fragrant swirls. There are no planes overhead, no cars or motorbikes in the streets. Bali rests like a quiet green jewel in the blue sea. Any spirits who might be looking to make mischief will assume there are no inhabitants here and pass by.

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People who spend any time here will tell you that Bali is like nowhere else in the world.  If you have any doubt, come for Nyepi and see for yourself.  I find it irresistable, and the longer I stay the harder it is to imagine life anywhere else.

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