Nyepi, Ogoh-Ogoh and the Drone

From the magical and mythical to the horrific, New Year’s Eve in Bali is a monster mash. For weeks, men of all ages have worked feverishly in community buildings, parks, and garages. First a framework appears. It morphs into a three dimensional entity that grows limbs and a head and very possibly, pendulous breasts. With artistic flair, the specter is painted, dressed, and readied for it’s debut. These are the monsters, the ogoh-ogoh, that are paraded through the streets on the night before Nyepi, to the wild accompaniment of gamelan and tumultuous cheers.

It’s a night like none other in the world, wild, ghoulish, cacophonous, and I love it! I wondered about that as I sat at a table in Sjaki-Tari-Us around 4:30. I’d gone early to secure a ringside seat with a great view of the football field, the venue that hosts the monsters’ ball.

I had promised my friends that I’d do my best to save seats for them since it’s their first Nyepi. I hadn’t been there five minutes when an aggressive gent in a blue plaid shirt laid claim to one of the empty chairs. “My friend is coming,” I said, smiling in a you’ll-get-your-hands-off-that-chair-if-you-know-what’s-good-for-you kind of way. The chair stayed, the man went away.

P1050963I slipped into a day-dreamy haze as the loudspeaker pumped reggae music through the soft hum of voices. The bright colors, the warmth, the familiarity of this town that has become my home, settled around me with a sweetness that brought a lump to my throat.

As I wallowed in the gratitude of those feelings, a different sound needled into my consciousness.

What was it, electrical wires buzzing? It had that high-pitched whine that pierces through everything else and puts your teeth on edge. It sounded foreign, it didn’t belong. Then I saw it hovering over the football field like an alien spaceship, lights flashing, propellers whirring. My friends had arrived. “What in the…what’s that?” I had spotted it first.

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They craned their necks to see what I was looking at. “It’s a drone!” Nancy said. We watched it hover, then dart to another part of the field, hover, then dart again. “It’s taking pictures.”

For a nanosecond I felt dizzy. The harsh invasion of space technology colliding with the ancient practice of Nyepi sent shock waves through my system.  An image of Balinese women, carrying buckets of sand, or concrete blocks on their heads, came to mind. Even though that stretches my definition of reality, it’s easier to accept here than a buzzing, flashing, hovering UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle).

I pulled my eyes away from the intruder and back to the teaming crowds. Then it hit me. That’s why I love it here. Bali is a study in contrasts. It has tranquil rice fields and chaotic traffic, reverent prayer and raucous cockfights, Kuta Beach and Kintamani. But tonight, on the eve of Nyepi, it has ogoh-ogoh’s and a drone.

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Black Magic

People in the West don’t pay much attention to the dark forces. Paranoia around all things paranormal runs rampant unless of course it’s vampires, or child wizards wreaking havoc with broomsticks. Those have become acceptable, even desirable in recent literature and film. In fact tales of bloodsucking teens has become a money-making machine. We can’t get enough.

In Bali the dark forces are acknowledged and maintaining balance between the negative and positive energies is a daily practice. Credence is given to blessings but perhaps even more attention is afforded the dark arts. Someone’s father is sick. A skin rash appears. A house burns down. Crops fail. Black magic, they whisper. It’s as though no other possibility exists.

When illness or tragedy strikes, a balian is consulted. There are two types of balian according to Ubud Now and Then.

Balian Ketut Arsana of Bodyworks Center in Ubud Photo credits Namaste Festival

Balian Ketut Arsana of Bodyworks Center in Ubud
Photo credits Namaste Festival

The first, known as the ‘balian taksu’, is a kind of shaman or trance medium: he goes into a trance to communicate with the spirit world, and frequently chases away unwanted influences in this way. The second, the ‘balian usada’, refers to sacred medical manuscripts, and uses massage techniques and traditional medicines made from plants and animals. He also works with a spiritual approach, drawing on intuition, visions, mantras and prayer to aid the healing process.

The article goes on to say that a visit to a balian requires sensitivity and openness to the Balinese beliefs about the spirit world and the power of the invisible. It may require a dramatic leap of faith to accept a prescribed remedy which can be unorthodox. Yet many visitors to Bali have found themselves cured by a local medicine man when no Western doctor was able to help.

Some of us can be quite comfortable with intuitive types. Their subtle seeing of things unseen, or knowing without being told, is acceptable and we seek them out for guidance. But Bali takes it a step beyond.

Sanghyang is the Balinese sacred trance. It’s a phenomenon that raised the hairs on the back of my neck when I first witnessed it. Spirit possession wasn’t an everyday occurrence in my upbringing and I was unprepared for the raw power unleashed during a Sanghyang ritual.

But for the Balinese, trance is an essential element of their belief system. Skye Laphroaig, in an article for the Bali Advertiser, says that Sanghyang is a sacred state in which hyangs (deities) or helpful spirits temporarily inhabit the bodies of willing participants. The purpose of sanghyang is to cleanse people and places of evil influences to restore spiritual balance.

An example of a Sanghyang is the spectacular fire dance. A man in trance holding a hobby horse walks back and forth through burning coconut husks in his bare feet. Again and again he circles through the fire until he is pulled to the ground by two attendants.  A priest appears and sprinkles him with holy water. The man remains immobile in an altered state for some time.

Kecak Fire and Trance Dance

Kecak Fire and Trance Dance

These productions may appear to be for tourists, but I have attended elaborate performances where I was the only non-native person there. The Balinese do this for the Balinese. They do it to maintain harmony on their beautiful island. The spiritual realm is as real and present for them as the natural and they travel fluidly between the two. They accept without question the presence of the unseen, the dark forces and the light. Their offerings, prayers, and rituals are designed to appease both.

The Balinese year ends with the granddaddy of all spirit-balancing rituals, Nyepi. This year Nyepi falls on March 31. Nyepi Eve is a ghoulish extravaganza of ogoh-ogoh monsters paraded through the streets accompanied by pounding gamelan and overwhelming chaos. The negative deities are chased away or driven crazy by the pandemonium. Then the island shuts down. The airport is closed as are all the businesses. People do not go out of their homes. The streets are empty with the exception of the Pecalang who enforce the day of silence and impose fines on offenders.

Ogoh-ogoh

Ogoh-ogoh

In the West the healing arts have become the healing sciences. Science, we believe, can fix people, animals, vegetation, rivers, and every ailing thing. Bit by bit, a more holistic mindset is allowing natural remedies to be reintroduced, suspiciously, into the mainstream. But other than prayer chains, dialed into service for an extra measure of divine intervention, the vast resources of the metaphysical realm remain untapped.

We scoff at the mystical beliefs of the uneducated. We pass judgment on primitive practices and superstitions. We’re so wise. But what if that’s the missing piece? What if it takes science, and nature, and the realm of the unseen working together, to accomplish mighty feats? What if….

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.

A Dark River

Approaching Bali, proceed with caution.

I have christened Bali the island of transformation because that’s what happens here. Like it or not, want it or not, expect it or not, it happens. Some of us come knowing, seeking that paradigm shift in our reality. We’re hungry for the energies that pass to and fro and swirl around us in this magical place. We embrace the spirituality, so different from anything we’ve known, with deep longing for the flavor of truth. But it isn’t the holy men, spectres in white, chanting, praying, and sprinkling supplicants with purifying water. And it isn’t the wild parade of ogoh-ogoh’s careening through the streets the day before Nyepi. It is far more subtle than that.

For me, it creeps into my soul like fog snakes it’s way up the Campuan River Valley at dusk.

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It settles into my cells with certainty, and like the heavy green of wet jungle, it anchors me to my life.

The Hindu beliefs practiced by the Balinese are complex beyond fathoming. When I first arrived I was determined to ‘figure it out’! I asked everyone who would talk to me about the ceremonies and the daily offerings. My head was filled with information. As my friendships here deepened, so did my understanding. A dark river flows beneath the glitter and pageantry of the temple. It is the realm of good and evil. The towering fruit offerings, intricate dances, trances and prayers, are channels of communication between earthly man and unearthly beings. The tranquility of Bali is held in balance by the ancient rituals of it’s people and prayers carried skyward on sweet clouds of incense.

The casual visitors passing through may be aware only of a sense of safety. They drink in the beauty of the landscape, the sun, the sea, and return home without a backward glance. At some day in the future they may recall their visit and a momentary calm will suffuse them. But the heart that arrives broken, the spirit that arrives parched, the mind that comes seeking, will have a different experience. The island knows. She musters her unseen armies, the dark warriors of legend and myth that manifest here, and battles are waged for those troubled souls.  

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So we of the Western mindset, logical, factual, but hardly mystical, often tend to dismiss the whole business as superstition. In our arrogance we attribute this intimate dance with the supernatural to ignorance. I am not a religious person, but I am progressively more spiritual. I have neither denied the existence of goddesses, gods, angels, and demons, nor have I accepted a patriarchal trinity. I know I have prejudices, but I can feel them melting away, yielding to mysteries that I can’t explain. Once again I am letting go, letting go, letting go of tightly held untruths, creating room in my life for magic.

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