Free of Covid-19 restrictions, Bali marks Nyepi New Year with colour and crowds | Harcourts Purba Bali

Free of Covid-19 restrictions, Bali marks Nyepi New Year with colour and crowds

Devotees display an effigy known as Ogoh-Ogoh during a ceremony at the Prambanan temple in Sleman, Bali, on March 21, 2023. PHOTO: AFP
UPDATED MAR 21, 2023, 8:36 PM SGT

BALI – No Internet. No shopping. And no flights. On Wednesday, the Indonesian resort island of Bali will plunge itself into silent introspection as residents – locals and visitors alike – observe Nyepi, the Balinese New Year.

Bali’s I Gusti Ngurah Rai International Airport, which accommodates some 50,000 domestic and international passengers a day, said it will be closed to all but emergency air travel from the predawn hours of Wednesday until after sunrise on Thursday.

Bank Indonesia said banking services, including ATM cash withdrawals, will be suspended for 48 hours starting from midday on Tuesday. The provincial government asked broadcasters and Internet providers to power down.

Besides sending residents to get food, cash, petrol and other supplies to tide them over until sunrise on Thursday, Nyepi this year will be particularly poignant, marking the first time in four years that Balinese celebrated the holiday free from the spectre of Covid-19.

As Bali closed to tourism with the onset of the pandemic in 2020, officials banned the traditional processions and celebrations during the days leading up to the Balinese New Year, even requiring everyone to hunker down in their homes for an extra day.

“This year, we observe Nyepi without any of the restrictions we faced during the pandemic,” Mr Nyoman Kenak, chairman of the Bali chapter of the Indonesian Hindu Religious Council, told The Straits Times. “It’s a relief.”

At the weekend, Hindus in their thousands flocked to the island’s beaches to mark Melasti – a ceremonial cleansing of the stains of the universe.

On the eve of the Balinese day of silence, villages were readying “ogoh-ogoh” statues of demons inspired by Hindu mythology to parade through some of the island’s busiest localities shortly after sundown on Tuesday.

For some, this time of the year is more about the celebration than the nitty-gritty of religious details.

Arriving at a local village headquarters with fast-food takeaway, Mr I Made Sastrawan, 57, puzzled over the colossal bug-eyed female demon flashing a serpentine tongue at the entrance before admitting he was at a loss as to who the statue was meant to depict.

“I think it’s a mix of characters,” said Mr Made, who was clad in the traditional white sarong, shirt and udeng headdress.

“We’re happy we can finally have the ogoh-ogoh parade. It’s been a long time.”

This year will also be the first time in living memory that Nyepi falls on the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Muslims living far from a mosque have been asked to perform their Tarawih prayers, which mark the first day of the fasting month, at home and with limited light.

Mosques are allowed to remain open, but are required to refrain from using loudspeakers to broadcast the call to prayer.

Mr Nyoman said: “This demonstrates our religious tolerance so that one religion does not disturb the other.

“The important thing is how we can understand each other.”

In general though, Nyepi’s injunctions against work, noise and movement are strictly enforced on an island determined to protect its culture and traditions from erosion caused by the rapid return of millions of overseas tourists and from the rest of Indonesia’s population, which is roughly 90 per cent Muslim. Approximately 87 per cent of Balinese identify as Hindus.

Dozens of foreign nationals have been deported since the beginning of 2023 on suspicion of working illegally, driving without legal permits, and even engaging in paid sex work, police have said.

As sunset approached on Tuesday, streets were nearly clear of traffic and a palpable sense of excitement set in.

After sunset, Ms Made Asti, 34, planned to do the rounds of the traditional village headquarters – known as Banjar – to marvel at the ogoh-ogoh statues before their parade through the streets.

“The most exciting thing about Nyepi for me is seeing the ogoh-ogoh with my family,” the mother of one told ST.

In previous years, pandemic restrictions limited the extent to which villages could commingle.

Before the pandemic, parades were rowdy affairs as young men bearing ogoh-ogoh statues pantomimed clashes between their respective demons.

For her three-year-old son, this year’s parade promises to be his biggest one yet, Ms Made told ST.

“This year is so much happier now that Covid-19 is over,” she said.


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