Time for the Festive Season
Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia, 2009-03-30 12:00 by Martin
During the month of March Bali comes alive with festivities as the Balinese celebrate the holidays of Galungan, Nyepi (Balinese New Year) and Kuningan. Galungan occurs every 210 days and lasts for 10 days. Kuningan is the last day of this holiday. Galungan means "When the Dharma is winning." During this holiday the Balinese gods visit the Earth and then they leave again on Kuningan.
Galungan marks the beginning of the most important recurring religious ceremony that is celebrated by all Balinese. During the Galungan period the deified ancestors of the family descend to their former homes. They must be suitably entertained and welcomed, and prayers and offerings must be made for them. The owner of the house we have rented called because they wished to come and pray in the house, it turned out eventually that they couldn’t come. But we tried our best ourselves and bought offerings to place in the house temples and at the entrance to the house, we don’t want angry ghost running around all over the place! :-)
Although Galungan falls on a Wednesday, most Balinese will begin their Galungan 'holiday' the day before, where the family is seen to be busily preparing offerings and cooking for the next day. The women of the household have been busy for days before creating beautifully woven 'banten' (offerings made from young coconut fronds). A long bamboo pole, or 'penjor', is made to decorate the entrance to the family compound. By late Tuesday afternoon all over Bali the visitor can see these decorative poles creating a very festive atmosphere in the street.

On Wednesday, the day of Galungan, one will find that most Balinese will try to return to their own ancestral home at some stage during the day, even if they work in another part of the island. This is a very special day for families, where offerings are made to God and to the family ancestors who have come back to rest at this time in their family temple. As well as the family temple, visits are made to the village temple with offerings as well, and to the homes of other families who may have helped the family in some way over the past six months.
The day after Galungan is a time for a vacation day, visiting friends, maybe taking the opportunity to head for the mountains for a picnic. Everyone still seems to be in their 'Sunday best' as they take to the streets to enjoy the festive spirit that Galungan brings to Bali.
Between Galungan and Kuningan many ceremonies and festivals are held, which we enjoyed to the fullest. The first event is the Melasti Ceremoni, where holy images and symbols from every temple are paraded to the nearest beach or river. Here the symbols are bathed in water so as to cleanse them and prepare them for the festive times ahead. Big processions of worshippers block the street while walking the sometimes many kilometer journey from temple to sea. Colorful umbrellas, beautiful kebayas, loud drumming music and a cheerful spirit make the spectacle a joyful sight. We were lucky enough to bump in to one of these processions on our way home from the airport (coming home from Flores a day to late, and thereby missing the bathing action at the beaches), and when we jumped of the motorbike to take a few pictures, young and old were smiling, laughing and acting out (the latter mostly the young) for us to take a picture of them. Jumping on the motorbike again, we were headed the same way as the procession, but were forced to drive in walking speed for quite a while (together with a lot of other traffic), because the procession was taken up the entire road – only when they turned into a small street leading to the nearby temple, was the traffic again able to flow. It is so great that there is plenty of time for stuff like that here in Bali, no one minded that they had to wait behind the procession for 15 minutes, we are really enjoying the relaxed attitude down here – it is contagious.

Two days after the Melasti ceremony another important ceremony was held at Puputan square in Denpasar (Tawur Agung Kesanga). Being a ceremony dedicated to nature instead of to the gods, it is held on the square (which is rather a park) instead of on temple grounds. Offerings of the usual Balinese kinds were made in huge numbers and praying and blessings were made and given. We were again invited to pray with the locals and sat down in the merciless midday sun – we got to sweat a lot, as the praying took a lot longer than we had experienced before. Again it was the feeling of being welcomed and included, together with the air of holiness but cheerfulness, that made another great day. We met a really nice journalist/teacher who was doing a piece on the development of fashion in traditional clothes. We had before talked about this very subject ourselves, as it is evident that the Balinese give tremendous fashion statements when dressing up for ceremonies. Young women dress hip and somewhat sexy, wearing their sarongs in different stylish ways and having the latest trend in kebayas. Especially see-through lace-like fabrics in bright colors are the latest hit, using only a tight corset-like top underneath it can look rather revealing, yet elegant and very beautiful. (The see-through fabrics are apparently not actually allowed, but fashion seems to have overruled this traditional restriction.) Guys wear their sarongs knee length and often they sport sunglasses and cool shirts instead of a plain white one. Despite the trends everything looks so traditional for the first time visitor, but when looking closer (and dressing up in the traditional outfits yourself) you can easily see that there is more that meets the eye.

Left: Praying in the relentless sun at Pupetan square
Right: Girls in kebayas

In the evening, on the same day as the Pupetan Square ceremony, which is also the evening before Nyepi (more on that later), it is tradition to have huge parades with dance, music and general merrymaking. The most fascinating part however is the Ogoh-ogohs. Ogoh Ogoh monsters are colourful monster sculptures, which are made from bamboo frames and paper mache. They are made in the form of creatures of the underworld known in Balinese as buta-kala. The creatures are based on characters taken from traditional myths and legends, however in modern times many also take the form of modern characters, including even people in the media or in the government. They are mainly built by the youngsters of the villages and kampungs, but also by more professionals and even political parties. In the evening, all traffic is blocked and the Ogoh-Ogoh monsters are paraded around near the main intersections and finally burned in the evening to drive away evil spirits.
It’s almost like carnival processions in other countries. The kids can stay up long and carry ‘their’ Ogoh-Ogoh around. It’s like a beauty competition on who created the most colourful, funny or scary monster. Of course everyone is proud of their creation and the whole proceedings are very noisy and with plenty of drum sound and screaming and laughing.

Unfortunately the Ogoh-Ogoh tradition has been infiltrated by politics, where the political parties compete with each other in making the most splendid Ogoh-ogoh and thereby hoping to gain voters by showing of their skills. Because of the near coming general elections, Ogoh-Ogoh parades had been banned this year, with only one official and controlled one taking place in Kuta. Kuta was packed with children and adults waiting for the parade, but still everyone was behaving and the air was one of festivities. The parade started once dusk fell and dancers, musicians and children of all ages joined the parade, lifting their Ogoh-Ogohs high. The younger children looked so proud of their involvement in the parade, while the teenagers were fooling around and trying to look cool as could be expected. Many of the Ogoh-Ogohs looked very professional and had light and smoke installations, and even though we didn’t stay until the end of the parade, we were quite sure not all of them got burned. Picture opportunities were many, with the young women and men beautifully dressed up like kings, queens, demons and witches, the many Ogoh-Ogoh’s and the usual Balinese interest in being taken a picture of.

On our way home from Kuta we ran in to an unofficial and more impulsive looking Ogoh-ogoh parade, with many children, home-made looking monsters and less perfect costumes – the parade might look less impressive, but the originality and spirit was no less magnificent. A group of children were even carrying a fearsome looking Sponge-Bob Square-Pants Ogoh-Ogoh! We learned that many such small Ogoh-Ogoh parades had broken out all over Denpasar, and probably entire Bali, with the condolence of the local police and heads-of-villages. It was uplifting that the Balinese feel that it is their right to follow their traditions despite political issues and that such a joyful event continue anyway.

Nyepi is a Balinese "Day of Silence" that falls on Bali's Lunar New Year (March 26, 2009). The Balinese celebrate their New Year in a completely different manner than we do in the West. In Bali it is a day of silence, fasting, and meditation. Observed from 6 a.m. until 6 a.m. the next morning, Nyepi is a day reserved for self-reflection and as such, anything that might interfere with that purpose is restricted. The main restrictions are: no lighting fires (and lights must be kept low); no working; no entertainment or pleasure; no traveling; and for some, no talking or eating at all. The effect of these prohibitions is that Bali’s usually bustling streets and roads are empty, there is little or no noise from TVs and radios, and few signs of activity are seen even inside homes. The only people to be seen outdoors are the Pecalang, traditional security men who patrol the streets to ensure the prohibitions are being followed.
Although Nyepi is primarily a Hindu holiday, non-Hindu residents of Bali observe the day of silence as well, out of respect for their fellow citizens. Even tourists are not exempt; although free to do as they wish inside their hotels, no one is allowed onto the beaches or streets, and the only airport in Bali remains closed for the entire day. The only exceptions granted are for emergency vehicles carrying those with life-threatening conditions and women about to give birth.
We, as everyone else, were confined to our house for the entire day, but had stockpiled food, snacks and DVD movies to last us at least two days :-) As many others (especially the young and non-Hindus) we spend the day watching movies, reading a book, using our computer and relaxing. As non-Hindus we also do not have to keep all lights out and can cook using gas, as long as it is not clearly visible from the street and doesn’t make too much noise. Still it was kind of a long day, mostly because you were aware that leaving the house was not an option, making it so much more desirable.

A couple of days after Nyepi more ceremonies were held at the temple on Serangan Island. This temple is especially holy because it is the temple on Bali closest to neighboring Lembongan and Penida Island, which are thought to be the home of many evil spirits and black magic. The otherwise silent island was a bustle of worshippers, food stalls, small shops and other fairground items, with so many people coming to pray at the temple that we gave up on getting in there altogether. We walked around looking at the crowds, had dinner and were, as usual, looked at and smiled to; another great temple/fairground evening.