Celebrating Nyepi, the Balinese New Year

The big day has come when I will discover what it’s like to celebrate the Balinese New Year with a local family. Before I get to the village of Jasan where Styawan, my new Balinese friend, is waiting for me, I ask the staff at my guesthouse what I should bring as a gift.

They tell me « something sweet and fruit ». They make several suggestions, such as getting a tiramisu (by the looks in the shops, it definitely looks like an Indonesian take on the tiramisu, not the real deal) and something called « pastel » which is a sort of enchilada filled with pork meat.

I decide to go for something a bit different. I find the only French bakery in Ubud (called Monsieur Spoon) and buy small French pastries such as lemon tarts, caramel tarts, eclairs and croissants, hoping their taste buds will appreciate. After a fantastic morning yoga class and a scrumptious breakfast at the Yoga Barn, I’m finally off, biking my way to Jasan. It’s almost noon.

Cock fighting, a Balinese specialty

When I arrive at the meeting point, a rare show awaits me: a cock fighting competition is in full swing among the older men of the village. There’s already a dead rooster on the side, bleeding from the neck, and several are being taken out of oval straw boxes for the next fight.

There’s a man collecting the bids, and when that is done, 2 or 3 cocks are placed with their owners in the middle of the arena. The owners try to make their cocks really angry by ruffling their neck feathers and pushing them hard against their adversary, but to be honest, in 10 minutes of watching, I haven’t really seen anything dangerous or deadly. I have read that cocks eat beef meat (since Hindus on Bali can’t eat it) and that this makes them more aggressive. I guess that’s for those villagers who can afford to give them meat to eat…

One thing I notice with the locals is that they are always very open and friendly about having a stranger intrude into their daily routines. I politely ask if I can take pictures, and everyone is quite happy and even proud to show off their cocks (no pun intended :-)). No one is wondering what a single lady is doing there, and no one seems to be complaining.

Inside a Balinese farmer’s home

Next, Styawan takes me to his home. Balinese villages are always built in a similar fashion. The main road is where the official entrance of a house, which will usually have a beautiful stone entrance and lead either directly through a family temple or be built next to the family temple. The backstreet, a parallel street to the main road, is where people actually get into their homes. It’s much less fancy and more practical.

Styawan’s family compound is composed of 4 homes which surround a family temple. His great-grand-mother, is grandmother, his aunt and uncle and his parents live in this compound. While the houses are nothing special and not built with care, the temples are always immaculately clean and beautifully constructed. It’s part of « sukle », the Balinese concept of holy cleanliness, by which anything sacred or pure needs to be perfectly clean and separated from anything impure. According to expats I’ve met in Bali who are married to locals, it explains why temples and sacred places are kept so clean, while Balinese toilets and kitchens would make us Westerners pretty uncomfortable with regard to hygiene.

This also explains why Balinese men will ask women out of the blue whether they are menstruating or not. If you are you cannot go into a temple, as you are impure, but contrary to other religious practices, this is not sexist because if a man cut himself and is bleeding, he too will not be able to enter a temple.

Styawan’s parents give me a warm welcome, made me sit on a little daybed on their porch and feed me with ceremonial food, the food that goes into the beautiful offerings Balinese make. They are practical (and often poor) people and will of course repurpose the offerings into proper food once they have been made in good faith to the Gods. I get to drink a very good albeit very sweet tea and snack on rice and pepes, spicy pork meat wrapped in a banana leaf, together with spicy puffed rice crisps. Yummy! I meet Styawan’s little brother, who is the same age as my son, and all his extended family. Apart from him, no one speaks English. We get to visit the temple and then, I am dressed up as a Balinese lady with a sarong I brought (which is a man’s sarong, but I love it so much I didn’t want to change it) and a lace shirt that I borrow from Styawan’s mom. And off we go to the temple with our hands full of offerings, mostly flowers and nice decorations made out of palm leaves.

Nyepi temple ceremony and Ogoh Ogoh parade

At the temple we sit in the back because the main building of the temple is already packed. I like it that men and women sit together, that kids roam more or less freely. There is a friendly and welcoming atmosphere, and although I am the only foreigner, I don’t feel excluded.

I learn the intricate gestures one does for praying, trying to remember in case I go to a temple again during my stay. I receive the holy water, and then we all wait for the first ones to stand up until it’s our turn. There is an order and a specific ritual for every aspect of temple life. It looks complicated, but not pompous. The fruit pyramids look delicious and tempting 🙂

We head back home to change clothes, as temple clothes can only be worn for holy activities, and I receive my very own local village t-shirt to join the crowds. I’m appointed by the gang of youngsters my host belongs to as their official photographer and make friends with the guy who likes to make videos. Then we are off to watch the parade.

The main road is blocked by almost 20 giant status of Gods and demons, with a couple of Rangda witches in the middle. I follow the parade for almost 2 hours, taking lots of pictures. The parade ends with dances performed by several groups of young girls and boys. This is followed by a play about Good and Evil, that’s as far as I got in understanding the plot. Something odd happens though at the end: although normally Good wins over Evil, this time to spice things up a bit, the bad guy wins and all the crowd is screaming with joy and excitement.

I head back home at around 8pm, when everything is already in the dark, and come across a couple more parades along the way.

What a day, one I will always remember!

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