BALINESE CULTURE

Nyepi 2018 – a very silent St.Patrick’s Day

Ash O’Neill, Wanderah Founder and Guide

28 March 2018

This March 17 wasn’t the usual St. Patrick’s Day I am accustomed to, as an Irish Londoner. On the day of Irish mayhem and frivolity I sat in silence, in Bali, the Island of the Gods.

While many parts of the world celebrated the patron saint of Ireland, in Bali it was Nyepi, a holiday you may not have heard of and probably never experienced. This was my second Nyepi in Bali and as it falls on a different date each year, it was my first Nyepi on St. Patrick’s Day.

Nyepi is the Hindu New Year’s Eve, and must be the most silent day in the world. For twenty-four hours the entire island of Bali shuts down. The Balinese are prohibited from using fire or electricity, from working or enjoying any form of entertainment — even the airport is closed. Friends here in Bali refer to Nyepi as an introvert’s dream — if that’s the case, then St. Patrick’s Day is a day for extroverts. All-day drinking and cheering on ‘the boys in green’, as they battle in the Rugby 6 nations final, are generally the order of the day; impromptu Cèilidhs of diddly-diddly tunes, with relatives kicking off their shoes and showing the youth how it’s done: picture scenes reminiscent of Kate and Leonardo in the downstairs quarters of the Titanic, and you’ll have the right idea. The Irish, known for ‘the gift of gab’ would never opt for a holiday of silence, and yet here I was, in silence on my balcony.

My neighbourhood, in silence.

Sok Waya, Ubud, Bali

My balcony overlooked the lush green rice paddies in Ubud. All I could hear were the birds chirping, the hollow sound of wind chimes in the distance and the intermittent crowing from the neighbouring roosters. I was literally and metaphorically a long way from home. This St. Patrick’s Day I experienced a lack of banter, not an ounce of craic, no festive gaiety and not a drop of the obligatory Guinness. It was a very different day but still a day spent reflecting on my culture, and while doing so, I realised there are a few similarities.

“Huge ornate characters with elaborate detailing of gloss paint, furs, cloth and glitter, dance and fight throughout the streets”

We all love a parade

A major part of St. Patrick’s Day around the world is the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Over the festive weekend floats of Irish dancers, marching bands, leprechauns and crowds of smiling green faces take to the streets in major cities and villages across the world. The night before Nyepi, similar street displays are witnessed.

Preparations for Nyepi actually begin some months prior — each local Banjar (village) makes intricate polystyrene effigies known as ‘Ogoh Ogoh’. The Ogoh Ogohs depict demons and malevolent spirits that are banished from the island over the Nyepi period. Huge ornate characters with elaborate detailing of gloss paint, furs, cloth and glitter, dance and fight throughout the streets across the island before the silence of the following day ensues. For me, the Irish marching bands were replaced by the clanging sounds of the gamelan, that build to a drum-and-bass-type frenzy, as demons spar in the streets to the cheers of villagers and tourists alike. Smoke machines and lighting lend authenticity to a magical theatrical show. This is a party the Irish would be proud of.

The Balinese charge these huge demons held aloft with bamboo rods, scores of men working together to carry the burden on their shoulders — much like the weight of the Irish nation resting on the shoulders of its rugby team.

We all have our own demons

The popular Irish myth is that St. Patrick chased the snakes out of Ireland. The Balinese have yet to get around this, but demons are high on their agenda. Before the parade the Balinese bang pots, pans and burn leaves in the family compound, to banish the negative spirits from their homes and out into the streets. Once banished, the parade takes place to entertain them and when the party’s over, their time is up! It is time for the malevolent spirits to leave the island. The Balinese believe these fun-loving, partying demons have had their entertainment and if we are all very quiet, they will look for festivities elsewhere; perhaps this year they found it in the nearest Irish pub.

An ‘Ogoh Ogoh’ towering over Ubud Soccer Field.

 

We all love a good dance

Whether it’s the Bodhrán or the Gamelan, traditional Balinese bambu or the Irish penny whistle, music and dance was embraced. During the Nyepi parade the Balinese tell tales of mythical creatures and romance through music and dance. Likewise, on St. Patrick’s Day, you are likely to witness hordes of Irish dancers and revellers breaking into song at every given opportunity, whether they can carry a note or not. Take along your instrument of choice to any Irish pub and you are guaranteed enrolment in an impromptu ‘session’. The famous quote “It ain’t over until the fat lady sings” doesn’t cut the mustard. Hell, for the Irish she’s just the beginning.

Many of us will set an intention

Nyepi aligns with the new moon, a powerful day to meditate and reflect — the Balinese use this time to set intentions for the year ahead. Certainly a contrast to the Irish celebrations, and yet the day after St. Patrick’s Day an intention was set by many Irish revellers across the world — the intention to never drink again!

This year we celebrated women

This year I was delighted to learn that both the Irish communities and the Balinese celebrated women. Nyepi also fell this year on Saraswati Day, a day the Balinese give thanks to the goddess of knowledge and wisdom. While in London, the St. Patrick’s Day parade focussed on the achievements of London’s Irish women, as part of the Mayor of London’s ‘Behind Every Great City’ Campaign.

Throughout my time in Bali I often witnessed the strength of Balinese women — their ‘can-do’ attitude and the ability to get stuck in. Women are often seen working manually, lifting heavy materials on construction sites, labouring in rice paddies, carrying heavy loads precariously on their heads. It reminds me of the powerhouse Irish women in my own family.

So on March 17 I raised a glass, not only for the Irish but also to the Balinese. While I may have missed out on the celebrations of my own country this year, I am privileged to have experienced the end of the year in Bali. I am thankful for the time it gave me to reflect on my own family and the country in which I was born. I haven’t lived in Ireland since I was a child. I do, however, know that the feeling of pride that welled up inside me on St. Patrick’s Day this year tells me that Ireland is always in my heart.

As the sun went down on Nyepi 2018 and my friends and family in other parts of the world continued to party through the night, I smiled to myself — I had no doubt they would be pretty silent the day after.

This Nyepi I was reminded of my favourite Irish joke: How many Irish mothers does it take to change a lightbulb? None. Sure, I’m grand here in the dark!

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