Thu, 30 Mar 2000

Nyepi celebration changing with the times

By Degung Santikarma

DENPASAR, Bali (JP): Last week, I received a strange visit. The guests were familiar: a gang of neighborhood kids, ranging in age from five to twelve.

It was the purpose of their visit and its formal quality that was unusual, for they were not there to yell for my daughter to come out to play, to ask to borrow a badminton racquet or to beg unsuccessfully for the keys to the motorbike.

Dressed in their best clothes, their expressions a mix of eagerness and seriousness, they were there to present me with a list.

This document, a handwritten account on flimsy paper ripped from a school notebook, contained the names of everyone in our neighborhood who had contributed to their cause: the building of an ogoh-ogoh (huge doll) to celebrate the upcoming holiday of Nyepi (the Hindu day of Silence). They waited in restless expectation as I scanned it, and broke into happy shouts of "thank you, Uncle!" when I handed over my donation.

But before they could escape, I cornered them with a few questions. "What kind of ogoh-ogoh are you making?" I asked.

"Haven't you seen the one they're working on in the village meeting hall?"

"Of course," they replied, but that wasn't exactly what they had in mind.

The elaborate construction made of wood, paper and paint, three times the height of a human being, that the village youth organization was busy coating with final brushes of color, was, according to my young informants, "a grown-ups' ogoh-ogoh".

The village ogoh-ogoh, in the shape of a huge demon with cruel teeth and claws, carrying a fiercely pointed spear, would be paraded through the main streets the day before Nyepi, as a way of warding off evil and leaving the universe cleansed for the Balinese New Year.

No, what they wanted to create was an ogoh-ogoh of their own, one they could carry down the narrow lanes and dirt trails that made up their small world, one less heavy with cosmic and cultural significance.

"We'll make a Mickey Mouse!" one of them cried. "No, we'll make a Hello Kitty!" his sister countered. "No, we'll make a Mak Lampir! She's the scariest of them all!" another one concluded, referring to the television witch whose green face and evil cackle enchanted them into staying up long past their bedtime.

It sounded like such a good plan that I asked them why they did not take their creation out into the main streets with all the other ogoh-ogoh from around town. "Oh no," they replied, "if we did that we'd get yelled at by the village head. Cartoon ogoh- ogoh aren't part of the real Balinese culture."

A generation ago, my young friends' plan might not have been such a problem. Back then, Nyepi was thought of as a time when the order of everyday life was suspended. With Balinese banned from working, traveling, eating, drinking or kindling lamps, it was a day to relax, to gossip, to play cards, or to sit and pick lice out of each other's hair. Children would roam freely through the streets, liberated from their chores, and groups of teens would occupy the roadways, napping and stretching without any cars or bikes to bother them.

Romances were kindled in the dark of the night, under the bright shine of the stars, and ogoh-ogoh of varied shapes battled each other at the village boundaries. The philosophical purpose of Nyepi, to control one's physical desires through meditation, was the esoteric domain of the elders and the priests, who had reached a more enlightened state of being.

But in 1983, Nyepi was made an Indonesian national holiday. And in the years since then, the "Balinese identity" has become a hotly contested concept as Bali becomes an increasingly modern and plural place.

With the island occupied not only by the Balinese, but by Jakarta bureaucrats, foreign tourists, and migrants from other islands, Nyepi has become not just a religious event, but an opportunity to assert an ethnic pride and an official model of traditional Balinese culture.

In recent years, the Hindu arm of the State Department of Religious Affairs (Parisadha Hindu Dharma Indonesia), has become more closely involved in planning and monitoring Nyepi activities.

The state-sponsored taur kesanga (sacrificial ritual) held to placate the demons the day before Nyepi, has expanded over the years from one ritual for the entire province to rituals for each regency to rituals in each hamlet and village, spreading an official ideology of the holiday with it.

This religious bureaucracy is now responsible for issuing formal "Nyepi dispensations," allowing hospitals and ambulances to continue operations, and for deciding, for the first time ever, to close Bali's airport to the outside world.

As my young friends' fears demonstrated, even the parades of ogoh-ogoh -- previously the most carnival-like aspect of the holiday -- had now become subject to official control, with all ogoh-ogoh expected to conform to a "correct" Balinese model and to be paraded down preassigned routes.

Nyepi patrols now roamed villages, fining those who violated the silence or even pelting rocks at houses where lamps were lit. Where Nyepi was once devoted to cultivating self-control and freeing one's mind from negative emotions, it had now become an exercise in cultural discipline, and an occasion for ethnic tensions to be resolved -- at least for one day -- by the rule of law and the threat of violence.

And Nyepi has also become, for some, commercialized as well. Most of Bali's luxury hotels are now offering Nyepi packages, catering to electricity-addicted expatriates as well as to those upper-middle class Balinese for whom a day without modern conveniences poses a severe threat to their spiritual well-being. For a few million rupiah, these guests can experience Nyepi's tranquility while still enjoying five-star service and freshly prepared meals. One of my neighbors -- the father of the Mickey Mouse fan -- is among those who have concluded that this is the best way to go.

"We can celebrate Nyepi together as a family without worrying about our children crying when the lights are turned off or the video games unplugged. My wife can take a break from cooking and cleaning, and we don't have to worry about being shouted at by the patrol. And if we want to pray and meditate, well, we can just do that in the hotel room."

With no recourse to the low-key Nyepi of the past, the luxurious Nyepi becomes, for a lucky few, an ironic answer to the contested politics of contemporary Balinese culture.