One night a year, in March or April, a four-million-people island goes completely silent and dark to align human and natural spirituality.
What is Nyepi?
After the dark moon of the spring equinox, Hindus, and non-religious Indonesians, pause for a day of prayer, fasting, and meditation to connect deeply with their Hindu God (Hewing Widi Wasa). As a public holiday, most Balinese participate in the tradition even though it has links to Hinduism. During the festival, the people of Bali wash away the wrongdoings of the previous year and enter the new year with a 'clean slate'.
The spiritual components of the Balinese New Year
In Hindu folklore, the island must first expel the negative forces that brewed through the previous year. To kickstart the process, the Balinese participate in parades where evil spirits are burned the day before Nyepi.
To prepare for the parade, Balinese artists start making the symbolic evil spirit (Ogoh-Ogoh) that will be burned at least two months before. In a procession that usually occurs at sunset between 5-6 pm on a preceding day, Balinese men and boys carry statues up to 25 feet tall, with the assistance of bamboo grids, and parade through the streets accompanied by noise and gamelan music and drums, and kulkul (traditional bamboo bells).
Whilst the largest parades tend to occur in the larger cities of Kuta, Nusa Dua, and Sanur, smaller villages usually make at least one spectacular Ogoh-Ogoh to cleanse their local streets before the silent day. The intention behind the procession is to expel the symbolised negative forces. The basic idea is to ward off evil spirits by making unbearable amounts of noise as humanly possible.
The day of Nyepi (the ‘Silent Day’)
On the third day of the celebrations, the entire island goes dark and silent. Everyone is required to stay at home, turn their lights off, and remain quiet to ensure they do not disturb the cleansing process.
The day expects a day of silence, based on the precepts of the Cater Brata.
Following Amati Geni, no fire, light, or electricity is allowed. In addition, the Balinese and tourists alike are forbidden from satisfying their pleasures on this day.
Amati Karya requires no physical activity except spiritual cleansing and renewing of the self. According to Amati Lelunganan, there should be no movement or travel outside the home. Lelanguan teaches that revelry, self-entertainment, and pleasures are forbidden on the day.
After the symbolic sacrifice of spirits at the Ogoh-Ogoh parade, Batara Kalan (the underworld god) purifies the island in his city. Unlucky humans, according to the Balinese, will be consumed by Batara Kala during this process. Rather than taking the absorbed dark energies back to the underworld, the son of Shiva diverts them into their souls if they interrupt the process.
In short - the island is closed off for a day. Apart from hospitals, which stay open to treat people with life-threatening conditions and women in labour, everything becomes still. Throughout the island, local guards called Pecalang (Nyepi police) roam the streets to ensure that everyone respects traditional practices.
Detecting religion from space
In addition to Nyepi's spiritual magic, the island has a uniqueness that is rarely seen anywhere else.
Underwater, Bali's silence is audible. During the 2018 religious holiday, oceanographers discovered that anthropogenic noise dropped by six decibels, significantly reducing whale stress levels.
Using NASA’s Black Marble nighttime lights product suite, in 2019 scientists discovered that total radiance on the island declined close to 100% during Nyepi. As the first religious demonstration detected from space, this is especially significant. Moreover, local greenhouse gas emissions decreased by 33%.
For NASA scientists, this discovery serves as a step forward in their research of the effects of light pollution and improves their understanding of the relationship between human systems and the environment.
The surprising benefits of silence
Nyepi offers more than just astronomical wonders, it is also a day of reflection for mental, physical, and emotional wellness.
With most internet providers switching their services off during the 24 hours, it means that most Balinese and tourists are free from the stresses of life, giving them a chance to fully immerse themselves in the beauty of silence and stillness for a day.
UK National Day of Reflection
For the past three years, Nyepi has coincided with the UK National Day of Reflection. This is dedicated to paying tribute to those affected by COVID-19, and healthcare workers who united to keep the country safe. As communities, organisations, and schools came together to support each other through grief, thousands took part in the national day spearheaded by Marie Curie.
Within this discussion of the spiritual and physical benefits of a day of silence in Bali, it may be time for the UK to take note and implement a day of meditation and well-being.
Studies have shown that periods of silence and calm can stimulate brain growth and relieve tension, resulting in a higher sense of well-being. As most British people live in urban areas, a day of silence may provide an opportunity to reflect on their mental health, remember those affected by COVID-19, and set an intention to let go of the past.