Before the pandemic hit, it had been pretty busy here in Bali, what with all the spirits in town.
Bali is so much more than the tropical paradise you see on Instagram. It’s rich culture and traditional values set it apart from its 17,000 plus sister islands.
The majority of Balinese are deeply religious and follow a form of Hinduism known as Balinese Hinduism. I’m not going to pretend to understand or even know the differences between regular Hinduism and Balinese Hinduism but according to our gardener Pak Ketut, who himself is a devout Bali Hindu, “its a lot more work”. They pray. A lot. Three times a day – 6am, midday and 6pm. From our home, we can hear the dawn call to prayer from the pura (temple) just up the road in the village. It’s similar to the muslim call to prayer in that it features chanting but its accompanied by the sound of the gamelan (traditional Balinese percussion instruments) and this, together with birdsong and crickets, forms our morning soundtrack. The sun almost always rises here around 6am, 365 days a year and the call to prayer is a daily occurrence. My son almost always rises in a bad mood around 6am so if I’m going to be woken at dawn I don’t mind that the temple beats him to it. Chanting is preferable to him moaning.
Most days you can’t go anywhere in Bali without witnessing or being stopped in your tracks by some kind of upacara (ceremony) or village gathering for praying. I admit, when I’m in a rush it can be a pain in the proverbial but mostly, I enjoy the little glimpses into the culture of the island we have chosen as our home. Its not our island, we are the guests here and its important that everyone, tourists and expats, respect the culture and traditions of the local people and the last couple of months have been a busy one in the calendar of cultural events.
February gave us Kuningan and Galungan. Kuningan is the day that marks the end of one of Bali’s most important religious holidays, Galungan – a time when the ancestral spirits of deceased relatives visit the earth. Like Easter and Ramadan, the date of the celebration changes every year and this year it fell on February 19th. The date of Galungan is determined by the 210 day Balinese calendar and it always begins on the Wednesday of Dunggulan, the 11th week in the calendar and Kuningan is 10 days after.
Large bamboo poles with offerings at their tips, called penjor, are placed outside each home and line the streets much like Christmas decorations in the west. Pak Ketut and Ibu (the lovely couple that work in our home) place offerings every day around the house and garden as gifts of gratitude for peace and as supplication to lower spirits to not disturb the living. The offerings, or canang sari, are little hand woven baskets made from coconut leaves and filled with fresh flowers, rice, fruit, sweets etc as gifts to the gods, topped off with a burning incense stick to send it all up to heaven. But for Galungan and Kuningan, they pimp them up and the offerings get bigger and more elaborate. And I have a much harder time stopping the dog from eating them. Just the other day I caught Hardin giving Arlo a treat that the cheeky monster claimed to have ‘found’. It was a chocolate from one of the offerings upstairs! God knows how we haven’t had a demon at the door! But apparently once the incense stops burning the offering returns to being an earthly object and I assume the gods have no issues with hungry toddlers and dogs eating their treats…or at least I hope not.
March 25th brought us Nyepi. On this day, Balinese Hindu’s connect more deeply with God through prayer, fasting and meditation. This day is strictly reserved for self-reflection to evaluate personal values such as love, truth, patience, kindness, and generosity and anything that might interfere with that purpose is strictly prohibited. It’s known as a ‘day of silence’. Mum’s everywhere be like ‘sign me up!’ except you’re gonna wanna read the small print on this one as this silence is based on four precepts:
Amati Geni: No fire or light, including no electricity and the prohibition of satisfying pleasurable human appetites.
Amati Karya: No form of physical working other than that which is dedicated to spiritual cleansing and renewal.
Amati Lelunganan: No movement or travelling.
Amati Lelanguan: Fasting and no revelry/self-entertainment or general merrymaking.
While some degree of flexibility is permitted to foreigners (you don’t need to fast for example) you must still remain at home (even the airport closes), with no wifi, tv or noise making technology of any kind and no lights, even once darkness falls. And don’t think you’re getting around it because the pecalang (village security) patrol the streets to make sure everyone is playing ball. So basically what this translates as is a day at home with two kids, no YouTube Postman Pat babysitting services (damn I missed that goody two shoes yorkshire postie!), lots of almost shouting and then hissing under your breath at your toddler to keep the noise down and a lot more biting your tongue while quietly trying to ‘sshh’ a screaming baby at 9pm in the pitch black after stubbing your toe on the cot in your haste to get to said screaming baby. But in all honesty it was actually quite a nice day and even nicer night under the stars since we stocked up on our favourite booze – Cappy (Morgan Spiced) for the hubs and Bombay Sapphire for me – a tactic we have also employed to get us through the current lockdown period!
Nyepi is the third day in what is actually a six day festival. The day before Nyepi (day 2), is for Bhuta Yajna, a village ritual involving sacrifices of chickens, ducks or pigs followed by the evening spectacle of the Ogoh Ogoh parade. Massive handmade demonic statues, up to 8 metres tall, are carried on bamboo grids through the streets accompanied by a deafening mix of traditional bells, klaxons and gamelan music to scare away evil spirits by making as much noise as humanly possible. But it was cancelled this year due to the social distancing measures in place to tackle the covid19 pandemic but as far as I know, the first day of the festival known as Melasti, a ritual to collect sacred water from the sea, still went ahead in some temples by the beach in places such as Seminyak, although we didn’t see it obvs, as we were social distancing. The fourth day is spent in meditation (the Yoga Brata ritual) and the fifth day is essentially New Years Day, known as Ngembak Agni, and is the day families and neighbours visit each other to exchange forgiveness. This is also the day of Omed-Omedan, aka the Kissing Ritual, in celebration of the New Year. But again the Balinese Government put the brakes on both these activities this year in light of the pandemic. Apparently, a traditional village day of Nyepi can be practiced at any time of year if it’s needed spiritually and a second Nyepi on the 18, 19 and 20th of April has been discussed to accelerate the elimination of coronavirus on the island. The limitations on technology and lighting etc would be relaxed but if it goes ahead, which at the time of writing this is yet to be confirmed, the entire population of Bali, but specifically those living in traditional villages, would be asked to stay at home for these three days to complement the physical and spiritual aspects of the cosmos to hasten the end of the threat of covid19. It is their belief that praying will protect us and this island. Now considering that Bali lies to the north of a major fault line, is home to two active volcanos and hasn’t fallen foul of either one for a very long time, they might be on to something. Especially when you consider that an earthquake a few years back caused serious damage to neighbouring Lombok and left Bali largely untouched. I’m just gonna leave that there.
To many outsiders this might seem like a lot of bollocks but while I’m not religious in any way, I do have a healthy respect for that which I can’t explain. Bali isn’t known as the Island of Gods for nothing. I’ve always been open minded about this kind of thing while simultaneously never really thinking on it too much but it is hard not to get carried along in their faith in the divine and the old magic that exists here. Long before I lived in Bali, I’ve seen and experienced things myself that have left me wondering. And when Pak Ketut and Ibu first started working for us and praying for us with the offerings each day, I asked Ibu ‘why’ and one of the things she said was that it’s to keep us, our home and our children healthy and safe from bad spirits. So far it seems to be working so maybe she’ll make a believer out of me, although quick story before I go. Last week, I was finishing putting the kids to bed when something heavy pushed so hard on the bedroom door it budged in the door frame. It’s usually Marley and I even muttered ‘fuck sake Marley’ before immediately going to the door to let her in. But when I opened it, no one was there. I looked in the upstairs rooms and terrace for the source of the disturbance – still nothing – then I came downstairs to find Marley lying on the floor, half asleep, watching Hardin workout and he said she hadn’t moved. He grew up in Indonesia and isn’t a stranger to weird goings on so I told him what happened and he proceeded to walk about the house, muttering in Indonesian that our family is not to be touched. That night I slept with the baby monitor on and the next morning I told Pak Ketut. He now places a canang sari in the hallway outside our bedroom and I sleep like a baby…