The best way to get rid of evil spirits in Bali, it seems, is to encourage them to visit your idyllic island, and then summarily hide from them. But my hiding skills could use some work: At the moment I’ve got a hairy beast with flaming-red skin, bulging eyes and fangs looming over me. I’ve been in Bali for a week, bouncing between beach-induced apathy and complete immersion in the island’s wildly exotic core. I’m surrounded by these malevolent-looking papier-mâché and bamboo effigies (called ogoh-ogohs) in the town of Ubud, Bali’s spiritual and cultural heart.
If you envision an idealized Bali, your fantasy will manifest itself in Ubud, with its terraced rice fields and lush river-hewn and vine-choked landscapes. The intricate architecture of the village buildings, ancient temples and expansive palaces seems carved from the ether of imagination.
The people are devout Hindus and are always preoccupied by an endless procession of odalan, or holy days, such as the ritual purification of the island, which helps prepare for the New Year. Required tasks include cleansing sacred statues and symbols with water and, of course, the expulsion of demons, like the one currently looming over my head. I glare up at its fang-filled mouth. I’m here to do my bit for my fellow man.
At sunset on the day of Tawur Kesanga, which is the day before the Balinese New Year (Nyepi), these ogoh-ogohs are paraded through towns throughout Bali to a main square or crossroads. In case you’re not up on your evil-spirit lore, these places are where the wicked minions gather. The ogohs are kept under wraps until sunset, when the men and boys of the town, who built these symbolic beasts, carry them through the streets.
We hear them long before we see them. The ogohs are heralded with wild torrents of raucous timpani-centered music coming from traditional gong bands, pots and pans — whatever can be found to frighten away resident demons and to attract passing ones (this ceremony is a flytrap of sorts for passing demons). The sound seems a living thing, its cacophonous tendrils reaching down alleyways and swirling around temples as it precedes the ogohs. I feel a carnival-mob mentality begin to take root, rippling down the sidewalk from person to person. We start to bang on things and shout the demons out.
The ogohs emerge straight from the badlands of human imagination. Eyes protrude threateningly; saber-like fangs jut out from intimidating mouths; creepy hair, feathers and wildly colored skin give the figures a fierce and daunting aspect. I watch as several fiendish-looking ogohs pass, held aloft on bamboo platforms and surrounded by torches. It’s as if they’ve been carved from the nether regions of the Balinese religion. As I get swept up in this cavalcade, I imagine myself high above the island seeing similar fiery, torch-lit streaks winding serpent-like across the landscape, chased by gangs with gongs.
The ceremony ends when the ogohs are set on fire with the torches. The dizzying, madcap mix of noise, flames and music is supposed to exorcise the demons. At midnight, Nyepi begins and the island closes down. It’s a welcome relief. Breezes and crickets replace the music. No one is allowed to shout. Driving is prohibited. Locals must stay in their homes, tourists in their hotels. Lights are dimmed and no one works. You can’t fly in or out of Bali. Lovemaking is banned as well. This is, in part, to hide from any evil spirits that might be tempted to come back … or from those attracted to clamor. If spirits do come by on this day of enforced silence, they’ll see that nothing is going on, that there’s no havoc to wreak. They’ll get bored and go off to Java or Lombok or Detroit. Let them deal with the ogohs. I plan to lounge around my silent hotel and read a book so I can avoid all temptation. Thirty hours after the midnight start of Nyepi, Bali gets back to its usual idyllic state, thankfully free of demons.
Plan Your Trip!
Why Here? Bali’s unique intact Hindu culture, with its seemingly endless pageant of sacred ceremonies and rituals, plays out right before your eyes.
Why Now? Ring in the Hindu New Year and do your global citizen good deed to help rid the island of demons and evil spirits. This year the Ogoh-Ogoh Festival will occur on March 30, followed at midnight by Nyepi, the day of silence and stillness that begins the New Year.
Where to Go? Kuta and Denpasar have the greatest number of ogohs, and every village across the island will have some kind of ogoh carnival, but the town of Ubud offers the best cultural experience both before and after the event. Stay at the world-renowned Amandari resort (amandari.com) or Ubud Hanging Gardens hotel (pansea.com/eng/ubud_infor.html).
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