Deeper Meaning of
Balinese New Year
6 days of celebrations based on the Balinese Calendar and rooted in the Hindu traditions
The New Year Celebrations in Bali – The Saka Calendar
The Hindu New Year, based on the Saka calendar, which is also used in India and Nepal . The Saka calendar is the traditional Hindu calendar used in Bali and is named after the Saka Era, which began in 78 AD. The Saka calendar has twelve lunar months and 354 or 355 days in a year. The New Year in the Saka calendar, known as Nyepi, typically falls in March or April based on the Gregorian calendar. The exact date of Nyepi changes each year and is determined by astrological calculations. The Saka calendar is still widely used in Bali for cultural, religious, and social events and to determine when certain ceremonies such as cremations and weddings should be held.
It all kicked off after numerous intertribal conflicts erupted in India between the Saka, Yueh Chi, Pahiava, Malaya, and Yavana tribes, from which each of the warring factions emerged victorious or defeated.
Wars and battles for control created an unstable environment for the nation’s social and religious life. Groups of individuals often had trouble getting along because their members interpreted religious texts differently.
After a long war, the Kushana dynasty’s King Kaniskha I of the Yuehch tribe led the Saka to victory. This victory was a critical turning point in time in Indian history because Kaniskha I united the disparate Indian tribes under his rule rather than wiping them out. He believed that all the tribes needed to get along with each other if their civilization was going to rise to the level of nobility.
But Kanishka was not without his flaws; he had a reputation for being a tyrannical ruler with a short fuse. A bhikshu (monk) arhat, however, used supernatural forces to make the king examine his own behavior and imagine what it must be like in hell or Naraka (Sanskrit: नरक). Kanishka finally overcame his own negativity and achieved self-realization, transitioning into a sympathetic and respected leader.
Since the Saka calendar system was developed and adopted as the official royal calendar by King Kaniskha I in March 78 AD, the expansion of Hinduism grew. History shows that ever since then, the many tribes have learned to live peacefully together, and the society as a whole has grown and developed.
Then why do Balinese people celebrate Nyepi Day and what does Indian history have to do with it?
This celebration of the Saka New Year symbolizes rebirth, enlightenment, and oneness, becoming a day of peace and harmony that eventually spreads from Bali, Indonesia, to the rest of the world.
Saka is a Hindu calendar used in India and by Bali’s Hindus; its number of months (sasih) is the same as that of the Christian calendar, and its celebration of the New Year in Month 10 (kedasa) begins at the peak of the new moon (tilem) in the month of Kesanga (9th).
The earliest recorded Saka year in Bali dates back to the year 456 A.D., when a Kshatrapa priest from the Saka tribe in Gujarat (India), thereafter known as Aji Saka, and many of his followers landed in the village of Waru, Rembang Regency, Central Java.
Aji Saka traveled to Java to popularize the Saka calendar and the celebration of the new Saka year, which is celebrated by Hindus as Nyepi Day. This is the origin of the modern Nyepi Day festival observed by Hindus throughout the Indonesian Archipelago, most notably on the island of Bali.
As the Majapahit dynasty flourished, so did the Saka year throughout the archipelago.
For the Saka New Year, Bali observes the Nyepi festival, which is based on the Lontar Sanghyang Aji Swamandala and the Sundarigama.
Nyepi is written about in the Kekawin Nagarakṛtāgama, a manuscript that a Dutch scholar of Javanese literature named JLA Brandes saved during an attack on the palace of the King of Lombok in 1894. Soldiers from the KNIL attacked and burned down the palace, but Brandes saved the king’s library, which had hundreds of valuable manuscripts, including the Nagarakṛtāgama manuscript, which is now kept in the National Library of Indonesia and has the code NB.
In the days leading up to the Balinese New Year, the entire island participates in a series of rituals to cleanse itself of any lingering negativity. The New Year’s Day of Silence is only one part of the rituals observed during this holy week, which lasts for around six days.
First Ceremony: Melasti
A purifying ritual dedicated to the Supreme God, Hyang Wdihi Wasa, known as Melasti by acquiring sacred water from the sea to cleanse sacred objects such as Arca, Pratima, and Pralingga that belongs to several temples. Although Melasti does not always count as the first day of Nyepi celebrations, it definitely signifies the start, as it falls under Hari Baik or “Good Day”, which initiates the beginning of the Nyepi period.
The intention of the purifying ritual is the cleansing of each of us (bhuana alit) and the universe (bhuana agung). The acquisition of the sacred water is called Tirta Amerta, the water/source of life. The Balinese wear their traditional white clothes, and checkered sarongs as they conduct the ceremony, and by performing it by the edge of the beach or near water sources, such as lakes, it symbolizes letting go of the past and throwing it out into the ocean.
Similar rituals are performed at the Balekambang Beach on the southern coast of Malang, East Java; it is the ritual of Jalani Dhipuja.
Second Ceremony: Bhuta Yajna & Ogoh Ogoh Parade
The Bhuta Yajna ritual, more commonly known as Pengerupukan, is performed one day before Nyepi with the Ogoh Ogoh parade to vanquish negative elements and create a balance with God, Mankind, and Nature. The ritual is also meant to appease Batara Kala (God of the Underworld and Destruction) with the Pecaruan offering.
At sunset, between 5–6 pm, the Pengrupukan ceremony takes place where during this time the roads are closed. With a huge amount of foot traffic, the Balinese parade through the streets with the Ogoh-ogoh statues, passionately playing a loud mixture of drumming and banging from instruments, such as the kulkul (traditional bamboo bell), claxons, and gamelans.
Although these rituals take place over the entire island, one can experience the best processions either in Kuta, Seminyak, Nusa Dua, Sanur and other famous beaches. Each village makes at least one spectacular Ogoh-Ogoh and takes pride in the entire process. Oftentimes there are contests in each areas such as Sanur, Kuta, Denpasar, Ubud for the best Ogoh-Ogoh.
Third Ceremony: Nyepi – Day of Silence
The most significant day is strictly reserved for self-reflection and anything that might interfere with that purpose is strictly prohibited. Hindu Balinese spend all day on Nyepi praying, fasting, and meditating in order to strengthen their relationship with God (Hyang Widi Wasa). Nyepi is traditionally a day of absolute silence adhered to by the Balinese Hindu, even the non-Hindu residents, based on the four precepts of Catur Brata:
Amati Geni: No fire or light, including no electricity
Not even cooking, which is why some Balinese follow a tradition of fasting
Amati Karya: No form of physical activity except things dedicated to spiritual cleansing and renewal
Hence why meditation and oftentimes yoga
Amati Lelunganan: No movement or traveling.
Airport is closed, there’s no going in or out of Bali, as well as the roads are patroled by the Pecalang.
Amati Lelanguan: Fasting and no revelry/self-entertainment or general merrymaking.
Prohibition of satisfying of “the human appetite for pleasure”.
Starting from 6:00 am on the day of Nyepi until 6:00 am the next day, the faithful Balinese spend their day indoors with the windows covered and blinds closed.
There is a myth that, after the boisterous and active celebrations, the Island goes into hiding to protect itself from evil spirits, fooling them into believing that Bali, enveloped in an atmosphere of complete tranquillity and peace, is a deserted Island. This myth dates back to the mythical times of evil spirits, Gods, legendary heroes, and witches.
Fourth Ceremony: Ngembak Agni / Labuh Brata Ritual
The final ceremony emerging from the Day of Silence is known as Ngembak Agni, or Labuh Brata, which is a ritual performed on the official New Years Day. The last day is when Catur Berata Penyepian is over and the Balinese Hindus visit their families, engage with neighbours and relatives to ask for forgiveness.
On the day after Nyepi, known as Ngembak Geni, social activity picks up again quickly, a complete opposite of the previous day. Families and friends gather and socialise, perform certain religious rituals together, and are basically encouraged to go out. In contrast to Nyepi Day, they should be active with the surrounding community, embracing your neighbors, family, and friends
Different areas have different ways they celebrate Ngembak Agni, which is a day to rejoice and spend the day outside. A relatively well-known ritual that most people have heard of regarding this day is the Kissing Ceremony, found in the district of Sesetan, where non-married people are paired together and have to kiss as part of the celebration. Other places such as Kedonganan have fun activities such as mudbathing, where Balinese families get their hands dirty, or Kuta’s streets would be flooded with markets that suddenly appear and pop-up for the day to celebrate.