Wednesday, August 24, 2011

OGOH-OGOH!!! Then shhhhhh…..

By Supriya Savkoor
No, I didn’t just fall off the truck from the nut farm (well, not yet). The crazy headline and, yes, more scary pictures from me are completely relevant. Since this week’s topic is festivals, and since you may have noticed, I love anything cross-cultural, it’s my way of getting your attention as I explain yet another example of how Indian culture traveled then morphed into an entirely new – and fascinating – phenomenon.

First, some quick background.

Hinduism was already about 3,500 years old when it reached the Indonesian archipelago around the 1st century A.D. By the 4th century, Hindu kingdoms starting forming in the region, and over the next thousand years, both Hinduism and Buddhism spread across the islands until they reached their apex in the 14th century. Soon Islam spread as well, and eventually, Java, Bali, Sumatra, and their surrounding islands became the archipelago’s last remaining Hindu footholds. Today, Hindus make up less than 2% of the Indonesian population.

Along the way, though, diverse religious beliefs melded and gave rise to interesting new belief systems, of which some have survived. On the island of Lombok, for example, the Bodha sect fuses both Hinduism and Buddhism with tribal beliefs, mainly hyang, the belief in ancestral spirits, and animism, when spirits inhabit inanimate objects such as trees or stones. Several tribes in Seram, one of the Molucca Islands of Indonesia, observe Naurus, a sect that fuses Hinduism, animism, and, if you can believe it, Protestantism. (I know, that's a lot to juggle.)
While ethnic Indians living in Java, Bali, and Sumatra observe the more traditional Indian form of Hinduism and have their own separate temples, Indonesian Hindus forged their own path, adapting some beliefs and rituals from the original and incorporating new ones to create their own unique blend, one that has evolved over the centuries.

Some of the main differences, other than the belief in hyang (the spirits), are that Indonesian Hindus use different names for their supreme being and for the various gods and goddesses that are manifestations of this supreme being. Indonesian Hindus also worship in open-air temples rather than indoors, and they rely on different kinds of artistic expression in their observances, such as shadow puppetry, pageantry, and unique dance performances. Balinese Hindus also focus less on reincarnation and rebirth and more on their belief in hyang.

There are other differences, of course, but an interesting one is that they have their own unique brand of festivals, not found anywhere else.

The new year on the Hindu calendar occurs around mid-March. A few days earlier, Balinese Hindus perform a ritual known as melasti at their temples, which they call puras, using water and sacred objects to cleanse and purify nature, among other things. Afterwards, they perform another ceremony to get rid of negative forces and reestablish balance with God, man, and nature. 

Enter the ogoh-ogoh. The islanders create these giant, colorful statues out of paper mache, using bamboo sticks as a frame. The monster-like statues symbolize any and all negative forces – the scarier, the better! Traditionally, ogoh-ogoh were shaped into demons from the underworld, characters from age-old legends and mythology, but these days, it’s common to see ogoh-ogohs of corrupt politicians and other notorious public figures or celebrities. The islanders parade the ghoulish ogoh-ogohs around their villages during the day then burn them, in a show of triumph over evil. 

It gets more interesting, but before I continue, take a gander at these scary ogoh-ogohs! It's a wonder anyone can sleep through the night without being haunted by these images, vanquished or otherwise.


Okay, no more scary pictures.... I threw in that last one though because that's apparently how some locals view female tourists...

The next day is Nyepi Day, or the Day of Silence. Starting at 6 a.m. and continuing until 6 a.m. the following day, there’s no going to work, no lights or fires, no entertainment, no using any electricity or technology (you can just forget about your iPad), and definitely no traveling – only fasting, meditating, lots of introspection, and, of course, complete and utter silence. Even the government shuts down on Nyepi, as do the airports! The non-Hindus on the island observe Nyepi too, and as such, not even tourists are allowed out of their hotels, not even to quietly catch some rays on one of the local beaches. The only people permitted outdoors at all, or allowed to use vehicles, are the police (for security reasons) and paramedics (for emergencies or to deliver babies who didn’t get the memo). 

The day after Nyepi, families and friends gather to ask each other for forgiveness. Then they perform one final ritual, and it’s all over. Until next year.

Talk about cleansing your soul, right?


  1. Fascinating and interesting post. Lots of good stuff in here to spark ideas for our writing! And those giant characters would fit right in at a Mardi Gras parade!

  2. I agree completely, LynNerd! And forget Mardi Gras -- I'm wondering when Hollywood might come calling for costume designers and special effects experts.