Burning the demons

It begins with the far-off sound of drums. Fading in and out and washed my way by the same breeze that’s rustling the rice stalks like a sweeping hand. Then as I walk towards town, the beat gets stronger and under the high-pitched rat-tat-tat that’s traveled the furthest, there’s the boom of the heavy drums, shaking the tropical air like distant thunder.

The path follows a high ridge line and weaves through head-tall grass. Then a steep, jumbled stair-case of broken rocks that drops me suddenly into a darker, damp, cool as I leave the ridge that divides the rivers and walk through a hushed grove past the shrine, built in the eighth century, right where the waters meet. Even before the Hindu priest from Java chose that spot to meditate 1300 years ago the area had already been known as a place of healing and in the old language, ‘Ubud’ means medicine.

River framed


Across the bridge, past the school, onto the street and the drums are taking over; drowning out even the traffic, which is saying something for anywhere in SE Asia. There are hundreds of them, pulsing in and out of phase with crashing cymbals and the muted roar of a hundred thousand people.

The intensity builds into the evening but truthfully, it’s been building for more than a month. Each of the 14 local villages take weeks to build their Ogoh Ogoh, giant moveable puppets that represent malevolent spirits and ‘negative’ influences (a few of the Ogoh Ogoh are clutching mobile phones). They erect bamboo scaffolds right on the side of the road and use canvas, paint and Styrofoam to fashion giant pigs, fat western tourists, witches and goblins all, for some reason, with anatomically correct genitalia.

Young men vie for the right to be selected to carry their villages Ogoh Ogoh and they can be seen on the back streets carrying the frame that’ll hold the finished sculpture, practicing the steps and chants they’ll use on the day. Sometimes they’ll take their half-finished demon over to a rival village to call them out with chants and receive shouted friendly abuse in return. It reminds me of Melbourne in grand final week. This is ‘Bhuta Yajna’, the second part of the multi-stage Nyepi festival to celebrate the Hindu New year in Bali.

Down to the middle of town and the parade is on in earnest. The drums and crashing gamelan orchestras are relentless and their trance-inducing effect is taking hold of the crowd. The giant effigies make their first appearance through gaps in the buildings and above the rooftops and I look around at a few of the western tourists and wonder how many of them are tripping on magic mushrooms right now because this little scene is just a slight perspective shift from feeling like it’s my own personal Japanese sci-fi movie; and that’s without hallucinogenic help. But no one’s running screaming yet, so I think we are ok.

Some of the Ogoh Ogoh are so big they are trailed by men holding long forked shaped poles to lift power lines out of the way and it takes more than 30 fit, strong young men to hold them. Necks straining through the bamboo frames like yoked oxen. They ‘dance’ these giant effigies down the street, lurching back and forwards, side to side, engaging other Ogoh Ogoh in mock battles and pulsing up and down in time with the music. By the time the nights over they will have kept it up for eight hours.

The parade makes its way down to the forest beneath the town where the Ogoh-Ogoh are burned in a scene that’s surprisingly confronting because over the hours of seeing them dance up and down the street, as that line between reality and illusion grew fuzzier, they’d taken on the qualities of living characters.

In the aftermath I join the shuffling crowd winding its way back through the mercifully quiet streets of the town. What follows is a day of quiet, followed by a day of visiting friends and relatives and seeking forgiveness for any wrongdoing in the previous year.

Symbolically conjuring up our negative thoughts, giving them physical form and then burning them, collective contemplation and stillness then exchanging forgiveness. Oh to think that we in the therapy obsessed west believe that we invented ideas like this.

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