There’s always something happening in Bali. With a huge tourist population, the island has cultivated an impressive schedule of arts festivals, cultural events and activities to entertain visitors. Add to that the vast number of religious festivals celebrated by the local Hindu community - just about every day brings something new to commemorate, some events more significant than others.
Some ‘annual’ Hindu ceremonies are even held more than once a year because Balinese people – somewhat confusingly – follow three distinct calendars: the Pawukon calendar, which has only 210 days in a year; the Saka calendar, which starts with Nyepi; and the western calendar. Here are a few of the largest, most important and colourful events celebrated in Bali.
Nyepi, a day of silence
All holidaymakers headed to Bali should be aware of Nyepi Day, Bali’s legendary day of silence. Nyepi is New Year’s Day in the Saka calendar. Because this calendar is based on the phases of the moon, Nyepi falls on a different day each year, similar to Easter. It usually arrives around March or April.
So why is this day so important for visitors? Two words: total shutdown. Many tourists are keen to avoid such a widely observed holiday when locals barely set foot outside their homes. Roads are deserted, shops, cafés and beaches are desolate. Noise, work, activity, travel and any form of entertainment are completely banned on this single day. Visitors are required to remain in their accommodation complex and, for some, this can be frustrating.
But if you plan your trip carefully (in other words, don’t aim to travel on this day), Nyepi can be a wonderful experience for visitors. The ‘time out’ can afford rare opportunities for meditation, reflection and relaxation. In contrast, the lead-up to Nyepi is a rich and raucous festival well worth witnessing. There are three days of street celebrations and activities, culminating in a parade on Nyepi eve, designed to chase away the evil spirits with loud instruments and effigies.
Galungan, a celebration of Hinduism
Usually held twice during the western calendar, Balinese people celebrate Galungan – a day which commemorates the Hindu triumph of good over evil. If you’re in Bali during this festival, you’ll see colourfully decorated bamboo poles lining village streets, people dressed in their finest attire to attend temple ceremonies and worship at shrines, and witness wonderful feasts based around roast pigs.
The bamboo poles, decorated in coconut leaves and fruits, symbolise the values of Hinduism and wisdom which triumphed in the face of great challenges. Legend has it that the Balinese rebel, king Mayadenawa, wanted to ban Hindu worship and he was forced into battle with Indra, the Hindu god of thunder, rain and lightning.
According to local beliefs, this is the day that the ancestral spirits descend from heaven to dwell in the homes of their descendants, only to depart again ten days later in Kuningan. The visiting ancestral spirits must be entertained and welcomed with prayers and offerings.
While participation in the festivities is restricted to Balinese locals, tourists needn’t feel completely excluded. The island is awash with colour and many restaurants offer specials on local dishes, so you can wolf down some cut-price culture.
The Bali Arts Festival, Denpasar
For the past four decades, this renowned arts festival has been attracting locals and international visitors alike to the Denpasar Art Centre. Running for an entire month from mid-June to mid-July, the festival incorporates both art exhibits and cultural achievements.
Magnificent costumes, dance performances, local films, shadow puppetry, musical acts and plenty more fill the agenda. If you’re planning a trip to Bali during this popular event, it’s definitely worth making time to stay in Denpasar. The festival is free to attend, acting as a showcase for local talent and creativity.
Bali Spirit Festival, Ubud
Since Elizabeth Gilbert catapulted Ubud to fame with her seminal 2006 memoir 'Eat, Pray, Love', the town has become the tourist centre for all things new-age in Bali. It’s no surprise that in 2008, Ubud launched its first Bali Spirit Festival to further encourage this tourism angle.
It worked – the annual gathering for yoga, dance and music continues to grow, now helping to raise money for a variety of local charities. Throughout the week-long festival there are yoga workshops featuring international instructors, music and dance concerts, organic markets and self-help seminars in various locations throughout Ubud.
Bali Spirit Festival is usually held in March, at the end of the rainy season. Ticket prices vary, depending on whether you attend for a day, a weekend or the whole lot – if you have the spiritual stamina.
Lebaran, the major holiday throughout Indonesia
Though Bali’s range of events is enough to leave you spoilt for choice, it would be remiss not to mention Indonesia’s most widely celebrated holiday of all: Lebaran. This holiday marks the end of Ramadan, a period of fasting and introspection observed in Islam – Indonesia’s most popular religion.
Because the vast majority of the Indonesian population outside Bali is Muslim, the effects of this holiday are far-reaching. For one thing, the entire country is in holiday mode for several days – two official public holidays and often extra days on either side as decreed by the government each year. Transport can be affected as locals travel to celebrate with their families or take leave on domestic mini-breaks.
Bali can be busy during this period as many Indonesians may choose to spend their holidays there. If you happen to find yourself in another part of Indonesia during Lebaran, then you’re likely to notice an exciting buzz in the air as locals busily shop and prepare to celebrate the end of Ramadan.
Whatever your sensibility, chances are there’s an event to tickle your fancy in Bali. Do some online research to see what’s on when you’re in town. The sights, sounds and fast friendships at festivals often end up being the highlight of a holiday.