an extract from Diana Darling’s upcoming digital book WATCHING BALI to be published by Digitama.


In the midst of Bali’s gorgeous ritual clutter — its gongs, banners, crowds, and swirl of festoons, its trucks and microphones, its animals and dancers and gilded effigies — it’s hard to make something stand out. Perhaps that’s why certain holy days here are distinguished by omissions — that is, by things that one can’t do.

Nyepi, for instance, is famous for being the day when one may not go outdoors, light fires, or raise one’s voice. On Hari Raya Saraswati, the feast day of the deity of knowledge and literature, one may not read or write from dawn until dusk. And if one chooses to observe the obscure rite of Siwalatri, held on the night of the dark of the moon in January, one may not sleep.

Up here in our rather old-fashioned village, there is a day holy to the rice goddess when one may not go to the river (very inconvenient for people who don’t bathe at home, which is nearly everyone here except us). There is another day when one may not sweep, and many days when it is forbidden to harvest coconuts. There are also 20 different days of the month, which no one can remember, when good Balinese Hindu couples are supposed to refrain from sexual relations.

I have a friend — my Tropical Tanta, I call her — who has lived in Bali for decades, and although she is kind-hearted, she is a dreadful cultural busybody. She is always thinking up things that the Balinese ought to do. For instance, she thinks the Balinese ought to have a day when they do not litter.

All of these holidays of prohibition are remarkable for inducing the sensation of fasting. As anyone who has tried it can tell you, fasting is not merely not eating. It is an activity that occupies you from one second to the next. “I’m not eating. I’m still not eating,” and so forth, all day long.

Sitting down and staying awake is not a very challenging activity during the day, but when you try to do this all night, as on Siwalatri, it becomes physically strenuous. And although it does not look as useful as, say, tending the sick, it feels like a religious activity if you do it in a temple on the designated night.

The point of these exercises, I’m told, is to make one aware of various things — like the night, or one’s habits — and to give one some practice in letting go of this transient world. Or to appreciate things better (like the pleasure of writing or sweeping) once the period of abstinence is ended. The only problem for some people here is that these religious activities are not conspicuous enough to market them to tourists. And it’s true that it’s much easier to sell tickets to a cremation than to a village full of people not reading.

I was talking to my Tropical Tanta about this the other day. A Balinese friend of ours — the owner of a tour agency, in fact — was present, and an extraordinary conversation ensued. Tropical Tanta began by saying, “Why not make a place for the tourists to go where they’re not allowed to eat or sleep for 24 hours? A sort of walled enclosure–”

“– like a Balinese temple,” said our friend. “With carved walls and pavilions. Not consecrated, of course.”

Tropical Tanta grew enthusiastic. “Exactly! They could have a first-hand, non-denominational experience of Balinese religious practice.”

“That’s a silly idea,” I said. “It wouldn’t work anywhere but in Ubud.”

But they paid no attention to me.

“We could charge an entrance fee,” said our friend. “Say, Rp25,000, including temple sash.”

“You could let the local people stand outside the walls and look in,” said Tropical Tanta. “They could even take pictures.”

“But no flash,” said our friend, an obviously sophisticated man.

“You could have your staff make videos and sell the tourists cassettes of their experience,” I said, barely concealing a sneer.

“Yes!” cried our friend. “And we could bring buses of domestic tourists up from Kuta to watch.” He paused, dazzled, and said, “We could have souvenir kiosks in the parking lot.”

“And the tourists — I mean the ones inside — wouldn’t be allowed to go shopping there,” said Tropical Tanta. Her glasses were flashing with inspiration.

“Oh, I think you’d have to let them shop before and afterwards,” said our friend. “That would be part of the package. We’d have to acquire a piece of land first. We could invite foreign investors to submit tenders. And then there are all the permits. I could help with that…”

At this point, I stood up. “You’ll have to excuse me,” I said. “This is my day to refrain from ironing, and I think I ought to be at home.”

And then, half-way out the door, it occurred to me that they might be on to something after all. I stopped and looked back at my two mad friends busily scribbling figures and said, “Let me know if you want any help with the brochure.”