text and photos by Rio Helmi

A couple of years ago today (on the Balinese calendar that is) I penned a blog post here about the change that the ogoh-ogoh represent. For those of you who don’t know what an ogoh-ogoh really is, don’t worry, many Balinese don’t either, and I’m not sure I know either. A year later I tried to put a simple paragraph together in another post which was supposed to clarify the origins of this phenomena which has swept southern Bali from Singaraja some 40 years ago.

But today, the eve of Nyepi, the Balinese day of complete silence, I find myself thinking more about how Balinese take on new elements and incorporate and recreate them to suit their own needs or fancies – which in fact is what has happened with the ogoh-ogoh over the last 4 decades that I have been based on this island.

The eve of Nyepi, ‘Pengerupukan’ is really a culmination of a series communal and household cleansing rituals that take place over the days preceding. With some exceptions of course: there are some villages who do the Melasti cleansing at the sea shore on the day after Nyepi, for example Blahbatuh. But nearly all households in all of Bali will do the pot-banging, racket making, demon chasing ritual at dusk, then special offerings are made outside the house for said demons. The community comes together then and the same is done together.

A grandmother and her grandchildren perform the household rituals

Above and below: Demonic and boorish aspects of our psyches…

As the ogoh-ogoh crept into the Balinese communal consciousness, it became part of this ritual. Sometimes their themes expressed a fascination with the outside world, at others a kind of communal censorship enforced a “Hindu only” theme, as Wayan Juniarta notes in his article in the Jakarta Post a few days ago.

There is the crux of the matter. Balinese communality is a powerful thing. It can make for wonderful manifestations of cultural and personal refinement, and the same tool can make for disastrous expressions of mindless development. The Balinese, like most Indonesians, are susceptible and almost dependent on charismatic leaders, but they also have an extraordinary sense of the communal hierarchy. It’s kind of like the Balinese dilemmatic balance. Family, caste (for those who subscribe to the system) and clan first, then Banjar community, then village etc is the usual hierarchy of priorities. To be bereft of access to these communities is like being in hell if you are Balinese.

Above: the ratio of tourists to Balinese on Ubud’s foot ball field is about 200 to 1 (completely unsubstantiated guesstimate!) Images below: even in relatively progressive Padang Tegal glitz is hard to avoid, but it definitely has more of a Balinese community feeling about it


Kids, here coming on to Ubud’s football field, are integrated into community activity from a young age.

As are these young girls below in Padang Tegal.

As the pengerupukan rituals shifted more to a show biz type production, not a few of the older generation felt uncomfortable (Hollywood productions don’t hold a candle to a motivated Balinese community!). But to object publicly is not the Balinese way, nobody wants to rock the boat. Indeed in the whole enterprise of ‘promoting’ ogoh-ogoh, communal pride played a huge role. It has become fiercely competitive to the point that local authorities are always at pains to make sure that mutually antagonistic communities have their own separate schedules and localities for the pengerupukan, even if they are in close proximity.

As pengerupukan became more and more about ogoh-ogoh, the idea of simply creating and then burning the ogoh-ogoh in the ongoing tradition of Balinese transient art (think offerings, cremation towers etc) was sabotaged by the urge to keep making fancier and fancier ogoh-ogoh that were paraded and judged in competition. Foam became a material of choice, burning this material has it’s own perils.

Lately in Denpasar there has been a drive to go back to bamboo and papier-maché. In the Ubud district the Banjar of Padang Tegal, one of the most progressive banjars, this is now a rule – the positive side of communal consciousness led by informed and willing leadership. Padang Tegal has gone back to burning their ogoh-ogohs for a couple of years now. In Ubud proper this is not yet the case, and interestingly at the football field this evening there were at least one hundred tourists to each Balinese present. Perhaps the effect of overwhelming numbers of people who have no relationship to the community other than being cash cows might be quantifiable. How the communal consciousness works under such conditions would be an excellent subject for a an anthropological PhD.

So somehow the ogoh-ogoh phenomenon has become the emblematic of the underlying tension created by the competing needs of sating the tourist industry, sustaining communal pride and the real spiritual needs of the community.


Enjoy Nyepi.