The Sounds of Silence

When we were children and started becoming overly excited or noisy, our aunt would say “OK time for Shantini Ramat!”(the game of silence). All we had to do was to close our eyes and stay still and silent. This was not in the form of a “fingers on lips” punishment, but rather always had the most calming effect. Even as young children it made us aware of the many sounds that even silence was made up of, and sensitized us to the power of Quiet.

Many years later, as environmental educators, one of the exercises we often did in our workshops, with teachers or children, was to ask everyone to close their eyes and sit silently for just 5 minutes. After that we would ask them what sounds they heard / how they felt. It was interesting to note that they found this hard to describe or pinpoint. They were so unused to distinguishing individual sounds—even if they were obvious and strident like the honking of horns, the rumble traffic, the hum of the fan; or less obvious like the chirping of birds or squirrels.

We all live in a continual clutter of noise. Most often our ears are so tuned out of the subtle sounds around us, we can hear only the loudest, glaringly harshest and strident noises. We no longer know what silence sounds like. In fact we are almost afraid of the Quiet. Yet there is much to hear in silence. Even amidst the clamour of urban life, there are sounds that we can hear if we really listen—the early morning call of the lone bird, the rustling of leaves in the breeze, the buzz of the bee, the plop plop of the first raindrops and the steady gush of a downpour.

There is magic in silence, in being quiet. There is great power, beauty and creativity in silence.

This is beautifully captured in The Book of Quiet, a wonderfully sensitive children’s book by Deborah Underwood. Each page, lovingly illustrated by Renata Liwska, is dedicated to a different Quiet moment, beginning with “first one awake Quiet” and ending with “sound asleep Quiet.”

Some excerpts


Best friends don’t need to talk Quiet (Comfortable)

Trying not to hiccup Quiet (Embarrassed)

Last one to get picked from school Quiet (Nervous)

Sleeping sister Quiet (Tender)

First look at new hairstyle Quiet (Shocked)

“Silence is itself the stuff of substance; the moments it fills are not the in-betweenery of life but life itself — rich and nuanced and irrepressibly, if quietly, alive.” (Maria Popova)




Just about fifteen years ago, as I lay in bed at night, I could hear the howling of jackals, the rhythmic beat of the distant train, hoots of owls, and the chorus of frogs after the first rains. I would waken to the call of the Sarus cranes, and the meowing cry of the Jacanas in the open ground across from my house.

Today I lie awake all night to the rattling, shattering clangour of the monstrous mechanical cranes and concrete mixers as they dig deep into the soil where the Sarus sang and Jacanas nested, and from where rise the gigantic metal skeletons of multi-storey towers. On the weekends I can no longer listen to the music that used to be a part of our evenings, over the incessant honking, beeping, screeching and yelling from the traffic jams outside my gate, as a noisy, rambunctious crowd heads for the ‘happening’ mall that looms in neon-lit glory, where once the buffalo wallowed and the froggies sang.

Our lives are so cluttered with noise, we do not know silence any more. We are almost afraid of the quiet. We get anxious if we are not continuously reassured by the hum, buzz or ringtone of our phone…Why no calls, no messages, no alerts?? Does nobody ‘like’ us anymore? We feel unmoored without the 24/7 din around us. Is there a moment in our day when we can hear simply silence?

On a visit to Bali last year I learned about Nyepi–the Day of Silence. This day falls (usually in March) on the day after the dark moon of the spring equinox when the day and night are of approximately equal duration. It marks the start of “Caka” year – Balinese New Year – which is celebrated over six days. The first two days are marked by parades, noise and revelry, and Nyepi falls on day 3. The observance of the Day of Silence is based on an ancient myth that, after the boisterous and active celebrations of day 1 and day 2, the Island goes into hiding to protect itself from the evil spirits, fooling them to believe that Bali, enveloped in an atmosphere of complete tranquility and peace, is a deserted Island.

The quietest day of the year is guided by the four precepts:
No fire or light, including no electricity.
No form of physical working other than that which is dedicated to spiritual cleansing and renewal.
No movement or traveling.
Fasting and no revelry/entertainment or general merrymaking.

Everyone stays indoors, engaged in fasting, prayer, meditation, reflection and introspection—erasing the clamour, and cleansing the body and spirit. What a wonderful tradition and even more, how wonderful that it is so well honoured and celebrated in spirit and deed, even today.

If only we could all disconnect from the din, and connect within.


This year for Nyepi all phone companies on the island of Bali agreed to shut down the mobile internet for 24 hours. Imagine a day without internet, Facebook and Instagram and instant messaging apps! And this, on one of the world’s most popular and busy tourist destinations! Yes, they did it, and survived!