Vesak Day Celebration on Borobudur Temple: Thoughts on Religious Tourism

I wish one day I could post here a picture of thousands of lanterns flying over Borobudur Temple.

I wish one day I could post here a picture of thousands of lanterns flying over Borobudur Temple.

I have experienced sunset on Borobudur three times. The first and second ones were overwhelming. The third time; not so much since I came on Saturday, and the number of tourists were doubled.

That does not make me love Borobudur less. That also does not make me wish there were less tourists coming to Borobudur. (What a loss for us, Indonesians, if it really happens.)

I have never experienced the Vesak celebration in Borobudur, and I have not planned to do it next year. I have friends who go all the way to see the lanterns lit and flown above the sky over Borobudur, and to experience the beauty and magic of it all. Do I think they are fools? Do I think non-Catholics who visit Vatican fools? Do I condemn non-Muslims who enter Blue Mosque in Istanbul? Do I despise non-Christians who take pictures with Santa Claus in shopping malls? I would be the damned one if the answer to all the questions is yes.

Religious tourism is a very important part of the industry. For the start, the money involved is big. It can be, and it should be good for the local economy. It’s good cash, and please do not be so naive and say that religions do not need money. Religions have been known to draw money from far less respectable ways than from tourism. Religious tourism is good money for both tourism industry and the religious elements involved.

Second; it’s good learning. For many, religious tourism is an uplifting experience. Even better if it’s an interfaith one. It’s actual learning that is far beyond what we have learned from the books. We learn to understand our own faith and belief, and we learn to respect other religions. I love to live in a country where non-believers like me can learn to appreciate believers by experiencing or at least witnessing their rituals.

Lastly, for Indonesia, a big Vesak celebration on Borobudur Temple is a “soft power” (in Monocle‘s lingo). While Christmas is often (but not only, not always) related to joyful shopping spree and generous giving, Buddhism bears another image: peaceful, serenity, and harmony. (Kindly note, I am not talking about what a certain religion actually means, but the image they usually bear.) Buddha statues are installed in spas and houses to endorse a serene atmosphere, for example. What does it mean for Indonesia?

Imagine pictures of lanterns flying on a beautiful evening in Borobudur Temple posted and featured in international media every year. CNN covering it, Travel+Leisure publishing the stories, and more. Imagine a caption like: “A peaceful Vesak evening in the biggest Muslim-populated country in the world.” Don’t we want it?

Will this only affect what the outside world think about Indonesia? I don’t think so. A great image of our country will also encourage us to prove that it is more than just a mirage. It will eventually motivate us to be what the image is portraying us as. It will be our shared vision, our goal, and our mission. Surely the facts we are facing on ground level are usually far different, but that should not feed our apathy. That is the homework we have to deal with.

Today, Indonesian Twittersphere is happy to judge how tourists mess around the Vesak rituals on Borobudur Temple. Yes, some of them, or even most of them, do. The disturbance should stop. But, I disagree with the idea that tourists should be limited, or even banned from witnessing and experiencing this celebration.

Religious tourism is not an easy thing for Indonesia. Let’s face it; we are not good in handling religions, and, popular destinations aside, we are quite behind other countries in the region when it comes to tourism management and services. And now we want to combine both? A lot of hardwork. But it’s not impossible.

All that we need is tactical management.

Carefully selected operators should be appointed as officials to manage visitors to Borobudur on Vesak Day, and there are punitive regulations applied on these tour operators if the tourists they are handling misbehave. Photographers and videographers have to fill the forms that also indicate to which media they are affiliated with, and there should be an official recommendation letter published by the represented media. (Surely, it does not mean unaffiliated photographers and videographers have absolutely no access to the celebration, but it means there is a priority given, and there is a sense of bigger responsibility to behave properly.) These kind of filtering methods may not sound easy for visitors, but indeed, it should not be that easy. Those who really intend to go will follow the procedures.

And if it will take long for the goverment to design and apply the regulations that put the sacred rituals of Vesak on top priority, then the middle class should make good use of their resources – creative, financial, network, technical skills, etc. – to start spreading the awareness. How about as simple as blogging on tips for taking photographs of sacred rituals instead of cursing the misbehaving photographers? What if the cast of Arisan! 2 reunite to make a 5-minute movie that sends a clear message on how to properly follow their steps to join Vesak celebration in Borobudur Temple, then air it on YouTube, and make it go viral? What if the more experienced travellers offer their hands to help reminding the clueless visitors either directly or indirectly?

I understand that what I am suggesting is not the easiest way. Banning non-Buddhists to join the celebration will be easier. But it is also a one-step back for us who are in the process of learning to enrich our country with a different kind of celebration. There are far more benefits in welcoming visitors than shutting the doors. There are ways to keep things running properly. We should believe that we are not a bunch of helpless, “mentally challenged” travellers. I still believe that we can do this better.

3 comments
  1. adisasmita said:

    “I have never experienced the Vesak celebration in Borobudur, and I have not planned to do it next year. I have friends who go all the way to see the lanterns lit and flown above the sky over Borobudur, and to experience the beauty and magic of it all. Do I think they are fools? Do I think non-Catholics who visit Vatican fools? Do I condemn non-Muslims who enter Blue Mosque in Istanbul? Do I despise non-Christians who take pictures with Santa Claus in shopping malls? I would be the damned one if the answer to all the questions is yes.”

    Of course you would be the damned one if the answer to all those questions is yes. BUT, those questions are not relevant compared to what happened during the Vesak celebration yesterday. Those questions might be relevant if the postulate was: “Non-Buddhist who visit Borobudur are fool”. This is Vesak for God sake. A religion ceremonial that is different with non-ceremonial visit. How about I rephrase your questions into something like these:

    “Do I think non-Catholics who visits Jakarta Cathedral during Christmass Mass and climb the altar are fools? Do I condemn non-Muslims who enter the Blue Mosque in Istanbul and take some pics of people during an Ied prayers? Do I despise non-Hindus who makes some commotions during Nyepi? Do I feel okay if the non-Catholics in Vatican jeers when the conclave haven’t decided who’ll become the next pope?

    Now then, still feel like answering “no”?
    Anyway, those questions that you’ve made are “plurium interrogationum” fallacy.

    Regarding your take on Religious tourism, I agree there are some tourism potential in it. But first thing first, this a religious ceremonial. One thing that should take precedence is the contentment of those who are doing their prayers, which in my opinion it is impossible to attain with non-Buddhist visitors strolling around during the ceremony. What should the gov’t do then? Checking visitors ID?

    Even if it’s possible for non-Buddhist and Buddhist to be separated during the Vesak ceremony, there are problems related with visitors behaviour. I don’t think that I have to mention it one by one, since there are lot of pics and stories
    about it already on social media. Because it’s hard to change visitors behaviour, I suggest that they are prohibited to visit in some — maybe most — Vesak rituals. Maybe visitors are only allowed to take part in Vesak ceremony during the lantern ritual. Well, momentarily I think that’s the best win-win solution that comes into my mind.

    • Your points are valid, and taken. I feel I also have to underline that in those paragraphs you quoted I was talking about the “celebration” part of Vesak Day, not the rituals. I also mentioned about “seeing lanterns lit and flown …” which I believe is the celebration or ceremonial part, not the rituals. In other paragraphs, I also just wish that visitors still could witness, if not experiencing, the rituals. “Celebration” in my opinion is quite different with doing rituals that should be sacred. Witnessing could be done from far distance that will not disturb any procession or rituals. Kindly notice that in the second from bottom paragraph it is also in my thought that rules and/or regulations should be designed to put the sacred rituals on top priority.

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