From a CRCS Field Trip: Sacredness, Authenticity and Contested Sites

Anthon Jason | CRCS | Report

A tourist is half a pilgrim, if a pilgrim is half a tourist. (Turner and Turner, 1978:20)

There is an old man who is preoccupied with his rosary, praying devoutly in silence. There is also a family putting flowers on the altar and picking up holy water after doing a particular ritual. The shady trees, and the warm, soft sunlight pass through the leaves. There is silence in the air, people with calm expressions. All of these components give space for a peaceful and serene feeling, filling up the atmosphere around the place. On the other side of the park, a devout middle-aged couple is praying in small voices in front of the big cross with the high tower of a mosque visible in the background creates a unique religious nuance. This was the scene we encountered at Gua Maria at Ambarawa on our field visit to observe the intersection of religion and tourism. 

On Sunday, April 9th, 2017, as part of our course on Religion and Tourism at CRCS, we visited two sites, Gua Maria in Ambarawa and Makam Sunan Pandanaran in Klaten. This field trip was important in the sense that CRCS has committed to always being up-to-date on the actual reality of religious phenomenon in Indonesia. By doing so, CRCS as an educational establishment was never meant to be an ivory tower of knowledge, but to contribute to the good of society in real life. The field trip was also an important method for comparing what we have learned in the class to the direct experience we observed in everyday life.

Led by our lecturer Dr. Kelli Swazey, and M. Rizal Abdi, a student from the CRCS 2015 batch who is currently doing research on one of the sites, we got many insights how tourism, religion, and even politics are intertwined with the tourism industry. At the two tourism sites we visited, we could not only see how the theory we learned in class fit with the phenomena that we saw at the sites, but it also showed us that the  validity of the theories we have studies can be challenged in the context of the tourism sites that we visited.  

Before undertaking our field visits, we had a short lesson on how to do participant observation as a method of social research. Participant observation is defined as a method in which a researcher takes part in the daily activities, rituals, interactions, and events of a group of people as one of the means of learning the explicit and tacit aspects of their life routines and culture. The main goal of participant observation is that we attempt to observe, try and see patterns, and figure out what we can say from those observations, without imposing a particular framework.

At our first destination, the Gua Maria at Ambarawa, most of the space in the parking area was filled with private cars, and I noticed there were only a few tourist buses there. From our observation, we noted that the visitors who come to Goa Maria Ambarawa are quite varied in terms of ethnic identity. There is a family with around ten members we met enjoying their time in the garden. They had traveled from Maluku and were staying in Salatiga where one of the family members was studying at the local university. We also met a Chinese family of four doing a ritual and praying in front of the Maria statue. Not all the visitors came with their own cars, as we also spoke to a woman who had reached the site by public transportation. She  sharing her experience about partaking of the holy water from the Goa Maria with us.

Another interesting point that we understood from our observation was that visitors came to the Gua Maria to obtain a kind of sanctified ‘holy’ water that flowed from faucets installed in the cave. We learned that when the site was newly inaugurated, the statue and the wellspring in Gua Maria Ambarawa was blessed with holy water from Lourdes. This was the most compelling evidence that from the beginning, the Gua Maria Ambarawa was trying to imitate the sacredness of the Marian Grotto in Lourdes. The similarity of the Mary statue between this two places has also demonstrated this. This is mentioned in the site’s official website: “Nampak sekali bahwa Gua Maria Kerep Ambarawa sejak semula diusahakan agar bisa meniru kesakralan Gua Maria di Lourdes. Hal ini tampak pada kemiripan patung Perawan Maria di Lourdes” (It is apparent that Gua Maria Kerep Ambarawa was since its beginning built to imitate the sacredness of the Marian Grotto in Lourdes as evidenced by the similarity of the Mary statue in both sites).

These phenomena display what we have learned in class about the four meanings of authenticity from Edward M. Bruner (1994). For whatever reason people visit these kinds of sites, either for tourism or pilgrimage, both can be seen as quests for an authentic experience. Dealing with this premise, the authority of the Gua Maria site as a religious space relies on a sense of ‘authentic reproduction,’ as explained by Bruner in his definitions of four types of authenticity. In this case, the site is authentic in that it is is credible and convincing. Additionally, it also fulfills Bruner’s fourth definition of authenticity related to authority or a matter of power (1994:399-400). The Catholic church, in this case, has the authority to authenticate Gua Maria to become a religious site for believers.

At the second destination on our field trip, Makam Sunan Pandanaran, we had to pass a crowded traditional market and climb a number of stairs to reach the site. For those who are not in fit condition, climbing the stairs to reach the site could be hard. At the gate, we have to abandon our footwear to enter the site, just like when we are entering a mosque. Barefoot, we entered the site to find it was well-preserved. There are many small tombs spread around the site. Somehow, I felt a similar atmosphere to when one enters Hindu or Buddhist temples. Visitors to Makam Sunan Pandanaran can do ‘wudhu’ before entering the site, but it was optional, not obligatory for visitors.  

Most of the visitors at Makam Sunan Pandanaran arrive by bus, and come in large groups to the site. From the transportation used to reach the site, we can assume there is a difference in social class with these visitors than those we saw at Gua Maria. Generally speaking, we could see the social class of the visitors was rather different with the visitors of Makam Sunan Pandanaran. It is interesting to note that for some visitors, the journey to Makam Sunan Pandanaran was considered as an alternative pilgrimage for those who cannot afford to go on the required Islamic pilgrimage or Hajj in Mecca. Thus, we could see many tourism buses coming from rural areas around Java with the phrase ‘wisata religi’ on the banner clinging to the front of their buses.

Our experience at the Makam Pandaranan provided a new perspective in seeing the relationship between tourism and religion in Indonesia. Although we did not find any explicit rules about behavior or the kinds of visitors to expect at the site on the tomb’s website or any other advertisement, due to our experience we realized that there were some implicit assumptions at play in people’s behavior around the site. Tourist sites should by nature be visitors. However, when we arrived at the makam, it seemed that the site actually meant for a Muslim visitor. It is not explicitly stated, but we assumed that by observing the behavior from the people around the site.

One of the most obvious examples of this implicit rule was when our lecturer was not allowed by one of the tour guides from an outside tour agency to enter the central tomb area of Makam Sunan Pandanaran. We assumed that it was because our lecturer is a ‘bule’ with white skin and blonde hair and not using hijab, that her presence would decrease the sacred value of the space, in his perspective. In class, we have learned that exclusion is one strategy to protect and increase the sacred value of a place. This incident was valuable data in the eyes of a researcher. From this incident, we could see the paradox in ‘wisata religi’, when exclusionary tactics are applied in a tourism site. Moreover, it becomes a comprehensive example of what Justine Digance (2003) defines as ‘Contested sites’. Digance describes ‘Contested sites’ as “sacred locations where there is contest over access and usage by any number of groups or individuals who have an interest in being able to freely enter and move around the site” (2003: 144).

Another kind of contestation could be observed within the ranks of the visitors themselves. Although most of the visitors were Muslim, the religious practices they were performing at the site varied. There were some groups that recited tahlil, and other groups recited shalawat. The space within the central building of the site felt not only crowded with people, but also full of voices of praying that seemed to be competing with one another. This phenomenon demonstrates what Simon Coleman’s 2002 article criticizes about the theory of communitas in pilgrimage argued by Victor Turner. The Turneruan definition of communitas in anthropological usage claims that people at pilgrimage sites are equal, or that they share a spirit of community. In this theory, each member of the community shares a common experience, usually through a rite of passage. This phenomenon shows us the theoretical overlap between the communitas and ‘contestation’ paradigms.

One last point that emerged from our discussion in class after the field visits is that the general situation in Indonesia, where there is tension between and within religious believers, has the potential to influence the tourism industry and tourist behavior. As religious studies scholars, we are challenged to investigate the connection between religion and the other systems, such as tourism industry; as well as how religion intersects with politics, capitalism, and so on. Through the experience of this field trip and the discussion in the class, we are trained to be more alert to these connections.

*The writer Anthon Jason is CRCS student of the 2016 batch.

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