We’re Pilgrims, Not Tourists: The Balinese Holy Water Tour to India

by I Made Arsana Dwiputra (The CRCS Student batch 2011)

The Holy Water Tour to India is famous among to the Balinese Hindus middle class. They have a regular tour which they called as Tirta Yatra as we can see they promote at the local Bali’s daily newspaper. Tirta mean holy water and Yatra mean pilgrimage recall the pilgrimage of the Hindus’ holy man in Bali which followed by building a temple and sacred place with a spring. It develop recently in Bali and even their tour program spent more time in Singapore shopping malls and Universal Worlds than in dirt Gangga river bank or old city of Kurusetra; the legend epic of Mahabarata battle field, they refuse to called as a touristic tour. “We are pilgrims not tourists said one lady with a fancy DKNY sunglasses and hold a shopping bag of Singapore famous shopping malls in hand that I met and chat with at the Bali’s Ngurah Rai International Airport arrival”.

It’s early afternoon at an extended family home in Denpasar, Bali. A group of women is gathered in front of a small television set, their fingers flashing as they weave palm fronds into ritual offerings. While they work and watch, they chat with each other and with the TV, warning the sari-clad heroine to look out for the villain, commenting on the handsome hero, and exclaiming at the flirtatious moves of the singers and dancers. They can’t understand the Hindi lyrics of the songs, but that doesn’t stop them from singing along, their thick Balinese accents coating the strange words with familiarity. Almost every afternoon they gather like this, to gossip, to work and to watch Indian-made films dubbed (except for the songs) into the Indonesian language.

Until recently, these “Bollywood” productions were all most Balinese knew of India. Learned priests knew that the Hindu religion was born in India, but for the average Balinese, occupied with the everyday chores of preparing for rituals welcoming their gods and ancestors down to earth, India was the stuff of folk tales and mythology. Indeed, an Indian Hindu would likely be shocked at the Hinduism practiced in Bali, where there are animal sacrifices, no untouchables, a simple caste system, few food restrictions and where the dead are virtually always reincarnated into their own family lines.

Recently, however, India has emerged with a new force into the Balinese consciousness. Religious reform, in large part a result of Balinese efforts in the 1950s to place Balinese Hinduism on par with Islam and Christianity as a “world religion” and thereby gain recognition by the new Indonesian state, made India present in the Balinese worldview in a way that it never was before. To be acknowledged by the Indonesian state as an approved religious faith (rather than merely a backwards ‘animism’), Balinese Hinduism needed what Indonesian Islam and Christianity had: a monotheistic God and a holy, universal canon. Bali’s vast pantheon of gods and ancestors, whose worship varied from village to village and family to family, and its hundreds of lontar texts, kept for the almost-exclusive use of powerful priests and families, hardly fit the bill. By identifying themselves more closely with Indian Hinduism, by emphasizing the Hindu Weda scriptures, and by describing Bali’s local gods as manifestations of the one true God, Balinese were able to persuade the state that their religion was in fact a universal, international creed.

India has also become newly important to Balinese because of modern challenges to the Balinese caste system. Bali’s royal and priestly families claim prominence by tracing their lineages back to the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit, whose Hindu inhabitants fled to Bali in the 14th century to escape the Islamicization of Java. In traditional Bali, Majapahit ancestry helped ensure power. But in modern Bali, economic development created a new middle class of commoners, who have grown dissatisfied with the second-class status their lack of Majapahit connections implies. These Balinese began to look to India for their origins, thus claiming an even older Hindu ancestry than the traditional Majapahit-descended rulers. And, in an odd way, tourism has also sent Balinese searching for their roots abroad. As a select group of Balinese grows wealthy from tourist funds, they have been intent upon proving that Balinese themselves can play the part of the tourist as well as the host. And so the Tirta Yatra India Tour was born.

I Gede Sara Sastra, a forty-nine-year-old lecturer at the Hindu University of Indonesia in Denpasar and a former tour guide and travel agent, explains how he first started taking groups of Balinese pilgrims to India. In addition to his teaching duties, he had been managing a small travel agency serving foreign visitors to Bali, but the heated competition for tourists left him bankrupt. One day, however, an American friend gave him an idea. “My American friend showed me a travel brochure for a Catholic pilgrimage to Lourdes in France. He told me it was very popular. I thought, why not try a religious tour for the Hindu community?” he recalls. In 1990, Gede Sara Sastra opened a new travel agency, which he named Krishna Jaya Tours.

Since Gede Sara Sastra founded his travel agency, he has taken groups of pilgrims on twelve to fourteen-day guided tours of India every two or three months. He attracts customers through word of mouth and through advertisements placed in local newspapers. Twenty-five to fifty Balinese join each tour, paying US$1,795 per person. Before the tour, pilgrims attend a two-day orientation session, where the sights they will see are explained to them and where they are given instructions on how to behave in India; for instance, that they should respect the local cows and not ask for beef burgers at McDonald’s. The tour then leaves Bali for Delhi, where participants board the tour bus that will take them around India, with Gede Sara Sastra and a local student as their guides. They visit the birthplace of Lord Krishna, the palace of Lord Rama, and sites made famous from the epic tales of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. They stop at the holy River Ganges, where pilgrims pray, bathe, and fill bottles with holy water to take back to Bali to use in rituals. Aside from their religious activities, they also see the sights no good tourist to India would miss. They visit the Taj Mahal, the 17th century tomb built by a Muslim Mughal emperor for his wife, and go shopping in the stores of Delhi. Most of the tours also include stopovers to explore the cities of Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur and one tour includes a three-day excursion to Nepal.

Gede Sara Sastra bristles, however, at the notion that the Tirta Yatra India Tour is “tourism.” “We visit holy places, not tourists sights. That’s why it’s called Tirta Yatra, which means ‘traveling in search of holy water,’” he says. “We Balinese can learn a lot from India,” he continues. “Even though they’re really poor there, they’re very diligent at praying.” Sixty-five-year-old Pak Wira Dharma, a successful businessman who has joined the tour each time it departs, agrees. “We go to India not for a vacation or for pleasure, but to pray. We visit spiritual places. It’s truly an unimaginable spiritual experience.”

But despite these earnest opinions of the Tirta Yatra India Tour, many of the participants sign up for reasons of their own. Sixty-three-year-old Ibu Sukerni, the owner of a boutique in Denpasar selling Balinese ritual wear, says that the shopping in India rivals even the religious attractions. She explains that Gede Sara Sastra, a customer of her store, invited her personally to join the tour to India. “I was hesitant, because I’d never been out of the country before, much less to India,” she recalls. “All I knew about India was the films they show on TV and the erotic dances of the actors. But after Pak Gede Sara Sastra explained it to me, I wanted to go.” Ibu Sukerni admits that the first time she joined the India Tirta Yatra Tour, she was confused. She brought ten suitcases of clothes and almost US$20,000 in cash for the fourteen-day trip, worried that she needed to be prepared for any disaster that might befall her so far away. But in the end she had a fine time. “I couldn’t believe that all those places they talk about in the Mahabharata were really real. I had thought they were just stories, but I saw them with my own eyes,” she says. She also realized that she could boost her Balinese fashion business by bringing home fabrics and saris from India. Now she goes on the Tirta Yatra India Tour regularly, each time carrying home four or five suitcases filled with goods. “Each place we visit we take holy water,” she explains, “But usually I can only bring back five bottles in my bags because they’re already filled with Indian sari cloth and the clothes I’ve bought on our stopover in Singapore. Besides searching for holy water, I’m also there on business,” she laughs.

Wayan Satya, a young businessman from Ubud, also confesses to having some less-than-holy reasons for joining the Tirta Yatra India Tour. “After hours spent sitting on a plane, I was hoping to see some beautiful women and some nice houses, like you see in the Indian films on television. But when we arrived, I was shocked to see that the Indian women all had really dark skin.” Wayan was so disappointed with India that he cut his tour short and returned alone to Bali. “My motivation for going, besides searching for holy water, was to see if India is really like it is on television. It turned out that it wasn’t, that only a few places were like that. If I had known beforehand, I probably would have just stayed in Bali and prayed at Besakih Temple. It’s cleaner there, and why do we have to go so far to look for God anyway? After all, they say that God is everywhere.”

Indeed, the Tirta Yatra India Tour seems to have attracted as many critics as it has loyal customers. “Why do people have to go to India to find holy places?” asks Gus Kade (not his real name), a young intellectual who once debated Gede Sara Sastra in a local newspaper. “In Bali there’s thousands of temples and holy places. It would take a lifetime to visit them all.” Gus Kade claims that the Tirta Yatra India Tour is a luxury for the wealthy, one that has marked Balinese culture with undo Indian influence. Gus Kade, who is of the Brahmana or priestly caste of Bali, believes that Hinduism in Bali and Hinduism in India are quite different, and that there’s no need for Balinese to look to India for inspiration.

Gus Kade agrees that a tirta yatra, or a pilgrimage to holy sites to ask for holy water, is a spiritually beneficial practice. But he says that Balinese should be traveling to neighboring Java, not India. “If people want to tirta yatra, they should go to East Java, for example to the temple on Mount Semeru or to Trowulan in Mojokerto, the former site of the Majapahit Kingdom. According to history, that’s where Balinese came from, not the Hindustan Valley in India. Look at those people who come back from India. Now they’re bringing back the teachings of foreign sects like Sai Baba and Hare Krishna.”

“People who make comments like that don’t understand the Hindu religion and the holy books of the Vedas,” Gede Sara Sastra says in defense. “Hinduism is a universal religion, not just a Balinese religion.” He tells the story of a strange happening on one Tirta Yatra India Tour that he claims proves his point. “We were in the middle of praying at a shrine, and one of the tour participants went into a trance. He opened his bag and spread out the goods inside of it as if he was trading at the market. We took him to an Indian psychic. According to the psychic, the man had been possessed by a god named Ida Betara Melanting, who is known in Bali as the god of the market. It turned out that the man who went into trance was a merchant, the owner of a clothing store in Denpasar, and that the shrine we had been praying at was where Indian traders would come to ask for success in their business. That proved that Balinese religion and Indian religion are really the same,” he says.

The expense of the Tirta Yatra India Tour, as Gus Kade says, ensures that only the wealthiest of Balinese are able to join. But Gede Sara Sastra explains that he is not looking for money, but rather for spiritual satisfaction. “People say I’m selling religion. Of course, the tour does cost a lot of money, but that’s because it includes the plane ticket, four-star hotels, meals and a guide. But I don’t look at it just as a business, because in fact the profit I make is quite small. Sometimes I even lose money. The important thing for me is to do a service. If I can help people, I’m happy.” He says he is proud that after ten years in business, demand for the Tirta Yatra India Tour keeps growing. With luck, he says, the money he’s made will pay for his son to study next year in India. “Good deeds are often misunderstood,” he concludes. “But I believe in Karma. If I’ve done the right thing, I’ll be blessed for it in the end.”



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