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A religious building site on the Bukit peninsula, in the south of Bali represents Bali’s philosophy on religious tolerance and may very well be the only one of its kind in the world. It is also a reminder of a powerful message for religious tolerance for all of us to take in, take back home, and spread.
In times when a big part of the world’s population is being bombarded by news of wars and atrocities shrouded in a veil of religious zeal and intolerance, we, the ones being bombed by the media should reflect on two things:
Firstly, we should try to discern what the real original motives for those wars and violent acts are. To do that, we should try to investigate or at least guess what motivates the leaders of the different sides to create and perpetuate conflict. If we conclude that their ultimate motives are not religious but of a different nature, then we should ask ourselves why they are vested in religious robes. Finding these answers is up to you and outside the scope of these writings.
Secondly, we need to ask ourselves whether we want or not to be religiously tolerant. And the answer to this question is really, really, up to you. But if you decide that you want to enjoy and practice your own religion or belief in peace and therefore embrace religious diversity and respect and enjoy how others also live their faith in peace, then you will appreciate very much Bali’s religious tolerance.
Bali is predominantly and traditionally a Balinese-Hindu island.
Bali-Hinduism is present everywhere, all the time.
Bigger or smaller temples with different degrees of importance in the religion’s temple echelon sprinkle the island. Their beautiful open architecture whose walls with intricate carvings seem to organically grow up from the ground is unequivocal. You are in Bali and Bali is Hindu. Big island-wide festivities like Galungan, Kuningan and Nyepi are carried out –following the Balinese Calendar – once a year. The Full Moon (Purnama) ceremony, smaller in scale, adds another 12 days out of the year when all Balinese will take time to gather in a religious ritual. Smaller ceremonies, celebrations and festivities at regional, community or family level fill out the remaining days of the year. Daily ritualistic prayers are performed at plain sight every single day. All and each ceremony(upacara) require specific and distinctive Balinese attire thus adding to the sense of Bali’s daily religious-spirit presence.
So yes, you are in Bali and Bali is Hindu.
But Bali is tolerant. People from other Indonesian islands and people from countries all over the world land on the island in search of a better life. Bali accommodates them and accommodates their religions. On Fridays Muslims can be seen donning their worshipping robes and caps going or coming from the mosques. On Sundays Christians can be seen flocking to their respective church services. Buddhist temples, although less, are found in different parts of the island and Buddhist monks can be spotted walking barefoot up and down the streets of the Bukit.
Yes Bali is tolerant, but you may argue that is not any different than some other cosmopolitan city or region of the world. And you may be right.
But take a look at this:
As a surfer that surfs the Bukit on the wet season, you have probably passed by this place. It’s called Puja Mandala. A center for multi-faith worship that may be unique in the world and which is located on one of the hills going down towards Nusa Dua where you most likely ride your bike or car to catch your dose of clean, glassy waves. You may have inadvertently passed by it or you may have noticed it and given it little thought.
Let’s give it some then.
For religious tolerance… and world peace (ehem…)
This site accommodates the worshipping houses of 5 world religions (the 5 religions recognized by the legal system in Indonesia), a Catholic church, a Protestant church, a Mosque, a Buddhist Temple, and of course, a Balinese-Hindu Temple. As you would expect, the site did not organically rise up from the ground, that is, it was not created without pre-planning or express purpose. It couldn’t have. How could it? How likely would it be to have 5 different religious congregations build their worshipping sites next to one another’s just because? No, it wouldn’t happen. It just wouldn’t. So it had to be planned even before the land was available. But, by who? And most importantly, why?
To answer that (we seem to be in the searching-for-answers mood), imagine this: imagine creating a site where the 5 major world religions coexist side by side, where their worshippers can greet each other before entering their temple and converse when they leave, where the sole sight of those 5 temples lying next to each other is awe-inspiring, where the seemingly unthinkable becomes reality. Imagine a site like no other in the world, a site that defies common experience that defies common knowledge that defies common sense even. Who would come to such a site? Who would visit it? Who? And more importantly, how many of them who?
You are now probably imagining that the express motive behind such site, this site, was tourism. Because such a site as you imagined had to, forcefully, be a touristic attraction. It is near a touristy area, which is in turn, in a very touristy island. It had to be an attraction that would bring busloads of tourists. And get this, tourists of any religion, and humanists, and agnostics, and even atheists!
You are imagining that somebody or a group of somebodies realized how improbable and unique it would be to create such a site and hence what an incredible tourist attraction it could become.
And you are right. One of the main motives, if not the prime motive, was for the site to become a touristic attraction.
In fact, the Puju Mandala meaning Praying Circle, Praying Arena, Praying Theaterwas envisioned by Indonesia’s tourism pioneer, MrJoop Ave. MrJoop Ave, who passed away in 2014 at the age of 79, had an extensive career serving the Indonesian state in the fields of diplomacy and foreign affairs. But he is renowned for having played a leading role in the development of Indonesia’s tourism industry under Suharto’s regime, first when appointed Director General of Tourism in 1982 and then as Indonesian Prime Minister of Tourism (1993-1998).
So now your mind and its ill-begotten cynicism are at full throttle getting the best of you. “A pre-meditated use of the concept of interfaith harmony for tourism purposes debases and hackneys its very spiritual core”, you say.
So this is when passing by it you have to stop your vehicle and stop to think for a bit. Or maybe go and catch the swell first and think about this when you are at home or at your hotel room telling yourself that you need to do some yoga exercises but you can’t quite get to it.
So let’s think. The improbability of having two temples of different religions naturally rise from the ground seems to underline man’s zeal of his own religion and fear of his neighbors’. Religious authorities don’t like competition. Every faithful that crosses to the other side is a blow that could ultimately undermine the religion’s authority and its very existence if another faithful is not won over at the same time. So yes, religions compete for their share but they don’t like to compete so much in the open. They don’t build a temple next to each other’s just like that. It may happen, and surely in such a big world and infinite time it has happened, but 5 different religions on the same site, at the same time? That, my cynical or uninterested friend, is awesome.
And the awesomeness number one is this: religious authorities agreed and gave full support to this project somehow challenging the notion that religions, religious leaders and religious people watch the other with fear and mistrust.
Awesomeness number two is this: those temples are not made out of cardboard, they are not part of a movie set, they are not phony temples with the sole intention of attracting tourists to take pictures (there are no entrance fees). They are real. Religious services have their schedules and community classes and groups are regularly held in them. People attend and worship at their respective temples and they do so knowing that next door people of different faiths are doing just the same knowing both have the right to do so and the duty to respect each other. People know that harmony within and without lies on that very principle. As one faithful put it, “I feel a special feeling when I come to pray here. It’s hard to explain, but I feel like I live in a more harmonious and safe world knowing that my neighbors and other people are also at their own temples and that we respect each other.”
Awesomeness number three: this is in Bali. A small island of the Indonesian Archipelago with a unique religion and unique culture that were it not be what it is, it would be clamoring for stricter rules, regulations and prohibitions to contain the threat of being swallowed by foreign influences. Yet Bali opens its arms and receives and welcomes people from all over the world (you need to make it through the Indonesian Immigration filter first), and welcomes and respects their worshipping practices no matter what religion they adhere to. And that is why Joop Ave and his colleagues chose Bali. Another faithful, “I wish this could be an inspiration for other parts of the world. I wish people could see how we can all live together and experience our faiths in harmony”
Awesomeness number four: we take it for granted. We’ve been in Bali for a while and religious harmony and tolerance is taken for granted. You probably did not think much about this site’s powerful statement on your way to or from your surf session at Nusa Dua.
Awesomeness number five: because you have been to Bali or you live in Bali you know that even in such a delicate context inter-religious harmony is possible. And that’s a valuable mind framework in these days. It is. Mr. Joop Ave also understood the importance that such message would send to the rest of the regions of Indonesia. In fact, he wished the site could become a beam of hope for harmonious inter-religious living for the rest of the world.
Awesomeness number six: this tiny island that receives millions of visitors every year, that is the permanent or temporary home to hundreds of thousands if not millions of outsiders, that is being influenced and partly re-shaped by those millions of people and their cultures, this tiny island, we say, has, is and hopefully will, continue to influence back those millions of people so they can take back home a strong and real message of harmony and tolerance, no matter what their own religion is. No matter what their beliefs are.
Be aware of it, take it in, take it back home, and spread it.