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Observing religious rituals as tourists

I encourage you to travel, to learn about different cultures, their real customs and traditions. But I also want you to be polite, sensitive and respectful. While doing my research for an upcoming visit to Indonesia, I came across the Frommer’s “Favorite Experience in Indonesia” below.

“Observing Open-Air Public Cremations: Hindus believe that cremation is the only way a soul can be freed of its earthly body and travel to its next incarnation (or to enlightenment), so cremations are joyous occasions, full of floats and fanfare that can resemble a Mardi Gras parade. Complicated towers hold the body, carried aloft by cheering men. At the burning ground, the body is placed in a receptacle resembling a winged lion, a bull, or some other fabulous creature, and is set on fire. It’s beautiful and awesome, a marvelous show of pageantry and faith, and yet a natural part of everyday life. Western visitors are welcomed.” Source: Frommers

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The way the author has described a Hindu cremation ceremony as a tourist spectacle is totally outrageous display of cultural and religious insentitivity. A Hindu funeral is not a Mardi Gras parade, but a solemn time of observance where the entire community mourns over the deceased and provides comfort to the family. The men are not cheering, but chanting God’s name. The body is cremated so it can go back to where it came from, that is soil of the Earth.

“Regular Balinese cremation ceremonies (known as Ngaben), have become major tourist attractions in the recent past. The tourism industry as a whole, with its big-time capital investment and resort development, has worked to change the social structure of Balinese society and as such has had serious implications for the commercialization of the cremation ritual” according to the writers of Bali Global Market. According to Prof Ngurah Bagoes, a professor in the Faculty of Letters at Denpasar’s Udayana University, “Such hype is rarely accompanied by a deep understanding of religious essentials”.

How would you feel if a foreigner comes to visit USA, drops by your mother’s funeral uninvited, takes photos, and goes back to his home country to share it with his friends on his Flicker page? To avoid this unnecessary intruition by western visitors, non Hindus are not allowed to enter many of the temples across Asia (including the famous Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal), and only muslim tourists can visit the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. For this reason, it is important to ensure that you are aware of any funeral customs within the country you are visiting, whether it’s Hindu, Japanese, or vietnamese funerals, or anywhere around the world. As a visitor, it is important to understand and respect these sacred customs, whether you understand them or not.

See tourists kissing during a Hindu Royal Cremation Ceremony in Ubud.

Surely, we all want to learn about other religious customs, but we also have to be mindful of where we are and what are the circumstances. To take someone else’s tragedy and make it your entertainment does not portray a sign of humanity. Forming an opinion based on limited biased information such as those found in guidebooks is fueling ignorance. Many of the traditions you see around the world have a rich history spanning thousands of years. They have meaning and significance, which can not always be interpreted visually. That is why I recommend you get to know the locals and allow them to teach you the correct way of observing and interpreting local customs.

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Sucheta Rawal

Sucheta is an award winning food and travel writer, who has traveled to 100 countries across 7 continents. She is also the founder and editor of 'Go Eat Give' and author of 'Beato Goes To' series of children's books on travel.

3 thoughts on “Observing religious rituals as tourists

  1. Thank you for sharing your perspective on this. As we travel to other countries we not only represent ourselves as individuals but also our country. Ancient cultures are different from the western ways in many ways and tourists who respect the differences stand to learn from them. Thank you for highlight this important code of conduct all travelers should bear in mind.

  2. While I am not Hindu nor a follower of any religion for that matter, I will agree that the comment of the author is offensive and ridiculous. I wonder which Hindu funeral the person went to in which people rejoiced like it is Mardi Gras. It may be true that Hindus believe that after cremation, the soul is freed, but Christians also often say that when people die, they “went to a better place.” I myself don’t believe in heaven or the Hindu moksha, but I think it would be awfully offensive and ridiculous to say that Christians rejoice after a person dies and that Christian funerals are joyful festivals like Mardi Gras just simply because Christians believe that certain people go to heaven after death. I have never heard of a Christian funeral being a joyful ceremony, and to say it is very ignorant and offensive. Likewise, the same is true about Hindu or any other funerals. Maybe there are a few crazy people out there who rejoice at funerals, but to generalize the funerals of any religion as joyful is complete nonsense.

    1. I also to correct myself and say that the author spoke about the cremation, not the funeral itself exactly. Although even if it is a cremation the author is referring to, and even if it is colorful, and even if it is specifically referring to in Indonesia; I think that would still be a lot like to going to a Christian funeral in Paris, listening to the music, and saying that Christian funerals in Paris are joyous events because they have such harmonic and beautiful music.

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