Friday, February 20, 2009

M.P. Tumanggor: Pioneer of spiritual tourism

Every regent in Indonesia must understand the importance of religious tolerance among followers of different faiths.

But only Master Parulian Tumanggor, the regent of Dairi regency, has acted on this understanding by pioneering the development of a unique spiritual tourist attraction.

The site, Taman Wisata Iman (TWI) Sidikalang in Sidikalang, North Sumatra, offers visitors the chance to experience each of Indonesia's five major faiths: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism and Buddhism.

Its setting, in a beautiful mountainous area above the western flank of Lake Toba, adds to the spiritual atmosphere.

"My main aim in developing TWI was to help people understand the real tenets of these faiths, so that religious tolerance can prevail," said Tumanggor, 58, who is also the current general chairman of the Association of Indonesian Regencies' Administration (APKASI).

"I think the source of conflicts we faced during and after the economic crisis of 1998 was because of our failure to understand the true meaning of our religions."

He said that his own experience as a victim of religious intolerance - he grew up in a Batak family with a strong tradition of spirituality in Medan - was also a main driver behind the TWI project.

"I've also heard many stories about religious intolerance from my friends and relatives. Such experiences strengthened my determination to develop the TWI project."

Since it opened six years ago, the TWI, about 140 kilometers southwest of the North Sumatra capital Medan, has become a popular spiritual site and appears to be fulfilling its original aim.

It is not uncommon to see a Christian, for example, entering the Islamic complex to watch the simulation of haj pilgrimage around a miniature Ka'abah, or a Muslim woman in a veil entering the Christian complex to observe a service. And so with the Hindu and Buddhist complexes. The park gives visitors the chance to understand the tenets of religions other than their own.

It is also a place for followers of these faiths to join together in prayer, as happened several days after a massive earthquake hit Nias island and parts of the western coastal area of North Sumatra, including Dairi, when leaders of all the religions in the regency organized a joint prayer for the disaster victims.

The number of visitors is increasing every year, with more than 300,000 last year, not only from Indonesia but also from around the world, including from Brunei Darussalam, Singapore, Malaysia and Germany.

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