Many religious theme parks, each dedicated to a different religion, have sprung up recently and gained widespread popularity. With reference to the Anandsagar religious theme park in the pilgrim-town of Shegaon, Maharashtra, India, this essay suggests that religious theme parks are evolving tourist attractions with profound impacts in managing religious heritage and tourism in the state of Maharashtra. Anandsagar spreads over 350 acres of land, including a 55-acres lake and an island that houses a spiritual centre. The park features large-scale sculptures, tableaus, and installations that tell mythological and religious stories. Volunteers and charitable donations make it accessible and affordable. The area’s social economic setting has been altered by the growth of tourist-oriented services like resorts, cottages, and eateries. This has helped in reshaping the tourist-leisure relationship.
Religion encompasses feelings and rituals as well as a moral compass for communities. In many conflicts, it has served as the basis for alliances. Religious identity is formed and influenced by both individual and group experiences and interactions. Increasing numbers of people are traveling for religious reasons, which has an effect on their pockets. There is nothing new about religious tourism, however. Religious theme parks are man-made structures with religious themes designed to attract and satisfy tourists, and thus are ‘not traditionally sacred places, but instead fanciful landscapes. The majority of these are inspired by Disneyland’s representation of a themed environment. Religious theme parks ‘are bound together by their use of theme park technology and their amalgamation of staged authenticity, deception, representations of reality, and reality. While promoters of such parks intend to provide visitors with a ‘spiritual experience and strengthen their religious-cultural identity,’ these parks eventually function as commercial ventures and tourist attractions. These parks’ most frequently levelled criticisms centre on their commercialization, Disneyfication, inauthenticity, and depictions of specific religious sects. However, proponents of such religious theme parks defend the commodification critique by claiming that they generate visitor interest in various facets of religion through information and appeal (Wollons, 2018).
One could argue that the concept of a religious theme park in Hinduism in India is not novel. With 330 million gods in the Hindu pantheon, there has always been an interest in what these gods did in human form, where they lived, and the miracles they performed. This is both a subject of interest and a matter of practical necessity. Pilgrimage is a religious practice that entails visits to sacred locations ranging from natural sacred landscapes to pilgrim towns. In the case of natural sacred landscapes, the geography is embedded with divinities, legends and myths, making all physical features objects of deification. The religious theme parks’ settings shape visitor perceptions of religion and tourism. The rise in middle-class consumer culture is also a factor in the popularity of religious theme parks. There are no class distinctions in religious theme parks, as opposed to theme parks that perpetuate and reinforce class distinctions due to their exclusivity. As a result of their emphasis on inclusiveness and service to the community, they tend to erase class distinctions (Shinde, 2021).
Anandsagar as a Tourist Attraction System
Shri Gajanan Maharaj is a saint who is highly regarded for his miracles and charitable works. Following his demise, his followers founded the Shri Gajanan Maharaj Sansthan (SGMS) to preserve his shrine, carry on his work, and offer services to pilgrims seeking his blessings. Since its inception in 2003, thousands of visitors have passed through Anandsagar’s majestic gates, confirming the promoters’ vision. While a discussion of religious and spiritual motivations is beyond the scope of this review, it will be demonstrated that Anandsagar fits comfortably within the concept of a tourist attraction system. The park’s religious content is evident in its architecture, structure, displays, fittings, and canvases. Dozens of fixtures and dioramas depict popular Hindu mythology legends. The swinging footbridge that links the island to the mainland is modelled after Haridwar’s famous Laxman-Jhoola cable bridge. All aspects of the bridge are meant to highlight religious symbolism via peacocks, birds, and other sacred animals. Numerous sculptures and tableaux depict stories affiliated with well-known Hindu saints. A major attraction at Anandsagar is the ‘Light and Sound show centred on musical fountains’, which takes place in a 3500+ seat amphitheatre. The show is intended to disseminate Sant Shri Gajanan Maharaj’s teachings and to highlight identity and progress.
A dedicated Children’s Park features over 20 large-scale rides, an electronic museum, and computer toys, while several restaurants serve a variety of Indian cuisine. This section of the park is the most popular throughout the day. A miniature train winds its way through the park. The entrance plaza, which features a massive portal reminiscent of a royal palace’s entry gate, is also an attraction. This collection reflects founders’ philosophy Sarva dharma sambhav’ (all religions are equal) in terms of its approach to building a theme park accessible to people of all faiths. True to its mission, Anandsagar is an attraction with a myriad of luxuries designed to keep visitors in Shegaon for an extended period. The park has grown in popularity because its greenery and landscape provide a haven for people seeking recreational opportunities in the surrounding dry region. While Anandsagar was founded on religious ideology and content, it has evolved into a self-contained tourist attraction that caters to recreational rather than religious needs. Anandsagar attracts people of all ages, genders, and religious backgrounds (including non-Hindus) because of the variety of activities available. Shegaon’s visitor population used to be dominated by devotees and the elderly, but after the arrival of Anandsagar, the demographics began to shift. Families with children are now much more prevalent. Anandsagar is also increasingly being used for recreational purposes by locals (De, 2019).
The temple of Shri Gajanan Maharaj is the primary nucleus of Shegaon. Still, Anandsagar, with its religious and recreational offerings, is quickly emerging as a ‘must-see attraction’ and a secondary nucleus due to its rapid development. Anandsagar, as a secondary nucleus, may not be a ‘major ‘ factor for pilgrims visiting Shegaon, but it does become a part of their itinerary as a result of its location. More importantly, it serves as the primary meeting point for visitors looking for a day trip from the surrounding area. In any case, it has given Shegaon a new dimension in terms of tourism. The park Anandsagar is a destination for those seeking recreation, as it provides a comprehensive package of activities. Various nuclei exist within Anandsagar, including a meditation centre, a light and sound show, boat rides, and resort-style lodging, all nestled within a religious fabric. This is the newly constructed ‘spirit of place’ for Anandsagar’s conversion to a religious theme park (Shinde, 2021).
The information provided by the markers helps tourists locate the nuclear aspects they are interested in. Anandsagar has a number of prominent landmarks. The park is widely advertised at Shegaon’s train and bus stations, and many rickshaw drivers encourage visitors to visit as soon as they arrive. Each shrine of Gajanan Maharaj has an SGMS-managed information centre, as well as all pilgrim lodgings. Buses from the SGMS system serve as a visual cue. Word of mouth is, however, the most important indicator in the case of Anandsagar. The park is a well-known tourist destination, and visitors plan their overnight stays accordingly. Because of its approach and design, Anandsagar serves as a marker in and of itself. There are several replicas of ancient Hindu monuments on display here. Virtual reality is also being used to help people grow spiritually by exposing them to the saint’s philosophy and teachings and a broader understanding of Hinduism and its traditions. Visitors can use these markers to spread the word about Anandsagar (Shinde, 2015).
Annual pilgrimage has begun to bring economic benefits to Shegaon, although the park itself does not make any money. Since the park opened, the parched and arid region has seen a significant economic boost. If rural areas are turned into urban tourist destinations, it’s a win-win situation for the local economies that rely on tourism for their livelihoods. Some locals are dissatisfied with the ‘disparity of economic advantages from the religious tourism market,’ and it appears that a religious institution such as SGMS is contributing to this animosity. In addition, because the place gives no pretenses about what it is or how it is integrated into a single Hindu temple, the typical criticism of a lack of authenticity is absent from the discussion. On the contrary, it’s something that many pilgrims have expressed a desire to have, and it gives them an additional reason to include a fun side trip in their religious journeys. There are no critiques of commercialization in the religious theme park, owing to the park’s management and operation by religious charities committed to inclusivity. The site’s ‘religious authority is enhanced through the active participation of devout volunteers and the site’s operation by charitable, religious organizations. Another critical distinction is the geographical aspect.
Anandsagar lacks the zeal necessary to convert tourists to pilgrims. Instead, they offer expressive opportunities for pilgrims and devotees to extend their stay in a pilgrim destination and provide recreational alternatives. While western theme parks are anchored by a single strong theme (most often biblical), Hindu theme parks like Anandsagar exhibit a high degree of eclecticism and various gods, deities, and legends to the Hindu’s religion nature. The religious resource base is diverse and syncretic, and it contains hundreds of sects and sectarian traditions. Additionally, while performances and active visitor engagement appear to be necessary in western parks, they are almost absent in Anandsagar’s case, where the need to recreate a remote place in time and space is not felt. With regard to maintaining the viability of a Anandsagar religious theme park, religious institutions may find this task difficult. Because of their philanthropic nature, they are unable to charge as much as other amusement parks do. As a result, they depend on donations and volunteers to fund and maintain their operations. All of this is directly related to the types of visitors and the frequency of their visits. Several rides at the park have been closed in recent years, and this may serve as a cautionary tale for theme park operators in the future. (Shinde, 2020).
Traditionally, theme park guests have expressed a desire for food to be served quickly so they can return to the entertainment. Food can be incorporated into the exhibition by being subtly integrated into specific themes. Indeed, food service has evolved into a source of fantasy fulfilment for the millions of guests who visit theme parks each year, and many offer ethnic-themed festivals. Eateries can function as a showcase for a variety of ethnic cuisines. The park themes are not always conducive to food-related themes. The food theme should be completely integrated into the rest of the event. The food facilities at the theme park should be dispersed throughout the park and designed to reflect the unique scenes of their neighbouring attractions.
This paper makes the case that Anandsagar is more than just a religious theme park; it’s also a tourist attraction that caters to the needs of pilgrims and tourists alike, many of whom come from less affluent populations in the region. These findings show that religious theme parks are not only places for religious and mythological escapism, but they are also places where a religious devotee can enjoy the escapism that tourists can enjoy. Theme parks provide an escape through their allure. However, the positive image of Anandsagar as a tourist attraction is overshadowed by any discussion of the magic’s benefits to the region in a different way. While Anandsagar is an example of this trend, other religious theme parks in India are also trying to package religious spectacles and religious teachings in a way that modern tourists can enjoy. The peaceful and beautiful surroundings of the park, which are described as peaceful and quiet, provide an ideal setting for contemplation and spiritual experiences. A person’s ability to contemplate Hindu values and heritage in comparison to one’s own spiritual values and heritage is greatly enhanced by the combination of educational opportunities and the peacefulness of the surrounding environment.
De, A., 2019. Religious Journeys in India: Pilgrims, Tourists, and Travelers.
Shinde, K.A., 2021. Religious theme parks as tourist attraction systems. Journal of Heritage Tourism, 16(3), pp.281-299.
Shinde, K., 2020. The spatial practice of religious tourism in India: a destinations perspective. Tourism Geographies, pp.1-21.
Shinde, K.A., 2015. Religious tourism and religious tolerance: insights from pilgrimage sites in India. Tourism Review.
Wollons, R., 2018. Imagined Place. Religious Journeys in India: Pilgrims, Tourists, and Travelers, p.281.