Ramayana of India, Loved in Indonesia: How the great Indian epic ties India to Asia and ASEAN in an unbreakable bond

This article first appeared in DailyO on 1st May, 2019.

To mark 70 years of diplomatic ties between India and Indonesia, Jakarta released a special commemorative stamp — what is unique about this gesture is the fact that the stamp was premised on the Ramayana, India’s legendary epic.

As per a statement by the Embassy of India, “The stamp, designed by renowned Indonesian sculptor Padmashri Bapak Nyoman Nuarta, featured a scene from Ramayana in which Jatayu valiantly fought to save Sita. A specially signed version of the stamp will be on display at the Philately Museum in Jakarta.”

A glorious moment: Indonesia releases a commemorative Ramayana-themed stamp. (Source: PTI)

One can observe the growing strategic significance of the overarching ASEAN region as the cynosure of all eyes from the global prism. The ASEAN countries are among the fastest growing economies, as an addendum to India and China — they are also among the most favoured for foreign direct investments. From a strategic perspective, the region is key because it remains in the middle of Asia, the Indian and the Pacific oceans.

As a case in point, Indonesia has grown as a significant country, taking rapid strides in the ASEAN region. In one of his statements, the previous US secretary for defence, James Mattis, called Indonesia a fulcrum in Southeast Asia. In a first time for the country, Indonesia has also recently completed voting to elect their president, vice-president and members of national, provincial, and local assemblies, all at the same time.

India has not just transformed the Look East Policy to Act East Policy but has also set up a special Act East department under the Government of Assam, to continue specific and sustained efforts aimed at the ASEAN countries. In addition, India has also begun to pursue relations with the ASEAN countries through enhanced soft power diplomacy — by highlighting civilisational links.

Therefore, the special commemorative stamp released by Indonesia comes as a certain enabler towards the same.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in one of his addresses affirmed how the Ramayana connects India and the ASEAN region. “The Ramayana continues to be a valuable shared legacy in the ASEAN region and the Indian subcontinent,” he said. When it comes to enhancing cultural and soft power diplomacy with ASEAN member countries, India has kept Ramayana and Buddhism as the main catalysts in forging deeper, meaningful relationships.

At the ASEAN-India commemorative summit held in January 2018, New Delhi invited cultural groups from the eight member-countries of the ASEAN region to present performances based on the Ramayana.

Familiar figures: The Ramayana connects India and the entire ASEAN region. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In relation to Indonesia, Sonal Mansingh, member of Parliament, in one of her columns titled Ram Diplomacy, had succinctly written of how Indonesian President Joko Widodo had once hosted Prime Minister Narendra Modi and members of the visiting delegation for a special meal  During the banquet, he surprised all attendees with a small box containing a figure depiction of a famous character of the Ramayana.

Indonesia’s fascination towards Ramayana is not new — the country has taken inspiration from both Sage Valmiki’s Ramayana and Tamil poet Kamban’s Ramayana and thus, the Ramayana remains in the imagination and cultural milieu of the country.

Indonesia has also hosted the International Festival for Ramayana, inviting countries from the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia to perform in the field of theatre. I vividly remember 13 years ago, in 2006, I first visited Bali Island to represent India at the International Festival of Ramayana. We were an ensemble from the Chinmaya Yuva Kendra that performed Kamban Tharum Katchi, Ramayana from the eyes of the Tamil poet Kamban. The sound and light show had playback songs by inspirational singers SP Balasubrahmanyam and Vani Jairam, among others.

The play that had a Balinese translation at the end of each scene was warmly received by the native population. The festival had participation from the US as well and it was heartening to see the participants of the ensemble from the US were also non-resident Indians. That is perhaps the impact Ramayana has from a global perspective.

In May 2018, during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the country, both Widodo and Modi signed a MoU between the Layang-layang Museum in Jakarta and the Kite Museum of Ahmedabad — at the signing of this MoU, both countries jointly organised the first kite exhibition on the theme of Ramayana and Mahabharata at the national monument in Jakarta. What is pertinent to note here is the fact that the Ramayana part of the proceedings was organised by the Indonesian curators and organisers.

Common skies: Indonesian president Joko Widodo flying kites along with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Source: AP) 

Being a Muslim-majority country has not prevented Indonesia from embracing the Ramayana in unique ways — each and every interpretation deserves careful study and analysis. The performers of the famous Ramayana ballet at the Prambanan temple are all Muslims — even when it is during the occasion of Ramzan; the performers participate while observing their customary fast.

Going beyond barriers: Despite being a Muslim-majority country, Indonesia has embraced the Ramayana with total love. (Source: PTI)

In fact, the first time Indonesia actually released stamps featuring characters of Ramayana was back in 1962. India-based N Sridevi, who has collected over 300 stamps in the last two decades, featuring scenes from the Ramayana, has commented on how Ramayana’s expanse in Southeast Asia is discernible in countries like Indonesia and Thailand, where they have taken to represent the epic in several ways. In her possession are stamps dating back to 1962 that were released by the Indonesian government then, with select scenes from the Ramayana.

She has also gone on record to state, “The epic originated in India but has been a source of artistic inspiration to countries across South-East Asia and references to it can be found in the cultures of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Indonesia does a Ramayana ballet.”

The Ramayana has always traversed Indonesia with a variety of interpretations of it. Another very interesting example is of the Ayu Balan dance troupe from Bali that seeks inspiration from Sita in the Ramayana. The troupe leader — a Muslim named Bulan Trisna Djelantik — has affirmed that the Ramayana goes beyond the barriers of ‘religion’ and spoken about the fact that it is a philosophy of life and integral to every house in Indonesia.

For the people of Java, their culture is not possible without the Ramayana.

In 2012, this ballet was anointed by the Guinness Book as the most continuously staged performance in the world.

Bulan Trisna Djelantik, a Muslim artist, has affirmed how the Ramayana goes beyond the barriers of religion. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In order to give appropriate strategic focus to the immense potential of growing soft power diplomacy between India and Indonesia, as a first step, Indonesia could be included in the Ramayana circuit that is envisioned and implemented by the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India. India has successfully ensured that Nepal is an active and enabling part of the Ramayana circuit. Therefore, the time is ripe for countries in the ASEAN region, in specific, Indonesia, to be brought into the Ramayana circuit.

As India’s Act East compliments Indonesia’s Look West, efforts like this can certainly bring both countries closer.

“In today’s global information age, victory often depends not on whose army wins, but on whose story wins,” once asserted American political scientist John Arquilla. This underlines the vital significance of soft power and the emerging need to strongly communicate in order to carve a global winning narrative.

The expanse of Ramayana in Indonesia and ASEAN countries is a story that must be keenly observed as it is evolving as time goes by. What is now needed is a futuristic strategic dimension to cement these soft power relations into civilisational pillars.

“India is my favourite place to visit on the planet, my spiritual battery.”

Eddie Stern is a rockstar for Yoga in the West. A student of Pattabhi Jois, Eddie has taken Ashtanga Yoga not just to the West but to the global audience at large. At a young age, he took to alcohol and narcotics but soon transformed and embraced Yoga. His students include Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow, to name a few, and he has also shared the gift of Yoga with the Chicago Bulls and the Kansas City Chiefs. His movement “Put down your guns, pick up your mats” is an inspiring case study.

In this eye-opening conversation, he calls India his “spiritual battery”. Read on:

Can you tell us about your journey? What inspired you to take to Yoga?

Quite honestly, I was inspired to begin practicing Yoga because I was on a spiritual quest. In the 1980s, Yoga was primarily thought of as a path of Self-knowledge. There was no wellness or wellbeing industry. While everyone who was teaching and practicing recognised that there were auxiliary health benefits to be gained, those health gains were so that you could have a fit vehicle for realizing the Self. If you are sick, have low energy, or are unenthusiastic, it is harder to focus the mind. There were only a few Yoga schools in Manhattan, and all of the teachings were couched in esoteric terms, and within the Hindu mystical traditions. It was quite wonderful, and completely changed my mind, my perspective on myself and the world, and eventually my life.

“I was inspired to begin practicing Yoga because I was on a spiritual quest.” (all images sourced from Mr. Stern himself)

At an early age you took to alcohol and narcotics, how did you transform to embrace Yoga?

Drugs and alcohol were a way that I could change my mental state in an easy fashion. I stopped all of those things when I was around nineteen or so because I was reading books on Yoga and hanging out with a couple of people who had practiced yoga in the 1970s. From what I was reading and hearing, the higher states of Yoga were the same types of states that I experienced on psychedelics. And what I was truly looking for was a deeper, or what some people call higher, state of consciousness. There’s no coincidence that there is a similar wording for the two: getting high, and higher states of consciousness. The second one – the higher states – puts you in touch with your true, inner nature, and the first – getting high – keeps you stuck in the world of gravity: eventually you have to come down. Another plus side to Yoga was you could get to deeper states on your own, and stay in those states without the side effects of psychedelics (or wasting money) – or the risk of a “bad trip”. So I started focusing on an inward journey through meditation and chanting, and then later through asanas and pranayama. I left all of the external methods behind.

Tell us about your teacher, Pattabhi Jois? What drew you to him and how do you contemporise his teachings through Ashtanga Yoga?

I met Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in 1990 when I was traveling through India looking for Yoga teachers and visiting temples. I was drawn to him because I felt that the Yoga he was teaching was the most direct of all the practices I had experienced so far. I practiced with him from 1991 until he passed away in 2009, visiting him in India once or twice a year, and hosting his visits to America from 2000 until 2007 (and one co-hosted visit in 1993).

I don’t see that I purposefully contemporise his practice or teachings, but I do filter them through the lens of an American, and can adapt the language and messaging to the needs of the Western practitioner. But the practice itself is excellent in and of itself. It does not need to be changed or adapted for the West in any radical manner. Yoga speaks on its own, if the practice is a true practice. It doesn’t need embellishments from a teacher. We should simply be conduits for the knowledge passed down through the practices the Yogis have left us. We’ll have our own experiences, but those experiences seem, by and large, to mimic the experience of others: when you know yourself, you know that same thing that everyone else experiences as themselves. That’s unity consciousness.

You are an Ashtanga Yoga specialist. Ashtanga Yoga is a relatively new concept for the US… Does this resonate with the native communities? How has this impacted the people in the US and worldwide?

Ashtanga Yoga has been in the States since Pattabhi Jois’s first visit in 1975, and has been steadily growing since then. In 1975, there were about 30 people practicing in California. At present there are tens of thousands, if not more, in practically every state. The primary series video that we recorded in California in 1993 has been viewed almost four million times on YouTube. His teachings have had a huge impact. Also, it was really through Pattabhi Jois’s influence that the Vinyasa and Power Yoga movements came about. The first two teachers of “Power Yoga” were his students, and the word Vinyasa became a popular word in the Yogic lexicon because he introduced it to the West. T.K.V. Desikachar, Krishnamacharya’s son, was also introducing Vinyasa to the West, but in a much gentler fashion. It was Pattabhi Jois’s approach, that was adapted and then modified, that has become what is today called Vinyasa Yoga. Twenty years ago, “Vinyasa Yoga” or “Vinyasa Flow” as a type of a Yoga class, did not exist.

“…the practice itself is excellent in and of itself. It does not need to be changed or adapted for the West in any radical manner.”

In your view, how and in what ways has the world Yoga movement expanded in the US?

The Yoga movement in the US has expanded in the past thirty years, primarily in its sheer numbers. There were an estimated thirty-six million plus people in America practicing some form of Yoga in 2018. It is annually a seven billion dollar industry. Industries that foster positive growth, products that are beneficial to the world, and create stress-free work environments, are in my opinion, worthwhile industries to be engaged in. I do think, though, that there are too many Yoga mats for sale in the marketplace—they litter the planet like any other plastic. There is a trend toward recycled mats, and I hope those do less environmental harm.

Yoga is taught in public education, in prisons, in healthcare and in corporate environments. It is used to reduce gun-violence, and is used in addiction recovery. I think that Americans have made extremely good use of India’s gift of Yoga that it has given to the world. While there is some advertising and use of Yoga that I personally find unpalatable, for the larger part, Yoga seems to have settled in to America in very beneficial ways. I am sure that it will continue. American Yoga practitioners should strive to keep studying, to keep practicing, and to keep expanding their understanding of the deeper practices of Yoga in order to not stop at asanas. Sometimes we pay lip service to things like the yamas. It’s hard to sincerely practice them, but that is where it is all at. To be kind and honest is one of the highest Yogas, as far as I can see it. In fact, it’s the highest we can offer of our humanity, not just of Yoga.

Would you say Yoga is not just a fitness regime but a way of life? If yes, why?

Yoga is a practice, and like any other practice, you have to do it consistently, and for a long period of time, before the benefits it confers become a part of you. We can make big changes quickly, but transformation comes about slowly. In a fitness regime we can see quick gains, but they leave once we stop the regime. In Yoga, we transform ourselves into the level of consciousness that we are striving to reach, so that when we attain that level, there is no coming back; there is no loss of awareness because we have come to know who we are. When we know who we are, then there is nothing left to gain; and if there is nothing to gain, then there is nothing to lose as well.

Can give us a sense of the students you cater to?

I cater to anyone who walks into my Yoga school and wants to commit themselves to learning Yoga.

Can your share experiences of teaching Ashtanga Yoga to Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow, Chris Martin?

It is the same experience as teaching anyone who is dedicated, determined, makes an effort, and is focused on learning their practice: fully gratifying, encouraging, and joyful.

Yoga has captured the imagination of people all across the world. In your view, has India fully tapped into the potential of Yoga as its Soft Power? What are some of the opportunities and challenges going forward?

This is more of a political question so not one that I think I can answer well, as it is not my background. India is a great example of a country that has many soft powers, and it seems like the use of them is ingrained into the philosophical basis of the country: India has never invaded another country, it has philosophical systems that are practiced by millions as part of daily life, it has a tremendous capacity for tolerance, flexibility and openness.  India is the only country in the world where the Jews were not persecuted, and were embraced and welcomed. It has a great culture of art, music, architecture (more UNESCO sites than any other country), and is the birthplace of Hinduism, Buddhism (perhaps its most successful religious export) and Jainism – as well as Yoga.

How often do you visit India? Your impressions of India?

I’ve been visiting India pretty much every year since 1988, sometimes more than once a year. I’ve missed only a couple of years. It’s my favourite place to visit on the planet, and it is my spiritual home and spiritual battery.

“I’ve been visiting India pretty much every year since 1988, sometimes more than once a year.”

Can you tell us about your movement, “Put down your guns, pick up your mats”?

Yes, this is a program called the Urban Yogis, and it was born out of a program called LIFE Camp in South Jamaica, Queens, in NY. This is a particular area of NY that saw a tremendous amount of gun violence due to the crack trade in the 1980s and 1990s. A woman named Erica Ford started the program to protect the young kids of that area from going in the wrong direction. In 2012, she invited Deepak Chopra to meditate with a group of 75 kids and 25 adults who had all lost someone to gun violence in Queens, and he invited me to come along to teach them Yoga. That’s how it all started. Since then we’ve trained several hundred youth in the area in Yoga and meditation. Five of the young adults have since been trained as Yoga teachers, and they now work as wellness teachers in public schools in Queens and Brooklyn, reaching several hundred kids every week from elementary to high school. We’ve had partnerships with the Chicago Bulls and currently the Kansas City Chiefs (both American football teams), and the Urban Yogis are currently training public school teachers how to teach 5-10 minute long stress reduction and mindfulness practices in the classroom to include during the school day.

Tell us about your love for Sanskrit.

I started studying Sanskrit in 1989. I was drawn to the language from the chanting, homas, and pujas that I took part in at the Sivananda ashram both in NY and in India. During my first trip to Indi, I travelled throughout the country visiting temples, and I felt that both Yoga and a draw towards chanting came alive for me in a totally new way in the atmosphere of these holy places. When I got back to NY, I saw an ad for a weekend Sanskrit immersion with a teacher named Vyaas Houston, and I signed up. We had twelve hours of classes each day for a three-day weekend, and on the third night I had a dream that I was floating on an ocean of Sanskrit vowel sounds, and I remember distinctly feeling in the dream that the universe was stitched together through an ocean of Sanskrit, of sound. I continued studying with him for many years, memorising grammar tables, verses and texts, and eventually was trained in India on how to do rituals. Later Pattabhi Jois taught me how to chant some Upanishads, and I studied with two teachers in Mysore, Professor Varadarajan, and Swami Nitysthananda, who was then the head of correspondence for Ramakrishna Institute for Spiritual and Moral Education. We built the Ganesha temple in NYC in 2001, that Pattabhi Jois consecrated, with the prana pratishta performed by Pandit Ramachandra Athreiya and Pandit Rami Sivan shortly after 9/11.

Do you see an economic value for India in enhancing Yoga abroad? While there are stringent views vis-a-vis commodification of Yoga, the opposite is also true because it could enable India to export Yoga teachers abroad thereby generating employment?

I think that India is already creating economic value for itself and for many, many others through Yoga. It’s been a tremendous and unexpected boon to millions of people. In the 1980s and even in to the early 90s when I was starting as a teacher, it was ridiculous to think that you could make a living as a Yoga teacher. We taught as seva, and did other jobs for money. Now, not only is it possible to make a living teaching Yoga, there are many people who do extremely well with it—in India and in the West . There are many institutions that are running training programs that are attended by foreigners. It seems apparent at this stage that you do not need to be Indian to be an effective Yoga teacher, so I am not sure that the focus on exporting Yoga teachers is a necessary, primary goal. Perhaps the type of education that is already being conducted is a better place to focus.

While it is true that there are cultural facets that make it easier for Indians to grasp certain philosophical concepts and to have a natural feel for the purpose of Yoga, it’s also true that many of the newer generation have not grown up with Yoga at all. Many of the Indians practicing Yoga at my school in NYC started learning Yoga in America! The most important thing is that people are well trained, and understand that Yoga has originated from within Hinduism, and pay respect to the history, culture and purpose of Yoga.

India’s Tourism needs to move beyond the Taj Mahal

An economic impact report (2018) by the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) has said that India is expected to establish itself as the third largest travel and tourism economy by 2028 in terms of direct and total GDP and that the total number of jobs dependent directly or indirectly on the travel and tourism industry will increase from 42.9 million in 2018 to 52.3 million in 2028. Therefore, tourism has an untapped, huge potential in India. Each city in India has a fascinating story to tell and share, something that a contemporary traveller seeks.

There is much to do. As part of research to understand the boundless tourism potential of India, India Foundation’s Center for Soft Power speaks to travel experts who specialise in travel to India and those who are really passionate about coming up with unique ways in enhancing the image of India to inbound tourists. In this interview I spoke to Philippa Kaye of ‘Indian Experiences’ who strongly advocates for an India #BeyondTheTaj campaign. During the Interview, she shared some of the insights she has gained from her two decades of travelling to India. She is someone who is constantly striving to deliver something different.

Ms. Kaye has travelled extensively in India and is an active advocate for expanding Indian tourism beyond simply the Taj Mahal. (Source: All photos provided directly by Ms. Philippa Kaye)

Our exchange:

1. Please explain the genesis of of ‘Indian Experiences’.

Indian Experiences in its current incarnation is two-fold but both elements of it have the same end objective. I began specialising in travel to India in 1998. In 2015 I revisited standard sightseeing in all the major tourist destinations and was shocked at how dreadful it was. It was the same monologue of a dull history lesson that was preached at me from 17 years previously, as I was taken from monument to monument. Nothing had changed except that the shopping scams had become worse. I left each city having some sense of the monuments and some nice photographs, but no sense of the people, culture, food or any of the other reasons travellers, particularly the modern traveller, seek. I was working for a large travel company at the time in Delhi and curated a whole plethora of unique ways of sightseeing in each of these destinations but I couldn?t find anyone who was prepared to deliver something different. Fortunately, I then started to come across people who thought like me, who truly loved their home cities and wanted to showcase them as they believed the traveller wanted to see.  Their problem was that they were finding it difficult to get an avenue to market.  As I continued to explore and post my experiences on social media, the foreign travellers began to take note and started asking me how they could include the experiences they saw me having, into their clients? itineraries. They weren?t being offered anything new despite asking for something different and so it made sense for me to provide a platform whereby these experience providers can get their product out to the tour operators (and ultimately their clients) who were asking for them. The consulting part also started out of demand. I have sold holidays for years but my knowledge and understanding of India as a destination was not a scalable model. Then a few new tour operators and travel companies started approaching me for help to put together a product portfolio for them that would give them USPs in a crowded market. And existing India specialists asked for help with new product development which has led to producing new brochures and websites for them. India isn?t the one size fits all destination that many people sell it as. There is a whole host of different destinations, activities and experiences but people just don?t get to find out about them.  I?ve been approached by companies who had been told they needed to sell the Golden Triangle despite making it clear that they sold adventure holidays or wellness! So, at Indian Experiences, we don?t just look at companies and give them a standard Golden Triangle package to sell to their clients. We look at their company brand, client demographic, the USPs they have in other countries and the reason that they want to sell India and then we give them a product that matches that.  Some might want to sell holidays to young groups, some might have a wildlife focus, some into history and culture, some women only groups, etc.

India offers a wealth of experiences beyond the traditional monuments. (Source: All photos provided directly by Ms. Philippa Kaye)

2. In your eyes, what is the best that India has to offer in terms of experiential travel?

Goodness, where to start? How long is a piece of string?  India is full of experiences, horse safaris, camel safaris, walking with elephant experiences, discovering the spices and different cuisines, treks and white-water rafting, art, literature, poetry, yoga and wellness, sculpture, jeep safaris, desert safaris, wildlife, kayaking, cycling, motorbiking, architecture, textiles, rural tourism, the list is truly endless. A visit to India can be so enriching and can tailor to any demographic. In fact, the Golden Triangle can be tailored to a clients requirements in terms of experiences. A more adventurous client can do a cycling tour of Delhi, a morning walking tour of the old city in Agra and a half or full day trek behind the Amer Fort in Jaipur or a hot air balloon safari; a foodie can visit the spice markets in Delhi, then the food markets and then learn how to cook a typical Punjabi meal; in Agra they can head to Peshawri and discover Frontier cuisine, then they can visit an organic farm in Jaipur and have a traditional Rajasthani lunch cooked by village women. Even the most ?mundane? of trips to India can be made to be experiential.

3. In one of your testimonials for ?Indian Experiences,? you are referred to as a ?South India Specialist?. Could you explain why? 

I started my India career in 1998 in south India, specialising in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. I was lucky enough to work with a great London based PR Company and in 1999 we managed to get Kerala featured on the BBC Holiday program which was huge in those days, and our business shot through the roof. I jokingly became known (amongst friends in the industry) as the Kerala Queen.  I didn?t branch into the rest of India for a couple of years. I guess in an industry where most people focus on the north, I was a bit different and stuck out!

4. India continues to charm international tourists. According to a World Economic Forum report, Tourism generated 40 million jobs in India in 2016. Do you think Indian tourism’s economic potential has been fully tapped? 

I?ve also heard that tourism accounts for 1/11 jobs globally which is quite something. I don?t think that India?s tourism potential has been tapped at all. There is such a focus on a pathetically small number of monuments and cities and the rest of India – its variety, destinations and experiences – struggle to get noticed. There are many reasons for this, so many companies only focus on selling the mainstream destinations, the places people have heard of and the places where extra money can be made from shopping commissions. There are companies out there who truly care about the client experience, discovering what the country has to offer and what the client wants and they put it together really well, but they will always be more expensive than the bigger companies and as with all things, it is a price driven market. I also think that it is the global awareness that lets India down. People will ask for what they have heard of and these tend to be the main stream destinations. I have always sold India by asking the vital question that most people tend to forget when speaking to possible travellers, and that is asking them why? Why do they want to travel to India? Take out the main stream destinations they have heard of, they can be included easily, but why else would they like to visit, what are their interests – the food, wildlife, art, adventure, photography, health and wellbeing? Once you know what a client is looking for, then you can tailor a trip for them.  The problem is, most agents don?t know their country well enough and the PR machine doesn?t do anywhere near enough to promote India?s extraordinary diversity.

Ms. Kaye believes that India’s total tourism potential is still yet to be realised. (Source: All photos provided directly by Ms. Philippa Kaye)

5. In your assessment, from which country does India get the maximum amount of interest and why? 

Traditionally one of the main inbound markets was from the UK, we have a long history with India and a fascination about it. Of course, there is nothing as good as word of mouth publicity and with a bigger market traveling, the word spreads further. This is the market which I know more about however, official statistics from 2015 show:

6. What are the ways in which India can become tourist friendly and offer to the world distinct value propositions?

India has a whole host of value propositions already, they are there, ready and waiting for people to come and discover them. India?s Natural Heritage is rated as the 6th best in the world, its natural history as being the 10th best. It has 29 states, a plethora of UNESCO sites, vibrant cities, beautiful countryside. However it does lack in a multitude of ways. The inbound tourist figures, when compared with other countries, are incredibly low and do not reflect India?s rich diversity at all.

Infrastructure needs to be improved throughout the country, both in terms of the quality of more affordable accommodation for a mid-range traveller, to the delivery of useful information.  On arrival at airports, there is no useful, helpful information to be given to travellers no one telling them the best way to get somewhere or to tell them best and safest places to stay. They are then left to fall prey to unscrupulous scamsters or get ripped off with expensive taxis. There is no one tourist board coming out with uniformity across the country as to what policies should be put in place to assist tourists.  There also need to be tourist police available in mainstream destinations. Perception is also a massive issue with travel to India.  Even after 20 years I still get asked about Delhi Belly and the poverty. India needs a PR department to improve its image, no one is out there combating bad news stories of which India gets more than its fair share.

7. What are the increasing or changing areas of interests for inbound international tourists vis a vis India?

Tourism for India has been cast in the ?Raj Era? mould and follows the same circuits. The modern day traveller does not just want to look at monuments, have a mediocre history lesson and be dragged into shops. They want to engage, meet the people, gain a level of understanding of the country and its people. They want it to be real. They want to discover how people live in different environments, learn about the culture, sample the different food, learn about the spices, learn about its religions and arts and crafts and textiles. In short, the modern traveller wants to engage. This is true globally, not just in India, the traditional fly and flop beach holiday is very pass? now. Of course then there is also the social media generation who are only interested in getting a photo in front of a monument to be able to post it on Instagram ? but then maybe that?s me being a bit cynical. ?

?The modern day traveller does not just want to look at monuments, have a mediocre history lesson and be dragged into shops. They want to engage, meet the people, gain a level of understanding of the country and its people.? (Source: All photos provided directly by Ms. Philippa Kaye)

8. What ought to be done to enable the soft skills of the labour force in the Indian tourism industry?

There are very few training schools within the tourism sector and it doesn?t have a ?sexy image.?  Kids these days don?t see the tourism industry as a ?career opportunity?. In many cases, IT is still their mantra, but in a country where 70% of the population is under 30 years old, this is a massively untapped population who, with the right directives, could be wonderful ambassadors for the Indian tourism sector. They need to be shown the fabulous diversity of their own country, need to be shown that it is fun, exciting and rewarding.  The industry needs to ?walk the talk,? perhaps have tourism professionals doing workshops in schools and universities to show its potential. But, India doesn?t treat tourism as an industry, where are the training programs, communication skills trainings, sensitisation of cultural differences? Even many travel companies don?t do soft skills training or destination training for their employees.

As mentioned 1/11 people globally are employed in the tourism sector and yet as an industry the economic benefits are not highlighted at all.  Cities and mainstream destinations aside, rural regions could massively benefit from appreciating what they have and learning how to showcase this to the traveller, these rural and real experiences incidentally are what the modern day traveller is looking for. The drift from villages to the cities could be halted if the villages could be shown just how they can benefit directly from tourism. Indian Experiences works to promote companies who are working on exactly this.  On a larger scale also, tourism needs to be taken more seriously as an industry, its economic benefits showcased which will bring more people willing to set up training programs, will encourage more people to take it seriously as an industry and in turn will enhance India?s soft power in terms of tourism which as of now it is failing woefully in. Young people today, if they are taught what their country is, how it can be showcased and how they can be proud of it, can be its ambassadors which would be a powerful tool to enhance their self-worth, their appreciation of their own country and improve the image of the country globally.  This could also assist in changing the short-sighted approach which the current tourism sector has in the treatment of its foreign visitors.

9. Do you think India?s public and private enterprises have been steel-willed to join forces to enable India?s tourism potential, or not? 

No, very little is being done. The individual state governments by and large make occasional efforts in an ill-thought and often ill-conceived way. Little is done with a long term thought process in place or to actually think about the market they are targeting, there are very few, clear long term sustainable policies put out there. It mainly comes down to private enterprises, most of which have their own specific interests at heart and not the greater good of the tourism industry at large, which is understandable.  There are a couple of states which do better, Kerala and Rajasthan are the two most noticeable examples where the government and private enterprises work well together and have a more focused and sustainable policy. I have had many meetings with state tourist board officials from around India and the people I have spoken to don?t even know the product they are promoting, they do not know the potential that their own states have and in the instances where they do know a bit about it, they recite a list of monuments/sites at you and that?s about it. No one is actually trained on their destinations or how to promote them. I spoke to the guys at Punjab, all they could talk to me about was Amritsar. In Maharashtra it was only Ajanta and Ellora, I could go on.  In terms of infrastructure there is also a long way to go. Ensuring tourists safety is key, so many at a more budget level in particular fall prey to scams and have a bad experience.

10. In Japan, there was the #UnknownJapan campaign on Instagram which helped the country attract a lot of inbound tourists. What would be your recommendations for India to tap into the potential of social media to attract inbound tourists? If you were to suggest a possible campaign for tourism in India, what would it entail?

I have a personal rant against the Taj Mahal as I personally think that it prevents people doing the actual trip they want to do when they come to India. It?s all they focus on and therefore they miss out on the hundreds of other reasons that there are for visiting India. I have always been a great believer in my first mantra, India #beyondthetaj.

Also, people are so bored with Raj era tourism, Kerala backwaters, just the same old promotions. India needs to reinvent itself. The message that needs to be got out there is that there really is something for everyone in India. India also needs to get a strong message out there to appeal to a much younger traveller. If we think about it, India has culinary, textiles, adventure, architecture, beaches, forests, deserts, mountains, cities, golf, horse riding, trekking, rafting.

Adventure India, wild India, rural India, village India, chilled India, foodies India, artistic India. Visit to discover #yourIndia.

However, one thing, above all others in the feedback I?ve had about India over the last twenty years, is about its extraordinary people and it is the warmth of the people. That is the memory people take home with them.  This leads me to my second most popular mantra: Monuments create the backdrop but people create the experiences.

Also, it?s about stories, there are countless stories in India. A brilliant campaign could be started around #storiesofindia.

11. Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb thinks that in 10 years, India will be one of the world?s biggest markets with respect to the tourism industry. What will be your suggested roadmap for the next 10 years for ?Incredible India 2.0??

I think any individual is unqualified to answer this. I know that I am, because it requires a team of thinkers, movers and shakers! In the immediate term there are a whole host of fabulous people in the private sector from hoteliers to DMCs and people who are passionate about India?s arts, crafts, food, etc., who know India and its potential and I would invite these people in a think tank who can then brainstorm on the various aspects which would need to be considered.  In working together with the government the problem is continuity and so a system and 10 year plan would have to work around the instability of non-continuity.

How The Mahatma’s Values Resonate Across Australia Even Today

This article first appeared in Swarajya Mag on24th November 2018.

A landmark moment of Indian President Ram Nath Kovind?s recent visit to Australia was the unveiling of Mahatma Gandhi?s statue at the Paramatta City Council in Sydney. The Indian government of the day has left no stone unturned to celebrate the 150th anniversary of India?s foremost thought leader, Mahatma Gandhi. Ahead of the President inaugurating this new statue, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was the first Indian prime minister to visit Australia in 28 years, had unveiled a 2.5-metre tall bronze statue of Gandhi, which was sculpted by Ram Suttar, in Australia?s south-eastern state of Queensland.

In his speech during the ceremony, President Kovind recalled and expounded the famous lines of Gandhi?s favourite song, ?Vaishnava Jan To Tene Kahiye?, saying this about it: ?The essence of it is compassion, kindness, and goodness for others, for once and for always, without letting pride enter one?s mind. This captures the inner voice of the Mahatma.? He even thanked one of Australia?s popular singers, Heather Lee, for giving her voice to the song as a tribute. This perhaps gives us a curtain-raiser peep into how Gandhi has permeated Australia in significant ways.

I began research to see when the Australian media first reported about Gandhi, or whether at all they did, what was their sense, and what was the proportion of coverage. Some of the examples were noteworthy and striking as the reportage ranged from defining Gandhi as a persona to elaborating on some of the tools that Gandhi began to use to garner people together for a cause that began to find substantive resonance.

Mahatma Gandhi first appeared in the Evening News from Sydney on 8 January 1897, exactly four years after he arrived in South Africa, when he was just 27 years of age. Soon after that in 1906-1907, the World Australian news section of newspapers reported Gandhi?s first tryst to use ?Satyagraha? as a tool against the British in South Africa. He was far away in South Africa when the Australian media began to actually notice and showcase who Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi actually was and what were some of the ideals that he stood for.

It is fascinating to look at some substantive examples from academia and educational institutions in an attempt to contemporise history and its essence. The key is to extract the right lessons in order to learn from some of the leading lights of the past, like Gandhi, for example, and to share the learning with the present-day generation in an objective and nuanced manner.

In 2015, to mark Gandhi?s birth anniversary celebrations, the University of Sydney organised a programme celebrating his statement, ?No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive.? As per available event reports, the discussion saw the participation of more than 250 prominent Australian and Indian leaders from the business, government, and education sectors. At this discussion, Professor Duncan Ivison, deputy vice-chancellor (research) at the University of Sydney, emphasised how his thinking was shaped by a simple quotation from Gandhi: ?My life is my message.?

Another interesting example is of the University of New South Wales (UNSW), which hosts Gandhi?s birth anniversary celebrations every year, and they even have a bust that was installed in 2010 at the library lawn. Marking the 150th birth anniversary this year, Prof Laurie Pearcey, who leads the UNSW?s global partnership team and who also happens to be the youngest pro-vice-chancellor in Australia, urged all who had gathered to reflect on the values of Gandhi in today?s world. To quote Pearcey, ?Gandhi stressed that education is the key for not only changing attitudes, but also to shaping the new generation. He challenged us to be thoughtful and to be educated. He was an advocate of change and resistance, but also of harmony and tolerance and cooperation, which is why commemorating his birthday is just as important here in Australia as it is in India and in many countries around the world.?

At the event, Pearcey also confirmed that the UNSW views India as a key partner in its 2025 strategy. The university?s impressive Gandhi tribute this year also included an illumination of the library tower in Indian colours, and the digital display of Gandhi?s silhouette as well.

Think tanks in Australia are leading the way, too. One is the unique Center for Stories, which describes its mission as, ?To create a vibrant, inclusive arts and cultural organisation that uses storytelling to inspire cohesion and understanding through rich and diverse programs.? This centre, which is in Perth, has scheduled a panel discussion on the topic, ?Mahatma Gandhi: His Influence and Impact?, for December 2018.

The Australian legislature is doing its bit, too. From 2 October to 9 November this year, the Parliament of Western Australia hosted an exclusive exhibition of 30 photographs of Mahatma Gandhi to honour his message as well as the International Day of Non-violence. The exhibition was called ?Borderless Gandhi?, and the Parliament described this significant collection in the following words: ?Mahatma Gandhi was the leader of the Indian Nationalist movement against the British rule of India, and used and promoted nonviolent civil disobedience to effect social change. His birthday of 2 October is now known as the International Day of Non-Violence. The collection emphasises the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi and the on-going relevance of his values of peace, equality and nonviolence.?

In 2017, the ?Soft Power 30? report was brought out by the University of Southern California and Portland Communications. This is a column on how museums can power a country?s soft power. The report notes, ?Museums become more prominent as soft power platforms when they amplify civic discourse, accelerate cultural change, and contribute to cultural intelligence among the great diversity of city dwellers, visitors, policymakers, and leaders.?

It is no wonder, then, that the state government of Victoria in Australia rolled out a four-month-long digital interactive exhibition at their Immigration Museum in April 2018, showcasing the life and achievements of Mahatma Gandhi. This exhibition had more than 1,000 archival photographs, over 130 minutes of footage, over 60 minutes of film clips, and over 20 voice recordings of various episodes of the Mahatma?s speeches. The curators of the museum had featured the period of Gandhi?s life in which he migrated from India to England and then South Africa, as well as the change he helped bring about in India on his return.

Whether it is the media, world-renowned academic institutions, legislatures, museums, libraries, you name it ? Mahatma Gandhi continues to inspire much of Australia in many ways. The Indian and Australian cricket teams may be at loggerheads now, but the cultural exchanges between the two nations tell a different story altogether. That so many Australians draw inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi speaks volumes for the reach of the Indian value system, as much in demand now as ever before.

Sudarshan Ramabadran is a Senior Research Fellow and Administrative in-charge of India Foundation’s Centre for Soft Power Studies.


Newton wins at BRICS Film Festival. How cinema can bring India and Brazil closer

This article first appeared in DailO on 3rd August 2018.

In Brazil, Indian filmmakers could find a market unlike any other.

The influence in India of films is greater than newspapers and books combined, said Jawaharlal Nehru.

The 2018 BRICS summit concluded in July, with various themes of economic and political cooperation discussed. Unknown to many, however, a much smaller event was also held as a part of the summit the 3rd BRICS film festival.

The festival saw numerous film submissions, in a multitude of genres, from all the five nations. And in the midst of all these, the winner of the best film award was a movie about a polling station in a Naxal stronghold of India. Newton, the film in question, represents the best of Indian cinema of 2017, and its win at the festival shows the immense potential that Indian films have with respect to BRICS nations, especially Brazil.

Its a common saying that every country has stories to tell, about their past, their culture now, and views of what the future will look like through their eyes. As Indias cultural reach grows with every passing day, it is still Indian cinema that is its primary driving force, and acts as a catalyst for Indian soft power that is, Indias ability to influence the actions of other states using non-coercive elements such as culture.

Cinema represents, in many ways, one of the most tangible forms of soft power, as it allows for people of various backgrounds to be exposes to experiences and stories that are truly representative of India, its culture and its people. And with this exposure comes a clearer understanding, and then an appreciation, of what India is.

This appreciation is seen distinctly in Brazil. In May 2014, the country came out with a unique way of paying tribute to 100 years of Indian cinema, by releasing two postage stamps designed by two Indian graphic designers. The stamps were released to mark a nationwide film festival dedicated to contemporary Indian cinema.

However, to merely stop at appreciation is to limit the power of Indian film and TV. It is imperative that with this appreciation, there comes an aspiration among the people to be like the India that they see on the big screen.

And that aspiration is also seen clearly in Brazil, in the case of Caminho das ndias, or India: A Love Story, a Brazilian TV show in 2009 that followed the story of Maya and Bahuan, a call center employee in Rajasthan belonging to a Vaishya family and a student in America who hailed from a Dalit family, as they tried to navigate their love through the societal pressures of caste.

During its airing, Caminho was the most watched TV show in Brazil, reaching around 40 per centof all Brazilian households, consisting of around 40 million people  outdoing most other Brazilian prime-time telenovellas. The show served to be Brazils introduction into Indian culture on a large scale, with the film creators having both studied Indian cinema and TV, and shot the show in India.

And its success clearly shows the impact that Indian culture and society can have in a foreign land.

Despite being in Portuguese, the show incorporates numerous Hindi words, such as theek haiachha, and bhagwan, which have now found themselves added to the roster of everyday slang used in Brazil. Furthermore, the show featured all the aspects of a typical desi saas bahu serial lots of family drama, an unmistakably Indian setting, characters in kurtas and saris, and numerous item songs, from Kajra Re to Nagada, all of which have now become clearly recognisable by Brazilians throughout the country.

Caminho in fact did not limit itself to Brazil, but was picked up by Telefutura, a Spanish American network. The network boasts a broadcast range of over 60 million, representing a sizeable new audience for the show. And with an average viewership of around 900,000 people per episode, the show outperformed other competing Spanish TV shows.

This demonstrates that the show’s resonance in Brazil is not a one-off thing, but rather indicative of the immense power that Indian Cinema, and indeed Indian culture, can have in capturing the imagination of a global audience.

This familiarity with Indian culture has manifested itself in other avenues, even permeating into Brazil’s most iconic of celebrations, La Carnival, through street performances and parades such as Bloco Bollywood.

Despite the positive impact of a show like Camhino, it is important to note that there still remains a sense of distance between the two nations. The two BRICS countries often find themselves extolling the shared values of democracy and increasing growth as creating a unique bond between the two nations, but this has done little to bridge their gap.

Trade between the two regions did pick up in 2017, having increased by34.71 per cent. However, this only translated to a total of US $ 7.6 billion, with India still only Brazil’s 10th largest trade partner. And while tourism between the two countries is slowly picking up, they still do not feature in each others top 10.

The creation of such a unique bond requires sustained action between the two nations, and one area where such action could take place is cinema.

India has often been a destination for various Brazilian actors looking to enter into the mainstream. One need only look at Giselli Monteiro and other such actors, who, on returning to Brazil as stars, create a sense of familiarity among the local people with India.

More importantly, in Brazil, Indian filmmakers could find a market for films unlike any other. Brazilian cinema, much like its Indian counterpart, has historically distinguished itself from both American and European film styles. And like many emerging Indian films, Brazilian cinema takes a much darker, gritty stance  with movies often exploring native themes of gang violence, extreme poverty and crime in an incredibly violent manner.

Here, independent Indian filmmakers, who wish to create films that deal with these subjects as opposed to a masala film, will find an additional market wherein their movies can be shown. A market that is both familiar with the Indian society, and one that is inclined to and appreciative of the rawness that such independent films would have. The seeds of this have already been sown by directors such as Anurag Kashyap, who partnered with Brazilian filmmaker Beatriz Seigner on a new film titled Los Silencios (The silence).

As such, shows such as Camhinos and other Indian movies would be complimented well by independent films, and in this manner, India could create a set of films that depict all aspects of Indian culture in a way that is accessible to the entirety of Brazil’s population. And it is through this accessibility that India would ensure that through cimena, the words of our founding fathers do indeed ring true.

Sudarshan Ramabadran is a Senior Research Fellow and Administrative in-charge of India Foundation’s Centre for Soft Power Studies. Aman Nair is a Junior Research Fellow at India Foundation’s Centre for Soft Power Studies.

Why yoga’s influence is growing in Putin’s Russia

This article first appeared in DailO on 19th June 2018.

One of the first names that comes to mind in relation to the word “yoga” is Swami Vivekananda and distinctively so. It was in Boston, USA, that he first spoke about India’s gift to the world. When introducing yoga to the West then, Swami Vivekananda elucidated that in addition to physical posturing, yoga is about strengthening the mind. The Bhagavad Gita, too, states that “yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the self” and refers to all forms of yoga such as Karma Yoga (path of action), Bhakti Yoga (path of devotion) and Jnana Yoga (path of knowledge), in addition to physical posturing (Raja and Hatha Yoga).

For Swami Vivekananda, yoga is “for the worker” and it is “a union between man and the whole of humanity; to the mystic, between his higher and lower selves; to the lover, a union between himself and his God of love; to the philosopher, it is a union of all existence.”

In an article on yoga a few years ago, TIME Magazine made an observation that “while the East treats the man, the West treats the disease.” Learned Indian scholars have pointed out that the core underlying thread of Indian civilization is happiness, which makes understanding one’s inner self and connecting with spirituality as key. The core of spirituality is examining each and every experience and knowing exactly what one is searching for. Any form of yoga in all certainty helps one do that.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in addition to calling yoga “a passport to health assurance” rightly defined it as a journey “from I to we”, thus symbolising the journey of oneness. In his address to the United Nations General Assembly he said that “yoga is an invaluable gift of ancient Indian tradition. It embodies unity of mind and body, thought and action, restraint and fulfilment, harmony between man and nature and a holistic approach to health and well-being. Yoga is not about exercise but to discover the sense of oneness with ourselves, the world and nature. By changing our lifestyle and creating consciousness, it can help us to deal with climate change”.

The United Nations resolution on International Day of Yoga (IDY), aimed at promoting healthy societies, was passed within 75 days of the Indian Prime Minister’s speech. The resolution was also co-sponsored by a record 177 countries. From Swami Vivekananda positing yoga as India’s composite soft power, to Oprah Winfrey hosting a dedicated show on it, to yoga being an integral part of the annual White House Easter Egg Roll on South Lawn since 2009, yoga has come a long way in linking the ancient wisdom of the East to the contemporary needs of the West.

In India, there are possible policy decisions that clearly point out that yoga is not just to be celebrated on one day of the year as an event, but can and must be transformed into a movement. Introduction of yoga parks and possible executive education courses on yoga and meditation at the legendary Nalanda University, are some examples of how this is being achieved.

Having said that, since the inception of IDY, the gift has spread far and wide to several countries uniquely and superbly showcasing India’s soft power. Even in countries where there was less participation and fanfare expected, like in Russia for instance, yoga has enthused a lot of excitement. In 2015, events to commemorate IDY were held at 244 venues in 80 cities in almost 60 regions of the country with close to 30,000 people participating. This liking for yoga however cannot be attributed to IDY alone. In fact there have been many organisations which have mushroomed in Russia that are taking yoga to the common man.

Russia has produced the likes of the legendary Indra Devi, also known as the first lady of yoga amongst her followers. She was responsible for teaching yoga in many countries, Argentina being one of them. In pursuit of embracing yoga, Indra Devi is said to have visited India and learnt yoga in Tamil Nadu from the Theosophical Society. She is also credited to have acted in Sher-e-Arab with the famous actor and film-maker Prithviraj Kapoor.

As per the Russian web portal, Russia Today, “1 in 3 Russians practise yoga today. According to some estimates, over 90 yoga studios in 70 Russian cities now offer yoga classes and workshops to all.” The portal goes on to add that there are close to three hundred thousand people in the country practising various types of yoga.

In 2008, Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, then President, tried to popularise yoga. This is said to have contributed to several yoga centres and schools coming up in several regions of the country. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin once said that yoga “cannot fail to attract”. Boris Yeltsin’s wife, Naina Yeltsina, was known to practice yoga daily and encouraged all Russians to do the same.

The Russian quest for understanding oneself through yoga and spirituality with an Indian lens is not a new phenomenon. This can be traced back to the time when the Iron Curtain fell and spiritual thought began to be accessed. Indian spiritual giant Sri Aurobindo’s literature began to find deep resonance amongst the minds of the people. Academics in Russia soon began to translate some of Sri Aurobindo’s works for the benefit of those interested.

On the other hand, there have been several Russian philosophers who have persistently worked to bring Russia and India closer. One such name that resonates until this day is Nicholas Roerich, the painter and philosopher who spent his final days in the Kullu valley and who continues to be famously known for his Buddhist paintings which have been duly preserved.

Sudarshan Ramabadran is a Senior Research Fellow and Administrative in-charge of India Foundation’s Centre for Soft Power Studies. Shreya Challagalla is a Research Fellow at India Foundation’s Centre for Soft Power Studies.

How a monument dedicated to a South Korean queen in Ayodhya is a symbol of India’s soft power

This article first appeared in DailO on 9th November 2018.

The visit of South Korean First Lady Kim Jung-sook has solidified the ties between New Delhi and Seoul.

As the South Korean First Lady Kim Jung-sook set foot in India on

her first foreign visit without being accompanied by her husband, President Moon Jae-in, a historical page that defines India?s soft power narrative has been written and celebrated.

What is most significant is that the First Lady commemorated the rich legacy and lineage of Heo Hwang-ok of the Karak dynasty ? whose original name is believed to have been?Suriratna???by laying the foundation stone to expand a monument dedicated to the ancient queen, in Ayodhya.

On reaching the historic city, the Kim Jung-sook?s first stop was the existing plaque and park dedicated to Suriratna. She also attended grand Diwali celebrations alongside Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, including cultural shows and the spectacular lighting of more than 300,000 lamps on the banks of the Saryu river. Kim Jung-sook certainly made a strong and graceful statement by donning a sari at the festivities, but the greater statement was made by the reason for her very presence.

The original memorial for Suriratna was inaugurated in 2001 by a Korean delegation, which included over 100 historians and government representatives. Then in 2016, a Korean delegation proposed to develop the memorial further. A memorandum of understanding was signed between the governments of both countries.

The recent visit by the First Lady consolidated and solidified the cultural bond and the flourishing robust economic ties between India and South Korea. The ability to build such cultural connections is indeed the new currency in international relations. Professor Joseph Nye, who first coined the phrase “soft power” 27 years ago has said, “Power with others can be more effective than power over others,” and this is being demonstrated by India?s international relations in the present age.

Other nations are keeping pace. As part of its renewed foreign policy approach, South Korea has officially documented its foreign policy initiatives towards India, as part of its??New Southern Policy?. Apart from prospective economic reasons, South Korea also wants to enable an India led Indo-Pacific region by rejuvenating its relations with India. Several visiting South Korean ministers have reiterated that historically their country has had no sensitive geo-political issues with India.

In fact, while visiting India in July earlier this year, which was the longest visit by the head of either country, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, emphasised on the ancient relations between India and South Korea. He referred to queen Suriratna in?one of his speeches during the visit and said, ?India and Korea have a long history of exchanges and have been friends helping each other in difficult times. Indian Princess Heo Hwang-ok (Korean name) from the Kingdom of Ayuta came to Korea about 2,000 years ago and later became the Queen of Korea?s ancient Gaya Kingdom.?

Kim Byung-Mo, an anthropologist from Hanyang University, has identified Ayuta as Ayodhya in India. Chinese language texts have referred to a dream the then King of Ayodhya had, where God ordered him to send his 16-year-old daughter to South Korea to marry King Kim Suro. It is said by historians that today there are more than six million descendants of the couple, which is roughly about 10 per cent of the entire South Korean population. The visit of President Moon had also marked the 45th anniversary of establishment of bilateral diplomatic ties.

In this way, historic stories do not only illustrate, but also illuminate and inspire. Ayodhya, which is best known as the birthplace of Prince Rama and which interestingly translates as a ?place of no conflict?, holds special significance for the said community of South Koreans, many of whom believe that they trace their ancestry to the city. In fact, it appears to be more than just a belief a fact, which was so firmly validated by the First Lady?s recent visit.

On YouTube there are videos available which show how Korean youth start by tracing India-South Korea relations to the story of Suriratna and attribute that as a focal point in strengthening relations between the two countries. The fact that her story resonates with Korea?s gen-next even to this date, speaks volumes.

The respect is mutual. Recently, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the Uttarakhand Investors Summit in Dehradun, he affirmed that South Korea was a country that he had wished to emulate as erstwhile chief minister of Gujarat as the state and the country shared almost the same population.?In his words, ?I was asked who I see as my idol for development in Gujarat. Usually, when people are asked this, they say, ‘I want to make the place like America or like England.’ But I gave a different answer. I said that I want to make it (Gujarat) like South Korea.?

Many Indians won?t know this, but more than 100 years ago, Rabindranath Tagore wrote a poem on Korea, titled ?Light of the East?. Even today, Koreans learn this poem during their college years.

  • In the golden age of Asia,
  • Korea was one of its lamp bearers,
  • And that lamp is waiting,
  • To be lighted once again
  • For the illumination of the East.

All this clearly indicates the close bond between the two countries. Expanding the monument for Heo Hwang-ok furthers cultural as well as economic bonds between India and South Korea, but this is about much more than just tourism. It is about honouring the beliefs of the descendants of Suriratna and focussing on that which connects in a world where the focus is more often on that which divides and disintegrates.

Amidst the hue and cry about the installation of statues in today?s India, let?s look beyond face value at the strategic big thinking involved in placing India in the global scene. Our statues and memorials are symbols of our soft power as a nation. We?re no longer sheepish players on the world stage. India is stepping into the limelight and presenting her soft power in all the right ways and with all the right vantage points in this old yet new narration.

As a country, important projects like?Statue of Unity?and a memorial for Suriratna in Ayodhya will posit India as a well-documented history and more importantly, it sets the scene for India?s cultural influence outside India to be adequately analysed in academic discourses.

Sudarshan Ramabadran is a Senior Research Fellow at India Foundation and the Admin in Charge of the Center for Soft Power

How the Indian President, Ram Nath Kovind’s visit to ‘My Son’ in Vietnam is a symbol of soft power

This article first appeared in DailO on 22nd November 2018.

The My Son Sanctuary is an exceptional example of cultural interchange between the two nations, and thus, a great conversation starter

India?s President Ram Nath Kovind is midway through a significant trip to two important Indo-Pacific countries, namely Vietnam and Australia. His visit to Vietnam has been his first to an ASEAN country since assuming office. It has also come soon after the election of Vietnamese President Trong, which happened in October 2018.

What is very significant is the fact that President Kovind began his visit from Da Nang, a place believed to have a rich historical and civilisational connection with India. Da Nang is famous for its world heritage site My Son, which is the origin and home of the Hindu Cham civilisation ? which dates back 2000 years ? and the ancient temples of their people, constructed by the kings of Champa between the 4th and 13th centuries AD, which also have Buddhist connections. This further strengthens its ties to India, considering that Buddhism originated in the Indian subcontinent, as President Kovind also pointed out.

The Cham community is one of 50 ethnic groups living in and around the margins of Vietnam, and they share distinct characteristics with Indians. In fact, a documentary on India and Southeast Asia produced by India?s Ministry of External Affairs has stated that the Cham community also have part Tamil ancestry.

The importance of the visit to My Son cannot be missed as it is one of the foremost Hindu heritage sites of Southeast Asia. As per UNSECO, ?The My Son Sanctuary is an exceptional example of cultural interchange, with an indigenous society adapting to external cultural influences, notably the Hindu art and architecture of the Indian sub-continent. The Champa Kingdom was an important phenomenon in the political and cultural history of South East Asia, vividly illustrated by the ruins of My Son.?

In fact, some more research-driven audio-visual documentaries about My Son also state that there were more than 70 temples at the site, with inscriptions in Sanskrit and Cham. There are also details which state that a large number of the inscriptions allude to and describe interesting historical events, such as the then on-going wars between Champa and Cambodia in the 12th century.

Most of My Son?s architecture was destroyed by the US during the Vietnam War. Interestingly, My Son is the only place in Vietnamese history without the influence of the US or France. Indeed, a great start to President Kovind?s visit, and one which marks the kindred spirit and emotional link shared between the two countries, as well as a deep cultural connect.

Slowly but surely, India has begun effective projection of her soft power symbols in Southeast Asia. Currently, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) is helping Vietnam in the preservation and conservation of some of the temples there. To this effect, funds are released through the Ministry of External Affairs as part of India?s diplomatic outreach to such nations, with the ASI, under the Ministry of Culture, is the implementing agency. This type of work can go on for decades and is often monitored by third-party agencies such as the UNESCO World Heritage Committee.

In 2010, as part of an India-Vietnam cultural exchange programme, a two-member ASI team visited Vietnam to make a preliminary assessment of the task to conserve the Cham monuments, including the UNESCO World Heritage My Son group of temples. A memorandum of understanding was signed in October 2014 and execution of the project began with three groups of temples. It?s definitely high time that we have detailed research of Hindu temples in Vietnam, and of their idols and structures. After all, Southeast Asia holds an integral part of the destiny of Hinduism.

As per a research paper by the Center on Globalisation, Governance and Competitiveness of the Duke University, ?Tourism has become an essential and fast-growing economic activity and it accounts for about 45 per cent of service exports in developing countries.? The paper goes on to attribute that ?Vietnam has already had success in offering MICE (Meetings Incentives Conventions and Exhibitions) products in addition to its more well-known cultural tourism offerings.? The President?s visit could reignite, or rather is a gentle reminder for tour operators that enabling tourism in a substantive manner through a focussed approach by tapping into sites such as My Son, is the way forward.

One of Vietnam?s former Deputy Prime Ministers, Vu Khoan, once famously asserted that, ?The depth of diplomacy is culture.? What is also discernible is the vast reach of Buddhism, the flourishing and dominant religion in Southeast Asia ? a common socio-cultural and religious thread. In fact, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations has established several chairs related to India in countries abroad, and there are several of them in universities in ASEAN countries.

Back to Vietnam, the visit of the President of India has had other highlights too. In a heart-warming gesture, students from the Vietnam National University, along with Indian embassy staff and their spouses, came together to sing the Hindi movie song, ?Yeh dosti hum nahin todenge? (we will not break this friendship) from the popular movie Sholay, for the Indian president and his wife, Savita Kovind.

Music is not the only way to the President?s heart, who didn?t miss an opportunity to later tweet about Vietnamese cuisine and coffee, commenting on the fact that both are growing in popularity in India. He highlighted that Indians are popularly known to be tea drinkers; quite a testimony for the quality of coffee produced by Vietnam!

While drawing attention to the parallels between both countries, President Kovind noted that India and Vietnam both have a special year coming up, as 2019 marks the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi as well as the 50th anniversary since the passing away of Ho Chi Minh. Both are considered fathers and catalysts of change in their respective nations.

Ho Chi Minh and Vietnam are popular in India, especially in West Bengal where the famous chant ?Amar Naam, Tumar Naam, Vietnam, Vietnam? was earlier heard. The words have deep imprints and are recalled even to date.

President Kovind also referred to the deep connection between the two countries by tweeting, ?The people-to-people network between Vietnam and India ? an inheritor of one of the oldest people-to-people networks in Asia and the Indo-Pacific ? is the foundation and the edifice of our partnership.?

In the book, Cultural and Civilisational Links between India and Southeast Asia, edited by Shyam Saran, the long-standing historical ties between India and the ASEAN region were determined by the nautical narratives of India. In one of the chapters titled, Indian?Southeast Asian Contacts and Cultural Exchanges: Evidence from Vietnam, the author, Le Thi Lien writes that, ?trade along the sea and river systems played a vital role in cementing ties between India and Vietnam, mainly along the river systems, including goods such as metal ingots, gemstones, shell, carnelian, fine pottery, etc.?

For millennia, Indians have believed in the power of civilisation and that has been a key aspect of Indian identity. This very premise has given Indians a sense of belonging, inclusion, and loyalty. The country?s bilateral relations and foreign policies have also been determined by alluding to the relevance of civilisational ties. The focus has been on that which connects, which is always a healthy focus to have.

India?s meaningful steps in harnessing these civilisational connects are what truly distinguishes Indian soft power. This by no means is an imposition with strategically important countries like Vietnam and other ASEAN countries. The visit of President Kovind to culturally significant places like My Son was welcomed by the people of both countries, and it also reaffirms that India is no longer reticent to exhibit to the world that she is serious about harnessing these soft power tools.

Sudarshan Ramabadran is a Senior Research Fellow at India Foundation and the Admin in Charge of the Center for Soft Power

How the Kumbh Mela is enhancing India’s ‘spiritual diplomacy’ and global ‘soft power’

This article first appeared in DailO on 30th January 2019.

To envision that the Kumbh can be branded as an enabling tool for India?s diplomacy must be acknowledged as an out-of-the-box idea. The current political will, and cultural warmth, greeting foreign visitors at the Kumbh is highly significant.

The Kumbh Mela has catalysed Indian thought to pervade the world and the human mind in subtle and nuanced ways. The world?s largest peaceful congregation has enhanced India?s image abroad and has proved to be an important aspect of the country?s ?spiritual diplomacy?.

India, this year, has taken special and specific efforts to showcase to the world the USP of the Kumbh Mela. Hundreds of tourists from around the globe are thronging the Kumbh to get an experience of a lifetime and are leaving absolutely astounded by the scale and sheer magnitude of such a gathering.

Anna Hermina, a resident of the Netherlands, has changed her name to ‘Swarnalakshmi’ after being deeply influenced by Hinduism. Speaking to India Today TV, Hermina went on to reflect on her experience of taking part in the Kumbh Mela, “Such a huge gathering is just incredible and shows the unity in this country. I was thinking of coming here during the Kumbh for 20 years but have finally succeeded today. I changed my name around four years back after being influenced by Hindu culture and traditions. Such a huge congregation is impossible in my country.”

The Kumbh Mela received a much-needed endorsement at UNESCO very recently ? UNESCO listed the Kumbh as part of their Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, during its 12th session at South Korea.

The exact attribution given to the word ‘intangible’ by UNESCO is noteworthy. It says, ?Intangible heritage refers to oral traditions, performing arts, social practices and rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts, which communities across the world associate with their culture, and pass on from generation to generation.?

UNESCO?s explanation for why the Kumbh made it to the list is worthy of mention as well.

It said, ?Kumbh Mela made the list because it is the largest peaceful congregation of pilgrims on earth, and the event encapsulates the science of astronomy, astrology, spirituality, ritualistic traditions, and social and cultural customs, and practices, making it extremely rich in knowledge.”

This affirmation of Kumbh by UNESCO stands against the backdrop of its decision in 2003, when it realised the need to conserve intangible heritage as it is equally important to conserve culture.

The Kumbh is an unforgettable experience. Past editions have seen tourists from distant countries like Russia, who decided to experience the Mela despite not knowing the local language. This truly speaks volumes of the experience that the Kumbh allows one and all.

Clearly, the Kumbh Mela is proving to be one of India?s most effective soft power tools by attracting foreign tourists in several of its editions. This is not just restricted to tourism per se, but professionals and enthusiasts from abroad continue to visit Kumbh to study its impact as well. An interesting example was discernible in February 2013, when over 50 scholars, academics and philosophers from the world?s top Ivy League universities in the US, including Harvard and MIT, visited India just to understand the phenomenon called the Kumbh Mela and see how it is pulled off with such remarkable efficiency.

?In today?s information age, victory does not depend on whose army wins, but on whose story wins,? said John Arquilla, an American analyst and an academic of international relations. The Kumbh Mela has been a trendsetter for the great Indian story to be told and retold every time it is held.

The Kumbh has never been about stamping one?s authority or operating through coercion. With each passing edition, the Kumbh has signified the spirit of justice, equality, liberty and fraternity.

Interestingly, this time India is making a conscious effort to integrate the Kumbh story into its foreign policy orientation.

The Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas, which was started by the late Shri Atal Bihar Vajpayee?s NDA government, was held recently in Varanasi with an objective to attract the delegates to also visit the Kumbh. In addition, for the first time in the history of the Kumbh, the ambassadors of countries and heads of missions based in Delhi were taken especially to witness the preparations in the run-up to the Kumbh.

As a mark of honour, flags of 125 countries were raised at Prayagraj. Uttar Pradesh, the heart of India, which recently saw the visit of the South Korean First Lady, is now opening its gates in a successive time frame to the world?s largest peaceful gathering of humanity.

What is also relevant to note here is that this spiritual diplomatic effort is not just being restricted to Delhi or government-to-government interactions and summits around Delhi. Although an initiative of India, its global vision of unity has resonated with travellers from around the world.

To envision that the Kumbh can be branded as an enabling tool to India?s spiritual diplomacy must certainly be acknowledged as an out-of-the-box idea. Whether this reaps the desired outcome is an assessment that will be made in due course.

There may have been suggestions to do this during previous editions as well, but the current Central and State Government machineries have left no stone unturned to think of it cohesively and to set the wheels in motion. This important process requires strong collective political will ? a benchmark has certainly been set this time, in terms of thinking big and thinking global

Beyond the cultural and spiritual perspective, there is an important economic value-chain when it comes to the Kumbh. In terms of tourism, it is reported that the State Government of Uttar Pradesh has provided an international platform to Kumbh Mela through international tour operators, who have assembled in Lucknow, for the fourth UP Travel Mart. Around 53 international tour operators from 23 countries and 19 prominent Indian tour operators were estimated to have attended the event.

Harvard Professor Diana L. Eck, in her book India: A Sacred Geography, has written about how every place in India significantly resonates with its culture and therefore is sacred in its innate nature. She says, ?What is clear from the study of India is that its geographical features ? its rivers, mountains, hills, and coastlands ? no matter how precisely rendered, mapped or measured, are also charged with stories of gods and heroes. It is a resonant, sacred geography.”

The Indian Government’s foreign policy doctrine, as enunciated in April 2015, has termed ‘Sanskriti Evam Sabhyata’ ? cultural and civilisational links ? as the key pillars of its foreign policy.

The Kumbh Mela is tapping into India?s civilisational story to enhance India?s global footprint.

And the demand for this indicates that this will be a continuum.


Sudarshan Ramabadran is a Senior Research Fellow at India Foundation and is the Admin in Charge of the Center for Soft Power