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What gift made a South Korean queen feel at home in India

Souvenirs and mementos exchanged between world leaders are remembrances of ancient ties, kinship and mutual trust

Updated: June 14, 2021 3:16:18 pm
Gifts and mementos have always been an integral part of international relations.

Before Lord Louis Mountbatten left India in 1948, one of his last acts as governor-general was to present a dazzling set of gold-plated silverware to the newly independent nation, on behalf of King George VI. The set had been the cynosure of many a state banquet in the Government House, as the Rashtrapati Bhavan was known then. The largest piece was a cup, nearly three-foot high, whose lid has the figure of St. George and the dragon. There was an ornate bowl and a tray bearing the Coat of Arms, too. The set, one of the finest examples of British craftsmanship, had been originally presented to King George V by the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, London.

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Gifts and mementos have always been an integral part of international relations. History is replete with anecdotes of well-chosen gifts visiting diplomats brought for kings. A souvenir often gives a concrete shape to complex cultural transactions in a way nothing else can.

Sukarno, the first president of Indonesia and the chief guest of the first Republic Day celebrations in 1950, gifted President Rajendra Prasad a model of a ship, made entirely of cloves. The gesture from one newly independent country to another harked back to their ancient spice-trade ties.

Besides commerce, religion and spirituality also cemented the bonding between nations. S. Radhakrishnan, the second president of India, received a larger-than-life statue of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva from Vietnam, where Mahayana Buddhism is the most followed religion. At the marble steps leading to the Durbar Hall, one cannot miss the beatific expression of the statue.

A painting of the Bodh Gaya temples was presented as a state gift to Myanmar in December 2018. The Archaeological Survey of India had just completed the restoration of the temples, originally built by King Bagyidaw and King Mindon of Myanmar. A statue of goddess Tara, symbolising universal compassion in Buddhism, was gifted during the October 2019 state visit to the Philippines, celebrating 70 years of bilateral relationship.

A souvenir often gives a concrete shape to complex cultural transactions in a way nothing else can.A souvenir often gives a concrete shape to complex cultural transactions in a way nothing else can.

When South Korean President Moon Jae-in visited India in 2018, President Ram Nath Kovind gifted his wife Kim Jung-sook five saris in traditional weaves from different parts of India — jamdani (West Bengal), bandhani (Rajasthan), Banarasi (Uttar Pradesh), Bomkai (Odisha) and Chanderi (Madhya Pradesh). The carefully chosen gift was a nod to a well-known legend that is a testimony to the age-old cultural ties between the two nations. Many Koreans trace their ancestry to King Kim Suro and Queen Heo Hwang-ok. The queen, also known as Suriratna, went all the way from “Ayuta” to Korea in the year 48 AD, to marry the king. In “Ayuta”, believed to be Ayodhya, there’s a memorial to her, too. That would make Kim a daughter of India, and saris would be what a married woman visiting her parents’ home would receive.

Religion also provided the subtext in another painting — the Heliodorus pillar — gifted to Greece in June 2018. The stone column, erected around the second-century BC in Besnagar in Madhya Pradesh, was named after the ambassador of Indo-Greek King Antialcidas (from Taxila) to King Bhagabhadra. Inscribed in the Brahmi script on the pillar is the dedication to Vasudeva as god of gods.

Then there are gifts from outer space too! US Ambassador Kenneth B Keating gifted President VV Giri a stone from the moon, in 1969. It was from the collection that the first manned mission to the moon brought back to Earth, obviously an indicator of the scientific prowess of the US and of humankind. It was, incidentally, the second time the First Citizen received a stone as a gift. In 1953, Tenzing Norgay gifted Rajendra Prasad a stone he had picked up as a souvenir of his historic scaling of the peak of Mount Everest with Edmund Hillary. When Bachendri Pal became the first Indian woman to reach the same summit in 1984, she, too, brought back a rock for President Giani Zail Singh.

In choosing a state gift, India’s cultural diversity poses the problem of plenty — hand-knit carpets of fine-grade silk, metal artefacts including bidri work, phulkari embroidery of Punjab, silk brocade fabrics from Varanasi, marble inlay work of Rajasthan, rosewood inlay work of Karnataka, the list is endless.

Then there are gifts that honour Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation. A painting of Gandhiji and Africa’s greatest freedom symbol, Nelson Mandela, was gifted to South African President Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa when he visited India in 2019, to join the celebrations of the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi and 100th birth anniversary of Mandela.

Rather subtle was the choice of a fountain pen as a gift to the Pablo Neruda Museum when President Ram Nath Kovind visited Chile in 2019. The great poet was fond of fountain pens, and so was Mahatma Gandhi. During the early days of India’s freedom struggle, fountain pens used to be imported from Britain but Gandhiji, the proponent of swadeshi, would have none of it. He requested a family in Rajahmundry, Andhra Pradesh, to craft high-quality fountain pens. Honouring his memory, the KV Ratnam family continues to manufacture the Ratnam pens to this date. Neruda would surely have appreciated the gift and the story behind it.

(Anjali Bakshi is Joint Director, and Keerti Tiwari is Deputy Press Secretary, with the Rashtrapati Bhavan)

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