A yoga session in Riga, the capital of Latvia, last month that was organised as part of a campaign for more urban open spaces. (Reuters)
New Delhi, Oct. 5: A popular south Indian fertility goddess, Mariamman, has helped India mother an unlikely child — a diplomatic pact that demolishes a roadblock to greater economic ties with eastern Europe, increasingly a driver of European growth.
Foreign minister Salman Khurshid and his Latvian counterpart Edgars Rinkevics inked a double taxation avoidance treaty two weeks back, completing a trio of such agreements for India with the three Baltic nations and opening up another economic gateway into Europe.
Lithuania and Estonia signed similar pacts with India in 2011.
But the pact with Latvia was catalysed by a bond unlike any diplomats here can recall — a growing fascination in Riga for Mariamman after researchers spotted deep similarities between her and the pre-eminent Latvian goddess Mara, top Indian and Latvian officials have told The Telegraph.
“I can’t remember the last time a connection of this kind helped us diplomatically,” a senior Indian official said. “When relations based on mutual economic gains get the added touch of deep cultural significance, diplomacy becomes that much easier.”
Potential links between Mariamman and Mara could date back 15,000 years or even more, said Sigma Ankrava, an anthropology professor at the University of Latvia who diplomats credit with propelling the two nations towards Rinkevics’s visit.
For Latvians, Mara is unsurpassed in her influence as a goddess, and symbolises a united Latvia after decades of rule first by the Tsarist empire, and then as part of the former Soviet Union. Like Mariamman, she is a goddess of fertility.
Mariamman is widely believed to have pre-Vedic roots, and is worshipped as the predominant mother goddess in large swathes of rural southern India, cutting across Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and southern Maharashtra. She is often worshipped in temples alongside the goddess Kali, and both are viewed in southern India as symbols of a woman’s strength.
Both Mara and Mariamman are associated with water. They are both protectors of the snake and livestock. And Mara, Ankrava said, is one of the few Latvian goddesses with black hair.
“For us, it was quite a discovery when I went to Tamil Nadu last year and found the amazing similarities,” Ankrava said from Riga.
That fascination took Rinkevics to Tamil Nadu before he flew to New Delhi to meet Khurshid and sign the tax agreement that eliminates duplication of taxation for Indian nationals working in Latvia, and for Latvian nationals working in India. In Chennai, he oversaw the inking of a memorandum of agreement between the University of Latvia and the University of Madras.
The inter-university agreement will allow exchange programmes for students and teachers, cultural initiatives and joint research, professor V.D. Swaminathan, director of the Indian university’s international relations wing, said. “Indian students and faculty can get to know the culture of Latvia through exchange programmes from both sides,” Swaminathan said.
Latvia wants the universities to jointly explore any links between Mariamman and Mara.
“We can’t say with any certainty that the two are related,” Ankrava said. “But there is a striking similarity at multiple levels, and tracing their roots through common research between India and Latvia is a great idea, and could in turn open up new avenues of co-operation between the nations.”
For India, the tax pact already opens up a key gateway for enhanced trade with a region that has weathered the economic storms that have swept across Europe over the past three years better than most others. When ratings agencies were downgrading western Europe economies in 2010 and 2011, they were upgrading credit ratings for eastern Europe.
Latvia is today the European Union’s fastest growing economy, and its re-emergence from a dark depression in 2008-09 has grabbed the attention of the world’s economists as they debate whether Riga’s success is an exception, or represents a possible model to follow.
For Latvia, the pact removes the biggest roadblock it faced till now in competing with other emerging east European economies in attracting Indian firms — especially in information technology — that typically seek a core Indian staff in foreign outposts.
“The similarities between the two deities have worked like a charm,” the Indian official said, before breaking into a smile. “If only it worked more often, we would have been the most diplomatically successful nation in the world, given the number of deities we worship.”