Baltic expats in India shatter colonial images of the country and discover spiritual life

  • 2023-01-03
  • Akshat Jain

India has had a long history of relations with the three Baltic States of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. In fact, one quite astounding in a sense – India and Lithuania share deep linguistic ties through Sanskrit, which has a lot of similarities with the Lithuanian language, thus making it one of the oldest European languages to survive the test of time.

Although quite many Indians have moved to the Baltic States to live and study, there don't seem to be as many Balts dwelling in India. Apart from strategic relations – for example, India and Latvia’s historical connection through the ancient route known as “the amber way” provides India access to the Baltic Sea through the trade route of the Mediterranean Sea and the North Sea – an increasing number of Balts discover India – for a visit or choose to hunker down there. 

The people enquired for the article, praised India overwhelmingly as a vastly cultural as well as multilingual and multiethnic country, one with varying traditions, which makes India an indecipherable land.

Agate, a Latvian girl who settled in India eight or so years ago, says that India is “completely different” not just in terms of infrastructure and innovation, but also in terms of peace and chaos. 

“Given that India is the second most populated country in the world, it is inevitable that Indian cities are congested with people. One of the enticing facts about India is that the materialistic and hustle culture has not yet taken a toll on Indian people…Indians take things easier and they tend to find peace in any situation they are in,” Agate noted.

She claims Dharamsala is her favorite place in India. With all the beautiful views and hill station Dharamkot, it is the haven of renowned spiritual leader Dalai Lama and Buddhist monks. 

“I found this location to be more serene. I am a member of a spiritual realm in my own country, Latvia as well” Agate says.

Agate got married to an Indian man in a small wedding ceremony – Indian traditional wedding festivities last for days and, sometimes, weeks.

One thing to note, for sure, is how Agate molded herself to be a part of India and, well, its craziness. Relocating to India, where for many Westerners there still appears to be a less pleasant standard of living in terms of infrastructure, environment, and cleanliness, can undoubtedly be a challenge for a European. 

Agate says her lifestyle in India is quite simple and she has eagerly followed the Indian dress code – she wears Saari which consists of an un-stitched stretch of woven fabric arranged over the body as a bathrobe on an occasional basis. 

“But most times, I wear what I am most comfortable in,” she admits.

Meanwhile, Freddy Raud a student from Lithuania, says that “living in India is not as bleak as some Western media portray.”

“It's a lively place to be because of the connections and people there,” he stated.

 A survey done in 2011 by John Wright, who is a senior vice president of Ipsos, a global market research company and Managing Director of Public Opinion, puts India among three of the happiest countries in the world. It conveys the message that the economy is not the only factor for a state’s people to be happy. There are a whole lot of other factors that build contentment and happiness in people.  

Yet when it comes to the vast country’s overall reputation in the West, there is still the impression, however, that European people still expect Indian trains to be wildly ridden with people on the roofs and cows inside the train. 

This orientalist perception stills retreats in the minds of Baltic people. However, upon visiting the place many come to realize the reality, the way Kaspars Misins, a Latvian travel blogger, portrays it: “Moment of truth here – no one is sitting on the roofs of trains in India anymore. And mostly no one is hanging out of the doors either. You can see people hanging out of the doors in local trains of Mumbai, for example, but more often than not it’s because people like to do this. And it’s not so hot by the “doors” as well.” 

On the flip side, he finds New Delhi a chaotic, unclean and rushy place to be. Although he puts it in a funny way but that seems quite condescending. 

“Arm yourself with patience, be ready to see strange (for you) things, like people sleeping on the road or improvised wood stoves built in the middle of the sidewalk, and just go!” he said with a smile on his face.

When it comes to Indian food, all the Balts find it quite spicy and Kaspars doesn’t forget to express a caveat on street foods.

“They can be contaminated and can make one sick. However, street food is less pricey than restaurants. No wonder then, most of the population opt for street food. Nevertheless, continental food is mostly preferred by Baltic people because it suits our taste buds,” he says.

Otherwise, Kaspars and his parents have led a happy living in India, one followed with the same western standards they had back in Latvia. 

“We are very comfortable here,” he says.

Perhaps no one argues that India’s traction – especially that concerning the spiritual realm – is really big: in all, 70% of Lithuanians’ interests while visiting India lie in the spiritual aspect of the country – in local music and dance as well as Indian yogic practices, states a study published in 2020 in a foreign relations portal. 

Various spiritual communities in Lithuania practice yogic practices of Indian origin, especially ayurvedic practice, says Svetlana Ryzhakova, who has lived in Latvia and Lithuania. 

Another Latvian, Una Baufala, a travel blogger, tells the tale of her tour to India. 

“Goa is the most beautiful place in India, our paradise. One, because it has beaches and beautifully serene deserts, two because it is clean,” she said.

Apart from travel and food experiences, Balts seemingly appreciate and accept the educational standard of India and they are showing interest in studying in Indian universities. 

There are almost 4000 Latvians, 2000 Lithuanians and 900 Estonians studying in Indian Universities.

Agate, who studied mass communications and public relations in Latvia, says she had always planned to continue her studies in India. 

“What’s more, I even planned to start a business in India,” she says.

Meanwhile, Una and Kaspars however, made a living through freelancing and establishing their travel blog. Another Estonian girl, Himma Tarmo, who was studying entrepreneurship in New Delhi continued her studies when she came to live and settle in India. 

“My plan is to start my own entrepreneurial firm along with my Indian friends in India,” she says.

According to a survey, also published in Times of India, there are almost 6000 Estonians living in India. And they do not include Indian people of Estonian origin, only those who have shifted for work, study or travel. 

 In another account of a Lithuanian family – the Stens and their four kids – the father, Edward Sten, was offered a job in India while living in Estonia. Sten applied for the position of assistant program officer in a foreign and commonwealth office in New Delhi. When he got the job in 2016, he along with his family shifted to New Delhi, India.  The Stens appreciate the diverse experiences of India.

Beyond the personal stories looms an expanding picture of promising and increasing trade possibilities between the Baltics and India.

Sharanya Rajiv, a program coordinator and a researcher at Carnegie India, in her policy paper Bridging the Gap Between India and the Baltics states that India offers the Baltic region a “different source of investment” while also positioning itself as a major hub for trade and transportation.

Statistically, most of the Balts work either in IT departments or business sectors in India. Rarely are there any Baltic professors, doctors, or lawyers in India, however.

Notably, there are a total of 2890 Indian settles in Baltic states (in Estonia –1163, in Latvia – 785, in Lithuania – 1042) including non-resident Indians and persons of Indian origin as per the data shared by MEA, GOI, the Ministry of External Affairs of Government of India.

With India being steadily on the growth path, with mutual trade volumes increasing – India’s export to the three Baltic states in 2021 stood at 477 million US dollars – and with the power of the word of the mouth – from those who have ever visited India and reminisce about the experience forlornly or live there now and enjoy it to the fullest – the relations are certainly set to expand – and who knows? – flourish soon, as the alternative to some or the discovery to others, perhaps of a lifetime.

Akshat Jain is a writer, columnist, research scholar from Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, pursuing his research studies in the field of Psychology and Neuroscience.