Lithuania’s Indian summer

  • 2015-10-21
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis

VILNIUS - “After the death of Mahatma Gandhi, there’s nobody left to talk to,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in 2007. Though the statement was meant humorously, it is evidence of how the personality of Gandhi is respected all over the world: monuments related to Gandhi have been erected in more than 70 countries worldwide. They stand from Almaty to Honolulu and from Amsterdam to Rio.

On Oct. 2, which is the birthday of Gandhi and, therefore, a national holiday in India, the monument to Mahatma Gandhi and his close associate Hermann Kallenbach was unveiled in the western Lithuanian town of Rusne, on the edge of the Lithuanian bank of the Nemunas River, which separates Lithuania from the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. It is the first statue of Gandhi in any of the three Baltic states. The statue can be regarded as a symbol of rapidly developing relations between Lithuania and India.

A symbolic monument

On Oct. 2, Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius took part in the ceremony of unveiling of the monument to Gandhi and his Lithuania-born friend, Kallenbach. “It is a monument to the friendship between Lithuania and India,” Butkevicius said.
Tushar Gandhi, a great-grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, took part in the ceremony as well. “The philosophy [of non-violent struggle] unites us,” he said during the ceremony in Rusne.
Gandhi and his ideas regarding non-violent struggle are well-known in Lithuania. During Lithuania’s drive towards its freedom and independence in the late 1980s and the early 1990s, they were an inspiration, according to its leaders. Earlier, the ideas of Gandhi and Hindu culture were an inspiration for some Lithuanian enthusiasts for the pre-Christian Lithuanian culture – this semi-official circle of intellectuals (later, some of them were persecuted by the Soviet KGB) established the Society of Friends of India in 1967.  The 1982 movie “Gandhi” by English director Richard Attenborough, starring Ben Kingsley, which was screened in Lithuanian cinemas, further boosted the popularity of Gandhi and his ideas in Lithuania.

The friendship between Gandhi and Kallenbach is mentioned in this movie, which won eight Oscars. Until recently, most Lithuanians knew little about Kallenbach. He was born in 1871 into a Jewish family in the Lithuanian town of Zemaiciu Naumiestis (Lithuania was at that time a part of Tsarist Russia). Later, his family moved to the town of Rusne, which then belonged to the German Empire. Kallenbach spent three or four years of his childhood there. Rusne was in the region of Klaipeda, which only became part of Lithuania in 1923, one of the main reasons why Kallenbach was little known to Lithuanians at the time. In 1886, Kallenbach moved from Germany to South Africa, where he became a South African citizen and a successful architect. In 1904, he met Gandhi, who was then a civil rights activist in South Africa. Until the death of Kallenbach in 1945, both men were close associates and “soulmates,” according to the book “Soulmates: The Story of Mahatma Gandhi and Hermann Kallenbach” by Israeli researcher Shimon Lev. On Oct. 1, Lev gave his lecture about the two close friends at the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, which is a national museum in the heart of Vilnius.

The idea to erect the monument to Gandhi and Kallenbach came from Laimonas Talat-Kelpsa, Lithuania’s ambassador to India. He got this idea after reading an article about Kallenbach by Vytautas Toleikis, who teaches ethics at a school in Rusne.
Toleikis told The Times of India that, in 1988–1991, Lithuanians were inspired to fight against the Soviets without arms due to Gandhi’s doctrine. Toleikis, like many Lithuanians, gained some knowledge on the Gandhi’s philosophy, Satyagraha, by watching Attenborough’s film.

The monument in Rusne was built by a company named Kiskiu Sukilimas (“The Rabbits’ Uprising”) chaired by Edita Mildazyte, a famous Lithuanian television host. Prominent Lithuanian sculptor Romualdas Kvintas (most famous statue for the monument to Romain Gary, a French writer of Jewish-Lithuanian origin, unveiled in Vilnius in 2007) was asked to create the life-size bronze statues of Gandhi and Kallenbach.

The project was mostly sponsored by Yusuf Hamied, who was born in Vilnius in 1936. He is chairman of Cipla, a generic pharmaceuticals company (India’s fourth-largest drug-maker by sales). His mother was a Jew and his father was an Indian Muslim, Khwaja Abdul Hamied, who founded Cipla in 1935.  
The construction of the monument was also sponsored by local businessmen and the Foundation for Disposal of Good Will Compensation for the Immovable Property of Jewish Religious Communities. The latter fund was established at the end of 2011, after the Lithuanian parliament, seeking to compensate Lithuania’s Jewish communities for the expropriation of their property by the Soviet and Nazi totalitarian regimes during their occupations of Lithuania, passed the Law on Good Will Compensation for the Immovable Property of Jewish Religious Communities.

The monument was erected near the house, which, according to some researchers, is a former local synagogue. The local municipality has chosen a superb spot for the monument on the bank of the River Nemunas (or the River Atmata, as the locals call this offshoot of the Nemunas), which separates Lithuania from the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. The monument is also highly visible from an island which is situated in the river and belongs to Russia.

“We will now beautify the entire route along the river to the monument. The spot is very highly visible and nothing blocks the view. Not only will the monument be seen by Lithuanians but also by the Russians on the other side. The municipality has contributed 10,000 euros, which will be used for landscaping the area and creating a pedestrian walk,” Vytautas Laurinaitis, the mayor of the district of Silute, which includes the town of Rusne, told The Times of India.

The monument to India’s first Lithuanian

In August, another monument created on the initiative of Talat-Kelpsa was erected in India. On Aug. 23, the monument to Andrius Rudamina, the first Lithuanian to land in India, was unveiled in the yard of the Roman Catholic Se Cathedral in the Indian city of Goa. Jesuit missionary Rudamina arrived in Goa on Aug. 22, 1625, 390 years ago. The Se Cathedral is included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The Goan Catholics, who are an ethno-religious group, make up a quarter of the population of the city of Goa and the Indian state of Goa, which was a Portuguese colony between 1510 and 1961. India, which is the world’s most populous democratic country, is primarily Hindu.

“From now on, to Lithuanians, Goa will not only be a popular resort. It will also be the place where the history of Lithuania’s relations with India began,” Talat-Kelpsa said during the unveiling ceremony, according to a press release from the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry on Aug. 24.
Rudamina, born near Vilnius, studied at the Vilnius Jesuit Academy. Later, he continued his studies in what are now Germany and Belgium, as well as in Rome. In the spring of 1625, he left Lisbon for India. The sea voyage took five months, and Rudamina spent less than a year in Goa. In 1626, he moved to China to continue his missionary activities, and died there in 1631.

Lithuanian national TV’s main news show, Panorama, showed its footage from the ceremony. In the report, a laughing Lithuanian was shown saying “now I’ll be able to say to the other expats in Goa, to the Brits and the Russians, that the Lithuanians have lived in Goa for centuries.”

The growth of Lithuanian-Indian trade

According to Talat-Kelpsa, in a couple of decades, India will be playing a significant role in the world’s economy and politics, and therefore, it is important to popularize Lithuania in India because the Indians still know little about the Baltic States. Statistics Lithuania, the Lithuanian government’s department of statistics, reports that, in the first half of 2015, as compared to same period of 2014, Indian exports to Lithuania grew by 11.6 percent, reaching 24.6 million euros. The main export commodities were lac, gums, and resins (27.6 percent of total exports), pharmaceuticals (6.3 percent; inexpensive Indian-produced pharmaceuticals are popular in Lithuania), iron and steel (6.2 percent), and footwear (5.4 percent).

Meanwhile, Indian imports from Lithuania grew by 15 percent, amounting to 9.7 million euros. The main import commodities were copper and copper articles (23.1 percent), electrical machinery and equipment (14.5 percent), plastics and plastics articles (9.9 percent), optical, measuring precision and medical instruments (8.9 percent), wadding, felt, and nonwovens (8.4 percent). Now Lithuanian food exporters are desperately searching for new markets, due to the ban on food export from the EU to Russia, but the vast relations with the market of the world’s second most populous country, India, are still to be developed.

Lithuanian businesses can learn some lessons from India. On Sept. 3, the Vilnius-based Lithuanian Medical Tourism Cluster organized a conference entitled “Medical Tourism – Breakthrough Direction of Lithuanian Export Services.” Dr. Prem Jagyasi, a medical tourism consultant from India who spoke at the forum, urged Lithuania to exploit its potential for medical tourism pointing out India as a successful example in this field.

An influx of Indian students

The ties between India and Lithuania will increase in the near future due to the influx of Indian students into Lithuanian universities, which will probably create a lot of personal bonds between the two countries.
“Lithuania has recorded a massive increase in the number of Indian students heading to its universities with the latest data showing that the number of full-time Indian students in the Baltic country have increased from 37 in 2011 to 357 in 2014. […] This year, the numbers are expected to breach the 500 mark. From January to June of 2015, the “Study in Lithuania” website was visited 64,931 times. Most visitors came from the following five countries: India – 7,695 sessions, Ukraine – 5,789 sessions, the United States – 4,944 sessions, Russia – 3,996 sessions, and Belarus – 3,393 sessions. In 2014, the most popular Lithuanian university amongst Indians was the Kaunas University of Technology with 248 students enrolling. The second in terms of popularity was Vilnius Gediminas Technical University which recorded 36 students from India. According to statistics gathered by the “Study in Lithuania” department, in 2014, the only country which surpassed India in the number of students in Lithuania was Belarus (1,617 students),” The Times of India wrote in July.

Actually, this leadership of Belarusians over Indians could be explained by political reasons. In 2006, the European Humanities University was forced to move from Minsk to Vilnius due to the university’s political problems with the country’s authorities (the officials in Minsk complained that too many foreigners were teaching at the university). The fact that the European Humanities University is situated close to Belarus attracts many students from that neighboring country. The university receives funding from the EU and other Western countries as well as from various foreign funds. Therefore, Belarusian students do not exceed Indian students in number, if we consider only those attending genuinely “Lithuanian” universities.

“Lithuanian universities, such as Vytautas Magnus University [in Kaunas], Vilnius University, and Kaunas University of Technology, hunt for new students. Kaunas University of Technology gets many Lebanese and Indian students; many of them will be IT specialists,” Leonidas Donskis, a former member of the European Parliament and a professor at the Vytautas Magnus University, told Lithuanian National Radio.
In Lithuania, Indians are known to be good students. In 2014, Emil William Thattakath, an Indian student studying at Kaunas University of Technology, received his master’s diploma from the hands of Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite because he was included in the list of top 10 graduates of this university. Thattakath is now continuing his doctoral studies at the same university.

Connection by travel

The number of Indian tourists visiting Lithuania seems to be increasing as well. “I hadn’t seen many Indians in our museum before this year, but now they are rather noticeable here,” Ricardas Padvaiskas, a guide at the Museum of Genocide Victims (popularly known as the KGB Museum), told The Baltic Times. The museum, which was established in the former headquarters of the KGB in Vilnius, is regarded as a must-see location. Actually, some of those Indian visitors have come from other European countries – a group of young Indians standing nearby told The Baltic Times that while they are originally from India, they now study in France.

Judging by the number of offers from Lithuanian travel agents and coverage in the media, India is a popular travel destination for Lithuanians. Some Lithuanian travelers have reported to the Lithuanian media about India after their return from the country. Most Lithuanian travelers are rather positive about India. “I always put the places that I have visited in two categories: places that I would love to return to and places that I do not want to go back to. Iran and India would be among the places that I would like to return to someday,” Martynas Starkus, a producer of travel documentary films for Lithuanian TV stations, told the The Baltic Times.

Lithuanian travelers’ interest in India is booming. On Sept. 15, during an interview on the Lithuanian TV show Labas Rytas, Lietuva (Good Morning, Lithuania), Gabriele Staraite presented her book “I Azija Su Meile” (To Asia with Love), which was issued by the Lithuanian publishing house Alma Littera in July 2015. Staraite is a founder and co-owner of the tourism agency Travel Planet, which organizes tourist trips to India.
The book covers four countries, India, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Indonesia. “The goal of this book is to promote traveling. […] It is a mini-guide to the cultures of those countries,” Staraite said.

During the televised live interview, Staraite said that, if she had to choose an Asian country to live in for a year or two, she would choose India due to the rich variety of cultures and landscapes, which would require some time to explore.
On Sept. 3, 2015, Vaiva Rykstaite, a writer and traveler, presented her book, entitled Viena Indijoje (In India by Herself, in Lithuanian), at the Berzelis branch of the Kaunas-based Vincas Kudirka Library. The book was issued by the publishing house Baltos Lankos in 2014. “In 2008, when I first landed in Delhi, I knew as much about India as an average Lithuanian,” Rykstaite wrote in her preface to the book, adding that, after her first trip to India, she fell in love with the country. Now she is planning her seventh trip to the subcontinent. Rykstaite points out that Lithuanian (a Baltic language which is the most archaic of all living Indo-European tongues) is somewhat similar to the Sanskrit language (Lithuanian and Sanskrit, according to linguists, have more than 10,000 words in common) and, therefore, there should be some rather mystical bonds between Lithuania and India.