Reem Ibrahim Al-Arfaj is the first certified yoga trainer in Saudi Arabia. On her first visit to India this past week, she was left mesmerized by the Kumbh mela at Prayagraj.
Clad in a black burqa and a hijab, her excitement was palpable when IANS asked about her experience at the Kumbh.
"It was amazing. Everyone was smiling and they were excited to meet us. The security there was very high and we felt very safe among those people," said Reem, who is in her 20s.
Among the delegates from 181 countries who were invited by the Indian government to visit the Kumbh and participate in the cultural activities there, she has completed 500 hours of yoga training for trainers under an expert at the Indian embassy in Riyadh last year.
She feels she is very good in aspects like yogic sukshma vyayam, shat kriya, surya namaskar, yogasana, pranayama and meditation.
"I am a businesswoman and help my father in his business. I heard about yoga and it attracted me. So I enrolled for this programme at the Indian Embassy in Riyadh. Now I can train others in yoga," she said with a glitter in her eyes.
Though Reem did not take a dip in the Ganga, Goran Pejakovic from Croatia not only took the holy dip but also recited the Gayatri mantra while he was in the river.
He has been practising Vaishnavism since 1991.
"I read Bhagavad Gita and since then I was attracted towards spirituality and Vaishnavism," Goran said as he flaunted his 'bodi' (tuft) and the 'janeo'.
Born in a Christian family, Goran finds no contradiction in the faith of his forefathers and his own "spiritual path".
"They believe in one god and I also believe in one god and that is Krishna," he added with a smile. His wife and daughter too are devotees of Lord Krishna and the family is vegetarian.
Konstantinos Kalaitzis from Greece loves to sing bhajans, including Mahatma Gandhi's favourite one 'Vaishnav jana..." On his 44th visit to India since 1986 and having travelled to all major Hindu pilgrimage sites including Kailash Mansarover, Kedarnath, Gangotri, Yamnotri, Nanda Devi, this was his first chance to visit a Kumbh mela.
"But Kumbh was a different feeling. I went in the Ganga and swam. I felt very good after that," he said.
Delegates from other Arab countries including the UAE, Oman and Syria also came.
Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, the President of Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) that organised the entire exercise, said it was the brainchild of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
"While the Kumbh is happening for millenia together, for the first time a conscious attempt was made to have representation from each and every country on the globe. Invites were extended to those people who were interested in culture," Sahasrabuddhe told IANS.
An orientation programme was held explaining the idea, history and significance of the Kumbh besides the aspects of management that go into organising such a big event.
"The idea was to enhance the literacy about the idea of India and Indian culture. Because many a time India and events like Kumbh are seen like a puzzle or riddle. It is an exercise to demystify events like Kumbh," Sahasrabuddhe added.
He hoped that similar participation from across the world be arranged in future Kumabh melas too.
Asked if the exercise could be seen as India extending its soft power, he said: "To a certain extent, yes. Soft power is how people perceive your country. And since this does away with some misconceptions and create some right perceptions, so yes."
However, he disagreed if it could be seen as proselytising.
"This should not be seen with that narrow angle. India spreads the message of humanity, be it yoga or Kumbh. Whatever is associated with Indian culture is above any narrow consideration. For a long time, India remained apologetic about our cultural treasures including yoga. Now this government is promoting it," he said.
(Asim Khan can be contacted on email@example.com)
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