“Love your neighbor as yourself” commanded Jesus Christ. But these days, everyone leads a busy lifestyle that leaves little time to even get acquainted with our neighbors let alone learning to love and understand them. Think about it. Do you know your neighbors well enough? Or is it that you are just vaguely aware that there are people living next door but have no idea who they are, where they come from, and what they do. Now extrapolate this situation to entire countries and you get large masses of people living as neighbors from time immemorial but without having any idea about the historical, cultural or ethnic backgrounds of their neighbors. Many of us are probably not even aware of how many neighbors India actually has even though we may be Indians by citizenship or people of Indian origin. So you say to yourself as you read this blog: “Ok wise guy. Maybe I am more geographically challenged that you are. So why don’t you educate me instead of lecturing me?” That brings us to the main topic of this blog.
So how many neighbors does India actually have? The answer depends on who you ask. From the average well-informed Joe, the expected answer would be 8. But if you ask that question to the Government of India, the official answer would more likely be 9. Why the discrepancy? Well, we will get into that later. Can you list out those eight countries without peeking? If not, never mind. The eight countries, going clockwise from a 10 o’clock position are:
- Sri Lanka
Let us scrape the surface a little more and see what we come up with shall we? My purpose is simply to fire up your curiosity so that you can go off on your own and learn some more. Or it may perhaps come in handy if you happen to have a neighbor or a friend or an acquaintance from one of these countries because then you would appear reasonably knowledgeable about their culture and not a total ignoramus. I know that an exhaustive treatise on the topic would likely have a wonderfully sedative effect and so I will keep it short and sweet. A somewhat clinical but accurate source of information would be the CIA’s World Fact Book available at https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/index.html
The name was coined by Choudhary Rahmat Ali. The “P” stands for Punjab, “A” for Afghania (his preferred name for Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province), “K” stands for Kashmir and “S” stands for Sindh. The word “stan” in Sanskrit means “place” and in Persian it means “home of”. Combined, it reads as “Pakstan”. The letter ‘i’ was added to ease the pronunciation.
Pakistan’s capital is Islamabad. Its largest city is Karachi. The official languages of Pakistan are Urdu and English. Its national animal is Markhor (a species of goat), national bird is Chukar (a species of partridge), national flower is Jasmine, national game is field hockey and national dress is salwar-kameez.
Pakistan cuisine includes vegetarian and non-vegetarian curries, lentils, karahis, tikkas, kababs and biryanis. Breads include naan, chapatis and rotis. Sound familiar? Traditional Pakistani music is constituted of Qawwalis and Ghazals. And yes, Pakistanis also dance the Bhangra (at least the ones from Punjab) and are passionate about cricket!
Not that much different from India – culturally speaking – are they? Hmmm!
The name originated from the Sanskrit word nipalaya meaning “abode at the foot” or the “abode down below”. This is made with reference to the Himalaya mountains in whose foothills the country is situated. Note that himalaya itself is another Sanskrit word meaning “abode of snow”.
The capital of Nepal is Kathmandu. It is also Nepal’s largest city. The official language of Nepal is Nepali. Approximately 80% of the population is Hindu and 10% is Buddhist. The national animal of Nepal is the cow and its national bird is the Lophophorus. It is the birth country of Siddharta Gautama who was born in Lumbini in modern-day Nepal. Though born as a prince in a royal family, he achieved self-realization and was known as Buddha meaning “the enlightened one”.
Popular games in Nepal include “Dandi Biyo” which is also played in India. In West Bengal, where I grew up, this same game was called “Guli Danda”. Other games played in Nepal are ‘kabaddi’, cricket, soccer, basketball and golf.
Nepali cuisine includes rice, lentils (‘dal’), curried meats and vegetables, pickles (‘achar’), yoghurt (‘dahi’)….sounds familiar huh?
The name appears to have originated from the Sanskrit word Bhu-utthan meaning ‘highlands’.
The capital of Bhutan is Thimphu. Dzongkha is the official language. Other languages spoken include English, Hindi and Nepalese. Its population is 75% Buddhist and 24% Hindu.
The national animal of Bhutan is Takin, a goat-antelope found in the eastern Himalayas. Its national flower is the Blue Poppy, the national tree is the Cypress and the national bird is the Raven.
The national sport of Bhutan is archery. Throwing darts and javelins are also very popular. Soccer, basketball, tennis, golf, volleyball and cricket are also played.
The Bhutanese are ‘foody’ people just like the Indians! They love to eat their food spicy hot. “If the food does not make you sweat, then why bother eating” they say. Hmmm…that sounds kind of similar to the people of the state of Andhra Pradesh, India. Rice is the staple food. City folks eat white rice while the rural folk eat red rice. Rice with vegetable curry or meat curry is what Bhutanese food is basically all about. Yak meat is most prevalent among non-vegetarians. Vegetables include pumpkins, white radish, cauliflowers, cabbage and beans.
I can deal with that, provided those hot red chilies used in Bhutanese cooking is toned down.
Everyone knows about China, especially these days. So I am not going to elaborate too much about this rising power. It is an economic powerhouse and the ‘happening’ place. And we all know that Chinese civilization is ancient. But did you know that China finds mention in classical Indian scriptures? “What!!??” you exclaim. “That’s a new one huh?” I would respond smugly. I bet you didn’t know that. The Sanskrit name for China is “Cin”. In fact if you ever hear references made about China in the Hindi news service of All India Radio, you will hear China being referred to as “Cin”. References to the people of “Cin” exist in the Puranas, Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
The Kiskindhakanda portion of Valmiki’s Ramayana asserts that they (along with other races mentioned there and are irrelevant to this topic) were created by the Sage Vashistha (one of the 10 sages created by Brahma to assist in the creation of this universe) through the divine cow Kamadhenu. Hmmm…fascinating to say the least!
Here is something even more interesting. References to the people of “Cin” are made in Mahabharata. Apparently they took part in the great war fought at Kurukshetra between the Pandavas and Kauravas. King Bhagadatta of Pragjyotisha was a general under Bheeshma, the army commander of the Kauravas. He ruled over a kingdom that constitutes the modern-day state of Assam in India. The warriors from “Cin” fought under his command. Arjuna eventually defeated King Bhagadatta in battle and killed him.
We are all connected in some way or the other are we not? I think I have said enough for you to ruminate on!
Myanmar used to be called Burma. It appears that Burma is a derivative of the Sanskrit word Brahma-desh or ‘land of brahma’. Speaking of derivatives, a mighty river flows across this land. If you look at an atlas, you will see that it is called Irrawaddy River. Well, here we go again! It is not really Irrawaddy…it is actually Airavathy. Hmmm! Now have you heard that name before? Does it not ring a bell? Airavata perhaps? No? If not, perhaps its time to read more Amar Chitra Kathas.
The capital is Yangon. The official language is Burmese. About 89% of the population is Buddhist and 4% is Christian.
The Burmese are big on rice. Soccer is their most popular sport.
Bangladesh means ‘land of Bengalis’. Prior to 1947, Bangladesh used to be the Indian state of East Bengal. If you are an avid follower of Kolkata soccer, you will immediately recognize that name. East Bengal is one of the strongest and most successful soccer teams in Kolkata. After independence, in 1947, it became part of Pakistan and was called East Pakistan. Then, in 1971, East Pakistan broke away and became Bangladesh.
The capital is Dhaka. The official language is of course Bengali. 90% of the population is Muslim and 9% is Hindu.
The national animal is the Royal Bengal Tiger, the national bird is the Oriental Magpie Robin, the national flower is the White Water Lily and the national fruit is the jackfruit. Bengalis in general love to eat fresh-water fish. A particular favorite is the Hilsa. Most Bengalis have a weakness for sweets. In fact both West Bengal and Bangladesh are the source for a large variety of milk-based sweets, the most well-known being ‘rossogolla’.
The culture and cuisine are very similar to that of state of West Bengal in India. Rice (parboiled rice) is, of course, the staple food. Then there are the lentils (‘dal’), vegetable curries and fish. It is the fish-and-rice combo that marks a Bengali meal. Meals often start with rice, dal and ‘maach bhaja’ or crisp fried fish.
The word Sri Lanka in Sanskrit means ‘resplendent island’. The Lanka referred to in the Ramayana, where Ravana ruled, was here. Interestingly, the remnants of the bridge over the Indian Ocean linking Dhanuskodi in Tamil Nadu, India with Talaimannar in Sri Lanka, built by Lord Rama’s army is visible via satellite. It is often referred to as Adam’s Bridge or Rama Setu (meaning ‘Rama’s bridge). A satellite picture is available here http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~lkawgw/adamsbridge.html .
The capital is Colombo. The official languages are Sinhala and Tamil. About 70% of the population are Buddhists, 15% Hindus, 8% Muslims and 8% Christians. About 75% of the population is ethnic Sinhalese followed by about 12% Tamils.
The Srilankans are as much into cricket as India, Pakistan or Bangladesh. The cuisine bears resemblance to those of the surrounding countries. Boiled or steamed rice is the staple food. Meat and vegetable curries are usually eaten with rice. Coconut (or coconut milk) is a frequent ingredient in Srilankan dishes. The dishes are rich in spices and can be very hot. It is very close to south indian cuisine but much more hot and spicy.
The country is well known for its natural beauty in terms of landscapes, tropical forests and beaches.
The name originates from the Sanskrit word ‘maladvipa’ meaning ‘garland of islands’ which seems to be an accurate description. It does consist of a double chain of 26 atolls stretching in the north-south direction just off India’s Lakshadweep Islands.
The capital is Male and the official language is Dhivehi. English is used in commerce and is becoming a medium of instruction in government schools. Islam is the only official religion. The country does not support freedom of religion yet.
The culture of this country is heavily influenced by India and Sri Lanka. For example, Maldivians love to watch Bollywood movies and swing to Bollywood tunes. Old Bollywood songs by Mohammed Rafi, Mukesh, Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle are very popular. There are plenty of doctors, engineers, teachers, accountants and managers from India working in the Maldives. There are lots of laborers from Kerala and Tamil Nadu too. The base ingredients of Maldivian cuisine are coconuts, fish, rice, tapioca, sweet potato and fruits such as breadfruit.
Tourism is the main source of income for the Maldivians. The Indian Ocean islands are naturally beautiful and attract a large number of tourists. The official tourism web-site is at http://www.tourism.gov.mv/ . It is easy to travel to Male. There are scheduled and charter flights out of US, Europe, Middle East, S. Africa and Asia. Visitors are given a 30-day visa on arrival. The beaches are beautiful and the weather is hot since it straddles the equator. Swimming, fishing, diving and surfing are popular with tourists. Since Male is an island city, moving between the international airport and a resort hotel may involve a ride on a speedboat or a seaplane! It is a little different from your average cab-ride from the airport huh?
Ok, now that we know a little bit about India’s neighbors, what about that ninth country that the Government of India considers as its neighbor? Well, that is Afghanistan. “How so?” you ask. You see, India considers the entire state of Jammu & Kashmir as its territory. Pakistan disputes that. In fact, the two countries have gone to war thrice on this account in addition to frequent border skirmishes. The north-west part of Kashmir shares a small border with Afghanistan. But this portion of Kashmir is under Pakistan’s administrative control which India considers its own. Therefore, the official answer from the Government of India would be that Afghanistan is a neighbor to India. India’s ties with Afghanistan go a long way back. In fact, the wife of King Dhritarashtra (the King of the Kauravas in the Mahabharata) Gandhari was the daughter of the King of Gandhara which happens to be the modern-day Kandahar region.
Sigh! Life can get complicated sometimes. The Sanskrit Peace Mantras comes to mind:
Sarve Bhavantu Sukhinaha [May all be happy]
Sarve Santu Niraamayaaha [May all be free from disabilities]
Sarve Bhadraani Pashyantu [May all look to the good of others]
Maakashchit Dukha Bhaag Bhavet [May none suffer from sorrow]
Loka Samastha Sukhino Bhavantu! [Let there be happiness everywhere]
Loka Samastha Sukhino Bhavantu! [Let there be happiness everywhere]
Loka Samastha Sukhino Bhavantu! [Let there be happiness everywhere]
Om Shanti! Shanti! Shanti! [Peace! Peace! Peace!]