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The many linkages that bind India and Brazil

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In 2022, India celebrates 75 years of Independence, while Brazil has its 200th anniversary. Both countries have, obviously, much longer histories. For most, these histories have little or nothing in common. Indian culture has its roots in ancient times, in the Asian continent, whereas the origins of American cultures are much younger. Regardless of these obvious differences, a closer look sheds light on many surprising links between the two countries.

The clearest way is to observe the intercontinental, transoceanic movements of Portuguese vessels in the globalisation process that took place in the first modern era (15th and 16th centuries). A fleet organised by Portugal and captained by Pedro Álvares Cabral set sail in 1500, intending to engage in commercial activity and establish a European presence on the west coast of India. On its journey, it veered course and landed on the eastern shores of South America — an episode that traditional historiography calls the “discovery of Brazil” (although the term is questioned by more recent Brazilian historians). Thus, it is possible to say that the origins of the country called Brazil are indelibly linked to India.

But there is more to discover. This connection generated by the Portuguese ships that purchased spices in India and took them to Europe, the so-called Cape Route, necessarily passed through the Brazilian coast. These ships carried the spices, but also deposited in some homes of people who lived in Salvador or Rio de Janeiro, small gems such as ivory figurines with images of Catholic saints, finely worked by Hindu artisans filling orders by Catholic priests who did missionary work in southwest India in the 16th to 18th centuries. As a result, it is possible, for example, to see Christ as the Good Shepherd watching over his flock using the gestures of Indian deities, an amazing confluence of cultures. Today, these statuettes are a high point in the collections of the Museum of Sacred Art of Salvador and National Historical Museum in Rio de Janeiro.

The comings and goings of ships also circulated representatives of the plant world that today we believe both in Brazil and India always belonged to us. Thus, an average Brazilian will swear that mango and jackfruit are typical Brazilian fruits, not knowing that they actually came from India — just as the average Indian would swear that cashew is Indian, without knowing that its origin is the sunny coast of Brazil.

If we jump to current times, we can identify some more affinities. Brazilians and Indians on fair days usually drink delicious sugarcane juice. In fact, for centuries, Brazil’s greatest wealth was the production of sugar from this plant, originally from India. Still today, huge plantations of these cover territories of Brazil and now also provide fuel for cars that is cheaper than oil derivatives. It is not a coincidence that Brazil and India are increasing their cooperation in ethanol, working together for a greener future based on their shared past.

An even more surprising point of contact can be found during the best known festivity of Brazil: Carnaval. In the Brazilian city of Salvador, one of the most traditional and popular Carnaval parades is the “Afoxé Filhos de Gandhi” (literally “sons of Gandhi”, playing the “afoxé”, a ritual drum used in Afro-Brazilian religions). The group is composed only by men who, in honour of the Mahatma and his message, use all-white clothes similar to the dhoti. They go out singing and dancing, in the name of peace among all human beings.

India and Brazil share even more affinities. A few years ago, one of the most successful soap operas in Brazil was called Caminho das Índias (Indian Way or Path to India). The plot was centred on Indian and Brazilian families mingling with each other with great ease in cities in Brazil and India. The success was resounding and popularised some Hindi expressions, such as namaste and theek he.

Other elements of Indian culture are also seen in Brazil — the ancient Indian practices of Ayurveda, yoga, and meditation. In cooking, there has also been a lot of cultural circulation. For instance, kenge of Goan origin is now a dish among Brazilians, called canja. The points of contact between India and Brazil are plentiful. We just need to sharpen our eyes to see them.

Celia Tavares is associate professor of modern history, State University of Rio de Janeiro, member of the “Visions of Asia” group, a network of history researchers on Asian History topics 

The views expressed are personal

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