A statue of Hindu Goddess Saraswati was installed at the embassy of the world’s most populous Muslim country in 2013 in Washington DC as a symbol of religious freedom in Indonesia, which is governed by principles of humanitarianism and democracy
A few hundred meters into one of my several walks looking for something that pleased my palate better, a white and gold statue on Washington DC’s New Hampshire Avenue stood out and piqued my interest. I crossed the road for a closer look at what turned out to be the statue of Saraswati, the Hindu Goddess of learning and wisdom with three children reading a book at her feet.
For a fraction of a second, I assumed the statue to be in the Indian embassy’s garden. But when I looked up, I realised the Indonesian flag was fluttering nearby and the sculpture with four arms held up was on the premises of the embassy of the world’s most populous Muslim country—Indonesia.
The statue would spark my fascination for Indonesia in September 2015 largely thanks to a craving for Indian food. I was surviving mostly on bagels and croissants at Washington’s Dupont Circle Hotel, over 15,000 km from the southeast Asian country, and was looking for it when I came across the statue a stone’s throw away.
I later discovered the 16-foot high statue atop a lotus was installed two years earlier in 2013. American news website npr.org quoted Indonesian Ambassador Dino Patti Djalal saying the Hindu statue in front of the embassy of the country with the largest Muslim population says a lot about their respect for religious freedom.
Sculptors from Bali, a Hindu enclave in Indonesia, carved the statue on-site over weeks before it became the centerpiece of the country’s embassy in the world’s most important capital. The children depicted at the Goddess’s feet include President Barack Obama as a boy, who lived in Indonesia and went to school there. Obama’s election as the US President six years earlier in 2009 underscored the essence of pluralistic liberal Western democracy, which allowed a man with humble African origins the chance of becoming the commander-in-chief of the world’s sole superpower.
The interest that the statue generated pushed me to know more about Indonesia and the pluralism it shared with the US exactly 16 years after the 9/11 attacks sparked a virulent form of Islamophobia globally. Indonesia, which is home to 12.7 percent of Muslims globally, is the world’s third-largest democracy governed by five foundational principles called Pancasila—belief in God, humanitarianism, national unity, democracy, and social justice.
It turned out to be particularly important since I was in the US on an East-West Centre fellowship, which sensitized me more than ever before about how democracy was much more than just about voting governments in and out and about pluralism and protection of minority rights.
Until that balmy afternoon in September 2015, Indonesia was just another far-off archipelago that I knew very little about. I read as much as I could about the country when I returned after having a meal at a rather expensive Indian restaurant before calling home early morning (India time) that we had to plan a trip to Bali as soon as possible.
A medical emergency in the family put paid to our immediate plans of traveling to Indonesia before we finally landed in Bali two and a half years later in early 2017 perhaps aptly around the time Basant Panchami is celebrated at the onset of spring when yellow flowers of the mustard crop bloom.
Yellow is associated with Saraswati, her favourite colour. Saraswati is worshipped on Basant Panchami as the embodiment of learning. In Bali, Basant Panchami is celebrated as Hari Raya Saraswati, or the great day of Saraswati, which marks the beginning of the Balinese Pawukon calendar. The festival is marked by organising prayers at homes, educational institutions, and public places.
Teachers and students wear brightly coloured clothes and carry cakes and fruits to schools for offerings at temples. A swan and a peacock flank Saraswati as a representation of beauty and pride while avoiding ego and vanity. Her hands hold a manuscript symbolising learning, a stringed instrument (veena) representing harmonising of one’s mind and body, and prayer beads depicting spiritual knowledge. Saraswati, who is seen to represent simplicity and elegance, is depicted wearing a white sari representing knowledge to overcome darkness and ignorance.
A spokesperson for the Indonesian Embassy told the Indian news agency Press Trust of India in 2013 that the installation of the statue was not decided only on any religious grounds, but more because of the values it symbolised. Djalal, who mooted the idea of having the sculpture in Washington DC as ‘a beacon of religious tolerance for all nations,’ called Saraswati’s expression beatific. He told npr.org that this would be the same expression that one sees in the Hindu goddesses representing education, creativity, and music throughout Bali. ‘A face of calm… blessing those who are seeing her.’
For Djalal, the goal was to stand out from the other embassies and add something that would jazz Massachusetts Avenue up. The goal was achieved as the Indonesian embassy indeed stood out.
Other embassies on Massachusetts Avenue, which is also known as Embassy Row, were mostly decorated with national flags. A statue of Winston Churchill, the UK’s Prime Minister in the 1940s, adorned the British Embassy’s garden. Sculptures of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who wound up the Ottoman Caliphate and founded the secular Turkish Republic where Islamic parties were banned and the Muslim call to prayer was not allowed in its original form, were installed outside the country’s embassy and at its envoy’s residence. National movement leader Mahatma Gandhi’s statue in trademark loincloth and sandals was placed outside the Indian mission over a kilometer away.
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono chose the Jewish New Year to speak for religious tolerance and preside over the ceremony to inaugurate the statue in honour of Indonesia’s three percent Hindu population. He joined the ceremony for the purification of the statute. Anak Agung Gde Agung, the Mayor of Bali’s Badung, and the sculptors performed the purification ritual that involved the burning of incense, palm leaf offerings, and fruits placed at Saraswati’s feet.
Agung sprinkled the statue with holy water, which was transported on Yudhoyono’s plane from Bali to get around restrictions on flying liquids on commercial flights. The Huffington Post reported Bali’s traditional pork dishes were not served out of respect for the Muslim participants.
Yudhoyono emphasised Islam as a religion of peace and echoed an open letter of over 120 Islamic scholars from around the world denouncing terrorism in its name. He called for ‘more love, tolerance, and knowledge’ as he made blessings of Saraswati ‘in the name of Allah, the most benevolent.
The Huffington Post reported observant Muslim women huddled next to the gamelan orchestra as Balinese dancers from Bali Banjar, a local club of Balinese expatriates, performed. It added the long sleeve blouses and headscarves of the Muslim women stood in contrast to Balinese dancers’ brightly colored strapless and tightly wound sarongs.
The Huffington Post noted there were some moments during the celebration where the faiths abutted but did not clash. The description appears more heartening, particularly against the backdrop of growing Islamophobia that can best be countered through the promotion of acceptance and openness that the Indonesian national ethos embodies.