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Posted: April 30th, 2011   |   Categories: Blog | Buddhism | India | Travel

Mudras above the immigration desks bestow blessings upon arriving travellers, Delhi Airport

“What’s that smell?” I asked my neighbour as the airgate connected to our plane, and local air seeped into the cabin. We’d struck up conversation during the closing credits of True Grit, and chatted sporadically throughout the eight-hour flight from London (If you didn’t get a chance to see the movie, do – it’s terrific).

“It’s the smell of burning; it’s virtually everywhere in Delhi.”  She anticipated my next question: “Everything – they burn everything here. Rubbish, tyres, plastic, whatever”.

Eight years had passed since I was last in India, and although I’d taken for granted that weird smells and bonfires were ubiquitous, I’d been backpacking, busing and slumming it back then, so didn’t expect the BA cabin to reek of torched garbage as soon as the doors opened. India 101, Lesson One – expect the unexpected.

Cannes Film Festival competition poster, Delhi duty free

Cannes Competition, Delhi duty free

I hadn’t expected to be greeted by a competition for the Cannes Film Festival as I passed duty free, or by a Costa Coffee outlet as I exited customs; it’d be a while before I’d come across a chai-wallah, which is perhaps what I was expecting, wholly unrealistically.

India’s businesses struggle to market the subcontinent’s exotic culture as unique, authentic, compelling; yet simultaneously modern, business-orientated, and importantly, a comfortable fit for foreign investment.

Weird superstitions, millions of gods and religious holidays every five minutes support a travel market worth tens of billions of dollars annually, but are less of a draw for multinational corporations and their businesses.

Amit Gulati, head of the Indian industrial design firm that came up with “Expressive India” – the “basic positioning” for the airport’s Terminal 3 – provides insight into such a situation in a Q&A: Delhi Airport’s ‘Hands’ Sculpture, the Wall Street Journal’s India blog. In response to questions over whether the mudras hold religious significance, he proves somewhat difficult to pin down.

While acknowledging that its difficult to find anything whatsoever in India that has no religious connection or significance, he suggests they refer less to Buddhism or Hinduism than to yoga which, despite “religous undertones”, is now “perceived to be secular”;  the hand gestures mean, essentially, what you want them to mean.

This technique, used by businessmen throughout India, is familiar to anyone who’s ever bought anything dodgy, suspect, faux or potentially faulty, and is known as “same same, only different”.

Further reading:

Mudras at Delhi International Airport (PDF download, 423k)  courtesy Incubus Design.

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