6:27am

Sun June 30, 2013
Arts & Life

A Hindu Goddess Arrives To Bless Embassy Row

Originally published on Sun June 30, 2013 1:28 pm

Embassy Row — otherwise known as Massachusetts Avenue — in Washington, D.C., is decorated with flags of every nation, flying in front of impressive embassy buildings.

In front of the embassies, there are often statues of national heroes. Winston Churchill graces the grounds of the British Embassy. Outside the Indian Embassy, Mahatma Gandhi looks as though he's in full stride, clad in loincloth and sandals.

And now, there's a Hindu goddess. Saraswati just arrived. She stands in a garden in front of Indonesia's embassy, glowing white and gold, with her four arms upraised.

Indonesian Ambassador Dino Patti Djalal says the goal was to stand out from the other embassies.

"I think this is exactly what we wanted to do with Massachusetts Avenue," he says, "add something that would jazz it up."

Saraswati is the goddess of learning and wisdom, Djalal says. At her feet are three children studying. It was crafted by three Balinese sculptors in three weeks.

Her expression is beatific. "This would be the same expression that you would see in Hindu goddesses throughout Bali," Djalal says. "A face of calm ... blessing those who are seeing her."

Although Indonesia is home to the largest population of Muslims in the world, Djalal chose a symbol of the Hindu religion for the embassy in Washington.

"One of the most famous, if not the most famous, islands in Indonesia is Bali," he says. "And Bali is a Hindu enclave in Muslim-majority Indonesia. And I think it says a lot about our respect for religious freedom that the statue in front of the country with the largest Muslim population is a Hindu statue."

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Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Embassy Row, also known as Massachusetts Avenue here in Washington, is decorated with flags of every nation, flying in front of impressive embassy buildings; all very diplomatic, very official. But now, there is a new arrival on Embassy Row, a gift from Indonesia. Saraswati, a Hindu goddess. She just arrived this summer. She stands in a garden in front of Indonesia's embassy, glowing white and gold, with her arms upraised.

Indonesian Ambassador Dino Djalal introduced us.

AMBASSADOR DINO DJALAL: She's the goddess of learning and wisdom. She has four arms, and in one arm she holds a musical instrument symbolizing art and culture. And the other hand holds akshamala, or prayer beads, and this symbolizes the never-ending process of learning. And the final hand - the fourth one - holds a lontar, or manuscript, and this symbolizes the source of knowledge.

She's arriving always on a swan. And the swan is seen also as a, you know, method of transport that symbolizes wisdom and beauty to us here.

WERTHEIMER: Now, Indonesia is home to the largest population of Muslims in the world. Why did you decide on a Hindu goddess?

DJALAL: That's the million-dollar question.

(LAUGHTER)

DJALAL: One of the most famous - if not the most famous - island in Indonesia is Bali. And Bali is a Hindu enclave in Muslim-majority Indonesia. And I think it says a lot about our respect for religious freedom that the statue in front of the country with the largest Muslim population is a Hindu statue. And, you know, we feel good about it. Yeah.

WERTHEIMER: Of all the statues on Massachusetts Avenue, that all of the embassies have put in front of their embassy, most of them are elderly gentleman with beards. There is nothing even remotely resembling the goddess on the avenue.

DJALAL: Yeah. I think, yeah. Thank you for that point. I think this is exactly what we wanted to do with Massachusetts Avenue, and that is add a, you know, a unique touch to it. Add something that would, you know, jazz it up. Maybe that is the right word.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: Ambassador Dino Djalal of Indonesia. Our snapshot of Saraswati is at npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.