President Barack Obama was so honored to be invited to India’s Republic Day celebration that he showed it.
After arriving at Rashtrapati Bhawan, the presidential palace, for an elaborate welcome ceremony, Obama clasped his hands in the traditional “namaste” greeting. During namaste, a person’s head is slightly bowed and the hands are pressed together, palms touching, fingers pointed skyward and thumbs touching the chest.
Namaste often is performed at the end of yoga practice.
Asked about being the chief guest at Monday’s celebration, Obama said: “It is a great honor. We are so grateful for the extraordinary hospitality.”
Obama’s wife, Michelle, accompanied him to India.
In between hours of meetings, Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi strolled through the neatly trimmed garden of Hyderabad House, the state guesthouse.
The two walked past ponds of lotus flowers before sitting down beneath a canopy for tea time. Modi poured.
Both sat with elbows on their knees, sipping from white cups. They appeared relaxed and smiled as they chatted and gestured.
While Americans love their coffee, Obama seems to have similar feelings about tea.
He’s often seen in public carrying the hot stuff in a paper travel cup embossed with the White House seal.
Obama also paid his respects at the site where India’s independence icon, Mahatma Gandhi, was cremated.
He walked in his socks, no shoes, to a walled courtyard at the Raj Ghat, and laid a large white wreath at the site. He also shoveled dirt and poured a pitcher of water around a sapling that was planted in his honor at the memorial, as has been done for U.S. presidents before him who have made the same visit.
Obama signed the guest book and quoted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in his inscription.
“What Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said then remains true today — the spirit of Gandhi is very much alive in India today. And it remains a great gift to the world. May we always live in his spirit of love and peace — among all people and nations,” Obama wrote.
A senior member of India’s cabinet usually is on hand to greet visiting heads of state, such as Obama, when they arrive in India.
The foreign ministry had said that’s how it would go when Obama and his wife, Michelle, arrived at Palam Air Base, and it appeared that Power Minister Piyush Goyal would have the honor.
So when Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke with protocol and greeted Obama on the tarmac — and with a bear hug — India noticed.
Modi and Obama then shook hands, laughed and chatted for several minutes before leaving in separate vehicles.
There was no immediate explanation given for Modi’s breach of protocol.
Obama could end up with watery eyes and a scratchy throat as he moves about the polluted Indian capital, an annoyance most residents have learned to live with.
The U.S. Embassy’s air quality index was in the red zone Sunday, with the “unhealthy” air meaning people should avoid outdoor exertion.
Obama had several outdoor appointments, including a ceremonial welcome in the open forecourt of the Rashtrapati Bhawan, the presidential palace, and a visit to the memorial of independence leader Mahatma Gandhi. He and Modi also strolled through the garden of Hyderabad House, the state guesthouse.
Then on Monday, Obama will spend several hours outdoors as the guest of honor at Republic Day festivities marking the anniversary of the enactment of the country’s constitution.
Obama’s experience may well inject some urgency into climate talks on the bilateral agenda.
New Delhi has grown accustomed to heavy security around the Republic Day parade, with roadblocks and security patrols regularly throwing traffic into chaos in the heart to the city.
But the combination of Monday’s parade and Obama’s visit has brought a heightened level of security that few can remember.
Thousands of Indian policemen, soldiers and members of various other security agencies have swamped the city. A drive though the Diplomatic district, where Obama’s hotel is located, means running a gauntlet of roadblocks and ID checks and nervous security officials shuffling their feet in the chilly air.
Indian security often relies more heavily on manpower than organization, with one set of roadblocks not communicating with the next, and even those people who should be allowed through anxiously scrolling through their mobile phones for someone to call for help.
One thing was different: Every official was unfailingly courteous, not a trait Indian security is generally known for.
Associated Press writer Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.
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