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Want to avoid swastikas in India? Good luck.

Children light lamps in the shape of Swastika, on the eve of Hindu festival of Diwali, in the northern city of Chandigarh, November 11, 2004. According to Hindu mythology, the swastika is the sign of prosperity. People decorate their homes with lights during the biggest Hindu festival of lights.

AJAY VERMA/Reuters

New Delhi - Not long ago, The Globe and Mail's Delhi driver, Lalit Sharama, became the proud owner of a second-hand jeep, which he leases to the bureau.

A broad coalition of us, friends and family, pooled resources to help Lalit make the purchase - a huge leap into the world of property owners, a milestone for his family. Lalit is a recent convert to Seventh Day Adventism, but on the day he drove the car off the lot, his family made sure his first stop was the local Hindu temple, where a puja was performed to bless the jeep as both vehicle and family business. And so, when it arrived at the bureau, the vehicle was gaily decorated with bright red swastikas.

After seven months here, I'm getting used to the ubiquity of this ancient good-luck symbol, but it always gives me a moment's pause. For someone from the West, the immediate association, of course, is always with the Nazi emblem.

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The word swastika comes from Sanskrit, a compound meaning good fortune or well-being. The symbol dates from the Neolithic period, and has been found in dozens of ancient cultures, including that off aboriginal North Americans. Its use in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain tradition goes back at least 3,000 years and the swastika is omnipresent in India: election ballot papers are stamped with it; there is a Swastika General Trading shop near the bureau (and the less-promising Swastika Exporters, who, one assumes, may struggle a bit in Western markets). The word is even used a first name.

In a moment of touristic cognitive dissonance, I snapped this picture of a Swastika-adorned spice business in Jewtown, the historic Jewish area of Kochi in the southern Indian state of Kerala.

Indians I have asked have variously explained that the symbol represents the sun, the god Vishnu or the goddess Kali. They tell me that the directions of the swastika were traditionally interchangeable; after the Germans chose one direction, the other had a boost in popularity.

The swastika was a popular signifier of luck in Germany at the turn of the last century, and the Nazis adopted it as their emblem in 1920, choosing it for its link to ancient Aryan civilization, because they considered the Aryans an original pure and white race.

In some ways, it is gratifying to see how impervious Indian culture is to this dark episode that hijacked a religious symbol; the swastika adorns wedding cakes and jewellery and bags from upscale shops.

Nonetheless, I'm looking forward to the day when the ones on the Globe car fade away.

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About the Author
Latin America Bureau Chief

Stephanie Nolen is the Latin America correspondent for The Globe and Mail. After years as a roving correspondent that included coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Stephanie moved to Johannesburg in 2003 to open a new bureau for The Globe, to report on what she believed was the world's biggest uncovered story, Africa's AIDS pandemic. More

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