Modi Obama
Modi ObamaReuters

Prime Minister Narendra Modi began his three-day visit to America by laying a wreath at the Tomb of Unknown Soldiers and paying homage to the late Indian-American astronaut, Kalpana Chawla, at the Arlington National Cemetery in Washington on Tuesday.

According to the Press Trust of India (PTI), PM Modi also interacted briefly with Chawla's family members, Indian-American astronaut Sunita Williams, her father and senior officials from NASA at the Space Shuttle Columbia Memorial.

According to PTI, 51-year-old Williams said: "All of us are very honoured that he took time to come and acknowledge the shuttle catastrophe and the deep cooperation that we have with India in the space world... Personally it is commemorating my friend (Kalpana Chawla)."

U.S. Defence Secretary Ashton Carter had accompanied PM Modi to the cemetery. Also present on the occasion were Indian Ambassador to the U.S. Arun K Singh, Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar, U.S. Ambassador to India Richard Verma and Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Nisha Desai Biswal.

Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Vikas Swarup, in a series of tweets, said:

In an attempt to solidify India-U.S. ties, the latter began "the process of returning more than 200 stolen cultural objects" worth around $100 million back to India at a ceremony attended by the prime minister.

Expressing his gratitude for the gesture, PM Modi was quoted by IANS as saying: "We are very grateful for government of the US and the President for returning a part of our culture. This heritage inspires us for the future... Usually it's the present that brings nations together, but sometimes it's the heritage that brings two nations closer. Over the past two years, various countries have endeavoured to return India's stolen cultural heritage."

Swarup also posted pictures of some of the artefacts on Twitter, saying: "From a bronze Ganesh to a Jain figure of Bahubali, here are pics of some of the returned cultural artefacts."

The artefacts include religious statues, bronze and terracotta pieces of which a few date back to 2,000 years, which were looted from some of India's most treasured religious sites.

The Hindustan Times quoted U.S. Attorney General Loretta E Lynch as saying that the artefacts that represent India's astounding history and beautiful culture are beginning their journey home. "It is my hope — and the hope of the American people — that this repatriation will serve as a sign of our great respect for India's culture; our deep admiration for its people; and our sincere appreciation for the ties between our nations," she said.

PM Modi also interacted with the heads of U.S. think tanks in Washington, IANS reported.

Swarup said in a tweet: "Probing the minds of those who shape foreign policy. PM @narendramodi at an interaction with thinktanks in Washington."

Modi will hold talks with U.S. President Barack Obama on Day 2 of his U.S. visit to review bilateral ties and also address a joint session of the U.S. Congress, the agency reported.