Tracing Gandhi’s footsteps

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Born Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi on October 2, 1869, Gandhi’s influence is so profound
that his ideals have touched every life across the globe. Echoing this, US President Barack Obama during a visit to India wrote in the register kept at the Gandhi Museum, Mumbai: “Mahatma Gandhi is a hero not just to India but to the world.”

More than anywhere else in the world, it is Gujarat — the land where Mohandas was born and brought up — that is suffused with Gandhi’s magic. The people of Porbandar, the town where he was born, take special pride in directing visitors to Mohandas’ house. The house, which stands on the shores of the Arabian Sea, is an inconspicuous structure maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India.

An old residence, Kirti Mandir, houses a fascinating record of the great leader’s early life. The three-storey building situated at one end of the town’s arterial road, near a square where a clean and well-maintained marble statue of the Mahatma stands, is now a museum that traces his life. Early in the morning, I see a man stop his scooter, reach up and put a fresh garland around the neck of the statue. This, I discover, is a daily ritual.

In 1915, on his return from South Africa, Gandhiji, along with  a small group of his relatives and associates who had supported him in South Africa, chose to settle down in Ahmedabad. The reasons were many. First, the language spoken in the city was Gujarati, Gandhiji’s mother tongue. The city was an important centre of the textile industry, and he hoped to use the charkha (spinning wheel) and popularise locally made cloth. Moreover, as Ahmedabad was Gujarat’s capital and home to the wealthy, Gandhi hoped that they would make large contributions in aid of his cause. The land and the people did not let him down on any of these counts.

The greatest symbol of Gandhiji’s struggle against British rule in India is the Dandi March. It started from an ashram on the banks of the Sabarmati with just 79 followers and culminated in Dandi, a small village on the coast of Gujarat on March 5, 1930, with thousands. The incident in history conjures up an image of a frail man bending to pick up a fistful of salt in defiance of the British Empire. Hundreds of thousands of people, by their symbolic gesture of picking up salt, started the civil disobedience movement that marked the death-knell for the British Empire and put Dandi on the world map.

Apart from Porbandar, Ahmedabad and Dandi there were many milestones in Gandhi’s journey to become the Mahatma. Rajkot that was once the capital of the princely state of Saurashtra is now best known as the town where Gandhi spent his early years and began his education. The Rajkumar College, Alfred High School, the Memorial Institute and Gandhi Smriti pay proud homage to the town’s favourite son.

But the one place that is at the heart of all things connected to the Mahatma is the Sabarmati Ashram. It occupies a pride of place not just in Gujarat but the entire country and continues to attract all those who want to experience the genesis of what made us a free nation. It is a spare structure on the banks of the River Sabarmati, the trees are populated by thousands of birds. The place offers a refuge from the noisy streets of Ahmedabad a mere six miles away.

The Sabarmati Ashram replaced Gandhi’s earlier residence at Paldi, which was a bungalow that belonged to a lawyer friend. Abandoned in the wake of a plague epidemic, Gandhi then chose a land donated by an industrialist Ambalal Sarabhai. On it, he built a place that offered “training for national service which is not contrary to universal well-being. The constant endeavour for such national service is the aim of the ashram.” The non-violent freedom struggle and Gandhi’s own toil against untouchability were the guiding principles of the ashram.

It was called Satyagraha Ashram when founded, but soon renamed the Harijan Ashram, as Gandhi entreated his followers to continue his battle against untouchability. The ashram was flanked by a forest on one side and a prison on the other. Thunder, lightning and heavy rains marked the day when Gandhi made his final decision: “This is the right place for our activities, to carry on the search for truth and develop fearlessness — for, one side are the iron bolts of the foreigners, and on the other, thunderbolts of Mother Nature.”

Gandhi returned to the ashram in 1925 after he was released from the Yervada prison in Poona (now Pune), and wrote and published his autobiography, My Experiments with Truth. Today, the 36-acre ashram stands testimony to the will of this man who preached non-violence and introduced the concept of Satyagraha. The ashram is spartan like the man who lived here, and houses the few personal possessions of the Father of the Nation. His books, chappals (footwear), a spinning wheel, a bed made up on the floor, glasses and a few pamphlets are on view.

The ashram is now known as the Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya (Gandhi memorial museum). A building designed by well-known architect Charles Correa on the premises has a lot of interesting historical material and hosts events to mark important dates connected to the Mahatma’s life.