Building up Gandhiji's life by recalling the places that bear his presence

Go the distance: In Gandhi's footsteps

Bapu. Mahatma. Father of the Nation. Gandhiji. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is so much a part of every Indian’s psyche that it is virtually impossible to imagine a free India without him. From currency notes to city main roads, from history textbooks to government schemes, Gandhiji is everywhere. We’re taught about his life and his leadership of the freedom struggle in school. His principles form a way of life.

Beyond those acknowledgements in the history books, though, Gandhiji’s influence can be seen in the multiple cities that he was active in, and in the various institutions and memorials to his life. An avid student of history could learn much from visiting these places, following, as it were, in the footsteps of the Mahatma across India.

Porbandar: October 2, 1869. Putlibai gave birth to her fourth son, Mohandas, in a dark, windowless room in this small coastal town, which traces its history from the times of the Harappan civilisation. At the time, Porbandar was best known as the birthplace of a semi-mythological figure: Sudama, Krishna’s childhood friend. And hence the other popular name, Sudamapur, for the town. Karamchand Gandhi was a diwan for the king of Porbandar when Mohandas was born. Today, the three-storeyed ancestral house is a pilgrimage site for history buffs, and it has been extended with a memorial built next door. The memorial is called the Kirti Temple. Visitors to Porbandar also see the Bharat Mandir, a temple dedicated to the ancient ideas of India, as also a small temple dedicated to Sudama, and a bird sanctuary nearby.

Gandhi lived in Porbandar only for seven years, moving to Rajkot subsequently. His childhood, including his schooling, was in Rajkot — studying at Alfred High School. This school, subsequently renamed Mahatma Gandhi High School, was shut down in 2017 to be remodelled as a museum. Many of the stories we read about Gandhi’s schooling years — the incident of the Sanskrit teacher, the written confession to his father — would have happened here in Rajkot. This is also where he was married to Kasturba, at the age of 13. Rajkot is today a bustling town, and it would have been just as active as a princely state in the pre-independence days.

Away from home

Completing his high school education, Gandhi eventually went to London to study law. Returning from there, he tried to set up a legal practice in Mumbai, but failed. He then took up an offer in South Africa, and spent about 21 years there, returning as an already-famous activist.

Gandhi’s years abroad have been memorialised wherever he went. A statue of him was unveiled in Parliament Square in London in 2015. There are multiple markers in South Africa, where he developed his world views during his initial days of activism, and also Satyagraha, the peaceful protest philosophy that he would later apply in India. These memorials are in Pietermaritzburg, Johannesburg, and Durban — statues, plaques, roads and museums commemorating this life there. Most recently, a street in Serbia was named after Mahatma Gandhi, a testament to his influence on new generations.

Back in India in 1915, Gandhi established an ashram near Ahmedabad, on the banks of Sabarmati river. It was meant to be a model community that also practised farming and animal husbandry. Several events that shook the British empire had their genesis here. Among others, this ashramwas the starting point of Gandhi’s march to Dandi in 1930 to protest the Salt Tax — leading to the British jailing Gandhi and seizing the ashram, until popular opinion forced them to step back. Gandhi decided, as a result, to not return to this ashram until independence had been achieved. Today, Sabarmati Ashram is a tourist attraction with more than seven lakh visitors annually. A museum in the complex, designed by Charles Correa, contains multiple galleries. The most well-known one is the ‘My Life is my Message’ gallery, featuring paintings and photographs of landmark events in Gandhi’s life. There is also a large library and a display of the great man’s personal effects in Hriday Kunj, his home in the ashram, including his charkha (spinning wheel).

He went everywhere

Gandhi was active throughout India, not just in Gujarat, in the years of the freedom struggle, and multiple museums bear testimony to this. In Bihar, for example, where Gandhi’s first mass agitation was launched (in Champaran, to help indigo- growing farmers), there is now a Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya in Patna. In Barrackpore, West Bengal, there is another museum which is larger and has five galleries and multiple sculptures and murals. It focuses on Gandhi’s relationship with undivided Bengal and Orissa. It also features a Gandhi Ghat by River Ganga, where visitors can enjoy the sunset.

Another museum in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, marks two important milestones in his life. Gandhi actually visited the city five times through the years. On an early visit, he saw the deplorable conditions of the common people around him and renounced his formal dress, resolving to clothe himself only in a loincloth, leading to him being known in England as the ‘half-naked fakir’. On another visit, he finally entered the Meenakshi Temple — he hadn’t entered it earlier because of the restrictions against the entry of ‘untouchables’. Gandhi, as we know, was active in the struggle against untouchability, and it was only when the temple finally opened its doors to all that did Gandhi himself enter it, along with the people belonging to Scheduled Caste (SC), in 1946. The museum in the town documents all of these incidents, and also displays a blood-stained cloth, said to be from Gandhi’s clothing when he was shot. The building that houses the Gandhi Memorial Museum itself has further significance — it’s the historic Tamukkam Palace of Rani Mangammal of the Naick dynasty, built around 1670 AD.

There is also the Mani Bhavan Gandhi Sangrahalaya, in Mumbai, which was the home of his friend Revashankar Jhaveri, and from where he launched multiple movements — the Swadeshi Movement, Khilafat Movement, and the Satyagraha Movement among others. This was also the place where he adopted the charkha as a potent symbol of the struggle for freedom. The museum documents all these. The place on the terrace from where he was arrested in 1932 is also marked.

Gandhi Teerth in Jalgaon, Maharashtra, is a sprawling, well-designed space created by the Gandhi Research Foundation, a body dedicated to preserving Gandhi’s legacy of thought and work. Besides an impressive light and sound show and a museum of Gandhi’s life, it has also been collecting original books and periodicals from those times. One interesting aspect of the collection is stamps and philately items referencing Gandhi — these come from an astonishing 114 countries!

Another noteworthy spot in Maharashtra is in Wardha, near Jalgaon — a small village called Sevagram. When Gandhi decided not to return to Sabarmati until independence, he took up residence in this tiny village, which did not even have a post office. Starting off with a small hut for himself and Kasturba, the place grew slowly to accommodate his helpers and supporters. He was here from 1936 till his death in 1948. Today, there is a small museum of his artefacts in Sevagram, but also something else that would have made Gandhi much happier — India’s first college of rural medicine, the Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences.

Gandhi was imprisoned several times by the British, and these places have their own history. The two most prominent ones are the Yerwada Jail in Pune, and the Aga Khan Palace, where he was under house arrest, also in the outskirts of Pune.

Yerwada Jail is still a functioning prison — in fact, one of the largest in South Asia. Besides Gandhi, other freedom fighters like Nehru, Bose and Tilak were also held here. In more recent times, it was host to Anna Hazare. Yerwada was where Gandhi was sent after his arrest in 1932.

Here he undertook a fast to protest the so-called ‘Communal Bill’, where the British created a separate electorate for the SCs, forcing them to withdraw and replace it with a better one. Interestingly, Yerwada Jail now offers its inmates an optional one-year-long course in Gandhian principles, which ends with a written certification exam.

Aga Khan Palace, on the other hand, has been converted into a full-fledged museum for Gandhi, as also a monument of national importance as per the ASI. Gandhi was under house arrest here after the launch of the Quit India Movement, from 1942 to 1944, along with Kasturba and his secretary Mahadeobhai Desai.

If you’ve watched the Richard Attenborough film on Gandhi, you may remember the scenes of his house arrest here, which were actually filmed on location. The building with its serene environs, next to River Mula, is a must-visit. Morning prayer sessions are held here daily. Now the palace is well within Pune city limits, but the sense of quiet still remains.

The palace grounds also host a memorial to Mahadeo Desai, and Kasturba, both of whom passed away during their time here. A small shop in the same complex sells Khadi clothing and other handloom materials. Finally, in Delhi, we have a stark yet heartfelt reminder of the great man — Raj Ghat — the spot on the west bank of River Yamuna where Gandhi was cremated after his assassination on January 30, 1948. The place is marked by a black marble platform, with an Amar Jyoti or eternal flame burning on one side. An inscribed brass plaque quotes Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram, one of Gandhi’s beloved bhajans. In the midst of the hustle and bustle of the city, the place is an oasis of calm.

The area around the Raj Ghat memorial is a large garden. Over the years, world leaders have visited the spot and planted trees in the garden to mark the occasion - from a mango tree planted by Dr Rajendra Prasad, to a champa tree planted by Bill Clinton. Nearby are other memorials to Indian leaders — Indira Gandhi, Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, and others.

Across the road from Raj Ghat is the Gandhi Museum, which was originally set up in Mumbai but relocated to Delhi, and inaugurated by Dr Rajendra Prasad.

With every generation, we are moving further away from the tumultuous times of India’s freedom struggle. We’re learning to take our independence for granted, to look only towards the future. But every now and then, we find a trace of the man who made it all possible, in the shape of one or the other of his memorials — or maybe something more sublime, a name, a reference, maybe a character in a movie — and we are reminded of the great debt we owe to our Father of the Nation.

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