In the Footsteps of Gandhi, a Tireless Leader (and Prolific Traveller)

Some places bear an especially strong imprint of the Father of the Nation.

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Illustration: Evan Turk, and from the book “Grandfather Gandhi” by Arun Gandhi & Bethany Hegedus

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Over his long career, the indefatigable Mahatma Gandhi visited virtually every corner of the country in his attempt to reach out to all Indians, staying overnight at homes ranging from palatial mansions to flimsy huts. However, there are a few places that stand out for their historical significance and state of preservation, allowing visitors to get up-close with one of the greatest men in history. Here’s a list of everywhere you need to go, and what you need to know.

Porbandar, Gujarat (1869)

On 2 October 1869, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (hereafter MKG) was born in a small port town on the Kathiawar peninsula, the youngest child in a well-off family. his father Karamchand was the dewan to the Maharaja of Porbandar; his mother Putlibai was the dewan’s fourth wife. Kirti Mandir, their three-storey home bought in 1777, is kept in good shape by the Archaeological Survey of India and visitors can step into the very room where MKG was born. The exact birth spot is marked with a swastika on the floor. The sprawling building has over 20 rooms, many small and dark, so the sunny chamber on the rooftop was (according to a sign) young MKG’s favourite hangout to sit and read.

porbandar

Illustration: Evan Turk, and from the book “Grandfather Gandhi” by Arun Gandhi & Bethany Hegedus

A museum next door displays the family tree and has a souvenir shop where you can pick up recordings of MKG’s favourite hymns and ballpoint pens adorned with his face. The royal audience hall or Darbargadh, where the dewan would have worked, though not far, isn’t open for visits. There’s a small school within walking distance, and this is probably where MKG was enrolled in about 1875, although, as he later disclosed in his autobiography My Experiments with Truth, he didn’t do particularly well in his early studies. Practically behind the Gandhi family home one will find the residence of Gokuldas Makanji, a well-known local trader whose daughter Kasturba was to become MKG’s wife and companion (they were betrothed at the age of six); the house is open to tourists and pilgrims.

Porbandar is a pleasant town and once you’re done with all the sightseeing, it is lovely to stroll around and bargain for gems in the jewellers’ bazaar near the Gandhi house. Many shops retain an old-fashioned feel and people dress very traditionally. In the evenings, locals flock to Chowpatty Beach to enjoy the cool breeze and eat snacks from pushcarts. Moviegoers might recognise the place from richard attenborough’s biopic Gandhi (1982). In one scene, Ben Kingsley as MKG and Martin Sheen as a foreign journalist sit here talking, with the city of Porbandar spread out in the background.

Factfile

Mahatma Gandhi Kirti Mandir Sanchalay Samiti is open from sunrise to sunset (Kasturba Gandhi Marg, Manek Chowk, off M.G. Road). Stay at Toran Tourist Bungalow (www.gujarattourism.com/) which isn’t flashy, but has an excellent seafront location at Chowpatty, with great views especially from the first-floor rooms. The bungalow also doubles as Porbandar’s tourist office.

Rajkot, Gujarat (1880s)

rajkot 1880s

Illustration: Evan Turk, and from the book “Grandfather Gandhi” by Arun Gandhi & Bethany Hegedus

When his father got a new job and the Gandhi family shifted to Rajkot, it was a growing city with educational facilities and a cosmopolitan population of some 23,000 people. Although the journey from Porbandar takes only a few hours today, in those days it would have involved a five-day trip in a bullock cart.

The sights in Rajkot include Gandhi Smriti, the typical Saurashtra-style courtyard house built around 1880, where the Gandhis lived (now converted into a modest museum); the Kattyawar High School where MKG studied from 1880 to 1887 (also known as Alfred High, founded 1853 and built in Gothic style); and the Aji riverfront, where he did his first dietary experiment and tried eating meat (as revealed in his autobiography). One of young MKG’s hobbies was playing cricket with the other lads from school—and he is said to have been an enthusiastic batsman.

The present guardians of the home will point out the room where 18-year-old MKG promised his mother he would refrain from bad habits before he left for London. The room where he and Kasturba lived used to be above the gate but it was demolished. The office where he set up a legal practice when he tried to settle in Rajkot again, at the age of 32, was also torn down; there’s a photograph of the building in the museum.

Rajkot is famous for its peanuts and ice-cream parlours, and you shouldn’t miss out on the Kathiawadi thali lunches either.

Factfile

Kaba Gandhi no Delo or Gandhi Smriti is open 9 a.m.-12 p.m. & 4-6 p.m. (Kadya Nav Line, off Ghee Kanta Road, near Sri Lakhajraj Road in the bazaar quarters of Lohana Para). The Imperial Palace (www.theimperialpalace.biz) is a good place to stay. Rajkot gets very hot during April and May.

Ahmedabad, Gujarat (1887 and 1900)

ILLUSTRATION: EVAN TURK, AND FROM THE BOOK GRANDFATHER GANDHI BY ARUN GANDHI & BETHANY HEGEDUS

Illustration: Evan Turk, and from the book “Grandfather Gandhi” by Arun Gandhi & Bethany Hegedus

MKG first came to Ahmedabad in 1887 to take the entrance test to Bombay University. In those days there was no railway from Rajkot to Ahmedabad, so he travelled by bullock cart. It was his first visit to a big city. Ahmedabad had more than one lakh people then (a little less than the 6.5 million it has today). He was impressed by the grandeur of everything, but unfortunately didn’t do well in the test. He came 404th and his English marks were a mere 89 out of 200.

Better documented is MKG’s later and longer stay at the Sabarmati Ashram, which he established as his permanent base in 1917. In fact, after returning from South Africa, he had previously started another ashram in Ahmedabad in 1915, in the Kochrab area on property owned by a supporter, barrister Jivanlal Desai. But the ashramites had to leave when an epidemic of plague broke out in the vicinity two years later. That’s when they moved to the new place. It was originally named Satyagraha Ashram and conveniently located virtually next door to the jail, which MKG jokingly referred to as a branch of the ashram.

He would go on to spend about 13 years at Sabarmati. It was from here that the Salt March started in 1930, taking protesters to the coast in southern Gujarat, breaking the colonial Salt Law and landing MKG in jail. After that incident, he vowed not to live in the ashram again until India became independent.

The compound is, despite being the primary tourist attraction here, very calm compared to the surrounding bustle. Many of the small whitewashed buildings date from MKG’s time, including the frugal Hriday Kunj where he lived. He is said to have slept mostly on the veranda out in front and you can see his spectacles, sandals, some spinning yarn, and other belongings inside.

The main museum-cum-memorial building was designed by the architect Charles Correa and inaugurated by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1963. A massive amount of important correspondence, as well as many photographs, are stored here for the benefit of scholars.

Factfile

Sabarmati Ashram, also known as Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya or Harijan Ashram is open 8.30 a.m.-6 p.m.(www.gandhiashramsabarmati.org; Ashram Road, northern end, west bank of the Sabarmati River). The House of MG (www.houseofmg.com) is an interesting heritage hotel in the old city centre, although this M.G. stands for the businessman Mangaldas Girdhardas.

Mumbai, Maharashtra (1891-1940s)

gandhi in mumbai

Illustration: Evan Turk, and from the book “Grandfather Gandhi” by Arun Gandhi & Bethany Hegedus

MKG, the London-educated barrister, tried time and again to get work in Bombay. In 1891, he rented a small place in Girgaum from where he could walk to the High Court at the edge of the Oval Maidan. Within months he got fed up with the lack of job opportunities and migrated to South Africa.

Again in 1902, he rented a portion of one Keshavji Tulsidas’s house situated in what was known as Girgaum Back Road. He tried to set up his own legal practice, sharing chambers with the firm Payne, Gilbert, Sayani, and Moos in theAga Khan’s Buildings, roughly opposite the High Court and near Flora Fountain (erected in 1869). The cramped city centre affected his family’s health so MKG soon shifted to a “fine bungalow” at an unknown address in Santa Cruz, from where he used to take the train to Churchgate, frequently being the only passenger in the spacious first-class compartment.

In 1915, when he moved back permanently from South Africa, he landed at Apollo Bunder on 9 January and gave interviews to the Bombay Chronicle and the Times of India.

On a few return visits to Bombay, such as in 1924 (after his first Pune jail stint) and 1944 (after his wartime incarceration in Pune), he spent time recuperating in a borrowed house at Juhu Beach, a place not open to visitors. MKG would stroll by the ocean while he regained his strength. The final time he stayed in Juhu, in 1944, the hosts learnt that MKG had never seen a movie and organised a private screening of a then popular (but now long-forgotten) B-flick called Mission to Moscow, and an Indian mythological extravaganza called Ram Rajya. MKG disliked both.

The main Gandhian tourist sight in Mumbai is Mani Bhavan, near Chowpatty Beach, where MKG was based off and on during his political career from 1917 onwards. It’s in this house, which belonged to Revashankar Jagjeevan Jhaveri, that Gandhi performed political fasts in the 1920s and planned his Civil Disobedience campaign in the 1930s. It has a nicemuseum with dioramas and a library. Some rooms have been kept as they were, so one can see his spinning wheel, rope bed, and sandals. Don’t miss the rooftop terrace where he held prayer meetings. He was arrested there in 1932. Nearby is August Kranti Maidan, where MKG launched the Quit India movement in 1942, just before he was arrested and incarcerated in Pune again.

For some MKG-approved shopping, stock up on khadi kurtas, sandals, and other handmade items at the Khadi Gram Udyog Bhavan(286, D.N. Road) in the Fountain area, down the road from C.S.T. Station; the chain of shops was initiated by the man himself.

Factfile

Mani Bhavan Gandhi Sangrahalaya is open 9.30 a.m.-5.30 p.m. (www.gandhi-manibhavan.org; 19 Laburnum Road, Gamdevi, a short walk north from Chowpatty Beach). If you go by local train, get off at Grant Road Station. For a bit of a period feel, stay at one of the many small hotels in Colaba’s backstreets. Try The Abode (abodeboutiquehotels.com), best described as backpacker goes deluxe, or the Gordon House Hotel (www.ghhotel.com). For a more reasonably priced alternative, book YWCA International (www.ywcaic.info/cenfort.htm; yes, men can stay too). For a Gujarati veggie thali, go to Chetana (www.chetana.com), around the corner from the Jehangir Art Gallery; or the excellent Shree Thaker Bhojanalaya, off Kalbadevi Road.

Pune, Maharashtra (1922-1944)

Initially, when MKG was not that famous, the British treated him as if he were a common troublemaker and locked him up in Pune’s Yerwada jail. Indeed, the first time that he features in the Who’s Who list of important persons around the world in 1932, his address is given as Yerwada jail. The cell where he stayed has been retained as a memorial, but can only be visited with special permission.

MKG first came to Yerwada in 1922, sentenced to six years’ imprisonment for sedition. In 1924, he developed an acute case of appendicitis and was taken to the Sassoon Hospital, just south of the Pune Railway Station.

In 1932, MKG was in Yerwada again when the Poona Pact was signed between him and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar at the jail. The last time MKG went to jail, as a consequence of launching the Quit India Movement in 1942, he was given special treatment and the grand Italian-style Aga Khan Palace was converted into his prison. The palace was surrounded by a three-metre-high barbed-wire fence and 76 soldiers were on duty to guard him. This time, his wife Kasturba and secretary Mahadev Desai were also with him.

Two of the most tragic events in MKG’s life took place around this time. First, his trusted aide and secretary of 35 years, Mahadev, passed away due to a brain haemorrhage although rumours had it that the British had poisoned him. Then, in early 1944, his life companion Kasturba died. Samadhi shrines commemorating both can be seen at the bottom of the lawns, towards the Mulamutha River bank. The small octagonal monument adjacent to these marks the spot where a portion of MKG’s ashes have been kept. By the end of his incarceration in Aga Khan Palace, he too was close to dying from a combination of malaria, anaemia, amoebic dysentery, hookworm, and malfunctioning kidneys. The British viceroy ordered MKG’s release so as to avoid having him die in prison.

On his birth centenary in 1969, the palace was gifted to the nation by the Aga Khan to be preserved as a memorial. Visitors can see the room in which MKG was jailed, where some of his possessions are on display. The premises are generally familiar from the Gandhi film, so much so that you almost expect to stumble into Ben Kingsley on the veranda.

Curiously, Pune was also the hometown of the man who later assassinated MKG in January 1948.

Factfile

Aga Khan Palace is open 9 a.m.-5.45 p.m. (Nagar Road). Pune has plenty of hotels, several interesting and old-fashioned budget lodges opposite the railway station, and many of the more posh ones in Koregaon Park adjacent to the Osho ashram area. Budget-minded travellers can try the reasonably priced rooms at the YMCA (www.ymcapoona.com).

Sevagram, Maharashtra (1936-1946)

years in Yerwada jail

Illustration: Evan Turk, and from the book “Grandfather Gandhi” by Arun Gandhi & Bethany Hegedus

After some years in Yerwada jail, and having donated Sabarmati Ashram to the “untouchable” classes he supported, MKG had to find a new place to stay. Partly for symbolic reasons, he chose a tiny, poorly developed village at the geographical centre of India. One of MKG’s followers, Jamnalal Bajaj, owned land here and gifted it to him.

Sevagram (village of service) was set up as an experiment: to improve rural facilities with serious research, often headed by MKG himself, in areas ranging from nutrition and cooking, to waste separation, rural economics, and construction with local materials. When VIPs came to visit they were driven from the railway station in a scrapped Ford car pulled by oxen that was called “the Oxford”.

The ashram buildings remain more or less intact and MKG’s own hut Bapu Kutir has been maintained exactly as it was when he lived here, with a few possessions on display: a low writing desk made of an old soap box, a small paperweight with three monkeys, sandals, and a walking stick. A peepul tree planted by him still stands there.

A small group of ashramites welcome visitors. And if there are vacancies, they may even put you up in MKG’s guesthouse, Rustam Bhavan (with four bedrooms). You’re expected to abide by ashram rules, partake in the communal vegetarian meals, wake up around 4 a.m. for prayers, do chores (I was instructed to spend a few hours in the morning weeding a patch of grass), join community spinning, and also pay a minuscule charge for the room. There’s a museum with a photo exhibition next door and its souvenir shop sells interesting things such as soap bars made of cow dung.

Three kilometres away in Paunar is Vinoba Bhave’s ashram. Bhave was the disciple who carried on some of MKG’s unfinished work after Independence. Bhave had been in the area since 1921 and his ashram is still operational.

Factfile

Sevagram Ashram Pratishthan is open 6 a.m.-5.30 p.m. (www.gandhiashramsevagram.org; Shegaon, Wardha, about 7 km from the railway station). If accommodation is not available at the ashram itself, there’s a Yatri Niwas across the road, next to the museum. There’s also an MTDC Resort near Wardha railway station. Accommodation in both is rather basic.

Kolkata, West Bengal (1896-194)

ILLUSTRATION: EVAN TURK, AND FROM THE BOOK GRANDFATHER GANDHI BY ARUN GANDHI & BETHANY HEGEDUS

Illustration: Evan Turk, and from the book “Grandfather Gandhi” by Arun Gandhi & Bethany Hegedus

As the capital of British India, Calcutta held a fascination for MKG. He visited it for the first time in 1896 on his way home from South Africa. He went again a few months later to do political work on behalf of South African Indians and checked into the most fashionable hotel in town, the Great Eastern.

He returned in December 1901 when the Indian National Congress held its annual meeting in Calcutta and during that same stay, at the start of 1902, he addressed a public meeting at Albert Hall (built 1876 and in which the famousCoffee House at College Street set up shop in 1942). As a minor politician, he was given a space to sleep in a school building, where other less influential delegates were housed. He found the condition of the toilets disgusting and promptly borrowed cleaning implements and proceeded to tidy everything up.

Shantiniketan (www.visva-bharati.ac.in), a two-and-a-half hour train journey north of Calcutta, was one of the first places MKG visited after his permanent return from South Africa in early 1915. Rabindranath Tagore had recently won the Nobel Prize for literature and the two became close friends, sharing many a creative debate. It was Tagore who first called him “Mahatma”. MKG served on the board of the university at Shantiniketan, did fundraising for it, and studied Bengali.

He returned to Bengal many times, but it was in the winter of 1946-7 that he experienced some of the saddest moments of his life here. Terrible riots proceeded as the province faced a crippling partition into West and East Bengal. He walked barefoot through the jungles of Noakhali (now in Bangladesh), trying to stop the fighting. At the time of Independence in August 1947 there were more riots, so MKG refused an invitation to be in Delhi with other leaders and instead stayed for almost a month in one of the most riot-torn parts of Calcutta, then a working-class slum known as Beliaghata. The building where he greeted Independence by praying and spinning is called Haidari Manzil. It has been restored and will hopefully soon be turned into a memorial.

Just north of the city centre there is a Gandhi Memorial Museum in Barrackpore (where the 1857 Uprising started) which, among other things, details MKG’s relations with the eastern parts of India.

Haidari Manzil or Gandhi Bhawan (150B, Beliaghata Main Road) isn’t generally open to visitors but you may be able to step inside if a caretaker is around. The Gandhi Memorial Museum is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. on all days except Wednesday (www.gandhimuseum.in; 14, Riverside Road, Barrackpore, 24 Parganas). Stay at the YMCA on Chowringhee (033-22492192), which transports you back in time a hundred years.

New Delhi (1947-1948)

During the last year of his life, MKG ended up living almost permanently in Delhi. He would have preferred to be elsewhere—in the countryside where he felt that people needed him—but Partition troubles forced him to stay put.

His own choice for a residence was the Harijan Basti, which at that time was on the outskirts of town, a slum area set aside for sweepers. The interesting thing is that today, thanks to urbanisation, the basti is very much in the centre of town, within walking distance of Connaught Place (Rajiv Gandhi Chowk).

His room is a sanctuary with his sitting place cordoned off, and one of his portable spinning wheels, his pencil box, and low desk kept as relics. It is a touching experience to see this humble place that MKG last stayed at in the spring of 1947.

In late 1947, it was deemed unsafe for MKG to be in the basti, so accommodation was arranged for him in the newer Lutyen’s Delhi, at Birla House on Albuquerque Road. He stayed in this grand bungalow for the last 144 days of his life until 30 January 1948, when he was shot in the garden as he was about to attend a prayer meeting.

There’s a multimedia museum depicting Gandhian ideas, as well as a shop, but infinitely more interesting is the modest back corner room in which he chose to stay. His possessions have still been kept here, including the mattress on the floor. One can follow the same path, marked with concrete footprints, along which he took his last steps in the garden. The spot at which he fell has a small column.

The following day, his body was taken to Rajghat and cremated. The black marble platform of his samadhi is a sombre memorial. Nearby two large museums are dedicated to him. One holds, among other things, the blood-stained dhoti and pocket watch that stopped at the moment of his death, and one of the bullets that killed him. This is where a great journey ended.

Factfile

Harijan Basti has a room dedicated to MKG that will be unlocked if you can find the chowkidar. To get there, walk along Panchkuian Marg from Rajiv Chowk, and you’ll find it near the corner of Mandir Marg. The room is right behind the Balmiki Mandir. Gandhi Smriti (Birla House) is open 10 a.m.-1.30 p.m. & 2-5 p.m.; closed Monday and second Saturday of the month (5, Tees January Marg; get off at the Udyog Bhavan Metro station). Rajghat is generally open daily 9.30 a.m.-5.30 p.m. and is located off NH2 near the Yamuna River. The Gandhi Darshan (www.gandhismriti.gov.in) is right south of it and the National Gandhi Museum and Library is diagonally across (www.gandhimuseum.org; open 9.30 a.m.- 5.30 p.m.; closed Mondays and second Sunday of the month). An interesting way to get to Rajghat by public transport is to take the Metro to Chandni Chowk. Then, walk to the Red Fort, where Indian Independence was celebrated in 1947 and the trials against MKG’s killers were held a year later, then go south to Delhi Gate on foot or cycle rickshaw, and take a left on Jawaharlal Nehru Marg until you reach Rajghat.

Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu (1948)

ILLUSTRATION: EVAN TURK, AND FROM THE BOOK GRANDFATHER GANDHI BY ARUN GANDHI & BETHANY HEGEDUS

Illustration: Evan Turk, and from the book “Grandfather Gandhi” by Arun Gandhi & Bethany Hegedus

MKG visited mainland India’s southernmost point twice, in 1925 and 1937. After his cremation, his ashes were sent out to different parts of the country. Some were kept, for example, at the Aga Khan Palace in Pune. An important event in 1948 was the ceremonial immersion of his ashes in the sea at the point where the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea, and Bay of Bengal meet.

Gandhi Mandapam, an eclectic memorial, which looks a lot like a temple, is where his ashes were stored on a stone plinth for public viewing before the immersion. The architecture of the monument has been planned in such a way that on 2 October, which is MKG’s birthday, a ray of sunlight touches the stone upon which the ashes were kept in an urn.

Factfile

Gandhi Mandapam is open 7 a.m.-7 p.m. daily. It is located a few steps west of the Kanyakumari Temple at the southernmost point of India. There’s a Gandhi Memorial Museum 215 kilometres north in Madurai: This is the best Gandhi museum south of Mumbai and it has a piece of the dhoti that he wore when he was shot. It was in 1921 in Madurai, 250 kilometres to the north, that MKG started wearing a simple dhoti as a political gesture (open 10.30 a.m.-5.30 p.m.; www.gandhimmm.org; Tamukkam Palace, Mahatma Gandhi Road, Madurai).

Grandfather Gandhi is published by Simon & Schuster India (2014).

Appeared in the June 2014 issue as “In The Footsteps Of The Mahatma”. Updated in September 2017.

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  • Zac O'Yeah is the author of the Bengaluru crime novel trilogy "Mr Majestic", "Hari, a Hero for Hire" and "Tropical Detective" (Pan Macmillan India) and his latest travel book is "A Walk Through Barygaza" (Amazon/Westland Books 2017).

  • Evan Turk is an illustrator and animator living in New York City. He is an author of children’s books as well as a travel reportage artist.

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