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Modern India warms to Mahatma Gandhi's spartan retreat

Visitors flock to assassinated leader's ashram as it celebrates centenary year

The entrance to Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram in Ahmedabad, Gujarat (Photo by Ninad D. Sheth)

AHMEDABAD, India -- Peering inside the cottages at Mahatma Gandhi's retreat on the banks of the Sabarmati River, visitors find spartan spaces with only the most essential furniture -- a cot, perhaps, or a desk. Material possessions mattered little to the pacifist Indian independence leader.

The cottages, made of brick and wood, served as residences, meditation centers, conference halls and dining rooms for Gandhi and his followers. But there is very little to suggest that this was the epicenter of India's freedom movement for nearly 30 years.

The ashram (spiritual retreat), in this western Indian city in Gujarat State attracts tourists from around the world; for many it serves almost as a place of pilgrimage.

Gardens and buildings at the ashram (Photo by Ninad D. Sheth)

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the ashram, which Gandhi established in 1917. He stayed until 1930, when he left Ahmedabad with a vow to return only after India gained independence from Britain, which occurred in 1947. However, Gandhi did not have the chance to return to the ashram before his assassination in New Delhi on Jan. 30, 1948.

The ashram was pivotal in the development of many of Gandhi's ideas, in both theory and practice. The daily routine followed by Gandhi and his followers stressed moral discipline, self-help, minimal personal needs and ahimsa, or nonviolence.

It was from this ashram in the 1920s that Gandhi fine-tuned the idea of satyagraha -- polite insistence on truth. The concept became a mass movement in which Indians opposed the bullets and batons of the British Empire by protesting against their rulers without resorting to violence.

In one of the cottages, a room of particular significance holds a charkha, or spinning wheel. Gandhi emphasized spinning yarn as a means of freedom from British-imposed tariffs on Indian clothing and as a form of self-sufficiency.

Mahatma Gandhi’s room at the ashram (Photo by Ninad D. Sheth)

Tridip Suhrud, a Gandhi scholar and former director of the Sabarmati Ashram Preservation and Memorial Trust, which runs the retreat, explained its significance in Gandhi's worldview.

"The ashram was physically and spiritually central to the mahatma's work. When it was opened, it had a jail on one side and a cremation ground on the other, and the mahatma believed that these two were constant realties when facing the British," Suhrud said.

"Having them proximate would take away the fear of British oppression from the minds of the inmates," he said. "[The] bare environment of the ashram with an emphasis on minimal needs and its routine of discipline were very important for the development of the ideas of nonviolent protest that he later put in practice on a massive scale."

An ashram resident uses the symbolically important spinning wheel. (Photo by Ninad D. Sheth)

An estimated 800,000 people are expected to visit the ashram this year.

On a recent day, the retreat was buzzing with activity. A group of school children huddled to read Gandhi's words -- inscribed on the walls -- with apparent fascination; tourists from Mumbai in T-shirts curiously inspected the charkha; and Japanese tourists cluttered around their translator seeking details of the one object of more than utilitarian value that Gandhi possessed -- a tiny statuette of the three wise monkeys.

The figure -- showing Mizaru, who sees no evil, Kikazaru, who hears no evil, and Iwazaru, who speaks no evil -- was given to Gandhi as a gift by the Japanese Buddhist monk Nichidatsu Fujii and adorned Gandhi's worktable.

Ancient tradition

On a wall covered with quotes inside the compound's main building, Gandhi gives his reasons for choosing the site at Sabarmati, explaining that as a native of Gujarat he wanted to promote the state and the local language. In another, Gandhi says that because the city had an ancient tradition of hand-weaving cloth, the ashram would give a fillip to Indian-made material, which he proposed to champion. In a third, he states that he was certain that the wealthy Gujarati business class would come forward and support his endeavors.

This statuette of the three wise monkeys was a gift to Gandhi by Japanese monk Nichidatsu Fujii. (Photo by Ninad D. Sheth)

In 1930, Gandhi embarked on a 340km march to the western coastal town of Dandi, where he famously picked up grains of salt from the seashore. It was a symbolic act of protest against British laws, which had put that basic food item out of reach for most Indians.

While Gandhi's concepts of nonviolence and self-sufficiency are universal in nature, the quest to understand their meanings remains deeply personal. There is an ethereal quality at the ashram when a cool breeze drifts across the river.

"From an early age, I was deeply influenced by his work," said Ayush Patel, 21, an architecture student from the coastal city of Surat in Gujarat, during a recent visit to the ashram. "The simple and direct relevance of his work in everyday life is enormous, yet India and the world seem to be moving away from his ideas," he said. "I feel a thrill walking in the same courtyard where the mahatma strolled. Even though a century has passed, it is as if he is still among us."

Meriam Haenan, a research scholar in Indic studies from the Netherlands, said that she hoped her work would make Gandhi more accessible to people unfamiliar with him and his beliefs. "In my country, the new generation knows little about the mahatma and his great and universal ideas," she said while spinning the charkha.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended the start of the ashram's centennial celebrations on June 29. The commemorations will run for a year, including seminars and cultural outreach to children, especially the underprivileged, to connect with Gandhi's teachings and actions.

A budget of 250 million rupees ($3.82 million) has been allocated by the government for global seminars and the digitization of important documents and archival materials dating from Gandhi's years at the ashram. Other events include the opening of a portrait gallery in one of the cottages.

The ashram has also played a role in India's diplomatic outreach. Modi hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping there in September 2014, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in September.

As the country pursues mass manufacturing under Modi's "Make in India" initiative, Gandhi's ashram in Ahmedabad is a reminder of a very different India a century ago.

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