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Sabarmati in neglect

Sabarmati Ashram appears to be well kept at a hasty glance, until you find there are more replicas than originals of Gandhi's memorabilia and some of the historic cottages, now inaccessible, are languishing in filth. Sarat C Das explores.See Videos:Sabarmati... I |Sabarmati... II| Sabarmati... III

india Updated: Aug 20, 2008 01:05 IST

Following Poorbander, the birthplace of Gandhiji, perhaps nothing has survived as a bigger physical legacy of Mahatma than Sabarmati Ashram. The ashram was originally established in the Kochrab area of Ahmedabad in 1915, but shifted to the banks of Sabarmati river within next couple of years. It is believed Gandhi wanted to do some experiments in living in a barren land by adopting limited farming, animal husbandry, cow breeding, and spinning khadi. Survived beyond its mission of self-sufficiency, the Sabarmati ashram became the epicenter of Indian independence movement from 1917 to 1930 with the famous Dandi march originated from here.

241 miles from the Ashram, Gandhi covered the Olympian distance with 78 companions defying the British Salt Law, which taxed Indian salt in an effort to promote sales of British salt in India. This mass awakening starting from Sabarmati overcrowded the British jails with 60 000 political prisoners.

Today, the Sabarmati Ashram compares to a minimalist painting - everything is stripped to its essentials - non-embellished display boards chronicling Mahatma's life to photo legends in Bookman Old Style font. Facile visitors would make you believe that the Ashram is kept the way Gandhi would have liked it to, however not really so, if you begin your tour from the exit.

I confronted the guest cottage of the ashram at the exit, which was always occupied by distinguished Gandhi's visitors, was surprisingly bolted from outside. Garbage was littered on the verandah of the house like left-over of a municipality pick up truck. The few neighbouring cottages, if not had so much welcoming filth, still demanded varied degree of sanitation. I almost followed an electric wire from one hut loosened out to another like a slack sailing rope from capstan.

Looking closely at all the cottages of Sabarmati Ashram I discovered the authorities had chosen to keep "HridayaKunj"(Gandhi's living quarter), the compact museum area (five units - office, library, two photo galleries and an auditorium), hut of Mary Magdalene and Vinobha Bhave in a state-of-the art cleanliness. The rest all had fallen on the way side.

Following "My life is my message" gallery, consisting of 8 life-size painting and more than 250 photo-enlargements of historic events of Gandhi's life, a few visitors would hold out to the last lap of the ashram. Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalay, a museum within the ashram built by famous architect Charles Correa who deliberated on prevailing resources, energy and climate as major determinants in the ordering of space, however, left it to authorities to arrange some of the displays of Gandhi's memorabilia. Possibly some of the displays were better off in their earlier location at 'Hriday Kunj,' Gandhi's own cottage in the Ashram. The empty wall shelves of 'Hridaya Kunj', which partially stowed with replicas today, appeared to be a gutted house. Nor the memorabilia moved to the new space were in a best state of preservation. Too many items lumped together in some display shelves; there were broken glass sheets due to overcrowding. Item tags were largely invisible and visibility seemed to be restored on some of the rusting metals among memorabilia. Some cases, these items were not looking far from pre-historic tools. I personally would like a little help from some lighting source for a better viewing of these display items.

The last time the ashram was lit up beyond recognition during the visit of Indian-American astronaut Sunita Williams surrounded by some 1000 schoolchildren and their teachers in September last year. Journalists had overrun the ashram dangling mikes and lugging cameras, and then everything faded into black.

Standing in front of "HridayaKunj" cottage I was looking at a narrow rivulet of dying Sabarmati river. There were a few water buffalos on the river bed trying to drench themselves in shallow clay pits. An imposing jetty on the river was appeared like an oil drilling rig. I heard not many years ago the swelling water of Sabarmati was almost coming at level with Mary Magdalene cottage. No more! People's disregard for river had dried it up, and the ashram may follow the suit. Dreadful!

The evening fell on Sabarmati too fast. It was closing time for visitors. I had to leave.
See Videos:Sabarmati... I | Sabarmati... II |Sabarmati... III

More about erasing Gandhi's legacy?