Gandhi Jayanti: When Mahatma Gandhi turned ‘half-naked fakir’ in Tamil Nadu
Bapu’s khadi dhoti and shawl led Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill to once describe the Mahatma as “a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well-known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceregal palace.”
Mahatma Gandhi had taken some crucial decisions in Tamil Nadu in his fight against the British for freedom, that included turning into what is famously described as the “half-naked fakir”, 98-years ago.
It was in Tamil Nadu, the idea of hartal/strike against the draconian Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act, popularly known as the Rowlatt Act struck him while he was at C. Rajagopalachari’s residence here in 1919.
But two years later, that is in 1921, while in the temple town of Madurai, Gandhi took the drastic decision of forgoing his shirt and cap and be content with khadi dhoti and a shawl.
That too in the land where there is a proverb that says “aal paathi, aadai paathi” meaning fifty per cent of a person’s personality is made up of his clothes.
But Gandhi with his decision gave a different meaning to that -- a half-bare -- half-clothed human.
It was this attire of Bapu that led Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill to once describe the Mahatma as “a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type wellknown in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceregal palace.”
History has it that in 1920 Gandhi decided to wear only clothes made of khadi and started promotion of swadeshi goods.
As part of freedom movement, foreign-made clothes were burnt in public places.
The next year Gandhi travelled to Madurai and decided to stay at the residence of Ramji Kalyanji, Madurai at West Masi Street.
While travelling in the train from Madras (now Chennai) to Madurai, Gandhi saw people wearing foreign clothes. Chatting with them gave him the realisation that the poor were not able to afford khadi and so they cannot burn their clothes made with the ‘foreign’ material.
Gandhi recalls his train journey to Madurai: “On the way I saw in our compartment crowds that were wholly unconcerned with what had happened. Almost everyone without exception were bedecked in foreign fineries. I entered into conversation with some of them and pleaded for khadi. They shook their heads as they said: ‘We are too poor to buy khadi, it is so dear.’ I realised the substratum of truth behind the remark. I had my vest, cap and full dhoti on.
“When these uttered only partial truth, the millions of compulsorily naked men, save for their langoti four inches wide and nearly as many feet long, gave through their limbs the naked truth. What effective answer could I give them, if it was not to divest myself of every inch of clothing I decently could and thus to a still greater extent bring myself in line with ill-clad masses? And this I did the very next morning after the Madura meeting.”
On September 22, 1921, Gandhi decided to change his attire to dhoti and shawl.
The place where he first addressed the people in his new attire is called ‘Gandhi Pottal’ in Madurai.
Gandhi had visited Madurai five times during his lifetime. During his last visit, he went to the famed Meenakshi Amman temple along with Harijans/Dalits on Feb 4, 1946.
While Hindi continues to be a tricky subject in Tamil Nadu politics since 1960s, it was Gandhi who set up the Dakshina Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha (DBHPS) here in 1918.
It was set up as a part of freedom movement to have a single Indian language as the national language and unify the people.
The purpose of the DBHPS was to propagate Hindi in southern states. The first Pracharak was Gandhi’s own son Devdas Gandhi.
For Bapu, his Tamil Nadu connection became stronger as his son Devdas Gandhi got married to Lakshmi, daughter of Rajaji.
Even when Gandhi was in South Africa, it was a small 16-year old girl Thillaiyadi Valliammai who had inspired him as a ‘satyagrahi’.
She was born in South Africa to an immigrant couple R. Munuswamy Mudaliar and Mangalam with roots in Tamil Nadu.
Thillaiyadi is in Tamil Nadu Nagapattinam district.
Valliammai and her mother protested against the South African law annulling all marriages that were not as per the Church practice or the country’s marriage law.
They also protested against the imposition of a tax in workers.
Valliammai was imprisoned by the South African government and was released later. Owing to her health worsening in the prison she died soon after her release in 1914.
In 1915 Gandhi had visited Thillaiyadi.
(This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed. )