An archival treasure on Gandhi
At the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad today, various interests meet: research, tourism, employment, and, sometimes, romance. Hriday Kunj, a pristine-white hut, the home of Gandhi and his wife, Kasturba, for many years is, of course, the key attraction for visitors. Who did we meet here today? Hiten Patel, a Surat-based businessman, posing before a charkha for the benefit of his camera-wielding Japanese business partner; a batch of Fine Arts students from MS University of Baroda with their sketch books, copying the shape of Gandhi’s work-desk; Yogesh Bhatt, a local, and his girlfriend, behind the Kunj, enjoying the scenery.
The research done at its archives is a vital link between the ashram’s past and present. “This is no more a residential ashram; it hasn’t been one since 1933 when Gandhi decided to disband it as so many of its inmates were locked in British India jails,” says Kinnari Bhat, coordinator, archives and research centre. One of its key areas of work has been the digitising of his writings, journals and photos, besides creating virtual tours of places associated with Gandhi.
The ashram’s main buildings are the Hriday Kunj, the Vinoba-Mira Behn Kutir, the home of one of the first batch of ashramites, social reformer Vinoba Bhave, and, later, of Mira behn, Gandhi’s disciple; Upasana Mandir, an open-air prayer space; Nandini, where guests, including leaders like former Prime Minister Jawaharalal Nehru, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and poet Rabindranath Tagore were hosted; Magan Niwas, the hut of the ashram manager, Maganlal Gandhi, a relative of Gandhi; and the Gandhi Memorial Museum inaugurated in 1963 by Nehru. It is housed in an iconic building designed by Charles Correa.
Bolstered by his experience of ashram life in South Africa, Gandhi first set up an ashram in the Kochrab area of Ahmedabad, which he later shifted to its present site on the banks of the river Sabarmati. “The aim was to build a training school for satyagrahis dedicated to the cause of India’s freedom through non violent means,” said Gandhi researcher, Dinabehn Patil. Ashramites had to commit to 12 rules such as truth telling, chastity (even if a couple were married, one must not entertain carnal thoughts for the other); and removal of untouchability.
The ashram, elaborates Nachiketa Desai, grandson of Gandhi’s close associate and secretary, Mahadev Desai, was a training ground for building a new man. These rules were meant to be the means by which an ordinary person could become political. “He wanted Ashramites to be the model and the ideal for people in public life.”