Mahatma’s memorials in Delhi

Hidden history: Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi visited the city 80 times. But New Delhi, where he spent the last 144 days of his life and was cremated, continues to remember him in unexpected ways.
Mahatma Gandhi flanked by Vallabhbhai Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru (standing behind him) with officers of the Indian National Army in Delhi, April 1946.(HT Archive)
Mahatma Gandhi flanked by Vallabhbhai Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru (standing behind him) with officers of the Indian National Army in Delhi, April 1946.(HT Archive)
Updated on Sep 25, 2019 09:40 PM IST
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Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By Mayank Austen Soofi

Delhi is a city of tombs and memorials dedicated to history’s iconic figures, many of whom spent their most productive years in this city. The same, however, can’t be said of Mahatma Gandhi, whose samadhi on the banks of the Yamuna is one of Delhi’s most important landmarks.

He first arrived in the city in 1915. He was then 45 and had recently returned from South Africa.

During his first visit, Gandhi stayed for two days and, according to historical accounts, visited the Qutub Minar and the Red Fort. He also visited St Stephen’s College, which was then located at Kashmere Gate. That building now houses the office of Delhi State Election Commission. In fact, his stay was hosted at the residence of the college’s principal at the time, Sushil Kumar Rudra, who was the first Indian to hold the post.

Some years later in 1921, Gandhi again visited a college — this time to inaugurate the new building of the Ayurvedic and Unani Tibbia College in Karol Bagh, whose foundation stone was laid by the British viceroy of the time. In all, Gandhi passed through the capital 80 times, according to Vivek Shukla, author of the 2018 book, Gandhi’s Delhi: April 12, 1915 - January 30, 1948; the duration of his various visits totalled around 700 days. His final 144 days were spent in this city, at Birla House, the site of his assassination in 1948.

Here’s a look at some of the ways in which Delhi has memorialised Gandhi today, besides the important landmarks.

The man who keeps Gandhi’s room clean

This small house is all he knows of Mahatma Gandhi.

“That takhat,” says Raju, pointing to a wooden bed, “is Gandhiji’s vishram-asan on which he would sleep.” Turning to a white mat on the floor, he explains that this was the spot where Gandhi would sit and meet the day’s visitors. Tucked within the premises of a beautiful Valmiki Temple on Delhi’s Mandir Marg, Bapu Niwas is touched with history. Here, Gandhi stayed from April 1, 1946, to June 1, 1947. Among a smattering of destinations marking his time in Delhi, this is perhaps the least known.


Bapu Niwas on Mandir Marg. (Mayank Austen Soofi)
Bapu Niwas on Mandir Marg. (Mayank Austen Soofi)

The spacious quiet room has the sanctity of a museum. You can actually touch the exhibits, including the wooden desk on which Gandhi would write. The walls are adorned with black-and-white photographs of Gandhi with famous people of the time.

“All of these photos were clicked here,” informs Raju with confidence. His duties include cleaning the historic room twice a day. And that photograph of Jinnah? “I don’t know much about this man,” he admits. “I studied only till third class... the family conditions were not good.” Waking up about around 4 am, “I do dusting, jharu pocha and cleaning of the photographs.” The temple management pays him a salary.

In his thirties, Raju’s early years offered no hint that his career would have such close proximity to an iconic figure. He grew up in the industrial town of Kanpur where his father worked in a plastic factory. He never imagined living in Delhi, and he “didn’t even know anything of Gandhiji” until he happened to visit a friend in the Capital who worked as a sewak (helper) at Bapu Niwas. “I stayed back,” says Raju.

As he chats on the platform outside the temple where Gandhi would hold evening sabhas, it becomes clear that while Raju might not be well versed with the larger story of Gandhi, he is intimately aware of the material aspects of Gandhi’s life that was spent in this little portion of Delhi. “I have never visited where he was killed and where he was cremated,” he says, talking of Gandhi Smriti (formerly Birla House) and Raj Ghat, respectively. To this man, the world of Gandhi is confined to Bapu Niwas.

The Gandhi-King connection

The American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. considered MK Gandhi as “the guiding light of our technique of non-violent social change.” He visited India for a five-week tour in 1959, and on landing in Delhi’s Palam airport, famously declared: “To other countries I may go as a tourist, but to India I come as a pilgrim.”

Delhi’s India International Center (IIC) came up later in 1962 — designed by American architect Joseph Allen Stein — but it has a little-known spot that commemorates the spiritual bond between these two icons who incidentally never met.

The Gandhi-King Plaza is a snug little garden tucked into one corner of IIC. The next time you visit the members-only club, instead of heading straight for the foyer, turn left from the driveway on to a pavement lined with potted plants. A few steps ahead lies one of the city’s best-kept secrets.

The first thing you’re likely to notice is a gray column with inscriptions of sayings, in English and Hindi, by both Gandhi and King. Two giant Pilkhan trees give the plaza its permanent shade. These trees are massive, their trunks extensively furrowed, as if made of molten metal; their bulky branches seemingly alive; and their leaves numbering a million, possibly more.

While the Gandhi-King Plaza occasionally hosts art exhibitions, you rarely see anyone lounging here. It lacks the showiness of the Lodhi Garden next door, with its 15th and 16th century tombs and well-laid-out walking paths. The plaza also has a little pond — Stein’s signature architectural style involved using nature.

Mahatma Gandhi leaving Mehrauli, after attending the annual celebration at Bakhtiar Kaki’s Dargah, 27 January 1948 (India). (National Gandhi Museum)
Mahatma Gandhi leaving Mehrauli, after attending the annual celebration at Bakhtiar Kaki’s Dargah, 27 January 1948 (India). (National Gandhi Museum)

Nevertheless, the place is ideal to soothe your excitable urban life, lulling you into tranquillity. The two Pilkhans conspire to create a Macondo of the mind, a place with no contact with the outside world. Though the roar of the traffic on the road outside does intrude into this leafy corner, the plaza feels supremely isolated, as remote as the legends of Gandhi and King appear to us today.

How Delhi became a film set

Delhi played a significant role in Gandhi, the Oscar-winning film by British filmmaker, Richard Attenborough. Parts of the movie were also shot in and around Mumbai, Patna and Pune.

The film’s great many elaborate sets were rustled out by a dedicated team of carpenters, masons and draftsmen in a workshop at the Manor Hotel in south Delhi’s New Friends Colony. The costume designers charged with preparing thousands of dresses for the movie’s extras toiled equally hard a few miles away at the basement of the convention hall in central Delhi’s Ashoka Hotel, which also hosted the main crew of the movie, including director, Richard Attenborough, and lead actors, Ben Kingsley and Rohini Hattangadi.

Delhi and its surrounding areas were chosen to depict pivotal sites in the film. Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad was recreated near Faridabad in the national capital region. The sequence showing the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre was shot in the Capital. Roshanara Club in north Delhi was turned into Bihar’s Champaran Cricket Club. A small railway station beyond Gurugram called Garhi-Harsaru became Pietermaritzburg station, the infamous backwater town in South Africa where Gandhi was thrown out of the first class railway carriage despite possessing a ticket.

Mahatma Gandhi at Modern School, Barakhamba Road, 1935. (National Gandhi Museum)
Mahatma Gandhi at Modern School, Barakhamba Road, 1935. (National Gandhi Museum)

Attended by President Zail Singh and Prime Minister India Gandhi, the film’s world premiere was held on November 30, 1982, at Chankaya theatre, a single-screen cinema that was razed 25 years later.

It’s now a luxury mall with a multiplex.

A walk-through of Gandhi’s last journey

Mahatma Gandhi’s extraordinary story refuses to be confined to a single city. Places as far apart as Kolkata and Cape Town are an integral part of his biography. Delhi occupies little space.

The city, however, hosted his final 144 days, and has the unenviable privilege of being the site of his assassination.

Curiously, no walking guide on Delhi has traced the Mahatma’s final journey: from Birla House, where he was shot by Nathuram Godse, to the banks of the Yamuna, where he was cremated. Going through a series of books and newspaper accounts of the time, however, help map the two-mile route.

Gandhi was killed on the evening of January 30, 1948 on the grounds of Birla House, now known as Gandhi Smriti memorial. His body — according to a report in the United Kingdom-based History Today magazine —“was laid out on the terrace of Birla House, draped in a white cotton cloth that left his face uncovered, and a single spotlight focused on the corpse as all the other lights were turned off”.

Unlike in later times when the mortal remains of a departed leader would lie in state for two or three days to facilitate antim darshan (last viewing), Gandhi was cremated the following evening.

The funeral entourage included President Rajendra Prasad, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Baldev Singh, and JB Kripalani. The millions-strong procession began from Albuquerue Road, later renamed 30 January Marg, at 11.45 am.

It crawled through Queensway, Kingsway, and Hardinge Avenue. Or through the present-day Janpath, Rajpath and Tilak Marg, respectively. The last was home to the country’s first law minister, Babasaheb Ambedkar. His house is now the Polish ambassador’s residence.

Three Dakota aircraft flew over the procession, showering rose petals on Gandhi’s carriage, and also over the mourners. The procession also passed through Bela Road in Daryaganj.

According to journalist Louis Fischer’s account, the day of the funeral was bitterly cold and windy. Gandhi’s body arrived at the cremation site at 4.20 pm.

The pyre was lit 25 minutes later by Gandhi’s third son, Ramdas, with a piece of flaming camphor, and 14 hours later, the ashes were collected into a homespun cotton bag, transferred into a copper urn, sprinkled with the water of the sacred Yamuna, and taken back to Birla House.

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