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February - March 2008
Ashram that shook the Empire
by Anil Mehta
About three miles from the Ahmedabad city, peacefully set on the west bank of the Sabarmati river, is the Sabarmati Ashram, Gandhiji’s headquarters during his long struggle for India’s independance. Following his return from South Africa in 1915, he set up his first ashram at Kochrab, a village near Ahmedabad which had to be closed after two in the wake of a plaque epidemic. In 1917 he shifted it to a more permanent (present) site across the tranquil stretch of Sabarmati river. Few simple but functional units were built initially and the ashram soon started buzzing with activities.
Sabarmati Ashram was the nerve centre for India’s freedom movement and was referred to the Satyagraha Ashram during Gandhiji’s stay. He lived there from 1917 until 1930. His simple hut was known as Hridaykunj, so named, as it was the heart of the ashram. It was from here that Gandhiji (also known as Bapu) experimented non-violent methods of political struggle. However, his activities were not merely confined to political protests but also targeted at social issues such as poverty and untouchability. At Sabarmati he also wrote his autobiography ‘My Experiments with Truth’ in which he describes his early life candidly and meticulously.
The ashram was committed to a simple and disciplined lifestyle. Like Gandhiji, devoted residents of the ashram led an asture but busy life.Everyone had to put in some manual work such as washing his plates and clothes. There were no servants.
The ashram was the scene of many events in India’s independance struggle. It was from here that Bapu and his selected band of followers led various satyagrahas, the most notable being a month long historic march in 1930 to Dandi, a small coastal town near Surat in South Gujrat, in protest against the unjust Salt Law (British monopoly on the production and sale of salt) by gathering salt from the sea. On his way to Dandi he gathered support from towns and villages and thousands joined him. On reaching the sea he picked up a handfull of salt from the beach. His followers picked up the salt too. Similar marches for making or collecting salt illegally were staged across the country. Protesters in their thousands were beaten back by the police, followed by mass arrests and imprisionment of local and national leaders including Nehru and Gandhiji.
This symbolic but defiant action (Dandi March) proved very effective and drew worldwide attention. `it was the civil disobedience movement for the country’s independance at it’s very best. It inspired the whole country into previously unknown sense of unity and National identity, and made Gandhiji the supreme and unchallenged leader of India’s independance movement, that ultimately culminatd in the ending of the British rule.
Sabarmati Ashram is now a monument to this remarkable son of India. His simple cottage (Hridaykunj) is preserved as it was in Gandhiji’s lifetime, and there are excellent photographic records including some oil paintings of his life and times. A museum within the ashram displays Bapu’s personal effects such as sandals, a pair of round glasses, clothes, spinning wheel,and cloth spun by him- all build up an overall picture of his life and beliefs. The library contains a collection of letters and books dealing with his life, work and teaching.
Today, the ashram is no longer operating as such, but continues the work started by Gandhiji by producing handicrafts, hand-made paper and spinning wheels. It also publishes and sells Gandhi related literature and arranges exhibitions on aspects of his life.
Sabarmati Ashram is one of the foremost tourist attractions in Ahmedabad. In addition to offering an insight into Gandhiji’s life and times, it offers a refuge from the busy streets of the city - a good place for quiet contemplation. It’s openl days and the entrance is free.