Ahmedabad's freedom trail
The purpose of Gandhi Ashram’s establishment was to promote educational institutions run by Indians for Indians and outside the financial and governing control of British authorities, writes Anil Mulchandani
Among the cities of India, Ahmedabad is the one whose residents take great pride in the historic participation of the city dwellers in the freedom struggle. Long before Mahatma Gandhi was born, this was the city of Swaraj or 'Self-Governance'. Citizens took an initiative to repair the city walls by a citizens' team in 1832 when the East India Company officials did not get it done. The city had a citizen's council in the mid-1800s and Ahmedabad Municipality from 1857, which got recognition by statute in 1870.
The Independence Movement gathered momentum in Ahmedabad after Mahatma Gandhi decided to settle in the city in 1915. Sardar Vallabhai Patel won an election to the Ahmedabad Municipality in 1917 and became the president of the Gujarat Sabha, whose membership included freedom fighters like Mahatma Gandhi, Narhari Parikh, Ravi Shankar Vyas and Mohanlal Pandya, who were active in the Satyagraha Movement.
Since then, many of the important events in the movement for India's independence took place in Ahmedabad and some of the eminent personalities of the freedom struggle have lived in the city.
Having grown up in Ahmedabad, Dinesh Shukla, the photographer, and I, have always taken pride in this aspect of the city's history. Therefore, when we heard that there are plans to create tours in the city we decided to visit and photograph all the significant historic sites on the walking tours in Ahmedabad. You too can join the Freedom Walk, designed by the City Heritage Centre and Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, which takes you through the bylanes of the old City in Ahmedabad, where the freedom fighters met and lived. They will show you the spot where the first martyr fell to British bullets, the 'akhara' where the freedom fighters built their bodies and the haveli from where the Vande Mataram mantra spread to the neighborhood. The freedom walk connects the important community spaces and houses of residents in old Ahmedabad who emerged as leaders in the freedom struggle of India. This unique walk through the narrow lanes of old city reveals the history of the Freedom Fighters' heroic struggles in Ahmedabad and is an initiative taken by the citizens of Khadia (the old city).
From the Sardar Vallabhai Patel Airport of Ahmedabad, we drove to the Shahibaug Palace. Built by Shah Jahan when he was Prince Khorram, the Governor of Gujarat, the palace, then called Moti Shahi Mahal, is set in formal gardens. In the 17th century, the European writer Thevenot found the garden full of all kinds of trees, Paris-like avenues, a terrace full of flowers and a great building with a roof covered with green tiles. In the 18th century Forbes said of the palace, "the saloon is spacious and lofty as the building; the walls are covered with a white stucco, polished like the finest marble, and the ceiling is painted in small compartments with much taste.
The angular recesses lead to eight small octagon rooms, four below and as many above, with separate stairs to each. The flat roof commands a wide view; the rooms under the saloon, and a surrounding platform ornamented with small canals and fountains, form a cool retreat''. In 1975, to commemorate the centennial birth anniversary of SardarVallabhbhai Patel, the palace was converted into the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Memorial and opened to the public in 1980. Upstairs is the room where Tagore lived. As we entered the palace building through an imposing doorway, we saw the picture gallery with portraits and other visuals of Sardar Patel, his family, friends and fellow independence activists in chronological order. Walking through the four rooms you can get an insight into the life and work of Sardar Patel from his youth, education and legal career to his achievements in integrating princely states into India. His relics show the transition from European style clothes to the khadi kurta, jacket and slippers he wore after becoming an activist. A room is devoted to Mahatma Gandhi, displaying portraits, pictures, quotes, busts, statues and books. The close partnership between Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel is explored by the museum.
In the 19th century, when the British made their Cantonment in Ahmedabad, they added two large wings and several rooms and terraces to the palaces, and also annexes for officers. We ascended to the room where Rabindranath Tagore lived in this palatial property for six months in 1878, when he was introduced to English literature. This is where he conceptualised his popular Bengali novel, Kshudhita Pashan or The Hungry Stones and Other Stories, wrote two poems titled 'Bandi O Amaar…' and 'Nelav Rajni Dekho...'., and also his first song.
From Shahibaug, we drove to the Gandhi Ashram once called Sabarmati Ashram or Satyagraha Ashram but later renamed Harijan Ashram by Mahatma Gandhi. During his stay at this ashram from 1917 to 1930, Mahatma Gandhi masterminded great revolts of Indian farmers against the tyranny of the British government and allied landlords in Bihar and in Gujarat during crop failures. It was morning when we arrived at the Gandhi Ashram. Near the entrance is Magan Niwas, the house of Mahatma Gandhi's nephew Magan Gandhi, who was a follower of his uncle from his days in South Africa. From here, we continued to the Upasana Mandir set facing the Sabarmati River, though now the views are not as good as they once were, because of the riverfront development. Before starting work, Mahatma Gandhi and the inmates of the ashram offered prayers here.
Near the prayer area is a cottage-like house called the Hriday Kunj, where Mahatma Gandhi and his wife, Kasturba, lived. We saw the spinning wheel and work table of Mahatma Gandhi, and also personal effects like a Chinese toy of three monkeys and other simple possessions. Near Gandhiji's residence are the residential quarters of Vinoba Bhave, whom Gandhi rated as a true Satyagrahi for his commitment to truth, and Mirabehn or Madeleine Slade, daughter of the British Rear-Admiral Sir Edmond Slade, who left her home in Britain to live and work with Mohandas Gandhi, taking up human development initiatives in India.
Don't miss a visit to the Gandhi Smarak Sangrahlaya, the Gandhi memorial museum, which is an architectural gem. This complex was designed by India's master architect Charles Correa in 1958 as a cluster of modular units, set around a courtyard with a water pool. There is a bookshop that sells publications and souvenirs. Among the many monuments to Mahatma Gandhi that I have visited, Gandhi Ashram is certainly the most moving memorial to the Mahatma.
From the Gandhi Ashram, we drove along Ashram Road to the gate of the Gujarat Vidyapith, founded by Mahatma Gandhi, to provide an alternative system of education rather than the one designed by the British to train Indians for their services, which he believed would lead
to national reconstruction and 'Hind Swaraj', the self-reliant India of his dream. The purpose of its establishment was to promote educational institutions run by Indians for Indians and outside the financial and governing control of British authorities. Continuing on Ashram Road we came to the Kochrab Ashram, which was the first ashram established by Mahatma Gandhi to further his causes, like the upliftment of the underprivileged, public education, sanitation, Swaraj, Swadeshi and Satyagraha.
From here, it is a short drive to Gujarat College, a campus with imposing old buildings, which was also a hub of the independence movement. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel, Subhash Chandra Bose, Acharya Kriplani and Mahadevbhai Desai, many of the college students rose up against British rule. The students of this college were active in 1921 during the Congress Meet and supported the call for civil disobedience. The political strike by the students of the Gujarat College in 1928 demanding the sending back of the Simon Comission, is a landmark. One of the students, Vinod Kinariwala, was shot dead for hoisting the Indian flag in front of the college on 9 August, 1942. Near the college, Sanskar Kendra is a museum designed by Le Corbusier.
The Heritage Cell of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation has mapped out a walking route taking in the houses of such revolutionaries as Quit India martyr Umakant Kadia, Dr Kanuga, Jivanlal Divan (Barrister), who gave Mahatma Gandhi land for the founding of Kochrab Ashram, Balvantrai Thakore, who was an education pioneer, Chandulal Thakore, who braved living near the police station to be part of the movement, Dr Nilkanthrai, known for creating a popular Indian Braille, and for starting a blind school at the family residence, and Lalshankar Umashankar, who was the founder of many charitable and educational causes. In those days, Independence activists like Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Dada Saheb Mavlankar, Dr Kanuga, Jivanlal Diwan and Balvantrai Thakore would meet at Khadia for discussions called the Bhajia Club. Mahatma Gandhi stayed here during his matriculation studies and Swami Vivekanand stayed at Umashankar's house on his visit to Ahmedabad. The house of Sir Chimanlal Harilal Setalvad, judge of the Bombay High Court and an Indian member of the committee for the report on General Dyer, later became an education institute''.