When I arrive at Sewagram this morning I felt rather pleased to have caught the Grand Trunk Express at 5 am at Warangal. I was little reluctant to lose sleep or to vacate early from the clean and comfortable room at Warangal. But the early start has done me a lot of good and left me enough time to visit Gandhi’s ashram right after lunch.
Lunch is different. Just yesterday I was having an Andhra meal of rice, sambar, curd and vegetables. Today it is roti and sabji. Just a few hours of journey within India has made the difference.
‘Plate meal or full meal?’ asks the waiter.
‘What’s the difference?’ I ask back.
‘Plate meal is limited rotis while full meal is unlimited. There is rice as well.’
‘How many rotis in a plate meal?’
‘Eight!’ I almost start laughing. Just as Andhra fellows eat mountains of rice, it appears that people of Central India gobble stacks of rotis. I hold my laughter. ‘I will have a plate meal,’ I say. I eat four rotis and some rice. I wander a little bit trying to find a room. Not being successful, on the spur of moment I decide to leave for Nagpur by evening.
I didn’t know that there are lodging facilities at the ashram. Rooms are as low as Rs. 100 for a night.
‘The word ashram comes from the root ashreya, which means to give place,’ points out a gaunt-looking ashram resident. We are travelling together in an auto-rickshaw. He is in his thirties, balding in the front while thin long strands of greying hair clung at the back. Wearing glasses, sporting a while shawl to match his white dhoti, he looks at me over his sharp nose with kind eyes.
‘So you are visiting the ashram from Bangalore?’ he says with interest.
‘Yes, but I am also visiting other places around here. I will be going to Madhya Pradesh tonight,’ I reply.
He tells me a couple of places where I can find rooms but I tell him that I will leaving right after visiting the ashram.
‘That’s okay. You can put your things in the cloak room at the train station. You can take an auto-rickshaw to Sewagram, spend some time at the ashram and return in the evening to Wardha. It will not cost you more than ten rupees. For an extra five, he will drop you at the ashram. Wardha to Sewagram is a short journey. You can catch a bus or train from Wardha to Nagpur,’ he says planning my entire itinerary for the rest of the day. With people like these, who needs a guidebook?
I had lunch in town but the ashram has a restaurant offering clean and nutritious vegetarian food. It is said that the vegetables are grown in the surrounding fields without the use of pesticites. Customers sit on low cane stools in a green lawn, drink water from earthern pots and enjoy their wholesome meals in a quiet setting. It is not a feast. They take simple meals as advised by Gandhiji.
Next to this restaurant is a photo exhibition and museum of Gandhi and his life. We may have seen them all before a hundred times but a visit as this is an inspiration to reflect on Gandhian thoughts once more. It is an opportunity to discover relevance of Gandhian philosophy to modern lifestyles that we lead. For example, Gandhi said that each person should make something himself that he uses personally. Making our own cotton clothes from hand-spun yarn may not be practical for a busy software engineer but he surely can wash his own clothes or clean his own room for an appreciation of the value of labour.
The ashram is run by a trust. Although the government is keen, the trust will not take public money. Private donations run the ashram. Ashram buildings are let out for conferences. Rooms are available for short stays. The ashram owns 100 acres of land and their cultivation is another source of funds. There is also a goshala. Money comes from the restaurant, the bookshops and khadi dresses sold at the ashram.
Gandhi resolved not to return to Sabarmati Ashram until independence was attained. This happened at the time of the Dandi March. As a result, this ashram was setup in 1936. It was his view that transformation should start at village level and from the common man. Thus, this little village became the centre of satyagraha. Cottages were build with basic factilities. Rules were established. Daily routines of prayer, service and labour were begun.
All these original cottages can be seen today at the ashram, all marvellously preserved. Gandhi imposed a condition that each cottage be built within a budget of Rs. 100 and using only material derived from nature. The sloping roofs are terracotta tiled. Walls are of stone and mud-plastered. Floors are either stone slabs or mud plaster. Wooden pillars line the open verandahs. Cane is interwoven to make window shades. Wooden pegs built into mud walls are the cloth hangers. In the afternoon light filtered through the courtyard’s trees, the dance of light on cream coloured walls and smooth black wood of pillars and windows is truly magical.
There is this abhorrence of classicism and baroque in the modern age. Minimalism has been popular for many decades now. The buildings at this ashram exhibit such a minimalism. Lines are plain. Colours are simple. Architecture is purposeful. Art is almost nil except in the way one sees it in the natural forms and materials.
Some of Gandhi’s personal effects can be seen here. Kasturba’s cottage is a neat little beauty. The tree that stands close to the cottages was planted by Gandhi seven decades ago. An open enclosure is where Gandhi served a leprosy patient. The only house of bricks and cement was built for an ashram worker because he had asthma.
In this quiet setting, full of calm and cool shades, every visitor’s thoughts are with Gandhi and his legacy. It is a rewarding way to spend an afternoon.