Gujarat: Living like Gandhi

By Rajesh Joshi

Ashram gives tourists a chance to follow the code of Mahatma, writes Rajesh Joshi.

Caretaker, Bhim Bahdur (left) spreads a carpet in the prayer hall at Kochrab Ashram, site of the 'Live Gandhi for a While' programme in Ahmedabad. Photo / AFP
Caretaker, Bhim Bahdur (left) spreads a carpet in the prayer hall at Kochrab Ashram, site of the 'Live Gandhi for a While' programme in Ahmedabad. Photo / AFP

Tourists searching for peace and simplicity can, for the first time, check in to Mahatma Gandhi's most famous ashram in India. But don't expect modern comforts. And chastity is required.

For 1000 rupees ($19) a night, tourists can sample the lifestyle of India's famously ascetic independence leader by staying at the first ashram he established, set up in 1915 in the western state of Gujarat.

Guests at Kochrab Ashram, which opened to holidaymakers in October, can try their hand at spinning, visit local communities, and pray and meditate, all while wearing khadi - handwoven cloth - during their stay.

But they must adhere to Gandhi's 11 vows, including non-violence, renunciation of material possessions, use of local goods, working for daily food, self-discipline (including chastity) and control of the palate/diet.

Ashram co-ordinator Rameshbhai Trivedi walks near the kitchen and dining hall hall at Kochrab Ashram. Photo / AFP
Ashram co-ordinator Rameshbhai Trivedi walks near the kitchen and dining hall hall at Kochrab Ashram. Photo / AFP

Visitors are also encouraged to follow Gandhi's austere daily routine, such as waking at 5am and undertaking domestic chores.

"The objective of this programme is to allow people to experience a sustainable lifestyle, to enjoy the simplicity of Gandhi, experience the virtue of Mahatma," said Nischalavalamb Barot, a travel agent who helped develop the programme, called Live Gandhi for a While, launched on October 2 to coincide with the 144th anniversary of Gandhi's birth.

"This might change perceptions of tourists towards life, society and our natural resources. This might also help tourists find peace and satisfaction within."

Gandhi went to stay at the bungalow, then owned by a lawyer friend, after he returned to India from South Africa in 1915. From this base, in a village on the outskirts of the city of Ahmedabad, he rejected material wealth and developed some of the ideas for which he became famous.

In one incident, he upset neighbours by inviting a low-caste man, a so-called "untouchable", to come and live at the ashram as part of his campaign against India's rigid and deeply ingrained caste system.

The ashram is managed by a nearby university called Gujarat Vidyapith, which Gandhi himself founded in 1920 to "liberate the Indian youths from the shackles of British colonial rule".

India has plenty of museums and monuments to honour the country's independence icon, whose personal philosophy and ideas are now considered outdated by many in rapidly modernising India.

Known as Mahatma or Great Soul, Gandhi spearheaded a non-violent campaign against the British Raj that finally saw India gain its freedom from colonial rule in 1947.

He was shot dead by a Hindu hardliner in New Delhi just months later in 1948.

Despite the many existing commemorations for Gandhi, Barot, who developed the programme with the university, said he hoped the ashram offered something different.

Kochrab Ashram is Mahatma Gandhi's most famous ashram. Photo / AFP
Kochrab Ashram is Mahatma Gandhi's most famous ashram. Photo / AFP

"This is the first time that we are attempting to understand the value and principles of a sustainable life, which Gandhi believed in and practised," said Barot, who operates a sustainable-tourism agency.

However, he stressed a stay at the ashram would not be an easy one.

"They will have to follow the vows that Gandhi himself followed in the ashram ... They will also wear the khadi throughout the programme."

Gandhi spun his own cloth and encouraged others to follow suit. He considered this an important part of his anti-colonial philosophy of self-reliance, known as "swadeshi".

Khadi also became a symbol of how then India should base its economy - on village-based craft instead of industrially produced cotton often imported from mills in Britain.

The idea is a far cry from modern-day India, which dismantled government control over its economy in the 1990s and opened up India, a member of the G20, to foreign investment.

Sudarshan Iyengar, vice-chancellor of the Gujarat Vidyapith university that manages the ashram, said he was confident that opening it to tourists would help promote Gandhi's ideals.

"This is a unique programme which will actually bring change in society gradually at an individual level and, hopefully, we will witness a sustainable future."

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific has same-day connections from Auckland, via Hong Kong, to Mumbai (for a domestic flight to Ahmedabad).

Further information: See incredibleindia.org.

- AFP

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