AHMEDABAD’S FREEDOM TRAIL
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 `Selfgovernance’. Its citizens took an initiative to repairs 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. Rao Bahadur Ranchhodlal Chhotalal, the first Indian president of the Ahmedabad Municipality in 1885, commissioned the underground drainage and water supply work, one of the first in British India.
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 most 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. The freedom struggle was also supported by the city’s industrialists - the president of the Ahmedabad Mill Owner’s Association, Ambalal Sarabhai, renounced the Kaiseri-hind Gold Medal awarded to him by the British government, and other influential industrialists and merchants donated for the cause of independence.
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. They are finished in the same style as the saloon, the walls like alabaster and the ceiling embossed. 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 Sardar Vallabhbhai 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, with biographical descriptions of periods of his life, and quotes by his colleagues and admirers. From here you can access adjacent rooms with his personal possessions, accounts and political cartoons from newspapers of the time. 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. Also on display is a flag of India by the Indian National Congress in 1930-31. 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. Satyendra Tagore of the Indian Civil Services stayed here when he had his first active posting in Ahmedabad in the 1870s. We ascended to the room where Rabindranath Tagore, the first non-european to win the Nobel Prize
in Literature in 1913 and well-known for his support to the cause of nationalism, lived in this palatial property for six months in 1878, when he was introduced to English literature. During his six-month stay in the city, Tagore wrote of his days at this palace and time spent looking out at the Sabarmati River. 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, as this became a base for his movement for caste equality, communal harmony and the removal of untouchability. 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. Under his leadership, Gujarat Sabha, which represented the political, social and economic welfare of locals from the 1880s, began work on championing the cause of the farmers, following the 1917 crops failure in Gujarat like the Kheda Satyagraha. These activities not only helped farmers economic and civil rights but electrified India’s people to take up the Satyagraha movement. The Ashram was also the staging post for the Salt Satyagraha march to Dandi, which, over a month, kept attracting an increasing number of followers and publicity and resulted in breaking the foundations of the Raj in India, when he disobeyed the act which gave only the British government the right to produce salt, by making salt at Dandi, on the seacoast.
It was morning when we arrived at the Gandhi Ashram. The ashram complex is a serene nature park with mature trees that are home to garden birds and squirrels. 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. So dedicated was his work for the Ashram that Gandhiji called him its soul. Girish Gupta, a heritage activist, says, “This house is rarely visited but among Magan Gandhi’s achievements are designing versions of the charkha or spinning wheel, the symbol of Gandhian philosophy of self-reliance as spinning gave birth to khadi or handloom to replace the imported fabrics. Gandhiji, on Magan’s death, remarked that he had been widowed’’. 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. Besides Bhajans, discourses and readings from holy books, like the Gita, Quran and Bible, occasionally featured in the prayer schedule at this site.
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, coconut chopper, wooden spoon, thali, chappals (slippers), stone bowl, a tumbler he used in jail, an urn for water, a shirt made by Gandhi for a Harijan, his dhoti, a bedsheet, handspun yarn, towel, bag, purse and other simple possessions. The design of the house is such that doors facing east and west could be opened to allow light in from sunrise to sunset, and the windows along the north and south facing walls enable the rooms to get enough light without the heat of the sun, that would stream in from the east or west at midday or afternoon. There is an airy courtyard in the centre. Near Gandhiji’s residence are the residential quarters of Vinoba Bhave,
from 1918 to 1921, 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. Gandhi gave her the name Mirabehn, after Meera Bai, the great devotee of Lord Krishna.
The most elevated spot in the Ashram is the guest house called Nandini just up from the residence. The Udyog Mandir (industry temple) founded during a historic mill workers’ strike was the centre for the handloom, handmade paper mill and other workshops that worked towards self-reliance in the ashram. The Somnath Chatralaya was a commune for ashram inmates.
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. In keeping with the life of Mahatma Gandhi, the museum has cleverly used simple materials like brick and louvered windows in a pleasing manner. This memorial museum has three major galleries – one titled ‘My life is my message’ offers information about Mahatma Gandhi’s life and important incidents between 1918 and 1930 at the ashram, the second has eight life-size paintings of Mahatma Gandhi, and the third has one of the largest archival collections about a single person in the world with 35,000 books, more than 31,000 letters to and from the Mahatma, over 8000 manuscripts including articles written by him, photographs and documents. 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 on October 18, 1920, 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 first vice-chancellor of the institute was
Professor Gidwani. After Mahatma Gandhi, freedom fighters like Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Dr Rajendra Prasad and Morarji Desai were chancellors of the Vidyapith. Acharya Jivatram Bhagwandas Kripalani, socialist, environmentalist, mystic and independence activist, was closely associated with Gujarat Vidyapith. During his stay here, he was involved with the Salt Satyagraha and the Quit India Movement. 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. The university helped Indian nationalists establish a system of education for all Indians, thus proving the country’s independence from British-run institutions. Taught by such eminent leaders, students of the Gujarat Vidyapith were vociferous and active during the freedom struggle, specially the Quit India movement of the 1940s. The university has a tribal research institute with a museum showing life among tribal groups. Walking distance from this institution, the Navajivan Trust was founded by Mahatma Gandhi in 1929, as a publishing house to produce books and periodicals that would propagate the efforts for the religious, social, economic and political advancement of the people, and to promote peaceful means for the attainment of independence and selfgovernance. The building still has the old printing press inside, together with its modern printing facilities. We took a tea break at the cafe in this building, where you can browse and buy books on Gandhi and the freedom struggle.
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. Says Avni Varia, a heritage walk volunteer, “The ashram runs many programs for visitors to experience the Gandhian way of life, including handspinning workshops’’.
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. We paid our respects at the
Veer Vinod Kinariwala Memorial, which was inaugurated inside the college campus by Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan. The road is named Shahid Veer Kinariwala Marg in his memory.
Near the college, Sanskar Kendra is a museum designed by Le Corbusier. The City Museum here showcases many aspects of Ahmedabad’s history and cultural heritage. We met Debashish Nayak, Director, Centre for Heritage Management, Ahmedabad University, who told us, ‘Khadia, or the old city, was the centre of revolutions in Ahmedabad, from the underground drainage and water supply systems introduced here to initiatives for girlchild education like M.K. Girls High School, Vanita Vishram and B.D. Arts College that were started here. 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’’.
Taking his advice, we hired an autorikshaw that took us to Vanita Vishram, started by Sulochna Desai as a home for widows and later a school was started on the premises for girls to study for their matriculation. A magnificently carved haveli called the United Bengal Home was established in Khadia in 1906 as a technical institute, where spinning and weaving master Keshavlal Mehta undertook to train students in textile weaving, an initiative to make India selfreliant in textiles. About 25 men from Bengal came here and learnt weaving, and returned to join the textile industry in the east. Says Nayak, “Vande Mataram was sung for the first time in Gujarat by the inmates of this home’’. Chetna, an NGO, has its offices in the former Baronet Haveli, which was house of textile pioneer Ranchodlal Chhotalal, who improved the civic services in Ahmedabad.
Another three-storey building in Khadia once housed a bomb factory. Two bombs made here were thrown at the cavalcade of Viceroy Lord Minto and his wife, on his visit to Ahmedabad in November, 1909, by unknown patriots who were never caught. A dragoon, who was riding alongside, intercepted the first bomb. The second bomb also did not explode and landed on soft sand. A memorial marks the spot near Mahipatram Ashram near Khadia. The attack caused an uproar in England.
The Sardar Patel Memorial
The galleries in the Sardar Patel Memorial at Shahibag Palace
Khadia, or old Ahmedabad
Sardar patel museum
Sardar Patel memorial museum
Rabindranath Tagore’s room at the Shahibag Palace
Hriday Kunj, the cottage-like house of Mahatma Gandhi and Kasturba
Tourists at Gandhi Ashram
A café at the Navjivan Trust building Mahatma Gandhi‘s photos at Gandhi Ashram The museum at Gandhi Ashram
The spinning wheel and simple belongings of Mahatma Gandhi at Hriday Kunj
Playing cricket in Sabarmati
Gandhi Ashram facing Sabarmati river
A bronze at Gandhi Ashram
The Navajivan Trust was founded by Mahatma Gandhi in 1929
The vintage printing press at the Navjivan Trust building Navjivan Trust, was used by Mahatma Gandhi to develop publications
The Gujarat Vidhyapith
The Kochrab Ashram was Gandhiji’s first residence at Ahmedabad
Sanskar Kendra and kite museum, designed by Le Corbusier
Gujarat College, Ahmedabad
Shahid Kinariwala memorial
Kalupur road, Khadia
Old Pol in Khadia
Chinubhai Baronet Bungalow
The haveli, United Bengal Home, in Khadia
A stop on the Freedom walk
Visiting a Freedom Fighter’s home