Revisiting Legends- Understanding The Concept of Gandhian Architecture
Sahiba Sachdev Tandon
Principal Architect: Sahiba’s Design Studio
Gandhi once said, “Sometimes, art lies in not interfering with nature’s unevenness and irregular curves and lines” and thus attributing the concept of art directly to nature as he believed “All true art is always simple and natural”
Anyone who has studies Gandhian philosophy closely would agree that Art or Architecture according to Gandhian thought nothing but a pure manifestation of nature itself.
Mahatma Gandhi in his Swadeshi Movement awakened and provoked India to stick to its basic life and traditions. When it comes to architecture the term swadeshi not only limits itself to materials that are found locally but also to the climate, culture and traditions of the people in a region. Gandhi’s sentiment towards “Nature” in “Architecture” can be understood by the following “ My room may have blank walls and I may even dispense with the roof, so that I may gaze out upon the starry heavens overhead that stretch in an unending expanse of beauty. What conscious art of man can give the panoramic scenes that open out before me when I look up to the sky above with all its shining stars ?” Thus, Gandhi and Architecture can be inter-linked by the word Nature.
Gandhi also said “The earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not any man’s greed.” meaning that by destroying and consuming natural wealth, more than what is required, humaniser commenting and act of violence against nature. This gave rise to the idea of ‘Economy of Permanence’ which today is also known to be “Sustainable Development” meaning developing affordable, environment friendly, energy efficient with simple technologies by maximum use of local resources and skills.
In architectural terms it would simply mean that whatever is being built should be in a way that it does not disturb the natural wealth, uses locally available materials using non-conventional alternative sources while utilizing minimum optimum energy for their survival. There for Gandhiji stressed on building a house on whatever material available within a 5 mile radius. Ar. Laurie Baker has called the words of Mahatma Gandhi “an ideal house will be of materials, all found within a five mile radius of the house,” which are relevant even to this day and go very well with the concepts of sustainable and cost effective building practices.
To elaborate, an ideal village according to Gandhiji would be so constructed as to lend itself to perfect sanitation. It would have cottages with sufficient light and ventilation built of a material obtainable within a radius of five miles of it. The cottages would have courtyards enabling householders to plant vegetables for domestic use and to house their cattle. The village lanes and streets would be free of all avoidable dust. It would have wells according to its needs and accessible to all. It would have houses of worship for all; also a common meeting place, a village common for grazing its cattle, a co-operative dairy, primary and secondary schools in which industrial education would be the central fact, and it would have panchayats for settling disputes. It would produce its own grains, vegetables and fruit, and its own khadi. Given a good zamindar, where there is one, or co-operation among the people, almost the whole of the programme other than model cottages can be worked out at an expenditure within the means of the villagers including the zamindar or zamindars, without Government assistance. With that assistance there is no limit to the possibility of village reconstruction. Gandhi said that his task was to discover what the villagers can do to help themselves if they have mutual co-operation and contribute voluntary labour for the common good. He was convinced that under intelligent guidance, villagers would double the village income as distinguished from individual income. He believed that Indian villages have inexhaustible resources not for commercial purposes in every case but certainly for local purposes in almost every case. He said that the greatest tragedy is the hopeless unwillingness of the villagers to better their lot.
When Gandhiji returned from South Africa, his first Ashram in the country was established in the Kochrab area of Ahemedabad on 25 May 1915 belonging to a barrister named Jivanlal Desai. This Ashram was then shifted on 17 June 1917 to an open piece of land on the banks of the river Sabarmati and came to be known as the ‘Sabarmati Ashram’. The reason for shifting to this piece of land was that Mahatma Gandhi wanted to conduct a few experiments in living like farming, animal husbandry, cloth weaving etc. It was believed to be the site where Dadhichi Rishi had donated his bones for a righteous war. The ashram lay between a crematorium and a jail as Gandhi believed that a ‘Satyagrahi’ has to go to atlas one place at one point in his life.
The Ashram had Magan Niwas named after Maganlal Gandhi who was Gandhi’s nephew and his true follower since Phoenix Ashram days in South Africa. Gandhi called him “the soul of the Ashram” of which he was the architect and efficient manager. He introduced different upgraded designs of Charkha- the spinning wheel. It became the symbol of revolution which ultimately gave birth to Khadi. On his death in 1928, Gandhi remarked “I have been widowed”.
The ashram also had a place of worship called Upasana Mandir (Prarthana Bhooni). Gandhi viewed prayer as ultimate food for the soul. It aided him in taking important personal and national decisions. Therefore, before starting work in the morning and at the end in the evening, he regularly offered prayer with his fellow residents at this place. They listened to bhajans- hymns and , at times, reading form Holy Gita, Quran and Bible.
Sabarmati Ashram had a special place for Vinoba Bhave, who Gandhi hailed as an ideal Satyagrahi for his total commitment to truth. He named his cottage Vinoba Kutir. He stayed here from 1918 to 1921. Later, he led Bhoodan Andolan a revolutionary movement for land donation in India. Later this cottage was inhabited by Madeleine Slade, a British Admiral’s daughter, was devoted to Gandhi’s ideology which she learnt form Romain Rolland’s book. Gandhi called her Mira. She helped in Ashram activities. She stayed here from 1925 to 1933. This cottage is now known as Vinoba-Mira Kutir.
The Ashram also had a guest house called Nandini. Many national leaders and eminent personalities from abroad stayed here and observed the rules of simple life in the Ashram Reginald Reynolds, ‘Deenbandhu’ Andrews, Henry Poland, Kallenbach to name a few.
Udyog Mandir was founded in 1918 during the historic strike of mill workers of Ahmedabad. In the beginning Gandhi lived in one of is small rooms. Aptly named ‘temple of industry’ it symbolizeds self-reliance and dignity of labour. It helped spread the message of ‘Swaraj though Khadi’ in the country.
The Ashram had Somnath Chhatralaya, a cluster of rooms occupied by Ashram residents who renounced family life and shared Ashram community life. They shared a common kitchen and created a large joint family under one roof. It was a noble experiment of living together by Gandhi.
Sabarmati Ashram also housed teachers who acted as Gandhi’s associates at Teacher’s Niwas. It saw the likes of Kakasaheb Kaleldar, a renowned Gujarati author, champion of constructive work, Vice chancellor of Gujarat Vidhyapith, Kishorelal Mashruwala, an author and philosopher, Mahadevbhai Desai who was Gandhi’s close associate and personal secretary, Narhari Parikh: who was an educationalist and an economist, Pandit Narayan Moreshwar Khare who was a prominent singer of Bhakti school of thought and devotion, Laxmidas Ashar, a pioneer of Ashram’s Khadi and Village Industries.
The Sabarmati Ashram, also known as Harijan Ashram was home to Mohandas Karam Chand Gandhi from 1917 till 1930 and served as one of the epicenters for India’s struggle towards freedom. The ashram also came to be known as Satyagraha Ashram as this movement was launched right here.
This ashram was created with a dual mission, to serve as an institution that would carry experiment in search for truth and would also bring together group of people who would commit themselves to non-violence to secure freedom for India. At the Ashram, Gandhi formed a school that focused on manual labour, agriculture and literacy in order to advance his efforts towards self-sufficiency.
Sabarmati Ashram also witnessed the famous Dandi March. On 12 March 1930 Gandhi, with 78 companions marched from the Ashram to Dandi, which was 241 miles from the Ashram, to protest the British Salt Law, which taxed the Indian Salt producers in an effort to promote the sales of British Salt in the country. This mass awakening filled the British jails with 60,000 Indian freedom fighters.
In retaliation the British Government decided to seize the Ashram property. Gandhiji responded by asking the Government to forfeit the Ashram, but the Government did not comply. On 22 July 1933, Gandhi decided to shut down the Ashram and to not return till India won its freedom.
The Ashram saw the detention of any freedom fighters. The local citizens decided to preserve the Ashram till Gandhiji returned. India won its independence on 15 August 1947, and Gandhiji was assassinated in January 1948 and never returned to the Ashram.
Over the years, Sabarmati Ashram became home to the ideology of truth, non-violence, sustainable living and preserving the nature, local culture and heritage. It also aided countless other nations and people in their crusade against tyrannical and inhuman forces.
Even today, the Ashram serves as a source of inspiration and guidance to Gandhi’s life mission and a testimony to the countless others who have fought a similar struggle.
To summarize in Gandhi’s own words “I do not want my house to be walled in, on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any. I refuse to live in other people’s houses as an interloper, a beggar or slave.”
- Harijan, Nov 4, 1936
- To Ashram Sisters, Pg 9
- Young India , Nov 13, 1924
- Laurie Baker – Life Works & Writings – By Gautam Bhatia
- Harijan, 9-1-1937; 64:217-18
- Associates & Disciples of Mahatma Gandhi http://www.mkgandhi.org/associates/Maganlal.htm
- Official Gandhi Ashram Website http://www.gandhiashramsabarmati.org/en/
- Young India, 1-6-1921, p. 170