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Life through Gandhi's eyes

Relive the late Indian leader's minimalist lifestyle with a stay at his ashram in Gujarat

More than 100 years ago, Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi set uphis first ashram in his home state of Gujarat. His hermitage opened to "responsible travellers" last year during its centenary.

It is owned by the local Gujarat Vidyapith University, founded by Gandhi in 1920 "to liberate Indian youth from British colonial rule".

The "Live Like Gandhi" courses I attend in the ashram, located in Ahmedabad, are the idea of Mr Nischal Barot, chief explorer of Maroon Migrates (www.maroonmigrates.com), a travel agency specialising in values-based travel.

"The Mahatma lived, taught and thought here for two years," he says, unlocking the gates of the Kochrab Ashram in Paldi, a suburb in Ahmedabad. On the pavement outside, curtain salesmen are squatting. A bony bullock pulls a gaddu (cart) of watermelons.

"Here, the father of the nation fathered the nation. I want people to see the world with Gandhi's eyes and to implement his teachings in their lives," says Mr Barot.

My room has a small iron bed. There is electricity, but no air- conditioning, just a creaky fan. The 0.8ha ashram, donated to Gandhi by a barrister, can accommodate 40 aspiring disciples in 20 cells. Couples have their own rooms.

  • Getting there

  • Jet Airways (www.jetairways.com) flies regularly from Singapore to Mumbai, with daily connections to Ahmedabad.

    Maroon Migrates (www.maroonmigrates.com) organises the "Live Like Gandhi For A While" programme at Kochrab Ashram in Ahmedabad. Each night costs 1,500 rupees (S$32).

    The price includes transfers between the airport and ashram, accommodation, all meals, two pairs of khadi dhoti garments and local travel.

"Gandhi was the first responsible traveller. He had a light ecological footprint," says Mr Barot as we watch the grey Hanuman langur metropolitan monkeys which live in the compound.

A palm squirrel scurries up a ber tree. Mynah birds and bulbuls sing. Rose-ringed parakeets and purple sunbirds sunbathe.

Mr Barot adds: "Gandhi was probably the world's first ecologically attuned backpacker. He travelled across India, connected with many communities and helped them with minimal impact on the environment. Our holiday offers his values and virtues.

"Over three to 10 days, you can live the way he and his followers did - or nearly. He started his day at 4am. We start ours at six."

My early morning call the next day is courtesy of the devotional "kirtans" and "Prabhatiya" prayers of the neighbouring temple.

Around the main house are photographs of the Pietermaritzburg railway station in South Africa where Gandhi was thrown off a train for allegedly riding first class.

"South Africa, its social injustice and discrimination, changed Gandhi into Gandhi," Mr Barot says as he shows me the kitchen and the floor Gandhi slept on, as well as the female quarters.

"Living like Gandhi is not some gimmick. You get authentic Gandhism here.

"He believed the essence of civilisation was not the multiplication of wants, but their deliberate and voluntary reduction. He was a minimalist. He practised extreme austerity and advocated simplicity and self-abnegation. The ashram was the first non-luxury spa."

Like the original ashram residents, I take vows (vrats). They are given by ashram supervisor Ramesh Trivedi. His grandfather was a "freedom fighter" who knew Gandhi. He hopes I will remain chaste and not fail in the pursuit of brahmacharya - the virtuous lifestyle and "control of all organs of sense".

Clad in a dhoti, I take vows of non-possession, non-violence ("a weapon of matchless potency" in Gandhi's words), non-stealing, fearlessness and renouncing stimulating condiments. I swear to work for the uplifting of the poor.

On the second morning, over papads (papadums), batata poha (flattened, flaked rice with potatoes) and mango chunks (Gandhi enjoyed figs and nagpuri oranges), Mr Barot advises me to read the trees.

"Learn from them." The Gandhian credo is pinned to the ashram's Asopalav tree trunks.

"What does that one mean?" I ask.

"Physical labour," he says. "Sharishrama. Literally, bread work."

The day before I arrive, there had been a hailstorm and I now help Nepalese janitor Bhim Bahadur and his assistant Ramu sweep up and compost the leaves.

Mr Bahadur shows me how to make a brush. His partner, Janki Thapa, a nurse, teaches me to make masala chai. I wash up.

That afternoon, we visit the university's spinning school. The weaving teacher shows me different spinning wheels - portable, rotor, e-spinners and a tabletop one designed by Gandhi while he was in Bombay's Yerwada prison.

"The benefits of spinning are self-reliance, dignity, goodwill and self-discipline," he says. "Weaving strengthens you. It's spiritualising."

In the evening, we go to the Seva (service) Cafe. Along with eye donors, Gujarat has more youth volunteers than other states. I wash and dry plates and jugs.

On my third day, in 44 deg C heat, we lose ourselves in Ahmedabad's Saracenic architecture, sandstone fort, ancient stepwells and Sidi Bashir mosque's shaking minarets.

Following in Gandhi's sandalled steps, ashram guests can make foot pilgrimages by visiting tribal communities. They can also go salt- collecting in the pans of the Little Rann of Kutch, a desert near the Pakistan border.

We distribute "Pepsicles" and mango bites to slum children.

By day three, I have reached my puffed-rice threshold and begin to hallucinate about minibars and high thread-count bed linen. The self-purification starts to pall.

"You must show more tapasya, self-effort," Mr Barot says. "And lokriti, self-restraint. There's enough for everyone's need. But not everyone's greed."

We visit the Sabarmati river ashram, from where Gandhi set out on his non-violent Dandi Salt March in 1930. He received dignitaries at his Hridaya Kunj (heart) bungalow. The Kochrab ashram got too small.

Nothing at Kochrab is compulsory. Everyone is welcome. You can sing bhajan devotional songs, indulge in self-analysis, chant the vedas or read the paper on the prayer platform from where Gandhi gave his first addresses.

After three days, I graduate as an honorary renunciant and a Bapu - a respected elder. The ashram's principal presses his palms together and asks me to bow. "He wants you to take home his aani," says Mr Barot.

Over my head is placed the aani, a garland of khadi kurta yarn - the symbol of Gandhi philosophy. Home-spun.

• Kevin Pilley is a travel writer based in the United Kingdom.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 09, 2017, with the headline 'Life through Gandhi's eyes'. Print Edition | Subscribe