The Origin of Gandhigram

                  The night when India won its independence, Pt. Jawaharalal Nehru declared, “When at the world is asleep, India is awakening.” Though in a sense it was true, most of its 7 lakh villages continued to sleep for a long while thereafter. But one village near Madurai in Tamil Nadu down South, really started awakening (Fortuitously ten years later, Pt.Nehru was able to really see for himself the extent of awakening aroused by Gandhigram Trust. He made a second visit on 1st Dec 1963 in the evening of his life). The story started unfolding even 1 1/2 before independence.

It was the 2nd Feb 1946 Mahatma Gandhi was on way to Madurai on his last tour of Tamilnadu. A few thousand villagers of Chinnalapatti near Dindigul, like lakhs of other all over the country, were earning to have his darshan and wanted his train to be stopped near their village. Though the organizers of Gandhiji’s tour programme were eager to oblige, considering the enormous strain on Gandhiji if he were to be contently woken up, they adamantly refused to agree to stopping of the train at every possible place.  But the villagers of Chinnalapatti under the leadership of the youngster Lagumiah, were made of sterner stuff and had other ideas. They manipulated the railway signal, ensured the stoppage of the train and did succeed in having the darshan of their idol. Perhaps the Mahatma himself had an inkling of what was to come up there 20 months later. The seeds of Gandhigram were sown in the very place on which he set his foot then.

The vast expanse of land nesting the Sirumalai hills that was vacant then, has become a beehive of activity in these 50 years and more and given birth to a large number of social welfare, educational and medical/ health institutions and employment generating activities, etc as advocated by the Mahatma. Not only that, just as a small pebble thrown in a pond causes wide ripples, the work at Gandhigram started expanding and has slowly extended not only to Madurai and Trichy but as far as Sivaganga, Virudhunagar, and Tirunelveli districts.

The one person who made all its growth possible, was a women, a gynaecologist by profession and Gandhian social worker by conviction, Dr. Soundram Ramachandran fully. She was ably supported by her husband, an educationist stepped in the tradition of Visva Bharathi of Ravindranath Tagore and also a Gandhian, Dr. G.Ramachandran. They were assisted by a small pond of selfless workers, men and women, transcending all castes, class and religious barriers.

Dr. Soundram had started her life of service and sacrifice even earlier, in 1943. When in Pappanchavadi, a suburb of Chennai, she had setup the Avvai Rural medical service in close association with Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddi. She also had the opportunity of watching the growth of Avvai Ashram. The orphanage runs by Dr. Mrs.Reddi.

In the year Mahatma Gandhi started the Kasturba Gandhi National Memorial Trust (KGNMT), he handpicked Dr. Soundram as the prathinithi for organising its activities in the then Madras state. The portrait of Kasturba is still preserved in the Sevikashram at Gandhigram Trust and brought out during public occasions even to this day with great veneration.

Gandhiji had stipulated a few conditions for choosing the village for starting the work of the Trust, that it should be few miles away from any town and its population should be less than 60000, a village in the real scenes. Dr. Soundram and her colleagues then set out searching for the right place in confirmative with Gandhiji’s stipulations. After seeing a number of places in various districts, ultimately they accepted Sri.Laugmiah’s offer and settled for the land belonging to his family near Chinnalapatti referred to earlier. Whatever she started in Gandhigram Trust immediately after, were based on her observations and field visits earlier and were on extension of the work of / and for the Trust.

There were less than 20 workers assisting Dr. Soundram when she finally came to Gandhigram in July 1947.  They lived in a rented housing at Chinnalapatti while a few huts were hurriedly being made ready in the land chosen and the ashram was formally opened on 7th October, 1947 and christened Gandhigram by Shri. B.G.Kher, the then premier of Bombay Presidency. Gandhiji had sent his good wishes for the inaugural function with a message in his own hand, which was sent as a telegram- stating “Success Attains Where Truth Reigns”. This motto has been the guiding star in all activities of Gandhigram Trust to this day and is prominently displayed all over Gandhigram and in all its publications.

tWhile the land for the Ashram had been donated by Shri. Laugmiah, the funds for the materials for the construction of the huts and their frugal requirements at initial stage were obtained by way of donation from well-wishers, mainly from the TVS groups. (Dr. Soundram was the daughter of the legendary T.V. Sundram Iyengar).

Dr. Soundram and the other co-workers started living in the small complex as in any other Gandhian Ashram, each sharing the work, pleasure and sorrow of the other, the available food without any distinction, getting up early morning, starting the day with prayers, hand spinning, gardening, doing all the cleaning

Right from the day of its inauguration. Gandhigram witnessed a flurry of activities and institution after institution started coming up in the following years in conformity with its objectives. In the beginning, basic education was the fulcrum of all its activities. Some of the other objectives Gandhigram started working on were social welfare particularly of women and children, medical and health care, self-employment especially through hand spinning and weaving and other extension activities themselves etc.

One would come to conclusion that Gandhigram has substantially and remarkably succeeded in achieving what it set out to do 72 years ago. But there is always more to do in the fields it has chosen to serve and it is an endless journey.

Courtesy – S. Ganesh (former Trustee)

Excerpts from Peer Review of Gandhigram