GANDHI ASHRAM, PUDUPPALAYAM, TIRUCHENGODE, NAMAKKAL DISTRICT, TAMIL NADU, A MONUMENT OF GANDHIAN IDEAL & PHILOSOPHY
Eminent and enthusiastic selfless individuals who wanted to translate Gandhi’s Constructive Programme into action, organized institutions to gather people, train them and carry out Gandhian activities in the rural areas. They utilized the then prevailing favourable atmosphere in the State and founded institutions and Ashrams in line with the pattern of Sabarmathi. They undertook pioneering activities in the field of Khadi, Harijan uplift, Prohibition and Basic education.
In this context, Gandhi Ashram at Puduppalayam village in Tiruchengode Taluk of Namakkal District was founded by C. Rajagopalachari in the year 1925. Till the year 1996, this place was under the jurisdiction of Salem District. But when Salem District was bifurcated into two as Salem and Namakkal, the Ashram under Tiruchengode Taluk came under the jurisdiction of Namakkal District. It is the first and the oldest Gandhian institution in Tamilnadu, which started functioning as a branch of the Gandhi Seva Sangh, Wardha. This ashram was one among the first six ashrams established in 1920s. Thus the Gandhi Ashram at Tiruchengode Taluk occupies a foremost place in the history of Tamilnadu especially for the study of Gandhiji’s philosophy of history.
Gandhiji and Rajaji
It was during the Rowlatt Bill agitation in 1919 that Gandhiji went to Madras at the invitation of Kasturi Ranga Iyengar to enlighten the people of the south about the dangerous implications of the Black bill. The man behind the Madras invitation was C.Rajagopalachari who played the host to Gandhiji in Madras. He had just shifted to Madras from Salem where he was practising as a
leading lawyer since 1900. His brilliance and selfless character had greatly attracted Gandhiji’s private secretary Mahdev Desai who advised Gandhiji to engage actively with Rajaji.
In August 1920, Mahatma Gandhi came to Madras to inaugurate the non – cooperation movement. At that time Rajaji and few other nationalists got the chance of travelling to Malabar in a train from Madras along with Gandhiji. Throughout the train journey, Rajaji was acting as the bodyguard of Gandhiji, trying to turn away as many visitors as possible by solving their problems himself and minimizing the strain on Gandhiji.
On the behest of Gandhiji, Rajaji gave up his lucrative legal practice in 1921. He was also one of the signatories of the famous manifesto of October 4, 1921, declaring that it was the duty of every Indian soldier and civilian to sever his connection with the Government and find some other means of livelihood. Rajaji was in very close touch with Gandhiji when the non-co-operation movement was in full swing.
Birth of Gandhi Ashram, Tiruchengode
Thus after becoming a conscience keeper of Gandhiji, Rajaji wanted to do something more effective than the activities of just freedom of the Nation from the British. He wanted to establish an institution to be run on the lines of Gandhiji’s constructive programme. This idea of Rajaji only gave way for the birth of Gandhi Ashram at Pudupplayam in 1925.
For simplicity and service orientation Gandhi Ashram at Pudupplayam, Tiruchengode Taluk founded by Rajaji, is a shining example which gives inspiration to those engaged in humanitarian services throughout the country. Presently this institution is successfully contributing to translating Gandhian thought into action. Often Ashrams are started in places of natural beauty, religious sanctity or to commemorate some historic event. None of these normal and wise reasons operated in the selection of Puduppalayam village in Tiruchengode. No wonder Rajaji was fondly called as the Gandhi of South India.
The surroundings of the Ashram drew the eye’s attention. From Sankaridurg hill, 12 miles north of Puduppalayam, a Tipu erected fortress looked down, a silent witness of South India’s bygone sovereignty. Tipu’s British successors had brought the world to the vicinity by building a railway line through Sankaridurg, but from there to Puduppalayam it was a dusty three-hour bullock cart journey past ragi and cotton fields, palm trees and roadside shrines.
The village of about 150 dwellings did not even boast of a letterbox. The red rocky earth around it was responsive to rain, but the latter by no means made a yearly appearance. Thus it was a dry, backward and famine stricken area and even drinking water was very scarce in the village. There was a frequent migration of the villagers to other areas seeking water, food and work. Some even migrated to Ceylon with the help of moneylenders who actually acted as commission agents to acquire more profits in the form of high rates of interest. In addition to chronic poverty, illiteracy and disease were other distressing features of the villagers.
It was under such a discouraging environment that Rajaji conceived the idea of founding the Gandhi Ashram as the nerve centre for rural uplift work on the lines chalked out by Mahatma Gandhi in his constructive programme.
Rajaji’s basic concept was not to develop this area but to improve the conditions of the people by giving them suitable work and thereby enabling them to earn sufficient wages.
Benevolent Rathinasabhapathi Gounder
One positive influence amidst handful of challenges presented above was the support from great “mittadar” or “zamindar” Rathnasabhapathi Gounder, who wielded considerable influence and power in the areas. He became an ardent admirer and follower of Rajaji. There were hundreds of Zamindars in India, but nobody had the unique privilege of a visit by Mahatma Gandhiji, the father of the Nation to their house. Gandhiji had visited the Gounder’s house on the evening of March 20,1925.
Gandhiji had made the following remark in his speech at Puduppalayam on twenty first March 1925, “I would ask all those of you who have not already introduced a spinning wheel in your homes to do so. That will be our kamadhenu. I observe with the greatest pleasure, our friend Rathnasabapathy Gounder has introduced not one but many spinning wheels in his family. It was for me a noble sight to see the ladies of his household spinning away, when I had the pleasure of visiting his house yesterday. He had his cloth woven out of the yarn thus spun. He and his people were clothed in khadi from top to toe. God has given him plenty of money and it was not for the sake of money he took up the spinning wheel and wears khadi. But he has done it for the sake of his country and for the sake of his religion. But we, who are poor, should do the thing for our own sake”.
Rathnasabapathy Gounder must have been very proud of his association with Rajaji in those days when the country did not even have a clear vision of its own social, political and economic future. When Rajaji wanted to start an Ashram to have field trial of Gandhiji’s constructive programme, he wanted a land. Immediately Rathnasabapathi Gounder who was a great admirer and a client of Rajaji donated his four acres of land spontaneously. This was called as “Nandavanam”, cherished as a place of peace. This land had large number of coconut and mango trees with a 200 metre long well..
This is something very great as Rathnasabhapathi Gounder had donated the land in the year 1924, even before the announcement of Bhoodan Movement of Vinobha Bhave. He not only gave the land but also allowed all the workers of the Ashram to stay at his spacious Bungalow without any caste, creed or religious inhibitions and provided food to them until huts were built on the donated land. Rathnasabhapathi Gounder was very much a friend indeed at the time when the local people wanted to set fire to the Ashram and boycotted giving milk, vegetables etc., to the inmates of the Ashram as the Brahmins in the Ashram were mingling freely with Harijans and took food in the common kitchen along with them. The locals felt this was the cause of failure of rain in the area for two consecutive years. They were pacified by Rathnasabhapathi Gounder..
Rathnasabhapathi Gounder himself looked after the construction of huts, which comprised as the Ashram’s dwellings in the beginning. Nallammal Rathnasabhapathi had looked after the Ashram members personally. She had remarked once that her family members and Rajaji’s family had lived as one family there. She did the cooking and shared the food together. They were able to retain Rajaji for ten years in the village from 1925 to 1935.
For these reasons, Rathinasabhapathi Gounder will be remembered as long as Tiruchengode Ashram exists.
Inauguration of the Ashram
Rajaji founded the Ashram on 6th of February 1925 with a loan of Rupees Forty Six thousand from Seth Jamnalal Bajaj through Gandhi Seva Sangh, Wardha, which served as initial capital of the Ashram.
The inauguration of the Ashram was a very simple ceremony. Many distinguished men were present for this occasion. Notable among them were E.V.Ramasamy Naicker, M.G.Vasudevayya, K.Santhanam and Ayyamuthu.
It is not a tall claim to make that what was Sabarmathi to Gujarat was Tiruchengode Gandhi Ashram to Tamilnadu. Gandhiji christened his experiment at Sabarmathi as Harijan Ashram. K.Santhanam from Tamil Nadu matches U.N.Dhebar from Gujarat. For Sankarlal Banker for Gandhi, Rajaji had an associate of Ayyamuthu. What Shri Mashruwala was to Gandhi, G.Ramachandran was to Rajaji. Both the Ashrams played key roles in the political destinies of the country as a whole and in the lives of their inmates as individuals.
From an insignificant village to an attractive Ashram
Gandhi pitched his Ashram near the biggest Industrial centre in Gujarat, viz. Ahmedabad. Rajaji started his Ashram in a far off village in the then Salem District that remains still a village even after seventy-seven years.
The Gandhi Ashram at Thiruchengode is a place of pilgrimage of the Gandhian followers. It resembles the Ashram of the “Rishis” though it is not a religious one. An insignificant village with not even a good cart track became a centre of attraction. It is mentioned that everything in the Ashram is simple without any decorations. Simple living and high thinking are the principles and way of life at the Gandhi Ashram.
The Gandhi Seva Sangh was started in February, 1924 by Seth Jamnalal Balaji at Sevagram in Maharastra. Rajaji registered the Gandhi Ashram of Puduppalayam as the South Indian Branch of the Gandhi Seva Sangh in 1925 at Salem. Among the very first inmates of the Ashram, four were from the Harijan Community. Rajaji had to manage the opposition of the villagers for quite sometime. He convinced the villagers with the assistance of the Rathnasabhapathy Gounder family and few of his other associates. In due course the Ashram grew into a big institution. In June 1959 the Ashram was registered as a separate institution under Societies Registration Act XXXI of 1860. From the thatched roof of the Ashram, Rajaji moved into a cottage with a tiled roof. Rajaji’s son Narasimhan who was 15 years old and daughter Lakshmi, who was 12 years old were part of Rajaji’s new multi –caste family of 17 individuals.
The big room in the new dwelling was 12 feet by 5 feet, two tiny rooms next to it, one of them serving as a kitchen, made up of the rest of the hut. N.Narayanan, a Madurai lawyer who had quit practice, was the Ashram’s manager, K.Santhanam, Rajaji’s young Colleague from 1920 was in charge of Khadi production.
For most members, the Ashram meant a new life style, twice daily open – air prayers, before dawn and in the evening, all Ashramites participating, coarse meals shared by all together, encounters with snakes and scorpions, hours spent in trying to relieve the lives of the debt –laden, liquor –hit, rejected poor. There is a big banyan tree in front of the Ashram attracting the attention of the visitors. Next to that there is a small hut with a mandapam called by the villagers as “Ambalachavadi” where Rathnasabhapathi Gounder used to settle the disputes among the villagers even before the construction of the Ashram. It was only here all the National leaders held discussions with Rajaji during their visit to the Ashram.
Objectives of the Gandhi Ashram
The object of the Ashram is to serve people of the rural India as envisaged by Mahatma Gandhi. It has been a centre of progressive nationalism following the triple ideas of “Truth”, “Service” and “Ahimsa”. The aims of the Ashram, which are unique in all respects, have been given below:
- To provide employment opportunity for the landless labourers and backward classes of the society through Khadi and other village industries.
- To attain full social emancipation of Harijans and other depressed classes.
- The propagation of total prohibition and eradication of the evils of drinking from root.
- To provide relief measure to the distressed at the time of famine, fire or other natural calamites.
- To spread the simple methods of public health, personal hygiene and village sanitation.
- To provide medical relief to the rural people.
- To teach the illiterate adults through night schools.
- To provide rural people drinking water through protected Wells.
- To serve the people according to the principles for a social order free from all forms of exploitation based on truth and non –violence as laid down in the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.
- To make village self sufficient in the primary needs of life namely food, clothing and shelter and to promote total development of each village along with the neighbouring villages of the region.
- To develop self –reliance in the individuals and take initiative in enabling the people to manage their affairs themselves for the realization of “Gram Swaraj”.
In short the fundamental aim of the Ashram is to serve humanity. .
The Ashram follows every objective laid down in the Memorandum of articles in practice. Thus the Ashram is functioning far above race, language, caste and religion, persons belonging to various caste and religion stay here. There is a common mess for all. Rajaji used to take food only in the company of the Ashram workers. He believed in the dignity of labour and held that no work is mean or degrading. So all the Ashramites were expected to clean latrines and maintain health conditions. In this respect Rajaji lived as an example to others.
Rajaji devoted almost all his talents and energy for the welfare of the poor people in that area. Joining with E.V.Ramamsamy, Rajaji toured the neighbouring villages and gave long speeches and induced the people to wear only Khadi. It was a tremendous success.
All workers wear only “Khadi”. The workers have to work strictly according to the timetable. The Ashram’s prayers are completely cosmopolitan. Visitors of the Ashram are struck by the solemnity of the prayers. Attendance for prayer is compulsory for every worker. Work starts at 8 a.m with the prayer and goes on till 5 p.m. A notable feature of the Ashram is that there is no differentiation in the salaries of the workers. The facilities are provided equally to all workers without any discrimination. The Ashram was managed by band of workers under the personal care and the chairmanship of Rajaji till 1959 in which year the Ashram was registered as a separate institution.
Policies and functioning of the Ashram
The first president of this Ashram was R.S.Dhotre. He continued in this post till his death in the year 1967, M.S.Narayana Rao succeeded him in the year 1967 and in the very next year he retired and resigned his post of Presidency. C.R.Narasimhan, son of Rajaji succeeded to the Presidency in the year 1968 and he continued in the said post till his death in the year 1989. Justice R.Sengottuvelan a former Judge of the Madras High Court who succeeded C.R.Narasimhan in the year 1989 continues as President till date.The Ashram is governed by a Board of Management known as “Karyavahak Samithi”. This was formed in the year 1959 when the Ashram became an Independent Institution. The Samithi comprised of seven members in 1959 later on it was increased to ten members. It is the supreme body. Among the ten members, three are life trustees and the rest of the members are being selected among twenty Sevaks once in two years.
Once in two months the Board of Management will meet and it will decide all the policy matters. No member has any right in the profit as well as in the ownership. The profit of the Gandhi Ashram will be exclusively utilized for the development of the institution. The General Secretary has the power to appoint persons for the Ashram with the formal permission of the President . A general body meeting of all Sevaks of the Ashram will be held once in every year at a convenient place mostly in the month of February to discuss the affairs of the Ashram and elect new members in the place of retiring member of the ‘Karyavahak Samithi’.
Totally the Ashram consisted of a group of people, where rich and the poor, the orthodox Brahmins and the so called Untouchables and many other people belonging to different castes and communities lived together, ate together and involved their whole time in community service and in economic activities.
The Ashram’s activities were similar to that of the charitable trust without any profit motives. And hence the Government understanding the Gandhi Ashram’s noble cause did not collect income tax and also levying any sales tax for the products produced by the Ashram. The profits derived by all units of the Ashram are either directed to fulfill its objectives or to reinvest in the various units to expand their operations.
Growth of the Ashram
From the beginning, the main work of the Ashram was Khadi as this occupied one of the main programmes of the freedom movement of Gandhiji. Popularly named as Swadeshi it aimed at the boycott of British goods and use of Indian goods.
Though the main aim of the establishment of the Gandhi Ashram is centered on “Khadi”, in the last three decades, it is also giving more thrust to various other employment potential village industries. The village industries stand on a different footing from that of Khadi.
Gandhiji pointed out that village economy cannot be complete without the essential village industries such as hand – grinding, hand – pounding, soap – making, paper making, Agarbathi – making, match – box making, oil – crushing etc. The scholars and economists repeatedly suggest that the unemployment problem could be eradicated only by the working of small scale, cottage and village industries. Like Khadi, the other village industries too provide employment opportunities to the rural people. The Gandhi Ashram has introduced several programmes with the assistance of the Khadi and Village Industries Commission, Bombay. All the industries are unique in one aspect i.e., they all operate under less machineries and more manual labour. This is the highlight of all the village industries of the Ashram. It provides employment to the villagers and trains them in different industries to make them as skilled labourers.
Gandhi had once remarked that villages might lack the sophistications of an urban area and village people might be illiterates. But villages could not be ignored because villages form the backbones of our country. Each village could be made to attain the status of “RamaRajyam” by making each of them self – sufficient .
Milestones of Ashram
The growth of the Ashram can be seen through its Khadi and village industries activities by dividing into five distinct periods. The first period was between 1925 and 1937 when Rajaji had his head quarters at the Ashram excepting for period of his imprisonment and political work outside.
The second period is that between 1938 and 1952. This was termed as the years of achievement, When Rajaji became the Chief Minister of the Madras Presidency and introduced 1) Prohibition, 2) The Sales Tax as a revenue measure, 3) Offered a state subsidy of one anna for every rupee worth of khadi produced as an encouragement and 4) Enacted the Agriculturists Debt Relief Act followed by his political wilderness. All these measures were extremely pertinent to the situation and did immense good to the weaker section of the people.
The third period is between 1953 and 1961 when the Ashram was assisted by the Khadi and village Industries Commission and the Khadi and village Industries Board. This was termed as the years of growth.
The fourth period is between 1962 and 1972 when the Ashram had to overcome lot of stress and strains. But the study of the Ashram’s activities since 1973 clearly shows that it had successfully expanded its economic activities and paved way for the employment opportunities for rural poor.
The fifth period of the Ashram starts from the year 1973 – till date when the economic activities of the Ashram were expanded by starting new village industries. Number of production centres was started in and around the Ashram premises. The sales centres were also extended to other Districts. The Ashram has considered the period between 1975 and 1985, the Golden Jubilee period to the Diamond Jubilee period as the period of growth and expansion.
Gandhi Ashram at Present
The Ashram, which started its socio – economic activities in the four acres of land at Pudupalayam in 1925, has grown tremendously and at present is the owner of Twenty eight acres of land in the premises of Gandhi Ashram itself and it also owns few more lands in the places of its production centres. It has at present forty-six Khadi bhandars (sales centers) spread over 8 Districts of Tamilnadu. It is also running twenty–six production units and gives employment to the people residing in thirty–four villages in and around Namakkal, Salem and Dharmapuri districts.
Ninety three years of dedicated and sustained humanitarian service in the harsh environs of a drought prone rural area points to the grit and greatness of Tiruchengode Gandhi Ashram. The Ashram, inseparably linked with the
sweat and toil of Rajaji, stands a testimony to his undaunted service and bounded
love to the puduppalayam villagers. Even today, it remains a reminder of Gandhiji’s clarion call for Satyagraha and Sarvodaya which gave a spiritual thrust to regain India’s Independence. Rajaji intuitively understood the potential and challenge of these ethical concepts to give a concerted direction and collective leadership to the freedom movement. Babu Rajendra Prasad in Bihar and Rajaji in Tamilnadu were the valiant exemplars of this Gandhian ideology underpinning the freedom struggle. Rajaji plunged himself into the Constructive Programme touching the bare needs of the impoverished villagers.
The name of Rajaji and the Gandhi Ashram are entwined indissolubly in the history of Tamilnadu and in a measure in the history of India. In the non – violent revolutions initiated by Gandhiji, Rajaji was the leader of the Tamilnadu sector of those revolutions. The Gandhi Ashram was thus not merely the hub of constructive work but of Satyagraha and of the battle for freedom. Let everyone remember this history with pride and joy.
- Dr (Mrs) R. Ganga
Former Principal, Vellalar College for Women, Erode, TamilNadu