A trip to Porbandar had never been on my travel list, but when I found the opportunity to visit the town, although just for a few hours, I could not let it pass.
Located in between the holy towns of Dwarka and Somnath, along the coast of Gujrat, Porbandar is a pilgrimage in its own right. Although an important port and trade centre, it is most famous for being the birthplace of Gandhi. Everyday, hundreds of people travel the length and breadth of India –and the world—to reach this obscure town and witness for themselves the house where Mohan Das Karamchand Gandhi was born on a pleasant morning of 2nd October 1869. My only stop happens to be the same – the birthplace of Gandhi.
Standing tall among crumbling buildings, on a narrow lane, in the heart of Porbandar, is Kirti Bhavan. Distinguishable from the other buildings – mostly small dilapidated shops – by its fresh yellow paint and high grille gates, the complex houses both: the ancestral home of Gandhi and the memorial built by a local industrialist in his honour. And a walkway leading to Kasturba Gandhi’s parental home.
The triple storied haveli, said to have been bought in the seventeenth century by MK Gandhi’s great grandfather from a local woman, is plain and simple, and in no way denotes that its residents were wealthy Dewans of the princely state of Porbandar. The rooms are small, the doors low and the wooden stairs narrow. The only thing that stands out is the green of the windowpanes. But for the red letters on the arch of the doorway claiming it to be ‘The birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi’, the house can pass off as any other old haveli – and the town has many of them, most more elaborate than this.
Although swarming with people of all kinds – rich and poor, young and old, Indians and NRIs, the haveli is calm and peaceful. The visitors are quiet too: climbing up the steep wooden ladder with the help of a thick greasy rope, gazing intently at the red swastik that denotes the exact spot of Gandhi’s birth, reading about his initial years spent in the house, talking in hushed tones. Some seem to be soaking in the peace, others, like me, trying to imagine how the house might have looked more than one hundred and forty years before when Gandhi was born: would anyone have thought that the baby will become one of the chief architects of modern India?
What strikes most about the house is its barrenness – unlike other museums, there is nothing on display here, apart from empty rooms and stark walls.
Within the same complex, stands the memorial or Kirti Mandir. The 79 feet tall temple (commemorating the 79 years of the Mahatma’s life) was completed and inaugurated in May of 1950, two years after Gandhi’s death, and is suppose to have architectural elements from all religions as a symbol of his religious tolerance. Even though Gandhi did not live to see the Mandir, he had known about it and had consented to integrate the memorial with his ancestral home. The papers of consent are exhibited in the library along with many other letters, pictures, and books. Apart from the library there is a small museum, a hall, and two smaller memorials dedicated to Maganlal Gandhi and Mahadev Desai – close aids of Bapu.
It is strange that this part of the complex, with the exhibits, library, museum and a shop should have far lesser visitors than the barren haveli.
The corridor that houses two life-size portraits of Kasturba and Mohandas Gandhi with ‘Truth’ and ‘Non Violence’ etched at their feet however is far from empty; many stand in front of the paintings staring at them as if trying to fathom whether Bapu and Ba actually existed.
Standing here, in the quiet courtyard, it seems quite possible that they did, although in another world.