garden tales from a Brit abroad
It was 64 years ago today that Mohandas Gandhi (known as Mahatma, the great soul) was murdered by a Hindu extremist, who believed Gandhi had been too sympathetic to the Muslim cause during the British withdrawal from India.
Delhi has two Gandhi memorials, one the site of his cremation at Raj Ghat, in a park on the banks of the Yamuna river where several other Indian leaders have since been commemorated, and the other at Birla House, in New Delhi, where he was shot.
I visited both places with friends last week, seeking to commemorate Gandhi quietly and away from the grand ceremonies that today will mark the anniversary of his death.
The site at Raj Ghat (literally the riverbank of the king or leader) was designed by Vanu G. Bhuta, an American-trained Indian architect who won the Government-sponsored competition to create a suitable memorial to Gandhi. His was a stark, modernist solution, intended to reflect the profound austerity of Gandhi’s life. The design, which was completed around 1956, is a square, sunken garden, surrounded by walls that serve as viewing platforms. In the centre of the garden is a raised, black marble slab, decorated solely with an engraving of the phrase “He Ram” [Oh God], supposedly Gandhi’s last words, and an eternal flame burning in a large lantern.
Originally the surrounding garden was red earth, but it has been changed several times since its installation and is now British-style grass punctuated with trees planted by visiting foreign dignitaries (from Queen Elizabeth II and Dwight Eisenhower to Ho Chi Minh). When we visited last week, we admired the proportions and scale of the garden, and the way it can be experienced first in a broad sweep from above, and then intimately (and barefoot) at the memorial itself. The bright marigold petals add a typically Hindu touch (and on occasions the whole memorial is smothered in patterns of flower petals). For me, however, the dignity and repose of the space were somewhat spoilt by the bright green matting laid for mysterious reasons over many of the stone paths, and by the retractable barriers that discouraged visitors from getting too close to the memorial.
The second Gandhi memorial in Delhi is at Birla House, where Gandhi was shot. It is now a national museum, known as the Gandhi Smriti.
I had read of the footprints cast in stone marking his final walk from the house to a planned prayer meeting. But the reality was disappointing: the footprints were not, as I had imagined, gently sunken into the earth, as if preserving the exact tread of his final few steps. Instead, they are oddly raised and too numerous to bring much poignancy to the site – and apparently any child who sees them as an invitation to walk in Gandhi’s footsteps is quickly disabused of the idea by the museum guards. The whole site seemed to me slightly dispiriting: I’ve written elsewhere about its surfeit of information boards, and the much-trumpeted interactive displays in the house were one of the strangest museum experiences I have had.
For me, the memorial garden at Raj Ghat, ideally shorn of its bright matting and barriers, is a far finer way to commemorate the founder of the Indian nation.