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Gandhi’s Buildings and the Search for a Spiritual Modernity

Riyaz Tayyibji considers the little-known architectural collaborations of Mahatma Gandhi, charismatic leader of the Indian freedom movement, in light of discourses of modern architecture. Weaving in discussions of phenomenology, material, and a discipline of privacy, the essay explores aspects of Gandhi's philosophical and political thinking that propose a notion of the modern with an ethical and spiritual underpinning for 20th century architectural practice.


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Riyaz Tayyibji

Riyaz Tayyibji is a practicing architect and partner at Anthill Design, Ahmedabad. Anthill Design is a studio based practice focused on the particularities of program,... Read more »
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Gandhi’s Buildings and the Search for a Spiritual Modernity

Riyaz Tayyibji considers the little-known architectural collaborations of Mahatma Gandhi, charismatic leader of the Indian freedom movement, in light of discourses of modern architecture. Weaving in discussions of phenomenology, material, and a discipline of privacy, the essay explores aspects of Gandhi's philosophical and political thinking that propose a notion of the modern with an ethical and spiritual underpinning for 20th century architectural practice.

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Riyaz Tayyibji considers the little-known architectural collaborations of Mahatma Gandhi, charismatic leader of the Indian freedom movement, in light of discourses of modern architecture. Weaving in discussions of phenomenology, material, and a discipline of privacy, the essay explores aspects of Gandhi's philosophical and political thinking that propose a notion of the modern with an ethical and spiritual underpinning for 20th century architectural practice.

There are many things that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869–1948), the “Mahatma” or more fondly “Bapu,” is known for, but architecture is not part of the standard mythos. Gandhi, however, did consider building to be an extension of his engagement with different materials, which he began at an early age. His first experiments were with food, and later, he taught himself carpentry and to work with leather. He was particularly interested in materiality, the relationship between material, its processing and production with labor and the human body. He taught himself to spin cotton, an activity that he personally undertook daily, and then promoted societally, which had large economic and political implications during the Indian independence movement. Gandhi sitting at his spinning wheel is an iconic portrait. His engagement with materials and how they are processed was not a casual one.1 He mastered leatherwork and carpentry and even made highly technical innovations to the spinning wheel.2 One should expect, then, an equally careful examination of architectural praxes in his experiments with built forms.

Though Gandhi is unequivocally among the greatest modern thinkers, his buildings have largely been looked upon as conservative, rural, and vernacular. Ironically, it is their materiality that has perpetuated this reading.3 Given Gandhi’s criticism of industrial production processes, modern materials such as concrete and steel are, not surprisingly, absent from his architecture. With his economic and political thinking centered on the village and rural agricultural environments, the idea of the modern city was immaterial.4 Gandhi’s buildings lie outside the matrix of material technology and urbanity that defines modern Euro-American architecture. And yet they are considerable departures from the traditional structures they appear to resemble. This break is rooted in the ideas that shaped Indian modernity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and that matured through Gandhi’s experimentations. These ideas relate to individuality, hygiene, movement, locality, and, among other things, a reconfiguration of the domestic that constitutes an “opening up.”5 Given the inherent contradiction in architectural discourse between the categories of “vernacular” and “modern,” particularly in political and economic terms, it becomes important to observe Gandhi’s as an architecture that is simultaneously both. It follows to inquire about the implications of his architecture and the nature of its modernity.

Gandhi proposed a modernity premised on inward inquiry, or a form of inquiry directed toward the self, rather than the outward-looking trajectory of phenomenal observation that so fueled the Enlightenment project.6 Such a modernity, Gandhi believed, could only come from scrutinizing one’s own experiences, the particularities of one’s own circumstances, and their reality as lived experience with a significant openness between one’s private and public selves.7 In his autobiography, he provides a careful account of his youth, namely of the people and events that were the substance on which his physical, intellectual, philosophical, and spiritual development is based.8 For Gandhi, this development is driven by the internal conversation one has with oneself. To have this conversation, one must first be able to listen to the “small, still voice” within.9 Indeed, it is the ability to hear this voice, to have this conversation, that allows one to emerge as an individual—and thus to be modern. Gandhi understood the purpose of this internal conversation to be the search for integrity and truth, for self-knowledge and self-awareness. Self-recognition, for him, is the basis of self-control. As the cultural historian and Gandhian scholar Tridip Suhrud writes, “His [Gandhi’s] idea of civilization is based on this possibility of rule over the self.”10 Open dialogue first with oneself and then with the other is the keystone of his praxis of nonviolence, or ahimsa. For to Gandhi, a disintegrated self is amoral and unethical and leads to ignorance of the self, which in turn paves the way to violence. This is also Gandhi’s most scathing critique of the Western secular-scientific worldview, which he believed led directly to violence through a consciousness that isolates cognition from feelings and ethics, and partitions man from the subjects of inquiry emotionally.11 This is the state of the technologist, whose individuality is robbed of the possibility of salvation through personal searching. For Gandhi, a modernity without the possibility of transcendence is an amoral modernity. The possibility of transcendence is embedded in the correct enactment of daily practices toward spiritual liberation and not in a longed-for utopia.

Gandhi’s first experience of working with building materials was in South Africa, where he constructed the shed to house the printing press for the Indian Opinion at Phoenix settlement.13 A few years later, Gandhi moved into “The Kraal,” a house designed and built by his lifelong friend, ”soulmate,” and patron, the architect Hermann Kallenbach.14 This house had a thatched roof and was based on a configuration of vernacular African building elements. It was unusual for a European to live in such a house at the time.15 Gandhi and Kallenbach lived together for five years: first at The Kraal, then in canvas tents at Fairview, and finally at Tolstoy Farm, where once again Gandhi was involved in building.16 Given his own experimentation with materials and the pair’s close friendship, Gandhi likely picked up a great deal about construction from the architect. Kallenbach was a partner in a successful Johannesburg practice and designed sophisticated buildings across the town.17 Nonetheless, Gandhi did not find it difficult to convince the tall, sports-loving, hedonistic Lithuanian to give himself over to a life of simplicity. The buildings at Tolstoy Farm consisted of three simple sheds: two about fifty-three feet in length and a third larger one, which, close to seventy-seven feet, housed a school. Each shed had a veranda running along its length, with the interior spaces enclosed by donated corrugated sheets of iron.18 At both the Phoenix settlement and Tolstoy Farm, Gandhi had wanted to build with mud and thatch. However, resistance from other community members prevented him from doing so.19 As Millie Polak recalled, “His bent was naturally towards the ascetic and not towards the aesthetic.”20

Image 5
The Kraal, where Hermann Kallenbach and Gandhi lived together. Note the particular use of stylized African vernacular building elements. Courtesy https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/87/Satyagraha_House_2.jpg

Gandhi’s ideas with respect to building materials would find fruition upon his return to India in the construction of his ashrams. The buildings of the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, a state in western India, were made from burnt brick, sawn timber, and handmade country tiles, and are referred to, in local terminology, as pucca, or proper/permanent buildings.21 However, Gandhi found Hriday Kunj, his own house at the ashram, excessive. He thought it too big and unnecessarily complex. At his second ashram, Sevagram Ashram at Wardha, near Nagpur in central India, the buildings are much simpler and made from materials found within a fifty-mile radius. Consequently, the buildings there have stone plinths, and the walls are made of a local mud called “garhi mitti” mixed with water, cow dung, wheat husk, and hay, the latter serving as a binder and insulation. Columns of un-sawn sagwan wood hold up the roof structure, which is covered with bamboo matting and clay country tiles. These buildings were self-built—unlike the pucca buildings at the Sabarmati Ashram—and are, in contrast, considered kachcha, or raw.

Gandhi’s inclination to move from the pucca to the kachcha (in both diet and in the construction of buildings), is rooted in the idea of health and what it means to live healthily. Gandhi clearly saw that the uncontrolled use of material and energy (particularly mechanical energy) that had so enthralled the last decade of the nineteenth century as well as the twentieth would lead to imbalances in both the internal and external environments of the human body. One might be tempted to consider this as a return to the primitive—certainly an image of Gandhi (read as the “half-naked fakir”22) would not be contradictory—however, the manner in which Gandhi constructed himself, i.e., his body, and the space around it, could not have occurred in any other time. To understand the nature of his modernity, we need to visit the spaces of his youth.

Gandhi was born in the town of Porbandar, where his father occupied the ground floor of a three-story town house. The families of his elder uncles lived on the upper two floors, which enjoyed more natural light and better ventilation. The ground-floor rooms, or ordo as they are known locally, were poorly lit from a veranda, or osri, that overlooked a courtyard and lent the house some sense of openness. As Narayan Desai, Gandhi’s personal secretary, described, “Gandhiji was born in a dark room in that house.”23 When he was seven, the family moved with his grandfather to the city of Rajkot under unusual circumstances. Here, they occupied a more elaborate house. Porbandar and Rajkot are situated in a region in western India known as Saurashtra. The type of house germane to Saurashtra grew out of an archetypal relationship between the closed ordo, the semi-open osri, and the open courtyard.24 In denser, more urban areas such as Porbandar, the configuration of the house would be linear, with the open space constricted to a vertically oriented, shaded courtyard called a chowk. In the squarer, more spread-out agrarian configuration, the courtyard is larger and accommodates both animals and agricultural activities such as drying and threshing. Here, the courtyard is called a delo. Gandhi’s father’s house, where he lived until the age of nineteen, is of this delo type. Known as “Kaba Gandhi no Delo,” or “Kaba Gandhi's House,” it still stands today.

The osri and the ordo are the main components of this type of house, the stature of which is determined by the number of its constituent ordos: the greater the number, the greater its complexity and functional or formal differentiation of its spaces. Likewise, the osris on each ordo vary depending on orientation and use. The osri is the most active, lived-in space of the house, where collective social activities are held and where family members spend the bulk of their time. The kitchen, or rasodu, is a partially enclosed area within the osri and associated with meals and water. Traditionally, the ordo is used for storage, and when inhabited, given over to the aged, the sick, or the pregnant, as well as to married couples for sexual intercourse; on rare occasions, it is also used for bathing and grooming. In short, the ordo is a closed space for private activities related to the body, keeping them hidden from social witness.

These communal houses were largely extended-family homes, in which the idea of individual privacy was subordinate to the acts of collective living. It was only when Gandhi left Rajkot and began living in London that he developed a taste for a life attuned to the individual, where a room (ordo) is one’s private domain. By 1910, at Tolstoy Farm, Gandhi had a room to himself and maintained a certain distance from the community. However, communal living post-1913 tempered his need for individuality; and by 1918, at Hriday Kunj in Ahmedabad, the ordos were not placed along the osri, closing its long face, but instead perpendicular to it, opening up the courtyard and the veranda through and through. Gandhi configured his study as a partially enclosed area within the veranda. The courtyard “loosens” the sense of an enclosure, while the veranda gains a porosity unseen in its traditional iteration. The configuration of the house as a whole is opened up. Whereas the definition of the traditional house is based on the ordo and its sense of enclosure, Gandhi’s abode is defined by the continuity of its open and semi-open spaces, or osris.

In 1933, in Bapu Kutir, Gandhi’s house in his final ashram at Sevagram, the dissolution of the ordo is subtler and more complex. Even the bathroom, now accessible, ceased to be an ordo—it is well-known that anyone in need of an urgent discussion could walk in while Gandhi was bathing, and that often, in order to save time, he dictated letters of importance to his secretary, who sat across from him by the window, while he was defecating.25 Just as important is the bathroom’s articulation as a sensuous space, with a library connecting to a massage room and sick bay, that collectively reflect an unprecedented ease with the body. This ease had developed over the previous twenty-five years, from 1906 when Gandhi took a vow of celibacy, that final affirmation on the path to brahmacharya (activity in search of Brahma or soul).26 With its purificatory control of the body, brahmacharya diminishes the need and significance of the closed ordo in the scheme of dwelling.27 The form of dwelling for this new body found its fruition at Bapu Kutir at Wardha. The gradual dissolution of the “closed room,” the opening up of the private space of the body as an expression of a new, modern relationship between body and dwelling, is one of the most important and consistent themes across Gandhi’s buildings beginning at Tolstoy Farm. For Gandhi, this opening up had deep spiritual implications. Homologous processes of opening up could be seen in his other praxes—for example, in the manner in which he opened up the insular literary form of the modern autobiography. 

In December 1925, Gandhi began writing An Autobiography or the Story of My Experiments with Truth from Sabarmati Ashram. In this serial exercise, spread over 166 installments published weekly in the Navjivan (Young India), the Indian Opinion (Johannesburg), and the American journal Unity, Gandhi invited readers to respond to current installments while he worked on those to follow. These writings, he said, were driven by the “dweller-within,” rather than by an overall plan to present the reader with a “book.”28 In his approach, Gandhi opened up the insular writing process of the modern literary autobiographical form to the possibility of dialogue.29 The idea of dialogue is fundamental to much of India’s modernist thinking and forms one of the most important precepts of Gandhi’s ideas outlining an alternative modernity—one that includes a sharp critique of the Eurocentric secular and scientific modernity. So hegemonic was the European voice, so unanimously accepted at the time as derived from a superior fact-based, historical, objective, empirical, and literary culture, that an older more intimate, oral, mythic, and liturgical order was like the proverbial baby being thrown out with the scientific bathwater. It was this assumption of unquestionable superiority that Gandhi most opposed and felt compelled to push back against through ”civilizational dialogue,” a process in which reconciliation of differences depends on the ability to look at difference as a form of criticism, which he believed one should apply toward oneself for ”internal use.”30 He held that dialogue, by definition, must become a two-way process, as much as it was a two-part process, i.e., first involving an internal conversation that is then followed by an external one. The ease with which Gandhi brings into close proximity the modern and the vernacular (though he himself would not have made this particular distinction) is the first step toward the possibility of dialogue and a subsequent inquiry into the shared ground between two seemingly opposed categories. 

As much as Gandhi was critical of the European Enlightenment, he was equally critical of India’s bigoted, caste-ridden, and striated society, in which archaic social norms prevent individuation and consequently eliminate the possibility of an inner dialogue. For him, the possibility of a modern India was premised on the eradication of untouchability and other practices, such as sati. He believed these closed, dark spaces perpetuated by superstition needed to be opened up. Having dismissed the trajectory of the Enlightenment, in which the external light of science and rationality eradicates obscurity, Gandhi centered this idea of ”opening up” on the continuation of a spiritual tradition drawn from his reading of the Bhagavad Gita, and further inflected by the Bible. Such amalgamations were implicit to his formative education, specifically via his mother Putlibai, who belonged to an eclectic religious tradition known as ”Pranami Sampradaya,” which “seeks to combine the finest elements of Hinduism and Islam.”

Like many spiritual traditions of the Indian subcontinent, the Vaishnava tradition, with which Gandhi experimented, looks at the relationship between the body and mind as the site for self-realization. It is widely accepted that the free play of the senses is a distraction, and does not allow one to heed one’s inner voice. Gandhi first experimented with his diet and its relationship to the palate while still a student in Rajkot and then in London. He noted with great care how the changes in his diet affected his body, his behavior, and particularly the workings of his mind. Gandhi was fastidious about personal hygiene, and in caring for his body, and he allowed this to play a key role in his writings on social reform. The upliftment of the manual scavenging caste, composed of those who made a living by cleaning up the excrement of the higher castes, the most abject position in Indian society, was one of his most strident agendas, as was the healing of those affected with leprosy. He also realized that it was not possible to be completely committed to social service without having complete control over one’s own inner body.

It should be noted that though Gandhi considered the body to be an impediment in the search for the self, he also saw it as an essential instrument in one’s healthy and appropriate engagement with the material world. Gandhi borrowed from Tolstoy the idea of bread labor. He believed that if everyone made with their own hands one essential item necessary for their existence, they would realize in a bodily sense, from their own labor, the right proportion of resource and the energy required toward their living. Gandhi, as mentioned earlier, had taught himself carpentry, to work with leather, and to weave and spin. He explored organic material and production processes through direct involvement in both agriculture and dairy. During his days in London and in South Africa, he transformed his body from the inert construct of a traditional Indian bania to one of a modern individual at ease with its labor. Gandhi’s later twin concepts of nonpossession and non-stealing have deep ecological implication, preparing one to give up all possessions including the body. For Gandhi, then, the body is not for individual self-gratification and pleasure, but rather an instrument with which to measure the limits of one’s engagement in the substantial world. The body is a social instrument he considers to be part of the “commons.”

Image 25
Spatial porosity: Looking across the veranda (osri) and open spaces of Sewagram Ashram, Wardha. Courtesy anthill design, Ahmedabad, 2016

If a new relationship to the body is one sign of the modern in the buildings of Gandhi’s ashrams, which manifests in an opening up, in an increased spatial porosity, then the other is the care taken in the articulation of the place for the individual, who for Gandhi is at the very root of being modern. For Gandhi, the study, a place for contemplation, reading, and writing, is the site of the inner conversation that defines the individual. It bears noting that his “study” is distinct from his daftar, or office, for which a separate building was built. It was at Hriday Kunj in Ahmedabad that the study emerged as a partitioned space within the osri and, like the kitchen in his Rajkot house, was the domain of an individual simultaneously connected to the social realm of the house. It was the archetype of the rasodu, or kitchen, that Gandhi appropriated for the development of the study. Fifteen years later, at Bapu Kutir, in 1933, the study, scaled down by a bamboo loft, became a far more intimate space. Gandhi now inhabited the very wall that separates the osri from the inner space of the house: a carved-out space, delicate in its articulation and tactility. Apart from limiting the cost of its construction to Rs. 500, Gandhi had one other expectation from the building: he wanted to be able to see the sky from any place within it. It is from the study of the kutir that this is possible. The study at Wardha is thus a space where one is simultaneously held and released.

Image 26
The prayer ground at Sewagram Ashram, Wardha, is the clearing, open to sky, in an otherwise heavily treed precinct. Courtesy anthill design, Ahmedabad, 2016

A note on spatiality of porosity: porosity must be distinguished from the transparent that is so valorized by European modern architecture. I have argued elsewhere that this porosity arises from an attitude of agrarian frugality rather than of mechanical efficiencies. This opening up distinguishes itself from the Wrightian corner window or the Corbusian plan libre (both contemporaneous with the architecture under discussion) as the mechanisms facilitating this openness are not dependent on technological articulations of material and structure, or for that matter, a mechanized production process. This openness is the direct result of the control over oneself, over one’s behavior, and the ability to transform the activities that underpin function with this changed behavior. If one of the credos of modern architecture is that form follows function, Gandhi would extend this inward ad infinitum: form follows function, which follows activity, which follows behavior, which follows resolve, which in turn is a function of discipline, which is a direct result of control over the self, which is necessary for an inquiry of truth, which is based on being able to hear and have a conversation with the “small, still voice” within, which in turn defines the modern individual. If our cumulative behavior aggregates into what we now call “lifestyle,” and we have a choice of lifestyle, then it follows that this choice also determines the material, technological, and formal choices that are ethically open to us. Gandhi’s visionary architecture demonstrated this long before it became an environmentalist credo that the future of the planet may well depend on the manner in which each of us chooses to live. As Gandhi often said, the purity of the means results in the purity of the ends. Form then has ethical and moral underpinnings. The choice of form must necessarily emerge from careful experimentation through a sequence that leads from a relationship to one’s inner self.

Another way to look at this would be to say that Gandhi believed that the specificity and differentiation of architectural form was simply excessive—unnecessary even. He noted that there is a striking similarity between the spatial structure of the Saurashtra house and that of a Hindu temple. The ordo corresponds to the closed garbhagriha, or sanctum, whereas the osri corresponds to the mandapa, a hypostyle hall, or social, sometimes congregational space. In Gandhi’s mind, the categories of house and temple are never very far from each other. As was common practice in the area, his mother, who was a pious woman, visited a neighborhood haveli, or temple that exists within a large house. Gandhi, always sensitive to the possibilities of universal relationships, realized that the relationship between the osri and the ordo of the house parallels that between the hypostyle and the sanctum of a temple. The difference then lies not in the form but rather in the manner in which the spaces are ritualized, or the ways in which activities and material cohere in a recurrent manner. By changing the mode of ritualization, one could easily turn a house into a shrine, or for that matter the cell of a prison into the cella, or inner chamber, of a temple. This is precisely what Gandhi did when he was imprisoned in Yerawada Central Jail in Pune: he recognized the prison cell and the corridor in archetypal terms, and referred to the prison as ”Yerawada” mandir, or temple. It was the manner in which he inhabited the prison that denied his imprisonment.

Image 27
The development of the Hindu temple. Note the diagrammatic similarity to the Saurashtra house type. Courtesy anthill design, Ahmedabad, 2018, redrawn from Christopher Tadgell, The History of Architecture in India: From the Dawn of Civilization to the End of the Raj (London: Phaidon Press, 1990)

Gandhi realized that the power of changing one’s relationship to physical space, and by extension the meaning of buildings, derived from controlling one’s thinking and activity, and not merely by radicalizing the design of a space for its own sake. In this approach, he began with the presumption that the human body is more adaptive and responsive than inanimate matter. He found it contradictory that for inanimate matter to become responsive, adaptive, or flexible, it needed to be shaped using vast amounts of energy. In contrast, human beings could do so naturally, because we are naturally so. He demonstrated that in shaping one’s behavior, one does not need to shape form, the ecological implications of which cannot be overstated. Consequently, his ashrams consist of a distributed and continuous field of osris, where the dwelling is all verandas, some built and the rest the result of heavily foliaged trees. Immersed in this porous plenum, bodies both individual and societal are shaped into a variety of institutional relationships through disciplined activities and/or practices. This discipline is internal and, in turn, defines the ashram as the place and operation of a collective of co-experimenters, all in search of self-knowledge and truth. This is the Gandhian space for a spiritual modern.

Image 28
Site Plan of Sewagram Ashram, Wardha. Courtesy anthill design, Ahmedabad, 2016. Measure-drawn for the Gandhi Heritage Sites Mission (GHSM), Sabarmati Ashram Preservation and Memorial Trust, Ahmedabad
The terms _pucca_ and _kachcha_ originally related to food. Cooked food is considered _pucca_, while that which is eaten raw—such as a fruit—or a vegetable that hasn’t matured is considered _kachcha_. It is common parlance to apply these words beyond the realm of food, however. For example, an asphalt road is considered _pucca_ while an unpaved country track would be called _kachcha_. _Pucca_ implies the application of artificial energy to process material, i.e., the more _pucca_ or permanent, the more energy has been used for the material’s stability and durability and hence perceived permanence. It is interesting to note here that in Gandhi’s experiments with his diet, he had moved to a diet of largely _kachcha_ food. According to Indian historian Ramachandra Guha, “One of his [Gandhi’s] favorite authors, the anti-vivisectionist doctor Anna Kingsford, claimed that a fruit-based diet was man’s genetic inheritance.” Guha, _Gandhi Before India_, 189–90. 

Gandhi referred to all his praxes as “experiments.” The English title of his autobiography, An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth, gives insight into the depth and breadth of the manner in which he considered these engagements. Though sceptical of the scientific worldview of the Enlightenment for separating the subjective and the objective, he nevertheless borrowed from this paradigm, appropriating the method of the experiment and following it meticulously: setting up hypotheses, undertaking experiments, and searching for verification. Gandhi carried out experiments in his inner world (in his search for truth) and in the outer world (through his engagement with material). For him, the human body is the instrument that mediates between these two worlds, allowing for the inner to be verified by the outer, and vice versa. For this epistemological machine to work, Gandhi knew that a complete transparency between one’s inner and the outer worlds was necessary. M. K. Gandhi, An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth, trans. Mahadev Desai (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Press), https://gandhiheritageportal.org/mahatma-gandhi-books/the-story-of-my-experiments-with-truth#page/1/mode/2up).


Gandhi developed a twelve-spindle charkha (spinning wheel), and a portable “Yerawada” charkha that allowed him to spin while traveling. He also made changes to improve the aerodynamics of the wheel.


The manner in which the discourse on modern architecture itself has been historically constructed foregrounds material technology and its production (industry). Given that more than 80 percent of India was rural and agricultural at the time, Gandhi saw no virtue in premising modern interventions into these contexts on such ideas. He did, however, see value in the ideas of the individual, health and hygiene, education, and dialogue. Gandhi, though critical of the European secular, scientific Enlightenment as a whole, felt no hesitation in borrowing ideas and practices from it that he thought were useful—or in discarding those that he considered destructive. He, in fact, categorically states that nothing he has thought or done is original, and he is completely transparent in crediting antecedents. M. K. Gandhi, An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth, trans. Mahadev Desai (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Press, https://gandhiheritageportal.org/mahatma-gandhi-books/the-story-of-my-experiments-with-truth#page/1/mode/2up). A Gandhian modernity encourages a mix and match of ideas, on the assumption that these ideas arise in response to an internal inquiry and conversation with oneself. He then vehemently opposes the notion that any one fixed set of ideas (i.e., ideology) is inherently superior to any other. Gandhi’s buildings then question the hegemony of the idea of material technology in determining modern architecture. Quite simply, Gandhi’s buildings are modern in spite of the materials from which they are made, though the nature of their modernity may not be obvious.


For Gandhi, the city is a place of violence. He proposed the “ashram” as a form of settlement pattern. This is not the ashram of antiquity but rather a community of satyagrahis, or searchers of truth, living together and “experimenting” toward a nonviolent existence. This form of ashram consists of a residential area, a communal kitchen and dining hall, an open-to-sky prayer space, along with an institutional area housing schools and other training sites. Areas are demarcated for agriculture, animal husbandry, dairy, and food processing. A separate area is allotted for international ashramites, volunteers, and visiting guests.


In this essay, I use the term “opening up” to describe both an internal, mental, and psychological reconfiguration arising from systematic inquiry, experimentation, and verification, and a material one—referring to the increased porosity of an architectural configuration. Buildings using mud and masonry are load bearing by nature, where the configuration of the walls defines the structure. These are unlike the frame structures built with modern materials, such as reinforced cement concrete (RCC) and steel, which free the walls from the logic of gravity and, therefore, allow for “free” compositioning. Compositioning allows for transparency, whereas configurations of load-bearing walls allow for varying porosity. I have called an increase in porosity an “opening up.” For Gandhi, this external, material opening up can only follow an internal one. A societal opening up would follow the same logic: A society can only move away from dogmatisms and the darkness of a blind following of unverified ritual and habit through a wilful internal transformation within each individual member of that society. For it to happen any other way would involve the false or the violent, both of which Gandhi considered immoral. In this essay, I concentrate on the implications of opening up and the idea of the individual particular to Gandhi’s thinking. Considering the scope of this essay, other ideas, including those surrounding hygiene, domesticity, and movement are referred to in passing, however, they are not discussed in detail.


By 'modernity', I mean the conditions and qualities necessary for being modern. Gandhi refuted the possibility that a universal set of conditions could be considered modern. He felt that the European conditions of being modern had limited significance in the Indian cultural context. Others, most notably Ashis Nandy, have attempted to construct the outlines of what a Gandhian modernity could be.


Gandhi seems to have recognized that, in a world where there are no existential boundaries, the only reality that one can consider “firm” is that which is closest to us, i.e., that which is experienced directly. In this world of an atomized, individuated society, the onus to find an ethical and moral framework lies with the individual, and thus one must find this for oneself in the scientific manner of inquiry, i.e., through “experiments.”


Gandhi, An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth, 11–51.


For a discussion of Gandhi’s relationship with his “small, still voice,” see Tridip Suhrud, introduction to An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth: Critical Edition, by M. K. Gandhi, trans. Mahadev Desai (New Delhi: Penguin Random House, 2018), 1–35, esp. 16, 22.


Ibid., 6.


Ashis Nandy, “From Outside the Imperium: Gandhi’s Cultural Critique of the West,” in Traditions, Tyranny and Utopias: Essays in the Politics of Awareness (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1987), 130–31.


Gandhi’s daily practices included eating, bathing, reading, writing, spinning, visiting the sick (those stricken with leprosy), and praying. He thought carefully about these activities, and sought the spiritual possibilities within each one. With this understanding, he elevated everyday activities to the level of rituals that would aid him along his path to moksha, or self-realization. He did not feel the need for any extraneous activity. See Mahadev Desai, “A Morning with Gandhiji,” November 13, 1924, in Young India, 1924–1926, by Mahatma Gandhi (Madras: S. Ganesan, 1927), 1025: “There are two aspects of things,—the outward and the inward. It is purely a matter of emphasis with me. The outward has no meaning except in so far as it helps the inward.” Gandhi argued that there are moments, however rare, when one’s communion with oneself is so complete that one feels no need for any outward expression, including art. Tridip Suhrud, “Towards a Gandhian Aesthetics: The Poetics of Surrender and the Art of Brahmacharya,” in The Bloomsbury Research Handbook of Indian Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art, ed. Arindam Chakrabarti (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016), 374. It follows that Gandhi considers inner transformation at the individual scale as the engine for political revolution at the societal scale.


By 1903, a core group of people of varied races and religious dispositions rallied around Gandhi, supporting him in his agitations against racial discrimination in South Africa. This led to the founding of the Natal Indian Congress, which Gandhi would soon lead. In the same year, he started the Indian Opinion, the journal that became the voice of the Indian community in South Africa. Gandhi had been thinking about communal living for several years up to then. In 1904, with the journal’s financial struggles and his serendipitous reading of John Ruskin’s Unto This Last, he was inspired to act on his thoughts of communal living and to buy a farm near the station of Phoenix, on the north coastline fourteen miles from Johannesburg. Both the printing press and operating staff were housed on the farm, “where the workers could live a more simple and natural life and the ideas of Ruskin and Tolstoy combined with strict business principles.” Ramachandra Guha, Gandhi Before India (New Delhi: Penguin Random House, 2013), 175. Needless to say, the production costs of the journal were reduced considerably. In addition, Gandhi would use the farm to articulate and sharpen his ideas about communal living, and satyagraha. It was at Phoenix settlement in 1906 that Gandhi would take his pledge of brahmacharya, or voluntary celibacy. The inhabitants of the settlement had built their own houses, and though Gandhi only moved there in 1913, his family lived there and he visited them regularly.


See Shimon Lev, Soulmates: The Story of Mahatma Gandhi and Hermann Kallenbach (New Delhi: Orient Black Swan, 2012), which discusses the relationship between Gandhi and Kallenbach in detail.


Before living with Kallenbach, Gandhi and his wife had lived with Millie and Henry Polak. It was unusual for mixed-race couples to live together in a city such as London in any case; however, in South Africa, it was downright revolutionary. Moreover, for two men to live together could not have been looked upon as anything but heretical. As the Indian historian Ramachandra Guha writes, “For Gandhi to befriend Polak, Kallenbach, West and company was an act of bravery; for them to befriend Gandhi was an act of defiance.” Guha, Gandhi Before India, 188.


Gandhi was involved in both the conceptualization and the construction of the buildings at Tolstoy Farm. His direct involvement in the construction was reduced after his time in South Africa. The buildings of the ashrams in India were built by important people at each ashram. Gandhi directed them by setting material and budget constraints, and the buildings were constructed under his supervision. His house Bapu Kutir at the Sevagram Ashram at Wardha was built by the British-born activist Mirabehn (Madeleine Slade) originally for herself. However, Gandhi did insist that it cost no more than Rs. 500 to build and that the sky be visible from within.


Hermann Kallenbach (1871–1945) was an architect who studied in both Stuttgart and Munich. He was a master craftsman, having trained and practiced as a carpenter. He arrived in South Africa at the behest of his uncles, who were in the construction industry. Initially, he formed a practice with A. Stanley Reynolds (1911–1971), with whom he built The Kraal. He then set up the firm Kallenbach, Kennedy & Furner, which was enormously influential in the development of Johannesburg up to 1945. He has been described by the South African architectural researcher Kathy Munro as a “property tycoon. See Kathy Munro, “Review of ‘Soulmates—The Story of Mahatma Gandhi and Hermann Kallenbach,’” Heritage Portal, July 3, 2017, http://www.theheritageportal.co.za/review/review-soulmates-story-mahatma-gandhi-and-hermann-kallenbach. He generously used his wealth to finance Gandhi’s antiracism activities, which resonated with him, most notably donating more than a thousand acres of land for Tolstoy Farm. After Gandhi’s departure from South Africa, Kallenbach was involved in supporting the Zionist movement.


Tolstoy Farm was established in 1910, when Hermann Kallenbach acquired a farm at Lawley near Johannesburg and donated it to the satyagraha movement, then in its final stage. It was Kallenbach who named the farm after Leo Tolstoy. Gandhi wrote in a letter to Tolstoy, dated August 15, 1910, “No writings have so deeply touched Mr. Kallenbach as yours and, as a spur to further effort in living up to the ideals held before the world by you, he has taken the liberty, after consultation with me, of naming his farm after you.” M. K. Gandhi to Count Leo Tolstoy, 15 August 1910, in Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 10, November 1909–March 1911 (New Delhi: Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India), 306–7, https://gandhiheritageportal.org/cwmg_volume_thumbview/MTA=#page/346/mode/2up. See also Eric Itzkin, Gandhi’s Johannesburg: Birthplace of Satyagraha, Frank Connock Publication no. 4 (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 2000), 78. The farm was 1100 acres. It was covered with 1000 fruit trees and included two wells and a small spring. At its height, the farm supported a community of eighty people: fifty adults as well as thirty children, who studied at its school. The farm, as Gandhi would write in 1914, was of great use in the training of the thousands of passive resisters who participated in the last phase of the struggle. Shriman Narayan, ed., Selected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 3, Satyagraha in South Africa (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, 1968), 352. See also https://www.mkgandhi.org/museum/phoenix-settlement-tolstoy-farm.html.


Though by 1904 Gandhi was a successful lawyer able to donate £3500 to the running of his press and Tolstoy Farm, he himself lived a frugal life and expected those associated with him to do the same. He was hardest on the people closest to him, particularly his family. The Polaks, with whom he stayed, were also subject to his austerity. Millie Polak wanted to make the bare little house they shared a home by giving it a touch of warmth with the use of carpets and curtains. Gandhi was unconvinced of such expenditure, which he felt would be better focused on the cause they were fighting for. Once when she suggested that a painting might do well to hide the ugliness of the yellow washed walls, he suggested she look out of the window at the sunset, which is more beautiful than anything that could be drawn by the hand of man. Guha, Gandhi Before India, 199–200. See also Itzkin, Gandhi’s Johannesburg, 69. Though he did give in to Millie Polak on this occasion, such differences about comfort were constant between Gandhi and those working with him at both the Phoenix settlement and Tolstoy Farm. At both places, Gandhi had wanted the residential buildings to be Spartan, made of the most rudimentary and basic materials, which the other community members refused to do. They finally built their homes in a more modern and comfortable manner, using commonly available timber frames.


Millie Graham Polak, Mr. Gandhi: The Man (Bombay: Vora & Co., 1949), 67.


Gandhi established his first ashram in Ahmedabad at Kochrab using an existing building and property gifted to him by his close friend, the barrister Jivanlal Desai. However, the need for more space to accommodate all of the agricultural activities of the ashram pushed Gandhi to relocate. This time, he chose a place on the banks of the Sabarmati River, from which the second ashram gets its name (it was originally called the Satyagraha Ashram). Gandhi stayed at the Sabarmati Ashram from 1917 to 1930, when it was one of the main centers of the independence movement. It was from there that he set out on his famous Salt March to Dandi and vowed not to return till India had gained its independence.


R. R. James, ed., Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches, 1897–1963, vol. 5, 1928–1935 (New York, Chelsea House, 1974), 4985: “It is [ . . . ] alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious middle temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the Vice-regal palace, while he is still organizing and conducting a defiant campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor.” For a discussion on the politics of his dress, see Nandy, “From Outside the Imperium,” 144–45.


Narayan Desai, My Life Is My Message, vol. 1, Sadhana, trans. Tridip Suhrud (New Delhi: Orient Black Swan, 2009), 2.


The diagram of this relationship would equate to that of the megaron, a Greek archetype that defines the basic relationship between closed, semi-open, and open space, symbolically read as inner world, outer world, and the transitional domain where the two overlap. Given the climatic conditions of the subcontinent, it is this overlap that is inhabited by teeming life.


Gandhi often responded to more than a hundred letters a day. This was in addition to the writing he did for his press.


The vow of brahmacharya taken by Gandhi in 1906 has a much wider significance than simply abstinence from sexual intercourse. Gandhi writes, “Brahmacharya literally means that mode of life which leads to the realization of God. That realization is impossible without practicing self-restraint. Self-restraint means restraint of all the senses. But ordinarily brahmacharya is understood to mean control over the sexual organs and prevention of seminal discharge through complete control over the sexual instinct and the sexual organs.” The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 77, December 17, 1942–July 31, 1944 (New Delhi: Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, 1979), 19. He continues, “Only he who has burnt away sexual desire in its entirety may be said to have complete control over his sexual organs.”; “There is something very striking about a full-fledged Brahmachari. His speech, his thought and his actions all bespeak possession of a vital force.” In several religious traditions in the subcontinent, celibacy has always occupied a venerable position.


Since the ordo was traditionally the closed room that hid the activities of the body from social witness, it follows that behavioral control over one’s body, i.e., changing or eradicating the need for certain activities, would change or eradicate the need for the ordo itself. By taking a vow of brahmacharya, Gandhi not only transformed his body to be asexual but also redefined the relationship between man and woman in the house. His ideas about hygiene and ablution allowed the body to be far more relaxed and open.


See Suhrud, introduction, 17.


In some ways, Gandhi’s process of writing his autobiography resembles the contemporary practice of blogging, in that he was using the social-media technology of his day, which was print. Writing weekly, Gandhi received responses that were often critical. He published these responses with the installments that followed.


For Gandhi, every civilization is based on a primary set of ideas. He denied that any one set of ideas could claim superiority over any other. He himself borrowed ideas and methods from across cultures to further articulate and sharpen his own. He believed that the differences in ideas offered the potential for dialogue from the personal to the civilizational levels. However, such dialogue could only take place with an inner openness and self-confidence that accepts difference as a form of criticism for internal use. According to Ashish Nandy, when, “Catherine Mayo wrote her savagely anti-Indian and pro-imperialist treatise, Mother India, Gandhi called the book a ‘drain-inspectors report’ but added that every Indian should read it. While Mayo’s critique of Indian culture was blatantly prejudiced, he seemed to imply, Indian culture should have the self-confidence to put the criticism to internal use.” Frederick Buell. National Culture and the New Global System (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1994), 245–46. Gandhi understood that ideas that claim superiority are not ready for this dialogue. His criticism of the Western secular, scientific paradigm should be seen as an initiation of such a civilizational dialogue.

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