In 2007, I went on a London Walk commemorating Mahatma Gandhi’s days in the city and wrote about it. An edited version of this was published in 2007 in the Herald, Goa and in Windows & Aisles, the in-flight magazine of Paramount Airways.
The Walk doesn’t seem to be offered anymore – I have queried the organisers and have not received a response. If you’re interested, please contact London Walks.
One hundred and nine years after he first arrived on the grey, damp shores of London, the city of Big Ben and the modern London Eye commemorates its links to Mahatma Gandhi in a unique London Walk.
London is a walker’s delight. London Walks are walking tours with themes – you can retrace the life of Sherlock Holmes, Jack the Ripper, Shakespeare, the Beatles and now even Harry Potter. Or if you fancy something more historical, take a Secret London walk, make your way through Westminster or take the ‘Distinctly Different Royal Route’.
Conceived by businessman Ajay Goyal, the world’s first Gandhi Walk traces Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s visits to London. Goyal invested £5000 into researching and planning the walk. This long overdue commemoration of one of India’s greatest leaders has won public approval and was also part of London’s celebration of 60 years of Indian Independence – India Now.
Much of the London that existed in Gandhi’s time no longer survives. Many of the buildings that he stayed in or visited were destroyed in the Second World War or were rebuilt. In the absence of any architectural connections, the Walk tells the story of what Gandhi would have seen and experienced during his stay in London.
M.K.Gandhi first arrived in 1888 as an eighteen year old student training to be a barrister at University College of London. He made further visits in 1895, 1914 and finally in 1931 as the leader of the Indian freedom struggle.
The two hour long walk begins at Temple underground station which acts as a meeting point for the guide and the participants of the Walk and is led by Sue, an enthusiastic walk leader who has clearly done her homework.
The first stop is Inner Temple, one of the four Inns of Court of London – a place where students came to study law. Inner Temple is imposing. Once owned by the Knights Templar as their English headquarters, the Temple church was built in the 12th century. More recently it played a pivotal role in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. In 1601, the first ever performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was performed at one of the Inns – the thought that he was standing on the same ground as Shakespeare must have thrilled Gandhi at the time.
Gandhi studied law here and would have spent considerable time in the secluded and serene buildings. He spent a lot of time in the Library, especially in the colder months, thereby saving on heating bills. Along with law, he would have studied Latin, English, French, History and Geography. He would have had to take Roman/common law exams which were in Latin.
The Knights Templar are now increasingly relegated to medieval thrillers. These days, two of the Inns – Middle Temple and Inner Temple –take responsibility for the Round Temple church and its maintenance.
As part of the duties of being a student, Gandhi would have had to attend dinners in the Hall. Dinners were meant to foster a sense of community and to help students learn from their elders.
Gandhi’s stay in London was compounded by the fact that he had promised his mother that he would not touch meat, women, or alcohol. Vegetarian food was extremely rare and uncommon in London and the young Gandhi must have had a hard time finding suitable meals. The difficulty was not helped by the requirement to have dinners at the Hall in the Inner Temple. As a result, he was hungry a lot of time.
This hunger led him to walking long distances in search of vegetarian food. He would have delighted in his discovery of nearby Covent Garden Market because it meant a supply of fresh fruit. Vegetarian restaurants were unheard of in those days and Gandhi would have struggled to find an exclusively vegetarian menu. No wonder then that he was absolutely thrilled to discover a book called ‘Plea for Vegetarianism’ by Henry S. Salt which became a turning point for him. The book gave him the ammunition and the moral conviction he needed to convince friends in London that this was not a passing fad.
He never touched meat after that.
Moving on from Inner Temple, the Walk moves towards Fleet Street, the home of London’s newspaper industry. A brief stop at Pump Court reveals the meeting place of the Anglo Indian South African Committee, a group that Gandhi would have addressed in his future visits.
Fleet Street of the 1800s was a lot more dark, foreboding and busy than it is today. 1888 was a historical year for London. It was the ‘Autumn of Terror’ a time when the notorious serial killer, Jack the Ripper caused havoc in the City of London. His exploits gave birth to a number of tabloids and Fleet Street would have been very busy at the time.
At the beginning of the street stands a gateway with a dragon on top. This marks the boundary between the City of London and the City of Westminster. It is said that Jack the Ripper eluded arrest by moving between the two cities; the police forces of those days did not share information easily, making it easy for him to hide.
The Royal Courts of Justice at the entrance of Fleet Street were just being completed at the time. Gandhi would have spent time in the newly constructed imposing building listening to cases and learning from other lawyers.
A few minutes from Fleet Street near the Strand, lies Essex Street, notable for Essex Hall Unitarian Headquarters. This was one of the places where Gandhi met his followers and planned his campaign for the freedom of India from the British.
Gandhi moved into his first independent lodging in 1890 at Tavistock Street. The original building no longer stands, but the proximity to Covent Garden Market would have pleased Gandhi. As he was on his own now, he had to cut down on his expenses. His meals consisted of porridge and stewed fruit. He also cut his own hair.
During this time, he joined the Vegetarian Society. He also got to know Tolstoy, was impressed by Christianity (especially by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount) and was asked to help translate a Sanskrit version of the Bhagvad Gita.
Covent Garden is now one of London’s most popular tourist spots. Always full of street performers, jugglers, mime artists and hundreds of tourists, this is also home to the Royal Opera House and streets of designer shops. Although equally busy in Gandhi’s time, Covent Garden and the Market area were then also full of the poor and the disadvantaged. It was here, in the heart of fashionable London, that Gandhi saw dire poverty and the contrast between the rich and the poor. He saw how the poor were ignored, stepped over, discarded and this would have a profound influence on his thinking.
SOUTH AFRICA HOUSE, Trafalgar Square
The final stop of the Walk is at South Africa House, an apt ending place for the Walk. Gandhi’s destiny was to change after he experienced racial discrimination in South Africa. His famous philosophy of non-violence developed during those days and led him to being imprisoned several times. South Africa House is the High Commission of South Africa in London and although the building itself has no real link to Gandhi; it is a reminder of the hardship and struggle he had to endure as a young man.
I AM WALKER…
Gandhi’s love of walking was honed in England. Not only did he walk long distances in search of vegetarian food, but later continued the habit as it allowed him to think. This habit became part of the Satyagraha movement in South Africa in India ending his famous act of defiance – the Dandi March – where he walked over 240 miles to make salt from sea water.
Gandhi’s love for walking was portrayed in the Oscar-winning film Gandhi by Richard Attenborough where the Mahatma tells a reporter in jest “I am Walker.”
The Walk shows us a unique and lesser known side of the young Gandhi, from his struggle to find vegetarian food, to his desire to ‘fit in’ with English society. Gandhi went to the theatre and also attempted to learn the violin, but gave up soon. He spent ten pounds (a small fortune at the time) to have a suit tailored at Bond Street, complete with top-hat. He took great care of his appearance and was eager to try out new hairstyles.
Through this two hour stroll through Central London, we get a rare glimpse into the early days of a young Indian lawyer who went on to capture the imagination of the world and ultimately became the Father of a Nation.
Photos courtesy Dr. Luis Dias