The Afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi

Article excerpt

After 60 years, the ashes of India's most iconic leader were scattered at sea yesterday. It marked the end of an extraordinary journey, literal and metaphorical. Andrew Buncombe reports

Father of the nation laid to rest

They marched in unison on a bright, clean morning, singing his favourite religious songs and walking behind a flower-decked truck carrying what his family believe is the last of his remains.

Through the streets of India's largest city, more than 300 people who describe themselves as Gandhians followed the truck strewn with roses and marigolds as it made its way towards the ocean. Shortly afterwards, from the side of a bobbing boat, a member of the family of Mohandas Gandhi tipped up the urn and poured the ashes of India's most revered statesman on to the water. They were gone in an instant.

Yesterday's ceremony was heavy with symbolism and significance. Held on the 60th anniversary of the day on which Gandhi was assassinated - shot by an extremist who rejected his lifelong call for peace - the service was itself also designed to salve a wound that has troubled the peace leader's descendants.

"It's an emotional day for us and also a day for deep thought. A day that we should remember him and remind ourselves of his teachings," said Gandhi's great-granddaughter, Neelam Parikh, a frail 75-year-old who poured the ashes into the water as other relatives held their hands and bowed their heads.

Gandhi was assassinated on the afternoon of 30 January 1948, shot three times at point-blank range by a Hindu extremist, Nathuram Godse, as he walked in the garden of the house in which he was staying in Delhi. His status, already vast - was instantly cemented in both India's history and the psyche of its people.

Today in India, his influence, along with his image which smiles out everywhere from banknotes to hoarding boards, is widespread and multi-layered. It remains a factor not only in the country's mainstream politics but also in the politics of dissent, where the idea of peaceful, non-violent protest which he advocated remains a powerful tool for the marginalised.

Gandhi was killed just six months after the cause for which he had struggled for decades - independence from Britain - became a reality. In the aftermath of his death, his remains were cremated according to Hindu tradition. "The light has gone out of our lives, and there is darkness everywhere, and I do not quite know what to tell you or how to say it," said India's Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, announcing Gandhi's death to a stunned nation.

Yet rather than scattering the ashes at sea or in a river within 13 days as is tradition, in an era before television or digital technology a decision was taken to dispatch a portion of Gandhi's ashes to villages and towns across India. This was to allow his followers and supporters to pay their respects. It appears, however, that efficient records were not kept and it is unclear how many urns of ashes were sent from Delhi to the country's vast, rural hinterland. Today there are at least two other locations - one in southern India and one in the US - that claim to possess an urn containing some of his remains.

The previous occasion on which an urn was found was in 1997 when it was discovered in a bank vault in northern India. The ashes contained in that cask were later immersed at the point where two sacred rivers, the Ganges and the Yamuna, meet. Those scattered yesterday in the Arabian Sea had previously been

kept by Sriman Narayan, a businessman and close friend of Gandhi.

After his death, Mr Narayan's son, a businessman based in Dubai, sent them to a museum with the intention that they would be displayed for the public, according to his father's wishes. …