As the nation observes the birth anniversary of the ‘father of nation’, we decided to look at his association with Tiruchi, a city that had its small but significant role to play in the freedom movement. Determined to retrace his footsteps, we revisit well-known and forgotten sites that bear the Mahatma’s stamp, giving up their layers of dust, dirt and oblivion just in time for a spring –cleaning on Bapu’s birthday.
In the market place
Manoeuvring through the lanes redolent of fresh turmeric and vegetable waste, we follow a quest to discover the origin of the name behind one of the state’s largest markets. Rathinavel Thevar is said to have invited Gandhi to lay the foundation stone of the Gandhi Market. Though we look in vain behind mounds of tomatoes at various plaques, the foundation tablet is elusive.
Finally, right opposite the clock tower, we find a tea shop and sundry vendors who assure us they know what we are looking for. Four men move large wooden crates and gunny sacks and behind bundles of coriander at the bottom of the wall, is a plaque with obscure lettering. Scrubbed with water the stone tablet in Tamil reads, ‘Gandhi Market opened by Mahatma Gandhi in the Puratassi month, Prabhava year’, which is around 1927.
Seat of ahimsa
A few kilometres away, right behind the gates of the Srimati Indira Gandhi College, is a sprawling knotted peepal tree. The ‘Gandhi Tree’ as the plaque reads, states that beneath its leafy shade Gandhi addressed students and staff in 1932. At that time, the campus housed the National College which moved to its current premises later. According to Muthusamy, former principal, National College, Saranathan, a nationalist and the then principal of the college invited Gandhi to the college to speak to students.
Gandhi is said to have visited Tiruchi five times, says Soundararajan, president, Tiruchi Philatelist’s Association. The association released a special cover in 1987 commemorating the 70 anniversary of Gandhi’s first visit in 1917. Where did Gandhi stay during his visits? Local lore leads us to the erstwhile bungalow of surgeon and nationalist T.S.S Rajan behind the salt satygraha memorial on Mc Donalds Road. The India Post office operates from the building today. The weather-beaten building has a narrow but sturdy wooden staircase that leads to a room on the first floor with Karaikudi tiles and bright green shutters. A sketch of the Mahatma and another of the Dandi March find a place in the room. Kamala Ramasamy, wife of T.S.S Rajan’s grandson relates anecdotes to confirm that the bungalow was indeed Gandhi’s choice of residence. “I was told that Gandhiji once opened an x-ray unit in Rajan thatha’s clinic. There was a barber Govindan from Srirangam who claimed that he shaved Gandhi, showing off a towel that Gandhi presented to him.”
Final resting place
Our trail ends at the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Government Hospital which was named so in 1950 owing to the Gandhi Asthi Mandapam right next to it. The mandapam, a quiet spot on a bustling road houses Gnadhi’s ashes and is topped with a slab with two words ‘Hey Ram’. It is an annual tradition of the Seva Sangam, women’s welfare organisation founded on the first death anniversary of Gandhi, to pay homage to the Mahatma.
Seva Sangam members tell us that the ashes of Gandhi that were scattered on the major rivers of India were brought to Tiruchi to be immersed in river Cauvery. T.S.S.Rajan brought them in two urns, which are still retained by family as souvenirs.