Nine people from Chennai follow Gandhi’s trail across Tamil Nadu and document their findings in a website

Gandhi visited Tamil Nadu (then part of Madras Presidency) 20 times from 1896 to 1946. Which are the places he visited? Who are the people he met? What are the events that surrounded his visits? Seven men and two women from Chennai decided to find out. Armed with a map, five of them travelled across Tamil Nadu for 17 days, retracing Gandhi’s footsteps. They have documented their findings in the website Gandhi Study Centre.

It started as a dream. The team, consisting of A. Annamalai, K. Mohan, T. Vipranarayanan, B. Siva Kumar, M. Nithyanandham, Su. Sivalingam, Devadutta, M. Prema and S. Saravanan, started their journey in June 2011 from Madurai, the place where Gandhi chose to dress like the poorest Indian. They prepared for two months for the trip, reading up and taking notes.

For 17 days, Gandhi occupied their minds. They travelled to the cities, towns and villages he went to and gained fascinating insights into his personality. “We found that everywhere he went, Gandhi engaged in discussions with people with whom he had differing opinions on an issue,” says Annamalai, director, Gandhi Study Centre. Annamalai adds that Gandhi addressed every social issue that came up during his time.

Almost every city in Tami Nadu has statues of the Mahatma. Prod a little and you will find that they have a history, says Annamalai. For instance, the Gandhi statue that stands forgotten at a street corner in Teynampet, signifies a talk he delivered there in 1933. Every place Gandhi visited, be it a chathiram or a house, bears a sign to signify its importance. It could be a plaque, a statue, a pulpit, a tree…

Gandhi met the common man, for some of whom seeing him in flesh and bone was enough to stir them to join the Freedom Movement. His visits sometimes altered the lives of the people he met. In 1934, the people of Dalit village Vanneer Valasu, led by social activist Appavu, worked day and night to build a 6km-long road to facilitate Gandhi’s visit there.

The stories they heard, the people they met…the team found that in a street in Thevaram, a village in Theni, there were over 20 people who had gone to prison for taking part in the freedom struggle. A lot of men who participated in the Freedom Movement chose to be bachelors — this made it difficult for the team to identify their families. They even found temple gopurams with Gandhi sculpted on them!

“We spoke to over 100 people who have seen Gandhi,” says Annamalai. Satyamoorthy, an octogenarian and the son of a photographer in Ooty, recalled his past animatedly. But when he set out to talk about the day he saw Gandhi as a little boy, words failed him.

The men found respect wherever they went. “We were walking the streets of Kumbakonam early one morning, looking for a library. We asked for directions from a man. He invited us home and served us breakfast when he heard of our work. Imagine, we were just strangers looking for an address!” says Annamalai.

A passer-by who shook hands with them after removing his slippers out of respect, village elders who still hold important meetings under a tree Gandhi spoke, the man who climbed up and rummaged his loft to show them a dusty photo of his grandfather who had hosted a meeting for Gandhi…Annamalai says that the ordinary folk of Tamil Nadu connected with Gandhi emotionally, if not intellectually.

It was this affection that sometimes went overboard. Gandhi felt that whenever he came here for a meeting, people made extraordinary noise. For, his visits were celebrated like thiruvizhas. In 1946, Gandhi came to the Tamukkam Grounds in Madurai for a meeting. Lakhs of men and women had gathered to listen to him. The noise they made was deafening. They wouldn’t stop, despite his requests. The meeting ended without him speaking a word. That was Gandhi’s last visit to the region.