Tours Let Travelers to India Trace Steps, Test Principles of Gandhi

Tushar Gandhi, hand on chest, led a tour last December to the spot in New Delhi where his great-grandfather Mohandas K. Gandhi was slain in 1948.
Tushar Gandhi, hand on chest, led a tour last December to the spot in New Delhi where his great-grandfather Mohandas K. Gandhi was slain in 1948. (By Garth Dyke)
By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 12, 2009

NEW DELHI -- For millions of foreign tourists who come to India every year, the blockbuster attractions are still the grand palaces of the medieval maharajahs and that delicate marble monument to timeless love, the Taj Mahal.

A few years ago, though, a new trend of theme-based tours sprang up. The Buddhist trail lured visitors looking for nirvana. Rural tourism took travelers to spruced-up villages. Slum tours led them down sewer-lined alleys for a brush with poverty.

Now comes the latest variant: Gandhi tourism.

The past three years have seen a mushrooming of tours tracing the footsteps of independence leader Mohandas K. Gandhi, the bony, bare-chested ascetic whose philosophy of nonviolence helped Indians overthrow 200 years of British colonial rule.

Tour operators have enlisted historians, Gandhi disciples and even direct descendants of the Gandhi family to lead visitors to the great man's birthplace in the western state of Gujarat, the site of his assassination in New Delhi and a number of museums and memorials.

In February, Martin Luther King III came to retrace the journey his father, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., took to India 50 years ago to study Gandhi's campaign of nonviolence.

"It is very heartening to see a resurgence of interest in Gandhi across the world," said Varsha Das, director of the National Gandhi Museum near Rajghat, the peaceful riverside memorial where the sage's bullet-riddled body was cremated. "Foreign tourists who follow his trail are filled with tremendous reverence."

Tour participants might drop in for tea with a member of the Gandhi family, attend a musical prayer session, or participate in a hands-on workshop where they squat on the ground and learn how to operate a wooden spinning wheel like the one Gandhi used to make handspun cloth in a protest against imported textiles.

One company offers a four-hour tour called "The Assassination of Gandhi," in which tourists are taken to the site of Gandhi's 1948 killing. A historian tells the story of that wintry January day when Gandhi made his way to his daily prayer meeting, flanked by his two devoted nieces. The tourists hear readings from the police report that was filed after a man pulled out a black Beretta automatic pistol and fired three shots into Gandhi's chest.

"Young tourists want more action and are interested in the scene of the assassination. The older people want to understand his philosophy," said Varun Mathur, co-founder of Tallis & Co., a tour operator. "It is not just a tour -- we create a Gandhi experience that will stay with them."

This winter, during the tourist season, Gandhi's great-grandson, 49-year-old Tushar Gandhi, will join with a New York-based company called Go Philanthropic in a venture targeting affluent people interested in donating to Indian projects that follow Gandhi's principles.

"It is tourism with a cause," Tushar Gandhi said in a telephone interview. "We have identified two programs for them to visit. One works among child laborers rescued from hazardous and exploitative industries. We hope that after spending a few days here, they would help in setting up schools and shelters for these children. The second program is one working toward women's empowerment."

Go Philanthropic representatives say they have just begun to market the Gandhi trip and have received several early queries.

"The idea is to expose people to the world's challenges and solutions," said Lydia Dean, Go Philanthropic's president. "But they never ever write a check. They only make material donations," such as water pumps, library books and other items. "They will tour with Gandhi's family and see examples of Gandhi's philosophy in action."

One question tourists ask Varsha Das on the Gandhi trail is: "How much of Gandhi is still alive in India?"

"My answer is, 'Unfortunately, we have not followed Gandhi's teachings fully in India,' " Das said.

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