Eighty kilometres to the east of Nagpur lies Bapu Kuti, a historic site in Sewagram or the village of service, nestled in serene rustic surroundings close to Wardha. This was the home of Mahatma Gandhi from 1936 to 1948, and the epicentre of the Indian freedom movement.

During the years Gandhi lived here, Wardha became the de facto nationalist capital of India. A motley array of foreign delegations — politicians, pacifists, religious leaders and do-gooders of all complexions — would wend their way to Sewagram. In July 1942 the Quit India Resolution was passed here, and four years later Gandhi left Sewagram, never to return.

It doesn’t take a Gandhi devotee to appreciate the austere beauty of the ashram premises. “He alone deserves to be called an inmate of the Ashram,” wrote Gandhi, “who has ceased to have any worldly relation — a relation involving monetary interests — with his parents or other relatives, who has no other needs save those of food and clothing and who is ever watchful in the observance of the eleven cardinal vows. Therefore he who needs to make savings, should never be regarded as an Ashram inmate.”

Now Bapu Kuti is nothing short of a museum. A quaint bath, an elderly, dignified telephone box and neat little alcoves shyly peeping from the walls, all serve to create an inexplicable nostalgia for a past we were not part of. There are some bare relics: glasses, a spoon, a pocket watch and a pumice stone. The kitchen contains the flour grinder he put to use occasionally. His cot and massage table have also been retained.

The sacredness of the place is preserved by several sombre trees that have themselves withstood the ravages of history. The practice of daily prayers in the open continues. The campus glows with humility, evoking memories of its master.

The major activity at the ashram commune was hand-spinning. To prepare Indians for independence by inculcating discipline and self-reliance, Gandhi urged women and men, including the highest officials, to produce at least 25 metres of yarn each year, enough to meet their needs. He preached, “Every revolution of the wheel spins peace, goodwill, and love.”

When Gandhi came to Wardha in 1933, he wanted to retreat to a place that had none of the amenities that India’s poor lacked. While Gandhi worked for independence from Shegaon —which he renamed Sewagram— he left his the most doting devotee Mirabehn (Madeleine Slade, daughter of an English admiral) with the plan of constructing buildings in the village.

Housing at Sewagram was to be built strictly from local, affordable and renewable materials. Nothing was to come from beyond a five-kilometre radius. The structures were to be simple enough for a small group of ordinary people to build and maintain on their own.

Indeed, to many visitors the modest scale of the lodgings comes as a surprise. The cottages are well crafted, with thick mud brick walls, clay roof tiles, and palm leaf thatching. The most important of these historic structures are Adi Niwas, Ba Kuti and Bapu Kuti. Adi Niwas was the first house built at Sewagram and the place where the first ashram members lived together. Bapu Kuti and Ba Kuti were the cottages of Mahatma Gandhi and his wife Kasturba.

Gandhi never gave up on his alternative vision for India as a nation of enlightened but simple and self-sufficient villages. In this way, he hoped that the equality of all citizens would be realised and everyone would contribute a portion of their labour to produce the basic necessities of life —food, clothing and shelter— from local, renewable materials.

He stuck stubbornly to this vision, long after it was clear that the Congress party and the Indian elite were not interested. In village after village around Wardha, Gandhi applied his efforts to transforming India’s villages from cesspits of ignorance and rigid social hierarchy into beacons of order, cleanliness and brotherly affection.

He started his efforts in social improvement with a basic issue: teaching villagers to take responsibility for their waste. Central to this was how Gandhi expected people to deal with the most basic aspect of cleanliness, the removal of their own excrement.

The task of removing human waste is traditionally delegated to Dalits, or simply avoided. Gandhi expected that when his disciples entered a village they would begin their work by looking for stray human waste, to move to a remote spot and bury it. Shocked by this work, Gandhi argued, people would get the message—but they did not.

Food was also prepared according to Rule Four of Gandhi’s [Sabarmati] Ashram Rules. He believed the first step to controlling sexual appetite —essential for curbing one’s selfish impulses— was to eliminate the pleasure of eating. “Food must therefore be taken like medicine under proper restraint.” A visitor noted in his diary that he didn’t much like the mush that was served and, after the third day, declined to eat any more of it.

The peace of village life was bittersweet. Sewagram’s calm was due in fact to the absence of any real, living activity. Today, the ashram is preserved in time in the manner of an old sepia photograph, but the idealised life it documents is now dead. It is no longer a vibrant place inhabited by the indefatigable Gandhi and his devotees. It is a shell of itself, a time capsule fondly and painstakingly preserved, but devoid of its living inhabitants and shorn of its original aura.

The site is at once stimulating and soothing, haunting yet peaceful. It is as if the aura of the man himself hovers above it. Part of the reason for the quiet, of course, is that the ashram simply doesn’t attract that many visitors as Gandhi’s importance and pertinence to ordinary Indians fades.

Gandhi infused India with a revolutionary blend of politics and spirituality. He called his action-based philosophy satyagraha or the truth force. For Jawaharlal Nehru, the defining image of Gandhi was “as I saw him marching, staff in hand, to Dandi on the Salt March in 1930. Here was the pilgrim on his quest of Truth, quiet, peaceful, determined and fearless, who would continue that quest and pilgrimage, regardless of consequences.”

Gandhi’s impact was indelible. He guided India to independence and forced his countrymen to question their deepest prejudices about violence, religion and caste. His ideas continue to resonate around the world and he has inspired generations of leaders and great movements. As Einstein summed it up in his tribute: “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon the earth.”

Yet the truth is that Gandhi’s legacy is in shreds. It started waning immediately after his death. His vision of villages as the most fertile ground for India’s progress now seems like a utopian fever dream.

The Governor-General of independent India, C.Rajagopalachari gave a disenchanted verdict in the years immediately following Gandhi’s death that still rings true: “The glamour of modern technology, money and power is so seductive that no one —I mean no one— can resist it. The handfuls of Gandhians who still believe in his philosophy of a simple life in a simple society are mostly cranks.”