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"The Long Walk to Freedom": Gandhi's Ashrampaiti Chappals.

MAHATMA GANDHI'S IDEALS OF Satyagraha, Swaraj and Ahimsa are quite well-known. Equally known is Gandhi's commitment to abolishing discrimination on the grounds of caste, religion or profession, particularly his crusade against untouchability associated with the communities of skinners, tanners and leather workers, often derogatorily clubbed as chamars. To grant them dignity by elevating their social status, and to implement his concept of self-reliance, Gandhi himself took to designing and making sandals--a lesser-known but far-reaching aspect of his work. These sandals (chappals) eventually became his own iconic footwear (figures 1 and 2), thus charting an aesthetic route towards an attempt to eradicate the evil of communal and casteist discrimination. By taking up the work of labourers and by dealing with a material deemed socially and ritually polluting--tanning or leather work--Gandhi set an example of egalitarianism and self-sufficiency which he hoped would influence the whole of Indian society.

I shall briefly trace the story of the unique ashrampatti chappals designed by Gandhi, which became a key part of the attire of many freedom fighters, and narrate via anecdotes how this component of the nationalist apparel attained nearly as effective a symbolic value as khadi or the charkha. Gandhi came up with the concept of ahimsak footwear in light of his deeply held belief in the ideal of Ahimsa in thought, speech and action.

Soon after Gandhi's arrival in South Africa in 1893 as a newly qualified lawyer, he experimented with the idea of a simple life guided by tolerance, manual labour for self-reliance, and equality--first at Phoenix Farm in Natal set up in 1904, and soon after that at Tolstoy Farm near Johannesburg in 1910. The latter was donated by the wealthy architect and philanthropist Hermann Kallenbach to Gandhi, his family and a few Indian followers as refuge during the resistance movement in South Africa (figure 3).

The establishment, management and day-to-day running of Phoenix and later Tolstoy Farm were comprehensively inspired by the tenets of the Roman Catholic monastic order of the Trappists, who believed in vegetarianism, extreme austerity in daily life, including in speech, and in the harmony of living together in an equal community. Though meditation was practised, the upliftment of the self was mainly to be achieved through manual labour on the field, in the garden, or in vocational workshops, such as for blacksmiths, tinsmiths, carpenters, shoemakers, tanners etc., while female members would do sewing, straw manufacturing, knitting or the like. Already in London, through his reading of Anna Kingsford's The Perfect Way in Diet, Gandhi had come to know about the Trappists and their South African branch, which was established in Mariannhill near Pinetown and Durban by Prior Franz Pfanner with about 30 Trappist monks in 1882. Gandhi visited the Trappist monastery shortly after his arrival in South Africa in 1893, and documented this visit at length in the journal Vegetarian in May 1895. (1) Gandhi admitted that he was deeply influenced by this Order that "provided him with a functioning example of a micro-community living on the basis of voluntary poverty, self-renunciation and constructive work". (2) By 1885 the monastery had grown to 85 members and spread over 200 acres, made arable for profitable agriculture, horticulture and vine culture. Though Gandhi's notion of self-reliance might initially not have been spiritual but economic, he implemented these ideals meticulously in the management of his estate. Personally, he relished mastering a manual skill (on which he elaborates in his autobiography) while deciding to cut the expenditure of a washerman: "So I equipped myself with a washing outfit to save it. I bought a book on washing, studied the art and taught it also to my wife. This no doubt added to my work, but its novelty made it a pleasure." (3)

He imbibed what he felt was the most successful way of living in harmony (his "cooperative commonwealth" (4)), and merged these ideals with his own on passive resistance against the repressive colonial regime. Like the Trappists, Gandhi felt that self-reliance meant that the residents should build their own housing, and that all the amenities needed for basic living would be made by the inhabitants of the farm themselves. A tailoring unit produced the clothing--trousers mostly made of coarse blue cloth and simple shirts--which were without "stiff starch". (5)

It was against this ideological backdrop of the practice of self-reliance in everyday life that Gandhi turned his attention to shoemaking. He was of the opinion that closed shoes were not appropriate for the climate in South Africa, and that open sandals would be ideal. Since expertise in the field of leather work was not immediately available among the residents at Tolstoy Farm, Kallenbach was sent to Mariannhill Monastery to learn the craft of manufacturing sandals. He immediately used his newly acquired vocation to set up a workshop for producing sandals for the Tolstoy Farm residents. Gandhi writes in his autobiography: "I learnt it from him and taught the art to such as were ready to take it up. Mr. Kallenbach had some experience of carpentry, and there was another inmate who knew it; so we had a small class in carpentry." (6) Most sandals produced on the farm were for its own members, but some were also sold to outsiders. In a letter to his cousin Maganlal, Gandhi boasts of having manufactured 14 pairs of sandals by February 1911. (7)

Sandal-making became a kind of obsession for Gandhi in his ideals of manual labour, as much as it was a symbolic act to demonstrate his conviction in social justice and equality. He wrote in an open letter to Ratan Tata dated April 1, 1912, "acknowledging the second generous contribution of Rs. 25,000 towards the expenses of the great Passive Resistance struggle" and explaining his ideals of education and his emphasis on manual skills to be imparted to young students, one of them being the sandal-making class: "Perhaps the most substantial result of the struggle is the establishment of a school at the farm, which is being conducted by me.... For three hours in the morning, the boys perform some kind of manual labour, preferably agricultural, of the simplest type. They do their own washing, and are taught to be perfectly self-reliant in everything. There is, too, attached to the school a sandal-making class, as also a sewing class, the latter under the supervision of Mrs. Vogl...." (8)

Gandhi was pleased that one of his confidants, Mr West, came back from his trip to England with a young wife who "came of a family of shoemakers working in a Leicester factory. Mrs. West had herself some experience of work in this factory." (9)

The footwear made at Tolstoy Farm with the help of the monks from the Trappist monastery featured a single sole with a one-inch cross-strap across the toes and a back-strap around the ankle and the heel. The back-strap could be fastened with the help of a simple metal buckle.

This was the sandal type Gandhi made while in prison in South Africa which was memorialized in his correspondence with State Attorney Jan Christian Smuts (1870-1950): "I am mostly busy making sandals these days. I have already made about 15 pairs. When you need new ones, please send me measurements. And when you do so mark the places where the strap is to be fixed so that it is on the outside of the big toe and the little one." (10)

Smuts was relieved when Gandhi was finally released from prison and departed for India with his wife in 1914. Gandhi gifted Smuts a pair of sandals before leaving (figure 4), and Smuts expressed his great respect for Gandhi by referring to these sandals as follows: "In jail he had prepared for me a pair of sandals which he presented to me when he was set free. I have worn these sandals for many a summer,...even though I may feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man. It was my fate to be the antagonist of a man for whom even then I had the highest respect." (11)

At the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad in Gujarat, established in 1917, Gandhi set up a tannery and personally trained volunteers to malee the so-called ashrampatti chappals. It was one of Gandhi's missions at Sabarmati to revive and improve the technical skills of the village tanners, for which he had great respect. He writes: "It is estimated that rupees nine crores worth of raw hide is annually exported from India and that much of it is returned to her in the shape of manufactured articles. This means not only a material, but also an intellectual, drain. We miss the training we should receive in tanning and preparing the innumerable articles of leather we need for daily use." (12) He also refers to the process of flaying the dead animal, stating that "I am told that none, not even surgeons, do this work better or more expeditiously than the village tanner does with his village knife." (13)

When I visited Sabarmati Ashram in the mid-1970s, I went to the manufacturing block, which was situated across the road from the ashram and featured a handmade paper unit, a tannery and the sandal-making unit. Inquiring about the unique simple design of the famed ashrampatti chappals, the employees told me that this was Gandhi's own design. Not only the stark minimalism, but also the design solution of sturdiness went back to Gandhi's initiative, who had realized that the weak point in the design of these chappals was the joinery, especially where the thin leather straps were sewn to the sole, as these often tore when worn on rough roads. He implemented his idea of having a single strap running through the sole, i.e. between the upper and lower soles, in one piece. This eliminated the joints and the need of sewing the straps to the sole. Figure 5 traces the straps across the foot and shows, in dotted lines, where the straps continue invisibly below the sole. Gandhi wore these iconic sandals wherever he went, even in the pouring rain. Many followed his example. Variations of this minimalist footwear evolved: with two straps joined in a V-form and running between the big toe and the next one; leaving a small gap in between for the big toe; and more elaborate ones with two parallel straps.

A small anecdote demonstrates Gandhi's belief in self-made sandals: "At the age of 63, Gandhi was imprisoned in the Yeravda jail with Vallabhbhai Patel. Vallabhbhai needed a pair of sandals but there was no good shoemaker in the jail. Gandhi procured some pieces of leather and made an offer to Patel: 'I can make a pair for you. Let me see if I remember the art which I learnt long ago. I was a very good cobbler.... I made a number of them on Tolstoy Farm'." (14)

Promulgating his ideals of Ahimsa, Gandhi persuaded the tanners and leather workers of Sabarmati Ashram and similar institutions to only use the hide of animals that had died a natural death. Thus the notion of ahimsak chappals (15) came into being, which became a symbol of the freedom fighters' attire and of all those later influenced by Gandhian ideology.


All images unless otherwise stated are courtesy Gandhi Heritage Portal, Sabarmati Ashram Preservation and Memorial Trust, Ahmedabad.


(1) Vegetarian, London, May 18, 1895, https:// _Missionaries (accessed on May 21, 2019).

(2) (accessed on May 21, 2019).

(3) M.K. Gandhi, An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Ahmedabad: Navajivan Trust, 1927 (Reprint 2005), p. 195.

(4) "History of Tolstoy Farm", excerpt from Surendra Bhana, "The Tolstoy Farm: Gandhi's Experiment in 'Cooperative Commonwealth'", p. 1, (accessed on May 2, 2019).

(5) Ibid., p. 2.

(6) Gandhi, An Autobiography, pp. 307-8.

(7) Bhana, "History of Tolstoy Farm", p. 2.

(8) M.K. Gandhi, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 9, New Delhi: Publications Division, pp. 248,251.

(9) Gandhi, An Autobiography, p. 284.

(10) Gandhi's 1913 letter to Jan Christian Smuts, State Attorney, later Premier of South Africa, as quoted from an exhibition panel in the museum at Sabarmati Ashram, in 2000.

(11) Extract from The Essential Gandhi, edited by Louis Fischer, New York: Random House, 2002, p. 98, articles/gandhis_relationship_with_jan_smuts_and_the_story_of_the_sandals.htm (accessed on March 17, 2019).

(12) M.K. Gandhi, "Tanning", Village Industries, Ahmedabad: Navajivan Trust, n.d., pp. 25-28 (see p. 25).

(13) Ibid., p. 27

(14) "Bahuroopi Gandhi: Cobbler", from Comprehensive Website by Gandhian Institutions--Bombay Sarvodaya Mandai & Gandhi Research Foundation, https:// (accessed on March 17, 2019).

(15) For decades the Khadi & Village Industries Emporia ran a separate department for ahimsak chappals.

Caption: 1 Self-made chappals are among the many iconic objects associated with Gandhi.

Caption: 2 Gandhi, wearing his famous ashrampatti chappals, picks up salt at Dandi, April 6, 1930.

Caption: 3 Gandhi and Hermann Kallenbach with the pioneer settlers at Tolstoy Farm, 1910-13.

Caption: 4 Replicas of the sandals made by Gandhi for Jan Christian Smuts, in the Museum of the Old Fort at Constitution Hill, Johannesburg. Courtesy

Caption: 5 Drawing that shows the design of the ashrampatti chappals, tracing the straps across the foot and illustrating (in dotted lines) where the straps continue invisibly below the sole. Courtesy Julian Jain.

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Author:Jain-Neubauer, Jutta
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Dec 1, 2019
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