Father of the nation laid to rest: the afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi

After 60 years, the ashes of India's most iconic leader were scattered at sea yesterday. It marked the end of an extraordinary journey, literal and metaphorical. Andrew Buncombe reports

They marched in unison on a bright, clean morning, singing his favourite religious songs and walking behind a flower-decked truck carrying what his family believe is the last of his remains.

Through the streets of India's largest city, more than 300 people who describe themselves as Gandhians followed the truck strewn with roses and marigolds as it made its way towards the ocean. Shortly afterwards, from the side of a bobbing boat, a member of the family of Mohandas Gandhi tipped up the urn and poured the ashes of India's most revered statesman on to the water. They were gone in an instant.

Yesterday's ceremony was heavy with symbolism and significance. Held on the 60th anniversary of the day on which Gandhi was assassinated – shot by an extremist who rejected his lifelong call for peace – the service was itself also designed to salve a wound that has troubled the peace leader's descendants.

"It's an emotional day for us and also a day for deep thought. A day that we should remember him and remind ourselves of his teachings," said Gandhi's great-granddaughter, Neelam Parikh, a frail 75-year-old who poured the ashes into the water as other relatives held their hands and bowed their heads.

Gandhi was assassinated on the afternoon of 30 January 1948, shot three times at point-blank range by a Hindu extremist, Nathuram Godse, as he walked in the garden of the house in which he was staying in Delhi. His status, already vast – was instantly cemented in both India's history and the psyche of its people.

Today in India, his influence, along with his image which smiles out everywhere from banknotes to hoarding boards, is widespread and multi-layered. It remains a factor not only in the country's mainstream politics but also in the politics of dissent, where the idea of peaceful, non-violent protest which he advocated remains a powerful tool for the marginalised.

Gandhi was killed just six months after the cause for which he had struggled for decades – independence from Britain – became a reality. In the aftermath of his death, his remains were cremated according to Hindu tradition. "The light has gone out of our lives, and there is darkness everywhere, and I do not quite know what to tell you or how to say it," said India's Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, announcing Gandhi's death to a stunned nation.

Yet rather than scattering the ashes at sea or in a river within 13 days as is tradition, in an era before television or digital technology a decision was taken to dispatch a portion of Gandhi's ashes to villages and towns across India. This was to allow his followers and supporters to pay their respects. It appears, however, that efficient records were not kept and it is unclear how many urns of ashes were sent from Delhi to the country's vast, rural hinterland. Today there are at least two other locations – one in southern India and one in the US – that claim to possess an urn containing some of his remains.

The previous occasion on which an urn was found was in 1997 when it was discovered in a bank vault in northern India. The ashes contained in that cask were later immersed at the point where two sacred rivers, the Ganges and the Yamuna, meet. Those scattered yesterday in the Arabian Sea had previously been

kept by Sriman Narayan, a businessman and close friend of Gandhi.

After his death, Mr Narayan's son, a businessman based in Dubai, sent them to a museum with the intention that they would be displayed for the public, according to his father's wishes. But once Gandhi's family learnt of the plan they intervened and asked that they instead be scattered. "The family discussed the issue internally and we felt it was not right to put up his ashes on public display and requested the museum to hand over the urn to us," one of his great grandsons, Tushar Gandhi, said.

Perhaps ironically, yesterday's ceremony to scatter Gandhi's ashes may have gone some way to smooth over an historic discord that existed within his own family. Ms Parikh, who led yesterday's proceedings, is the granddaughter of Gandhi's eldest son, Harilal, who became estranged from his father and even converted to Islam in an act apparently intended to anger him.

Their difficult relationship, long known, was examined in greater detail last year in the Indian film Gandhi, My Father, a

movie which some followers of the independence movement's leader believed should not have been made as it portrayed human failings of a man whom some consider close to a saint. The title Mahatma, which Gandhi was given, means "great soul".

Yet Gandhi himself had acknowledged his role in falling out with his son, who did not attend Gandhi's funeral and who died destitute and ravaged by alcoholism shortly after his father's assassination. "The greatest regret of my life...," he wrote in one letter. "Two people I could never convince – my Muslim friend Mohammed Ali Jinnah [a fellow independence activist who eventually pushed for the creation of a separate, Muslim-dominated country that became Pakistan] and my own son, Harilal Gandhi." Selecting Ms Parikh to scatter the ashes, Gandhi's family said, was a symbolic gesture of reconciliation. "It's the correct thing to do, since Gandhi's three younger sons' families have participated in earlier funeral rituals," another of Gandhi's granddaughters, Usha Gokani, told the Associated Press. She added: "I hope this is the last of the ashes. This is more appropriate than preserving them in a permanent display."

Last night, members of India's political elite held a prayer ceremony at Birla House, the property in south Delhi where Gandhi was staying when he was killed. Among those paying their respects were the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, and Sonia Gandhi, head of India's ruling Congress party. Mrs Gandhi is the widow of the former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru.

Some commentators argued that today's India, where the overwhelming majority of the poor and powerless population are often overlooked in the race towards economic development, would disappoint Gandhi. Throughout his life, Gandhi believed India's economy and society should be organised around its villages. That has not been the case.

Yet even while yesterday's commemoration of Gandhi's assassination was relatively muted, some also spoke of Gandhi's continuing relevance both within a country where the division between rich and poor remains vast, as well as overseas.

Writing in the Hindustan Times, Ramachandra Guha, author of India After Gandhi, recalled how the independence leader had repeatedly called on India's Muslims and Hindus to put aside their religious differences. He added: "What Gandhi asked of Hindus and Muslims in India in 1919 should be asked again of them today, asked also of Jews and Arabs in Palestine, of Hindus and Buddhists in Sri Lanka and of Christians and Muslims in Europe, North America, west Asia and Africa."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
film
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
i100
News
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015