It could be easy to be cynical about a tour professing to follow in the footsteps of the Mahatma. Our world is full of tourism packages cashing in on spurious associations with local icons. Thankfully, the Gandhi Legacy Tour is not one of those.
To start with, it is run by Dr Arun Gandhi, the grandson of India’s most famous campaigner for freedom and justice. And when I ask him why he runs these tours, his reply makes it clear he shares much of his grandfather’s approach to life. “The purpose of my life is to share the legacy of non-violence that I received from my grandfather,” he tells me. “The Legacy Tours were designed as an extension of this concept. To show in practical terms the use of nonviolence to transform society’s one neighbourhood at a time.”
The two week tours began around 15 years ago. On average there are one or two a year, with around 20-40 people taking part. As befits a journey in the footsteps of a man dedicated to a humble asceticism, these are not luxury trips, or as Arun puts it: “typical destinations of pampered luxury or day trips through Indian pockets of poverty”. Instead people stay in modest (but clean and welcoming) lodgings, travel on buses and trains (which is the best way to see India anyway), and visit villages and slums rather than the Taj Mahal and a tiger trek.
Along the way the tours do take in some historical sites, ones that form part of the Gandhi legacy, in places such as Mumbai, Pune, Ahmedabad and New Delhi. But what really makes these trips so unique is the window they create into worlds that few would normally see and encounter people who live true to one of Gandhi’s most popular quotes: ‘Be the change you wish to see in this world.’
Accompanied by Arun and his son Tushar Gandhi, guests get the chance to meet with various women’s and child rights grassroots organizations that are truly making a difference, such as a group in Kolhapur that is educating an ever-growing number of underprivileged and exploited children, and also empowering women and girls in rural villages who lack basic human rights. The experience can be harrowing, as travellers are taken through the brick kilns where children are forced into bonded labour, yet this is life as it is lived, not dressed up or disguised for tourists, and the people you meet are committed to bringing about change and building better futures for some of India’s most marginalised peoples.
Living the Gandhi Legacy
“For centuries we have been brainwashed into believing that violence is the only way that we can be secure,” says Arun. “Because of this dependence on violence, we have created a culture of violence that dominates every aspect of human life – language, entertainment, speech, relationships, etc. Those of us who believe in nonviolence must educate through our own life and help people realize that resorting to violence only creates more enemies and more conflicts. We must live the philosophy and through demonstration inspire people to change.”
Judging by the response of many of those who have gone on Gandhi Legacy tours, these are trips that really do justify the overused travel epithet “life-changing”. Sunny Venuti, an American who loved the tours so much she has been on them twice, says it is “impossible to understand the ways in which an experience like this can change your life, your outlook and your perspective. It has changed all of this in me over time. Slowly and surely I have found myself seeing things differently, reacting differently, becoming someone more in tune with the larger world around me and with my own self.”
For me though, it is not the words, but rather the actions of the guests that speak loudest. (They also embody another of Gandhi’s ardent beliefs, ‘An ounce of practice influences more than a ton of preaching’.) When the Share Marketplace, which works in the slums of Mumbai and is one of the projects visited on the tour, was flooded out and lost everything, Gandhi Legacy tour group participants raised $12,000 to ensure it was able to keep going. If Responsible Tourism is supposed to be about “creating better places for people to live and people to visit”, you couldn’t ask for a better example than that.
For more details on the tours, click here. Next year, Gandhi Legacy Tours is spreading beyond India for the first time – to South Africa, where the young Gandhi grew up, to see how his experiences under apartheid helped turn him into the man he became.