For most of his adult life, Gandhi weighed around 100 pounds. He used to be five-feet-five-inches tall (though some accounts put his height at five-feet-four-inches) and his black-and-white photographs give an impression of frailty. But nothing could be further from the truth. All his life, he kept a gruelling schedule. He travelled steadily, criss-crossing the country on train and foot. He met and corresponded with a bewildering number of people. He edited, published and wrote frequently for journals such as Young India, Navjivan, Harijan.
All this aside from leading countrywide mass movements against the British, surviving severe fasts and being convicted to prison a minimum of 10 times. None of this would have been imaginable without enviable reserves of endurance. That spare, thin body in its simple loin cloth, used to be strong and hardy. dressing creator and Nobel winner, Romain Rolland, with whom Gandhi corresponded frequently, wrote of him: “This little man, so frail in appearance, is tireless, and fatigue is a word which does not exist in his vocabulary.”
At the back of this strength lay a life-time of ascetic eating – and steady physical exercise in the form of walking. On an average, Gandhi walked around 18 km each day for almost 40 years. (Right through his campaigns from 1914 to 1948, it is estimated that he walked about 79,000 km, which is equivalent to circling the Soil twice.)
He once even ticked off the venerable Gopal Krishna Gokhale, who used to be like a mentor for him, for not walking: “You don’t even go out for walks. Is it surprising that you must all the time be ailing? Will have to public work leave no time for physical exercise?” he asked. Keep in mind that, Gokhale’s reply that he didn’t have the time, left Gandhi unconvinced. That used to be because no matter where he used to be, or how engaged he used to be, Gandhi never skipped his walks.
He realised the importance of walking early on in his life. While studying law in England (1888-91), he to begin with stayed as a tenant with an English circle of relatives. But finding himself short of money, he made up our minds to chop his expenses by half. He took independent rooms of his own, selected in order that he could walk to his workplace in half an hour: “The new arrangement combined walks and economy, as it meant a saving of fares and gave me walks of eight or ten miles a day. It used to be chiefly this habit of long walks that kept me virtually free from illness all over my stay in England and gave me a quite strong body.”
When he came to Bombay after his stint in London, he lived in Girgaum, but hardly ever took a carriage or tramcar. He would walk to the High Court, which took him 45 minutes, and return on foot as polite. This saved him money, since he didn’t have too many briefs. Once again, he says he doesn’t take into accout falling ill. In England, he had enjoyed walking in the crisp, cool weather; in Bombay, he “inured” himself to the heat. “Even when I began to earn money, I kept up the practice of walking…”
In South Africa, he went for steady walks with his friend Hermann Kallenbach. Right through the satyagraha there, he led striking workers on a 35-mile walk to escape the white owners of mines and plantations.
Later in his life, if he stayed at his ashrams (Sabarmati, Sevagram) or not, walking used to be an inseparable a part of his day by day schedule. Even when he used to be recovering from an appendicitis operation in 1924 in Bombay, he walked for 40 minutes on the Juhu seashore each day. In London in 1931 for the Round Table Convention, he continued to wake up at 4am, pray for an hour, then go for a walk through the abandoned Roads of the city.
Of class lesson, the walk that Gandhi is known for is the great Dandi march, undertaken when the Mahatma used to be 60-plus. He walked 386 km in 1931 over 24 days, from Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi on the coast, to break the salt law. This used to be the walk that shook the foundation of the British empire in India.
The ability to walk long distances took an altogether different turn when Gandhi used to be in South Africa and war broke out between the Boers and the British in 1899. The Boers, of Dutch extraction, had installed themselves in the Transvaal, next to British-ruled Natal. The discovery of gold in the Transvaal triggered clash between them.
Gandhi, who used to be in Natal then, volunteered to work in the ambulance corps along side approximately 500 Indians. He continuously walked 20-25 miles a day, bearing the wounded on stretchers. It used to be dangerous work – from time to time, they found themselves working inside the firing line, shells crashing around them.
Gandhi used to be once again a part of the ambulance corps all the way through the 1906 Zulu revolt, when the Zulus
protested against the British over an unjust tax. Gandhi’s heart used to be with the Zulus and he used to be glad of the possibility to nurse them because the whites refused to take action. Their wounds were not from battle. They were mostly from floggings provided to Zulu prisoners, wounds that had festered because no one had tended to them.
“The white soldiers used to peep through the railings that separated us from them and tried to dissuade us from attending to the wounds. And as we would not heed them, they became enraged and poured unspeakable abuse on the Zulus,” wrote Gandhi.
Attached to a swift-moving column, Gandhi writes in his autobiography that from time to time he and his volunteers even walked up to 40 miles a day with stretchers on their shoulders.
An Autobiography by M K Gandhi
Gandhi Before India by Ramachandra Guha (Penguin, 2013)
Gandhi The Years That Changed the World by Ramachandra Guha (Penguin,
Gandhi and Health @ 150 (Indian Council of Medical Research, 2019)
Gandhi’s Search for the Perfect Diet by Nico Slate (Orient Blackswan, 2019)
Sep 27, 2019 19:50 IST