Lost Mahatma Gandhi ashes to be immersed in S Africa
Johannesburg: Some of the last of Mahatma Gandhi's ashes, kept in secret for decades by a family friend, will be scattered at sea off South Africa's coast on Saturday, 62 years after his assassination, his family said.
After a radical nationalist shot Gandhi on January 30, 1948, he was cremated according to Hindu custom.
Normally, ashes are immersed in rivers or the sea within days, but for Gandhi, his remains were divided to many urns and sent around India and across the globe so his followers could hold memorials.
One urn came to South Africa, where Gandhi had come to practise law in 1893, living in the country on and off for 21 years.
A family friend, Vilas Mehta, helped with the arrangements for the prayers, and the ashes were immersed after 10 days, according to the Gandhi Development Trust in Durban.
Unbeknownst to the family, Mehta kept a few remnants of the ashes, and guarded them in secret for the rest of her life, the trust said.
She "decided to take a little bit of the ashes and keep it in safekeeping as a memento of that occasion, not realizing that it is our custom to immerse them," said Ela Gandhi, granddaughter of India's liberation hero, who lives in South Africa.
"When she passed on, her daughter-in-law decided to give them to the family," said Gandhi, a former South African parliamentarian.
Until recently, Gandhi's family had no idea that any of the remains were still in Africa. But because so many urns were sent around the world in 1948, no one knows if any others are left.
The last immersion ceremony for Gandhi was two years ago in Mumbai. Those remains had been kept for decades by an estranged son before being donated to a museum, which had wanted to display them. At the family's request, they were spread in the Arabian Sea.
Another urn was discovered in an Indian bank vault in 1997. Those remains were scattered in a river.
"Since it's 62 years now, we can't do the complete ceremony that already took place in 1948," Ela Gandhi said.
"But in terms of the Hindu custom and family custom, we would pray throughout the night, from 4:00 pm tomorrow (1400 GMT Friday) until 4:00 am on Saturday morning," she said.
"We'll take a little boat and go out into the ocean, and at sunrise, just as soon as the sun rises, the ashes will blow into the sea."
The trust said the prayers would begin with a two-hour inter-denomination service at the Phoenix Settlement, a community that Gandhi established north of Durban.
Afterwards the mourners would fast and hold a vigil through the night, then proceed to the harbour where they would take a boat to scatter the ashes in the Indian Ocean.
At 1200 GMT Saturday, the family will hold a memorial service in Durban, where India's consul general in Durban and South African political leaders are expected to speak.
Gandhi's experience with racial prejudice in South Africa was his political awakening, sparking a lifelong fight against injustice and oppression through "passive resistance", which culminated in India's 1947 freedom from British rule.
South African anti-apartheid activists, including Nelson Mandela, were inspired by Gandhi's call to stage peaceful protests and flood the jails.
Mandela later felt forced to turn to an armed struggle against white rule, helping bring about the demise of apartheid in 1994, but Gandhi's philosophy is credited with inspiring civil rights movements here and in other countries.