Spinning Freedom: The Tale of Gandhiji's Charkha
This image of the Mahatma with his Charkha is one of the most famous pictures of Gandhiji who is widely regarded as one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century. It was under his leadership that millions of Indians rallied for freedom against the oppressive British rule, and this in turn inspired movements across the world. A visionary leader, Gandhi was also a great communicator who had a finger on the pulse of India and what could drive it. It was under him, that a simple mechanical device, which had been utilized by weavers for centuries, the ‘Charkha,’ or the ‘Spinning Wheel, emerged as one of the most potent symbols of India’s historic struggle.
For Gandhiji the ‘Charkha’ was not just a symbol of India’s yearning for freedom but also of its pursuit of economic self-sufficiency. However, the question arises: How did Mahatma Gandhi spot this symbol and use it to galvanize millions?
Charkha and Cotton – India’s White Gold
To grasp the significance of the Charkha, or spinning wheel, in the Indian context, it is essential to journey back centuries to a fabric that was once as valuable as gold – Cotton. Dating back to the Harappan civilization (3300-1300 BCE), India has been renowned for its cotton fabrics, which were exported across the known world. Thanks to regions abundant in rich black cotton soil and a strong weaving tradition among communities, India's cotton fabrics were in high demand globally. By the 1st century BCE, India was exporting cotton textiles to the Roman Empire, prompting contemporary Roman writers like Pliny the Elder to lament the outflow of wealth from Rome to India. This demand for Indian textiles endured for centuries.
Initially, weavers would employ hand spinning to convert cotton into yarn. However, sometime in the 9th century, the spinning wheel was invented, and its use proliferated worldwide. The term ‘Charkha’ derives from the Persian word ‘Charkh,’ meaning ‘Wheel.’ Yet, the precise origin of the Charkha remains a subject of debate among historians. While some assert its invention in India, others attribute it to the Middle East. What we do know is that the spinning wheel had gained widespread usage in India by the 13th century.
The lure of Indian fabrics had attracted European trading companies to open factories in India in the 16th century. So successful was the India trade that the British Parliament passed a series of Acts banning the import of Indian textiles and began to systematically destroy India’s famed textile industry.
How the Charkha Became a Symbol
In 1905, the British Partition of Bengal along religious lines spurred the Indian Freedom movement. One of the important programs launched at this time was ‘Swadeshi’ or the boycott of foreign goods with a call to replace them with those made in India. It was four years later, in 1909, that Mahatma Gandhi, then an emerging leader of the Indian freedom movement, thought of the Charkha as a potent symbol for Indian Freedom.
According to his own testimony published in ‘The Complete Works of Mahatma Gandhi’, he would recall how he had an epiphany during a meeting with Indian students in London- ‘We had many long conversations about the condition of India and I saw as in a flash that without the spinning wheel there was no swaraj. I knew at once that everyone had to spin’
While there are numerous references to the centrality and importance of spinning in Mahatma Gandhi’s letters as well as speeches, he never really explained why. But historians believe that with India’s rich legacy of cotton cultivation and handloom production, the choice of a device somehow related to handlooms made good political sense.
The making of ‘Gandhiji’s Charkha’
Ironically, as per his own admission, while Mahatma Gandhi had selected the Charkha as a national symbol, he had no idea how to use it, nor did he know the difference between spinning and weaving.
In 1910, in an article in ‘Hind Swaraj’ newspaper, Gandhiji gave his first public call for spinning, encouraging the use of ‘ancient and sacred hand looms’. But years later, in another article in 1928, he admitted ‘I knew at once that everyone had to spin. But I did not then know the distinction between the loom and the wheel and in Hind Swaraj used the word loom to mean the wheel’
It was only after the establishment of Sabarmati Ashram in 1915, that Mahatma Gandhi began learning how to use the Charkha for spinning. As he confessed, it was a long and difficult process of discovery. In 1917, after two years at the ashram, Gandhi met Gangaben, a weaver’s widow who began to teach the Ashram’s residents how to use the Charkha.
Interestingly, the Charkha used by weavers across India is a heavier device. It was Maganlal Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi's nephew who carried out a series of experiments and modifications, which resulted in the creation of the present form of Charkha sometime in 1918. This modified Charkha is what we recognize as ‘Gandhiji Charkha’ today.
Spinning as a ‘National Cause’
With support of the Indian National Congress for the spinning programme in 1920 and the founding of the AISA (All India Spinners Association) in 1925, Gandhiji effectively linked spinning with the national political cause. Spinning became integral to one's participation in the nationalist movement and each person committed to self- rule was required to spin for at least half an hour every day. This is why all the leaders of the Indian Freedom movement learnt how to use the Charkha. Interestingly, Indira Gandhi’s wedding saree was made from the cotton spun by her father Jawaharlal Nehru.
The Charkha also appeared on the Indian Flag that was designed on orders of Mahatma Gandhi in 1921 as well as on the Indian Tricolour designed in 1931. When India gained independence in 1947, there was a debate in the Constituent Assembly on the flag for the new nation. It was felt that a ‘Ashoka Chakra’ or Ashoka’s wheel would be more suitable in terms of design symmetry, as well as a symbol of Indian love for peace and non-violence. As a result, the ‘Ashoka Chakra’ replaced Gandhiji’s Charkha on the National Flag.
Today, very few Indians know who to use a Charkha and have seen it either in museums or in the grainy photos and videos pertaining to the freedom struggle. But this humble spinning device, continues to symbolize India’s self-reliance and its famed handlooms, which made it famous around the world for centuries.
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