The Half-naked Fakir and his Loin cloth

Mahatma Gandhi’s scanty dressing and its reaction in the West
“A proper dress keeps up decorum and shows our regard for others. If I had to go to a foreign land, I would by all means put away my loin-cloth in a trunk.” Can you guess who said this? None other than our own Mahatma Gandhi - But since 1924, after he originally wrote this, Gandhij changed his mind and went to Britain in a loin cloth. Care to find out why and how? Read on….
Appearances count – says the management guru. You must be properly attired and you should carry yourself well ,walking purposefully, upright – but not necessarily ramrod straight, and do not slouch. Another researcher admits that having a Mont Blanc in your pocket has been associated with a good possibility of getting an airline upgrade or getting off the waitlist. I have seen often that if you are tall, smart and somewhat fair, you can get away with a lot at certain places. If you are well dressed, then shift it yet another notch. Now with that background consider the situation presented by the half-naked Gandhiji to some of those snobby John bulls of the Blighty.
Interesting usage, for it was Churchill who coined it in 1930. In fact he said - "It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhiji, a seditious middle temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the east, striding half-naked up the steps of the viceregal palace, while he is still organizing and conducting a defiant campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the king-emperor."  So you can see that Winston Churchill was one who first referred to Mohandas Gandhiji in public as half -naked and a fakir, though not necessarily as a half-naked fakir. Gandhiji regarded the expression as a compliment. He felt unworthy of being called “a fakir and that (too) naked – a more difficult task.”
But why and how did Gandhiji change his mind and move from a ‘western style attired’ person to the dhoti clad person?  Why did he take to dropping off the appearances and wearing what for example was the attire of a warring Nair in medieval Malabar? Simply put, it was as he explained to a journalist from the News Chronicle: “In India several millions wear only a loin cloth. That is why I wear a loin cloth myself. They call me half-naked. I do it deliberately to identify myself with the poorest poor in India”. People who have studied him and his life have pretty good answers, though one or two of the pertinent catalysts have perhaps been missed out now and then.

Perhaps by definition, a loincloth is a one-piece garment – sometimes kept in place by a belt – which covers the genitals and, at least partially, the buttocks, so the dhoti fits into that description and can be called a loin cloth. But let it not be confused with underwear for some people have written that Gandhiji’s loin cloth is the most aired undergarment in history. Nevertheless, as Gandhiji clarified in his young India article, that he adopted a short version dhoti compared to the flowing dhoti since the latter could not be afforded by the poor. At that time many fakirs and Sufi pirs also wore such garb, so you can see where Churchill came from when he made his oft repeated comment. Somebody clarified in posterity – he was not one half naked, but more like 2/3rd.

Born in 1869, the young Gandhiji wore a dhoti and a coat (Rifle brand material) over it like many other middle class Khatiawadi’s of Gujarat. Interestingly he did not favor the full suit as it represented a Christian European to him, at that time. But when he found himself destined for London (the center of civilization according to him) in 1888, to do his studies, he equipped himself with just those types of clothes and cut of his tuft of hair so as not to look a barbarian and to blend in, though remarking that the short coat was somewhat immodest. The days that followed taught the 19 year old how difficult it was going to be to get the acceptance which he so much desired. He tried various things, like learning to play the violin, dancing, French and elocution in addition to wearing the latest clothes, but the distances between him and the English gentleman never reduced.

In 1890, Sachidananda Sinha described Gandhiji walking down Piccadilly – wearing a silk top hat, starched Gladstonian collar, a flashy tie with all the colors of the rainbow under which he wore a fine silk striped shirt. To complete the ensemble, he wore a morning coat, a double breasted vest, dark striped trousers and patent leather boots with spats over them. In addition he had leather gloves and a silver mounted stick. As one said in those days, he was a nut, a masher and a blood – slang for a student more interested in fashion and frivolities than studies!! But as we see, it did not quite have the desired effect in projecting him to the top of the London pile.

These events dented his pride and remained in his mind for decades to follow. Nevertheless when he came back to India in 1891, he looked a pukka Englishman and he also persuaded his Rajkot family to dress alike. The only change was that he did not wear a hat, but a turban. In 193, he moved to Durban to practice law and while he saw most other people of Indian origin in Islamic attire or dhotis, he himself wore western garb to the disappointment of his brethren. But it was in court that he was asked by a magistrate to remove his turban. Gandhiji replaced it with a hat to avoid issues, though he wrote a letter of complaint in a paper.
This was the event that triggered a turning point in his life when it came to western clothes. In 1908 when he was arrested and put in jail with prison clothes stamped with N for native, Gandhiji was horrified, but submitted and protested by shaving and removing his hair. By 1910 the protest resulted in his changing from his smart and well pressed clothes to baggy lounge suits and sloppy shoes. These, under the influence of Ruskin’s ‘Unto the last’, then changed to trousers, loose cotton shirts and chappals. He continued to wear European style clothes until 1913 after which he wore Indian clothes (lungi/dhoti and kurta) for the first time mourning for the Indian coal miners in Africa who had been shot. It was the first time that he publically associated reduction of clothes to grief.
Arriving back in Bombay in 1915, Gandhiji was seen to wear Kathiawadi peasant clothes. Most Indian upper class politicians considered this English returned lawyer pretty odd, queer, and quixotic or cranky due to his clothes and appearance. He was soon to try out various types of gear such as dhoti’s, shawls, Kashmiri caps, sola topi’s , pyjamas and finally his version of the Kashmiri cap – the khadi folding Gandhiji cap. But the final frontier was the short dhoti or loin cloth and his previous veiled threats at adopting it were only made to get over a shortage of khadi woven dhotis. He did make mention of using the shorter dhoti a few times later, but never went that far fearing sharp reaction from the public.
The Swadeshi movement was on by now and Gandhijiji had hoped that Indian would soon embrace Khadi clothes, discard British clothing or material, but found that the poor laborer could hardly afford Khadi while at Madras while many others were quite happy and contended wearing European made clothes (This takes me to the beautiful scenes from RK Narayan’s ‘Swami and friends’ where Swami decides to burn his cap, exhorted by Gandhiji’s appeals to discard Lancashire cloth).
22nd Sept 1921 Thyagaraja (now Meenakshi) college Maduari – Gandhiji decides to take the plunge and discard all his clothes except for the loin cloth, for a period of five weeks, the Swaraj deadline of 31st Oct, connecting it with leading by example and by calling it a sign of deep mourning. The morning meeting was called off as it was too noisy, and so that evening he gets his head shaved and the next day he sets out in his new attire which would become famous - a short dhoti four cubits long, to address the Madurai weavers (Rajaji and TSS Rajan try to dissuade him at the last minute but fail), deeply worried if his attire would be accepted by Indians. He also wanted to convey his demand for use of Swadeshi goods and to show the deep poverty in India caused by the British colonizer. Following the event, he writes letters to the Hindu, Bombay Chronicle and the Independent explaining his actions.
Let us now get to the scene where he re-clothes himself – On September 21, 1921, Mahatma Gandhi, who was staying at the residence of Ramji and Kalyanji on 251 A West Masi Street (now a Khadi kraft office), renounced his formal dress to identify himself with the common man. Another mention with a 1925 date can be seen in Congressman George Jospeh’s ( I mentioned him in the Syud Hossain article – Pothen Joseph’s brother) autobiography, where we understand that Gandhiji, staying as his guest,  asked him about the scantiness of public costumes of dhoti and turban (thorthu mundu) and was told that they lived in abject poverty. The dates are somewhat wrong; it appears he stayed with Joseph in 1919 or 1921. Hindu in their 2008 article clarifies that Gandhiji, during his second visit, stayed as Karumuttu Thiagarajar Chettiar’s guest at his residence, 175 A West Masi Street. Rajmohan Gandhi his son in his book states that the decision was taken not only because of the poverty of the wearer, but also to protest the arrest of Muhammed Ali and for the shorter dhothi to compete in price with imported clothes.
Sept – Dec 1931 - London – Round table conference
While many a mention can be found about the peculiar and non-conforming attire of this leader, none more than his 1931 London visit brought it to mainstream Western public notice. He had been to Britain on four previous occasions, dressed in western tradition, but not this time and it proved to be quite a spectacle.
Representing the Congress party, Gandhiji went to London to participate in the round- table conference. He travelled in his dhoti and shawl, refusing heavier clothes (even though many of them were smuggled in the ship SS Rajputana for emergencies by well-wishers – unknown to the irritated Gandhiji until much later). It is not my intention to write about the political angles and the conference, but the British press went after the loin cloth with glee and much fervor.
Saklatwala a British MP of Indian origin, had implored ‘For God’s sake Gandhiji, wear a pair of trousers’, appalled that the country of his own origin would be subjected to much ridicule by the event. Earlier another French journalist had asked Gandhiji if he would make the visit clad in the loincloth and Gandhiji said – ‘You in your country wear plus fours, I prefer minus fours’. As he walked around the slums of Londoan many a kid would shout ‘where are your trousers?’ Gandhiji would patiently reply to formal questions that he wore the dress of his principals, the millions of Indian poor. However Jad Adams in his book provides a quote that Gandhiji was prepared to add additional layers of clothing in Britain if the climate so demanded it. Much is also written about his meeting with King George V and how he had stated when asked about the inadequacy of his clothes, that that the king had enough clothes for both of them. He was termed a humbug by newspapers like the Truth, or even a simpleton. Silly stuff was reported – like the comments by an even sillier maid working in a house which Gandhiji was to visit, threatening to quit if Gandhiji did not wear proper clothes.
Gandhiji added to the press after explaining his reasons that conversely he did not see any European forsaking his dress when they came to the hot and humid India, wearing instead clothes immensely unsuitable for the climate there. He also stated that his dress was symbolic of the level to which the British had stripped his once prosperous country. American press responded stating that he was a dramatist. Nevertheless, he had stern views what women should or should not do - Interestingly he did attend a lunch reception with Lady Astor and seeing the low necked clothing of the ladies present stated that he was shocked by the shameless dress of the modern British women.
Visit to Vatican
On his way home he stopped in Rome and spent some time with Premier Mussolini, but because of his scanty costume was not allowed an interview with the Pope Pius XI. That by itself is an interesting story and details are not easily forthcoming, with newspaper reports stating that the Pope cancelled the meeting due to other pressing engagements and that he did not want to indelicately ask the little mystic to change his clothes for the meeting( Milwaukee sentinel 12/13/31) . The Vatican had apparently replied that the pope would not have a meeting on Sunday as it was his day of silence. The Daily Chronicle also states that while the pope was anxious to meet him, was worried more that he might face criticism if he did so! The Rudolph essays indicate that Gandhiji made the request twice.
However Gandhiji who stated -  Jesus  preached not a new religion but a new life, was also the man whom the same Pope Pius XI called "a man of providence", so why did he not meet him? It appears that there were complaints about Gandhiji’s attitude to the Catholic church and was more in support of the Protestant and less so for Catholics (also Gandhiji’s 1931 church declaration) according to Chandra Malampalli. Another reason was Gandhiji’s snubbing of Archbishop Paneerselvam, the Catholic representative at the round table.And thus we note that Mr. Winston Churchill and Pius XI were perhaps the only persons, in the annals of history, who refused a conversation with Gandhiji.
I cannot help adding this quote about the very same Churchill, considered by many a great leader,  who as we read here also got the loin cloth famous - Mehdi Hasan writing about Churchill in the Guardian - Here is a man, after all, who opposed votes for women and independence for India; who described Mahatma Gandhiji as a "half-naked fakir" and Hindus as a "foul race"; laid the foundations for apartheid in South Africa; supported the compulsory sterilisation and segregation of the "feeble-minded" and the "insane"; accused Jews of being behind a "worldwide [Communist] conspiracy for the overthrow of civilisation"; and, anticipating the crimes of Saddam Hussein more than 60 years later, said he didn't understand the "squeamishness about the use of gas .I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes [in Iraq]."
The loin cloth stories did not stop there or until 1947. Gandhiji’s wedding gift for Prince Philip’s royal wedding in 1947 is even more interesting as he presented him (on Mountbatten’s recommendation) with what is termed as ‘fringed lacework cloth made of yarn spun by the donor on his own spinning wheel’. The royal family was reviewing the presents later and Queen Mary was horrified when she saw it, mistaking it for Gandhiji’s loin cloth, not knowing it was Khadi!! She stated to her lady (Pamela Hicks, Mountbatten’s daughter, confirms this event in her telegraph article) in waiting – ‘Such an indelicate gift, what a horrible thing’!! Prince Philip stated that it was not and that Gandhiji was a great man, but Queen Mary had by then moved to stony silence…It is not known what happened to the fringed lacework cloth, and if it remains in the Royal family that now has been found to have even more Indian connections. Wonder what Q Mary would have had to say about these recent events!
Gandhiji is a very interesting person and his actual self is covered in many layers, much like the many layers of western clothing that he loved and hated. Most knew him from what is written for public consumption, though there was a simple and at the same time complex persona under these layers. Early in his political career he realized that he had only himself, mass appeal and little else to work out his agenda. Each of his moves were therefore meticulously thought out and planned. They were not just passionate and impulsive actions. The act of wearing a loin cloth was also one such and aptly carried his ideology in the most humble fashion, to the confused, bemused and controlling west. And as we saw, they understood, all too soon!!
Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India - Emma Tarlo (Chapter 3), my main source
Madras Miscellany - Muthiah S
Mahatama Gandhiji  - Sankar Ghose
Gandhiji Versus the Empire - Haridas T. Muzumdar
Routledge Handbook of Indian Politics edited by Atul Kohli, Prerna Singh
Prince Philip: The Turbulent Early Life of the Man Who Married Queen Elizabeth II - Philip Eade
Gandhiji: The Man, His People, and the Empire - Rajmohan Gandhiji
Gandhiji: The True Man behind Modern India - Jad Adams
Christians and Public Life in Colonial South India, 1863-1937:  Chandra Mallampalli


windwheel said…
There's a book by Arthur Herman called 'Gandhi & Churchill- the rivalry that destroyed an Empire.'
I haven't read it but fondly imagine that it draws attention to Churchill's objection to Gandhi going to see the King Emperor just wearing dhoti only. Clearly Gandhi would have an 'accidental' wardrobe malfunction and overwhelm the mighty monarch with shock and awe by 'flashing' him- thus changing the course of history. As a matter of fact, Gandhi disdained to give the King Emperor the darshan of his lingam. Instead it was Churchill who gave the true Emperor of the West, F.D Roosevelt, a free show by getting out of the bath without using towel to cover himself up.
Nowadays, Politics consists of pulling the nada of each others pyjamas so that everybody in the hamam becomes naked. True Statesmen only resort to nudity when it is tastefully done and called for by the Script.
Mind it kindly.

Maddy said…
thanks windwheel
herman's book was a good read, am not sure if it coveres this topic and your comment will for sure make me borrow that book again.