I arrived at Satyagraha House, in Orchards just outside Rosebank, a sweaty mess. I was instantly calmed down by the serenity that permeates the museum-guesthouse.
I felt transported to a quieter world devoid of inconveniences. And I really did wonder if I was in a different part of the globe. While the main selling point of Satyagraha House is the fact that Mahatma Gandhi lived here in the early 1900s; there is something very French about the place. Beautiful photographs of Gandhi and friends and some of his inspirational quotes can be found all over the property, captioned in both French and English. Why all the French? “It’s a house based on Indian principles owned by the French in South Africa,” explained the guesthouse director Mohammed El Selhab.
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The main house was built in 1907 as a gift to Gandhi from his close friend, the German architect Hermann Kallenbach. He named it the Kraal based on its strong South African farmhouse elements. He and Gandhi lived here – while following the strict laws of asceticism that included early rising, learning, hard work and a strict vegetarian diet – until 1909. It was here that Gandhi developed Satyagraha, his philosophy of passive resistance.
The French took over in 2009 from the house’s last private owners, Jarrod and Nancy Ball who lived in it for 28 years before putting it on the market. They initially struggled to find buyers until a newspaper report sparked an international bidding war that was won by the French luxury travel company, which also curates cultural and heritage sites around the world, Voyageurs du Monde.
After renovations – including the addition of a cottage and a modern wing, all built on minimalist principles that attempt to match the original house’s design elements – the house became a museum and guesthouse. It is a lush property of undeniable beauty with yoga and meditation gardens. But overall it feels like a nice guesthouse in a foreign country where the owners just happen to own lots of Gandhi photographs. “Most of our guests are from France,” Mohammed said. “Then Americans, Germans and expat Indians.”
Only vegetarian food is served at Satyagraha, no alcohol. This is in accordance to Gandhi’s own strict vegetarian diet. According to the Gandhi foundation he mostly consumed fresh fruits, vegetables, cereals, and goat’s milk (only when he needed it for his health). He stayed away from meat, eggs and cow’s milk. Vegetarian and vegan dishes have improved so much that in 2015 this seemingly limited palate is not intimidating, so I was looking forward to Satyagraha’s interpretation of Gandhi vegetarianism.
I was served a tasty quiche and a salad of greens and feta cheese. Dessert was the crumbliest apple-crumble and ice cream; food that I wouldn’t fault on any other occasion. But it didn’t live up to the guesthouse’s vehement declaration of serving food that is in line with Gandhi’s strict vegetarianism.
“Uhmm…” I said as Mohammed walked by, “I don’t know if ice cream and apple crumble is Gandhi-style vegetarianism.” He explained that Satyagraha House is still French-influenced but the aim is to present food that is prepared simply.
Later, Mohammed played a guessing game with me. He handed me a tiny bottle of hand lotion. I applied it onto my hands and it instantly absorbed into my skin. I felt melodramatic oohing and aahing about how wonderful it felt. “Guess, what’s in it,” he asked?
“Something French but prepared simply?” He laughed and gave me a bottle to keep.
I spent the rest of the afternoon going through the all-Gandhi bookshelf in the museum lounge. And I realised that it is a tricky business, selling an icon’s legacy. The guesthouse is cozy, beautifully designed and peaceful but not quite the place to fully immerse yourself into life as lived by Mahatma Gandhi in my opinion.
For more information of Satyagraha visit satyagrahahouse.com
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