The Tribune - Spectrum

, September 29, 2002
Lead Article

Champagne cost Rs 74 the day the
Mahatma was born
K. R. N. Swamy

 Mahatma Gandhi IT is interesting to consider, what the situation in the world was on October 2, 1869, the day Mahatma Gandhi was born. Scarcely a dozen years had passed since the First War of Indian Independence (Sepoy Mutiny). The world had just celebrated the first birth centenary of Napoleon Bonaparte, who was born in 1769 and had died 52 years later, in 1821. The Suez Canal was in the final stages of construction and its opening in November, 1869, was eagerly awaited.

A study of the newspapers dealing with October 2, 1869, shows that there was a general atmosphere of peace, as the British empire was in its heyday. The newspapers were full of details of the disaster to the ship Carnatic, which had run aground on the Suez-Bombay run, with a loss of 40 lives.

Kirti Mandir: The Mahatma Gandhi memorial at Porbunder
Kirti Mandir: The Mahatma Gandhi memorial at Porbunder 

The public was informed by the journals, that Dr Livingstone, the famous missionary-explorer, who had not been heard of for some time from the African wilds, was safe and, according to Sir Roderick Murchison, would be reaching West Africa shortly, after crossing the continent.

As for the price of commodities, the best quality Manila cheroots were being sold at Rs 90 per thousand (Rs 200 per cheroot in today’s money value) and the best tobacco at Rs 2 per lb. The Chowk Hotel at Matheran, Bombay, was advertising its rate at Rs 6 per day. Bungalows were available at Malabar Hill, on a rent of Rs 125 to Rs 300 per month. Haircuts seem to have been costly in posh establishments at one and half rupees! Today, when prohibition, one of the Mahatma’s cherished desires, has been thrown overboard, it is pertinent to consider that one dozen bottles of the best Champagne cost Rs 74 (today, the budget one is for Rs 1200 per bottle), and one dozen bottles of sherry Rs 37, in 1869.


British newspapers were eager to have the Kashmir Valley converted into a colony for the British, as the climate there suited them. It was also felt that a general sanitarium should be built there for British personnel and that extensive tracts in the Valley should be bought for British settlers.

Another editor was worried over the likely success or failure of the new Suez Canal. Analysing the economics of the Suez project, he informed the public that out of the 75 million cubic feet of earth to be excavated, only five million remained for removal. The opening date of the canal was to be November 17, 1969, and it was felt that unless 16 ships of at least 1000 tonnes each, used the canal every day, it would be a financial failure.

Regarding more mundane matters, controversy raged in the pages of a Bombay daily as to whether it was possible for a Goanese butler to acquire Rs 8,000 in 13 years, without swindling his master.

Just like the stock market scams which plagued India a century and a quarter later, Bombay was agog with the Premchand Roychand affair. What transpired was that the famous business house of Premchand Roychand, dealing in cotton, was about to declare insolvency, when the Bank of Bombay, the leading financial institution of the city, discovered that if the eminent Indian business house was to fail, it would ruin the market. The bank, therefore, advanced Rs 25,00,000 to the concern, against collateral consisting of property and jewels.

Another British editor was upset at the truculent manner in which the Sheikhs of the West Asia were treating the India Government and urged the Indian Navy to take punitive action against them, so that the Viceroy would be more respected in the Persian Gulf area.

In short, this was the state of affairs as reported by newspapers in India and abroad on October 2, 1869, when in the town of Porbunder in western India, a son was born to Karamchand Gandhi, the Dewan of Porbunder, and his wife Putlibai Gandhi. Little did the proud parents realise, that for centuries to come, the boy’s birthday would be observed the world over, in honour of one of the greatest emancipators of humanity.

Today, the three-storeyed house, where Mahatma Gandhi was born is an international shrine and the room, where he was born, is marked with the Hindu symbol of good omen: the swastika. Nearby is the Kirti Mandir, built in 1950, as Mahatma Gandhi Memorial with aspects of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain temple architecture intermingled with the artistic elements of a church, mosque and Parsi agiary. This 79 feet high monument, symbolic of the 79 years the Mahatma spent in the service of humanity, has at its summit 79 lighted clay lamps beautifully arranged as a tribute to the great leader. MF