Walking Through the By-lanes of History in Ahmedabad

Behind the doors of the walled city, heritage is an unexpected find. Photographs by Nikita Wankhade.  
Morning rituals for many local kids often mean running around the open courtyards of Jumma Masjid.
Morning rituals for many local kids often mean running around the open courtyards of Jumma Masjid.

Ahmedabad is the city I have called home for the longest period of time. This is where I struggled through Physics in high school and learnt to distinguish between North Gujarati and Kathiyawadi accents in college. It is also where I live now, after having spent a decade in New York and later Bombay.

While those great cities are steeped in heritage and culture, Ahmedabad, in comparison, doesn’t quite seem to be dressed for the same party. Despite its recent UNESCO World Heritage City tag, a first for India, the city might seem underwhelming to someone not looking to scratch beyond the touristy surface.

Ahmedabad, I am discovering in this home-coming, makes you work hard. A city with a documented history of rulers and invaders as far back as the 11th century, it has the architecture and culture—one just has to look beyond the obvious.

For writer Esther David, born and raised in the old city on the east of the Sabarmati River and now resident of the newer western side, the challenge is defining and navigating the city’s historical sites. “How does one navigate the part of the city that is considered heritage? If I start from Bhadra Fort and Teen Darwaza, how do I walk from there to Sidi Sayeed mosque to Rani no Hajiro?”

 

The by-lanes of history

Badshah no Hajiro, the tomb of Ahmed Shah II dates back to the 1450s.

Badshah no Hajiro, the tomb of Ahmed Shah II dates back to the 1450s.

For those passing by or just beginning their exploration, one way to navigate the history is through guided walks. Along with the temples, mosques, and buildings, the walks also take you to the city’s pols, old gated communities with one main street lined by houses characterised by their heavy wooden doors and carved brackets. The House of MG, a 20th-century haveli-turned-boutique-hotel conducts a night walk. For a closer look at the sites and the lives of people inhabiting the historic lanes, opt for the early morning walks conducted by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation. These take you through the pols as the residents go about their morning rituals. The walk on the older eastern side of town begins at the brightly painted Swaminarayan Mandir in Kalupur, whose facade resembles South Indian temples, and ends at the Indo-Saracenic structure of Jumma Masjid.

The easily digestible two-and-half-hour walk starts with did-you-knows about the pols. “Did you know that the pols have one of the earliest implementations of a modern sewage system? Did you know that most of the wooden facades are made from Burma teak because it is naturally termite resistant? Did you know that all the houses are interconnected so that people could escape easily if Muslim and Maratha invaders attacked?”

Walking with a group comprising Indian and foreign tourists, you will probably notice the wooden house with eight dusty windows that are always open, or the curious old woman stooping in the wooden doorway of the Kala Ramji temple, in Haji Patel ni Pol near Calico Dome. You might also spot Kalupur’s Ramesh G. Darji, as he sets up his tailoring shop earlier than the rest of Ahmedabad, perhaps in a bid to outrun the slow demise of his profession. They go about their chores with nonchalance, unaffected by the spectators watching their everyday routine, for whom their life is a part of the city’s living heritage.

From the khadkos, khanchos and surangs—by-lanes, nooks and hidden passageways—that make up these pols, you make your way to Manek Chowk, the resting place of the saint, Baba Maneknath. Vegetable sellers and vendors of mukwas or traditional mouth fresheners, crowd here by day, and by night street food shops sell old Gujarati favourites like bhaji-pao and masala chai as well as the more recent chocolate sandwich and Nutella-pineapple pizza. The nearby Bhatiyar Galli, or “cook’s lane” caters to meat lovers and is known for its Afghan-style cuisine. Crowd favourites include bara handi, parts of a goat cooked 12 ways and in 12 pots, from a rich nihari and paya (trotters) to pichota (rump and tail) and nalli (bone marrow). Manek Chowk is also home to the original building of Ahmedabad Stock Exchange, India’s second-oldest after Bombay and no longer operational since the ASE, like most things, has gone west and digital. The ornate building, which was going to be torn down a few years ago, might have a different fate now.

Sarkhej Roza's courtyards, known for its stone trellises, is a favoured reading spot.

Sarkhej Roza’s courtyards, known for its stone trellises, is a favoured reading spot.

In the last leg, after passing by Badhshah no Hajiro, Ahmed Shah’s tomb, the walk ends at Jumma Masjid. Shah’s queens are entombed at the facing Rani no Hajiro, part of the night walk. A solitary (non-Friday) morning at Jumma Masjid might make you wonder why the 15th-century mosque is not better known. The architecture is a unique amalgamation of Islamic, Hindu and Jain styles with intricate filigree work and Arabic calligraphy juxtaposed with carvings of an occasional kalpavriksha and kalash made by the mosque’s local Gujarati craftsmen.

Soon after the walk however, you might realise what Esther David meant when speaking of her dilemma of navigating Ahmedabad’s heritage. Some important sites are not part of the walk. These include Bhadra Fort, the city’s 12 gates like Teen Darwaza, Lal Darwaza, Dilli Darwaza, and Sidi Sayeed mosque, famous for its intricate lattice work which inspired IIM Ahmedabad’s logo. Many of them are in areas now crowded with traffic and people and unsuitable for lingering walks in large groups, while some others are not within walkable distance.

Ancient and medieval rulers did not play within modern city boundaries and many historical sites lie outside the main city. About nine kilometres southwest of the city lies Sarkhej Roza, a 15th-century Indo-Saracenic mausoleum built by Ahmed Shah upon the death of his friend and Sufi saint Shaikh Ahmed Khattu Ganj Baksh and hosts Sufi performances in the evenings. To the north of the city, between Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar, is Adalaj ni Vav, a 15th-century, five-storey stepwell built by the Vaghelas to harvest rainwater. Once a popular picnic spot, it is now an Instagram favourite because of the visual perspective offered by its symmetrical inner chambers.

 

Beyond the obvious

The houses within the pols often have elaborate doorways.

The houses within the pols often have elaborate doorways.

Contemporary artist and Ahmedabad resident, Amit Amabalal, believes that the idea of heritage has to be expanded beyond the usual suspects of mosques, temples, pols and stepwells. “Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn did some of their finest work here. Their work too should be protected and enjoyed,” says Ambalal. He lists the public AMC building, Sanskar Kendra, the Mill Owners’ Association Building, and the private Villa Sarabhai and Villa Shodhan as examples of Le Corbusier’s modernist architecture. Interestingly, most of Corbusier’s works are part of the heritage list in countries like Switzerland and France. But it is not so in Ahmedabad. To see some of Louis Kahn’s modernist brick work, you can step inside the Indian Institute of Management’s building.

The work of people like Le Corbusier and Kahn is a heritage left behind by some of Ahmedabad’s powerful textile mill owners. The wealthy businessmen invited the best architects and artists of the 20th century to design public and private spaces that created the city’s modern architectural heritage. This legacy is also preserved in the many havelis, some of which have been converted into museums. The Calico Museum, once home of the Sarabhai family, is now a museum showcasing the history of the textile industry in Gujarat and India. The Kasturbhai Lalbhai Museum next door, houses a collection of over 2,000 years of Indian art handpicked by the Arvind Mills patriarch Kasturbhai Lalbhai in the erstwhile family home.

 

A city of legends

 The old Ahmedabad Stock Exchange building at Manek Chowk now lies abandoned.

The old Ahmedabad Stock Exchange building at Manek Chowk now lies abandoned.

Legends are interwoven with history in Ahmedabad. One of the most famous is about Ahmed Shah, who laid the foundation of the city. Supposedly, the ruler decided to stay back after he saw a hare chasing a dog on the banks of Sabarmati and was intrigued by a land where the usually timid displayed bravery. Another legend outlines the reason behind the city’s prosperity. It is said that while she was leaving the city, Goddess Lakshmi was stopped at the gates of Bhadra Fort by a guard who made her promise to wait until he returned with permission from the Sultan. He then cut off his head to keep the goddess from ever leaving. In remembrance, the Muslim guard’s family began lighting a lamp in a small nook in Teen Darwaza, a tradition that continues to this day. Ahmedabad’s legends also talk of Baba Maneknath and Sufi saint Ahmed Khatthu of Sarkhej, who sparred with rulers in mystic ways to guide them.

The more recent legends include those of Passport Hanuman, a temple in Desai ni Pol. In a state known for its obsession with going abroad, it claims to bless visitors with 100 per cent visa approvals for even the toughest cases. Esther David’s favourite however, is the legend of “Hasti Bibi nu Gokhlo” or the “cavity of the laughing saint.” Hasti Bibi was a rotund Muslim woman who attained saint-like status because of her supposed ability to cure children’s ailments with laughter and even today, parents bring their kids to her shrine in the Old City and place them in the cavity briefly to, as Esther quips, “often rid them of excessive crying.”

The deeper you dig, the more stories and alternate histories you find in Ahmedabad. The city’s heritage is in many ways defined by its people, in the legends they create and the stories they choose not to forget. For Esther, it is in the memories of growing up in the old Lal Darwaza area and all of the walled city’s tales that she has accumulated in her lifetime. According to her, “The Walled City of Ahmedabad is not behind those walls anymore, but really in my mind.”

  • Shefali Pandey travels, writes and makes websites. She is sometimes found in New York, Bombay or Ahmedabad, but always found on Instagram @shefalipandey.

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