Walking through Ahmedabad, one of the busiest cities in India’s western-most state Gujarat, for a visitor, it is easy to miss the Pols. Maybe the shine has left most of the Pols. You may walk right through one without realising that they are part of the city’s living heritage. Yet it is the Pol that has been one of the key reasons that earned Ahmedabad a much-prized Unesco honour. On July 8, 2017, Ahmedabad (or Ahmadabad as Unesco spelled it) was inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage List, the first Indian city to be thus honoured. So, why Ahmedabad? Actually, it turns out, the city is a treasure trove of heritage sites.
The couple-of-centuries-old neighbourhoods that dot the earlier parts of the city are an example of community living. Usually a gate marks the entry to a Pol. Narrow lanes lined by buildings with wooden façades converge on a central square. Since each Pol was occupied by people belonging to the same religion or caste or profession, the houses reflect architectural styles typical of the community. The open square has a religious structure, a community well and a place to feed the birds. “Ahmadabad city’s planning in a hierarchy of living environment with street also as a community space is representative of the local wisdom and sense of strong community…” the Unesco citation said. You can find some of the Pols in Dariyapur and Kalupur area.
The walled city, with more than 20 monuments protected by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and other attractions, including several key museums, preserves within itself a rich architectural heritage and cultural legacy, which is an integral part of the local lifestyle.
“The walled city of Ahmadabad, founded by Sultan Ahmad Shah in the 15th century, on the eastern bank of the Sabarmati river, presents a rich architectural heritage from the sultanate period, notably the Bhadra citadel, the walls and gates of the Fort city and numerous mosques and tombs as well as important Hindu and Jain temples of later periods,” said Unesco in its introduction to the city. “The city continued to flourish as the capital of the State of Gujarat for six centuries, up to the present.”
Architectural diversity is a key attraction of Ahmedabad. Although much of the late 15th century wall built to fortify the city had to be later dismantled to allow the city to expand, a short section of the wall along the Sabarmati River and the original 12 gates bearing carvings and calligraphy, some with balconies, still exist.
Although little is known of the master-builders who built the Jhulta Minars (Shaking Minarets) of Ahmedabad, they still stand as examples of India’s engineering feat. If one minaret of the pair is shaken, the other one shakes too. There are two pairs of these richly carved three-story high minarets, each floor with a little balcony of its own. The taller pair is near the Ahmedabad railway station in Kalupur area and the other one is near the Sarangapur Gate. However, efforts by the British to find out how the minarets shook destroyed one. Demonstration of the shaking and entry of visitors to the minarets are not allowed anymore.
Some of the key attractions that reveal the Indo-Islamic architecture are the Jama Masjid, Teen Darwaja, the Bhadra Gate, the King’s and the Queen’s tombs, etc. Buildings from the Maratha period and the colonial era also survive in the walled city.
West of Manek Chowk is the early 15th century Jama Masjid. The wide open courtyard is surrounded by columns painted with giant Arabic calligraphy. The main prayer hall has over 260 columns supporting the 15 domes. The mosque and arcade are covered with intricate carvings.
The King’s Tomb or the Badshah no Hajiro, lying to the east of Jama Masjid, and connected by a doorway, houses the tombs of Ahmed Shah I, his son Muhammed Shah II and grandson Ahmed Shah II. The four corners of the central hall has smaller domed chambers with perforated stone screens set in arches. Women are not allowed here. The Queen’s Tomb or the Rani no Hajiro lies across the street. The tomb lies enclosed within a courtyard. The road to the Tomb is known for its market selling women’s clothing and accessories.
Not to be missed is the 16th century Sidi Sayeed Mosque. The intricately carved stone ‘jaali’ work, especially along the windows of the western wall, look as fine as lace patterns. Though of much later vintage, the 1848 Hutheesing Jain Temple, dedicated to 15th Jain Tirthankar, Shri Dharmanatha, is an example of how the architectural legacy has been carefully preserved. Merchant Sheth Hutheesing employed the Salat community, traditionally known master craftsmen, to build the temple.
Ahmedabad too is home to several stepwells, locally called Vav, a key feature of old cities of Gujarat. Two of the most popular stepwells are the Adalaj Vav and the Dada Harir Vav. These richly carved step wells too served as community meeting grounds. It is believed that people would come here to fetch water, offer prayers to the divinity carved along the walls, spend time here to beat the summer heat, etc. According to experts, this Vav is an example of Indo-Islamic architecture and design. A harmonious play of intricate Islamic floral patterns seamlessly fusing with Hindu and Jain symbols. Dada Harir Vav, besides the usual carvings, also has Sanskrit and Arabic scripts carved on the walls.
The 15th century Bhadra Fort (not to be confused with the Bhadrakali shrine built much later), renovated by the city municipality in collaboration with the ASI, contains royal palaces with beautiful carvings on them, mosques, gates and open spaces. It has Ahmad’s Mosque to its west. The Maidan Shah or the King’s Market is to the east. The 17th century palace, the Azam Khan Sarai, meant as an inn for travellers, served as a hospital and jail during the British period.
Home to Mahatma Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmedabad also played host to Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. “Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore has even lived in the city and produced some of his most poetic writings here while living in the mansion built by Moguls on the river bank,” mentions the Unesco citation quoting KV Soundara Rajan.
Although about eight km away from Ahmedabad, another not to be missed site is the Sarkhej Roza. Grouped around a great stepped tank is the tomb to the saint, Ahmed Khattu Ganj Baksh (1445), the mosque, the tombs of Mehmud Shah Begada and his queen, and palaces and pavilions. The buildings are remarkable for the complete absence of arches and the use of pierced stone trellises throughout (source: Gujarat Tourism website).
The museums of Ahmedabad offer a clue to the city’s diverse cultural heritage. Another key criteria that made Unesco rule in the city’s favour is its legacy of textile manufacturing. “The city’s culture has been replete with traditions of its enterprising communities which were frontline traders and merchants, irrespective of the irreligious bearings. The major economic dependence of the cities merchant class was on the textile production in later centuries,” the citation said. Apart from browsing through the city’s markets, a visit to the Calico Museum(calicomuseum.org) is worth the time.
Interestingly, according to Unesco, “The immediate comparison available to Ahmadabad is the historic town of Melaka – Georgetown in Malaysia and the historic city of Lyon in France. This also is because of the similarity in Melaka’s founding period which dates back to 15th century. Lyon is more historic but its substantial expansion dates back to 15th century. Like Ahmadabad, Melaka- Georgetown and the historic city of Lyon are merchant and trading towns, though the geographic locations differ in its character the population’s main economic base has been similar, that is trade and commerce. Melaka and Lyon both since their founding have been multi-cultural towns like Ahmadabad and were also planned similarly with each community having their own defined settlements. The evolutionary trends in these towns also are comparable where the cities retained their homogeneity and traditions and graduated into their evolving phases retaining their traditions.”
If you find exploring the city’s heritage a tad difficult on your own, you may join the Heritage Walk (ahmedabadcity.gov.in) conducted by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation. For more information, see gujarattourism.com