The roads that I take to the 80-year-old pol house, recently turned into an arts residency-cum-heritage hotel, Arts Reverie, in the old walled city of Ahmedabad, aren’t very inspiring. They are so narrow that it’s hard to navigate a small car down them. It’s like travelling through a maze, a series of galis seemingly connected by inner passages.
It’s just the initial shock of driving through an area so densely populated that you often run into people or cows sauntering leisurely through the twisted lanes. Once the shock wears off, I begin to notice the fresco-laden homes and ancient temples as we drive past them. Arts Reverie, a charming haveli, is set in Dhal Ni Pol, one of the several pols that line the walled city. It once belonged to a Jain jeweller, but has been bought by Ahmedabad-based author and art critic, Anupa Mehta, and Jeremy Theophilus and Barney Hare Duke, who head A Fine Line Cultural Practice, based in the United Kingdom.
It’s 11pm when I reach the pol house, which stands silhouetted against the muggy night sky. Outside, a raucous bunch of kids are playing gali cricket, smashing the ball down the slight slope on which Arts Reverie stands. The two-storied white haveli with green and blue windows, carved pillars, wall frescoes and white walls, intercepted by a red one in some parts, is easy to spot. It has been recently restored, going by the fresh coat of paint on its façade. And it is the only building in the pol with a large white sculpture of two warriors perched on their horses, strategically located on the roof, an emblem of the power that the jeweller’s family once wielded.
“Only affluent and powerful people were allowed to put their insignia on top of a building. Some insignias are symbols of a particular community,” Chirag Kayasth, General Manager of Arts Reverie, tells me, as we peer down a first-floor window that opens onto the courtyard. “Some things are common to all pol houses — the wood frescoes and brackets on the façade walls. And the courtyard, a meeting space for the family.”
The walled city is the perfect place for any artist looking to history and ancient architecture for inspiration. The buildings around may be decaying, but they tell stories of a time when Ahmedabad was controlled by traders and merchants, who constructed many of these embellished and carved havelis.
Unlike other hotels, Arts Reverie has no lobby. From the courtyard, I take the wooden staircase with a trap door, which has to be pushed open to enter the first level. I walk into a functional lounge, a veranda converted into a common meeting space. A white wall with a jewelled pattern of an elaborate neckpiece, drawn by an American artist, forms the backdrop for a small library filled with books on art, travel and architecture. The furniture is basic — a long table accompanied by wooden stools, topped by cushions. This is where you have dinner, read a book or watch television.
The inward-looking haveli has three floors. On the ground level are the office and the kitchen. The first floor has three rooms, and the second holds a mosaic-floored terrace, another bedroom and an exhibition space for artists. The bathroom, a large all-white space, is common to all the rooms. Well-ventilated, the haveli has 25 windows, some opening to the courtyard and others, to the road outside. My single room is in soothing blue and white.
Everything about the hotel is heritage — the large teakwood cupboards, the wooden beds, the mosaic-patterned flooring, and the jharokhas that hide either a wardrobe or another door behind them. It is the ambience, however, that sets it apart from your common or garden heritage hotel. Oil lamps are lit all along the protruding awning every evening, just as the sun sets. On the first evening I spend most of my time satisfying the inquisitive, intrusive part of me. From the terrace, it is possible to look into the homes around. Obviously, not many bother with curtains in these areas, especially in the public areas like the courtyard and the kitchen.
Arts Reverie is an ‘art residency’ — a retreat for artists, art critics, filmmakers and writers, where they can stay for weeks or months. Kayasth tells me that one of the rooms is also rented out to the not-so-creatively inclined. “But it is really meant to be a quiet oasis for artists in the heart of a bustling city.”
Meals are simple but varied — my dinner consists of rice, tur dal, three kinds of vegetables, some salad and a delicious khajur raita. For any given meal, there is a spread of at least six to seven dishes. Breakfast is an elaborate affair — freshly squeezed orange juice, toast, butter and jam, poha or upma, slices of fresh fruits, and a fine representative of the Gujarati delicacy, dhokla. You can request almost anything vegetarian, but strictly no non-vegetarian since the haveli is located in a Jain cluster.
The non-intrusive but efficient staff is another high point. And the haveli even boasts of World Space radio and a wi-fi environment. I would have been happy to do nothing more than enjoy myself within the walls of the little residency, but the Pol house offers more than just bed and meals: it helps guests explore the art and architecture of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala and even Ladakh. I choose to discover Ahmedabad.
“The best way to see the city is in an auto rickshaw,” Kayasth assures me the next morning. The rickshaw he recommends is driven by Mohammed Ghulam Ahmed, a man trained by the Ahmedabad Heritage Committee. Want to know everything there is to the walled city’s heritage? Mohammed Bhai will tell you when and who built a particular mosque or temple, and just what is so special about it.
On the first day, he drops me at the Swaminarayan temple within one of the pols, from where I take a two-hour-long tour of the walled city. It seems to me that this 10km stretch must have the highest number of heritage structures anywhere in India, as I stumble across rows and rows of havelis, mosques built in the 15th and 16th century and delicately carved temples. Then I take the Calico textile museum tour. At the end of the day, the auto rickshaw driver tuk-tuks through other pols, rigidly divided on caste and religious grounds.
On the second day I go to the other side of the river Sabarmati, into modern Ahmedabad, where Mohammed Bhai introduces me to contemporary architectural wonders — Le Corbusier’s iconic buildings, the Sara House, the Ahmedabad Textile Merchant Association office, and the red brick, light-infused angular structures of the Indian Institute of Management, designed by American architect Louis Kahn.
Mohammed Bhai knows more than Ahmedabad’s history or its architectural gems. One evening, he takes me shopping for tie-and-dye kurtas, embroidered bedcovers and skirts. The next day, we stop at the Calico store on the way back from the Adalaj stepwell, where I chance upon hand-woven Patola saris and tribal silver jewellery.
He also knows little places where you can eat the most amazing food — hot, spicy and mouth-watering. If you are a non-vegetarian (which I am not), there is Court Hyderabadi within the walled city, known for mutton biryani, boti kabab and kheema kaleji. Mohammed Bhai guides me to Agashiye, the little restaurant within another heritage hotel, The House of Mangaldas, for an authentic Gujarati meal complete with meethi dal, thepla, and a delectable concoction of methi dhokla with kadi.
Evenings are best spent at Arts Reverie. That’s when Dhal Ni Pol comes alive to the sounds of boisterous kids playing gali cricket and aunties gossiping on street corners.
Getting there: BY AIR Many airlines fly to Ahmedabad airport (10km away from the guesthouse). One-way fares from Mumbai start at about Rs 2,150; from Delhi, fares get as low as Rs 1,774 (on SpiceJet). BY RAIL Trains connecting Mumbai and Ahmedabad are the Ahmedabad Mumbai Rajdhani Express, the Gujarat Mail, the Shatabdi Express and the Karnavati Express. Ashram Express and the Delhi Ahmedabad Express connect Ahmedabad with Delhi.
Arts Reverie is a restored 1920s building, which originally belonged to a Jain jeweller. The guesthouse offers two single rooms and two twin-bedded rooms. Tariff: Rs 11,500 per week (July to March) and Rs 9,500 per week (April to June); Rs 42,000 per month (July to March) and Rs 35,000 per month (April to June). The rates are for a room, workspace and all meals. The rooms can also be booked for a day on a bed and breakfast basis; the tariff is Rs 1,600 (July to March) and Rs 1,300 (April to June). Contact: 079-32521926, 9892331257
What to see & do
Take one of the tours organised by Arts Reverie:
> The auto rickshaw tour of Ahmedabad or to the neighbouring village of Patan, where one family weaves silk Patola saris, costs Rs 500.
> The three-day Chalukyan Architecture Trail showcases the Hindu and Jain temples built by the Solanki Rajput rulers.
> The three-day tour of Champaner takes the visitor through the city built by Sultan Muhammad Bhegada in the 16th century.
> The five-day Kutch craft tour is a ramble through villages famed for their jewellery and embroidered garments.