India’s first UNESCO World Heritage City Ahmedabad has a lot to offer every lover of history and architecture, says Anil Mulchandani
The tale goes that when Sultan Ahmed Shah was hunting along River Sabarmati, he witnessed a hound being chased by a hare. This unusual sight inspired him so much that he decided to establish his capital in that region, thus laying the foundation of Ahmedabad in 1411 AD, with the blessings of his spiritual teacher, Shaikh Ahmad Khattu Ganj Bakhsh of Sarkhej. The same city, after several hundred years, has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage City – India’s first.
The walled city of Ahmedabad has several ancient forts and impressive monuments. As you enter the city through one of the medieval gateways, you are presented with several examples of its rich architectural heritage – domes, minarets and facades of Indo-Islamic style mosques, exquisitely carved wooden details of havelis, colourful Jain temples and impressive public buildings.
At the north-east corner of the famous Bhadra Fort, built by Ahmed Shah in 1411, is the 16thcentury Sidi Syed Mosque. It is best known for its superb stone latticework – for instance, in two yellow stone screens beautifully perforated in the shape of intertwining trees. The hub of activity in Ahmedabad is Manek Chowk, the historical square around which there are markets for textile, jewellery, bullion, fruits and vegetables, utensils and other paraphernalia.
At night, this public space gives way to a night market with countless food stalls. Around the same chowk are popular tourist landmarks such as the Jama Masjid and some grand colonialperiod buildings. The Jama Masjid, which Sultan Ahmed Shah built in 1423, is an architectural masterpiece. The main prayer hall is crowned by 15 domes that are supported by 260 pillars covered with intricate carvings.
The mosque has a large marble-paved courtyard and is surrounded by a columned arcade painted with Arabic calligraphy.
The interior is illuminated by natural light filtered through latticework screens. The architecture of the mosque is Indo-Saracenic. To the east of the Jama Masjid is Ahmed Shah’s elegant tomb – the Badshah no Hajiro. Further east lies the Rani no Hajiro, the mausoleum of his queen. The path leading to the queen’s tomb is now a bustling market. Close by is Rani Sipri’s mosque, considered among the most elegant of the city’s buildings from that period.
In the neighbourhood of the Asarwa village lies the Dada Harir Vav. Built around 500 years ago by Sultan Bai Harir, it is one of the many stunning stepwells in Gujarat. It is known for its elaborate carvings and is several storeys deep. The Adalaj stepwell, located in the Adalaj village, was built in 1499 by Queen Rudabai, wife of the Vaghela chief, Veersinh. This five-storey stepwell is the only one in Gujarat with three entrance stairs, all of which meet at the first storey, underground in a huge square platform, which has an octagonal opening on top. The vav is also a spectacular example of Indo- Islamic architecture.
A unique feature of the World Heritage City is the packed traditional houses called pols, in gated traditional streets (puras). Several pols combine to form close-knit communities, many of whom have their own temple at the center of the neighbourhood, one or more small shrines for whatever faiths are present. Many of the pol’s inhabitants are part of the cottage industry and are engaged in hand-sewing books, making traditional jewellery and other crafts.
Ahmedabad is also closely associated with the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, who established the Sabarmati Ashram in 1917, which later became the centre of his non-violent struggle for the independence of the country. You can get a glimpse of themodest life he lived and what he worked on at the Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya, a small museum documenting the life of the Mahatma in pictures and texts, along with a library of Gandhian literature, paintings and an extensive archive of letters written by the man himself.
In recent years, the heritage of Ahmedabad has been revitalised through a number of initiatives like the successful Heritage Walks of Ahmedabad, arranged by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation to familiarise tourists and locals with the art, culture and heritage of the city; an Indo-French project to restore old properties; the adaptation of mansions and havelis into heritage hotels; and the starting of the City Heritage Centre headquartered in Deewanji ni Haveli. The Ahmedabad University also runs a unique Masters programme in Heritage Management.
The author is a senior journalist and the views expressed in this article are his own