The Ahmedabad Heritage Walk takes you on a walking tour of the old walled city (from this wall only the nine Darwaaja, or gates, remain standing), teaching you about customs, construction techniques, architecture styles that mingle but don’t clash, taking you (respectfully) inside the private lives in the pols.
Some notes before we start
Be at the starting point a little before 8.00 am – they are very keen on punctuality. The tour fee is one hundred Indian rupees for foreigners (fifty rupees for Indian nationals), which is fair enough (even for Indian standards). Unfortunately (or so it seemed) they don’t set a maximum limit for the group (ours was about twenty people) which makes it hard to navigate through the narrow lanes (especially when you have to dodge passing bikes and at the same time carefully avoid cow droppings…).
This walking tour will take you around some temples (Hindu, Jain, and Muslim) therefore respect the dress code (no clothes above knee length for both women and men and women should cover their head and shoulders if requested, that in our case was not — for the women I suggest “go local” when it comes to dressing; it is common for women to wear a kurta over leggings, and I can state from my own experience that it is great and comfortable in this weather). Also respect the local’s faith and religion: when the tour takes place (from 8.00 to 10.30 in the morning) it is prayer time for most of the people — step aside to give them space to enter the temple, respect their silence, ask yourself if you really need a great shot over experiencing someone’s culture and beliefs. I always feel it is a time where people are vulnerable and I feel awkward interrupting their prayers just for the sake of admiring a temple’s architecture on my own time (whatever the religion); usually, I step aside and observe from a distance.
The Old City is Organised in Pols
A pol is a term derived from the Sanskrit word Pratoli which means gate or entry and it is also used to name these micro-neighborhoods in the old city of Ahmedabad. The housing clusters are formed by families that share the same caste, religion or profession.
The only street is narrow and leads to houses built closely together, always around a common open space, called chowk, or square. Sometimes these squares will have a bird feeder (chabutro in Gujarati) in the center, where birds nest and are fed by the residents (parrots and pigeons mostly, but occasionally an Indian palm squirrel will also try to make a run for the seeds). In fact, as you will see while walking around, these bird feeders are very common in this part of the city and are built in different heights.
Although private and secluded (usually the pol will be gated), secret passages were built between them to make escaping easier and faster if the time came — when the door to these secret passages is closed, no one can tell it apart from any back entry to someone’s house, therefore, no one dares to open it and intrude.
At Lambeshwar ni pol you find the bronze statue of the poet Dalpatram in the chowk outside what used to be his house — this square is called Kavi Dalpatram Chowk. Born in the nineteenth century, the poet and Sanskrit scholar became famous for promoting the Gujarati language.
In the pol of Doshivada, one common area with four architectural styles: British Colonial (with its exposed brick), Persian (with its carved wood brackets depicting grapes and vines), Mughal (mixing Islamic, Persian and Indian architecture and even some European details judging by the images of angels decorating the brackets) and Muratha (with its distinctive decoration of a man with a black mustache wearing a turban, just above the door). Apart from its beauty, these buildings are a testament to this city’s cultural diversity.
Doshivada ni pol shows us with great detail the uniqueness (and fragility) of the old wood buildings. Especially the carved brackets that hold up the structure of the story above and the carved wood decorations between the floors. Interestingly the old city was the only part of Ahmedabad that survived major damage from the 2001 great earthquake, due to an ingenious building structure — small blocks of wood are placed between the bricks preventing the buildings from vibrating and swaying too much.
The Street Markets
The Fernandes Bridge under Gandhi Road is a very familiar place for students — it is a market for used books where you can pay a much lower price for the textbook you need or even exchange it with the one you have and no longer need.
Street shopping is in its full power and glory in Manekchowk. It also testifies to the resourcefulness and adaptation skills of the Gujarati businessmen and women. This confined space transforms into three different markets throughout the day, reaching out to three different targets: religious miscellaneous articles (including food for the gods and grass to feed the cows in the Temples) in the morning, jewelry in the afternoon and street food in the evening, closing every day at two o’clock in the morning. Each vendor has its space and time, and no one steps on anybody’s feet. In the afternoon the running water to this area becomes a rarity, so in the morning vendors will collect water in buckets leaving them out for the next shift. The same happens with electricity when the night market workers use the power of the surrounding stores at Chandla Ol to keep their business running — probably the first place I have seen so far with power outlets hanging outside the buildings.
The Religious Legacy
Our tour started at 8.00 am sharp with a short slideshow telling us about the History of Ahmedabad and the architectural styles and perks we would see in our walk.
The setting place was near the nineteenth century Swaminarayan temple (Swaminarayan Mandir Kalupur), with its sculpted and colorful gateway entrance to a grandiose temple in the front and a beautiful three story high mansion to the left, that now serves as the housing to the monks. The detailed wood carving of its arches and brackets were a prelude to the buildings we were about to visit.
A walk through the wood gate (with its blue painted security watch on top) in the pol of Haja Patel, takes us through a narrow lane and up a few steep steps to the four hundred year old temple of Lord Ram (Kala Ramji Mandir), represented in a black marble statue in a sitting posture, inside a building that serves also as housing. The detailed and ancient wood carving of the arches and brackets of this house built around a courtyard are stunning.
Those who follow Jainism are very keen of the privacy of their home, their customs, and their temples, therefore pictures of Astapadji Mandir aren’t allowed — unlike the Hindu temples that are usually set in a central platform open from all the sides, the Jain temples are set inside a closed space. As in any other temple, visitors are requested to remove their shoes before entering. In addition, because they believe in and profess spiritual development through self-control, any water or food must be left outside This temple is about one hundred years old and is another marvel of intricate stone carving, with different gods decorating the top of each column that sustains the dome, decorated with lotus flowers (which are a very common decorative element in Jain architecture).
The queen’s Muslim tomb (rani-no-haziro), where she and the royal women of the family of Ahmed Shah are buried, is very easy to miss, specially because you haven’t yet left the hustle and bustle of Manekchowk when you pass it and it is a monument that seems to be hiding in plain site. Outside the eastern gate of the Mosque, you will see the mausoleum of the founder of Ahmedabad (badshah-no-haziro), Ahmed Shah, and the men of the royal family, built in 1446. Jama Masjid built in 1424 is considered to be the largest Mosque to be built in India around that time. It is also the final stop of the Heritage Walk.
Swaminarayan Mandir Road, Kalupur,
Ahmedabad, Gujarat 380001
+91 79 2535 1019
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