Heritage Walk in Ahmedabad: Exploring the “Pols” in the Old City

The security watch over the entrance of the "pol" in Ahmedabad

This Heritage Walk Ahmedabad (organized by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation) takes you on a walking tour of the old walled city (from this wall only the nine Darwaaja, or gates, still stand), teaching you about customs, construction techniques, architecture styles that mingle but don’t clash, taking you (respectfully) inside the private lives in the pols, and showing you some of the most important historical places in Ahmedabad.

The purpose of this heritage walk is not to show you around all the top places to visit in Ahmedabad. The goal is to show you a part of Ahmedabad that UNESCO declared worthy of the World Heritage Site title in 2017, making it the first Heritage City in India.

Some notes about the heritage walk

Make sure you are at the starting point a little before 8.00 am – they are very keen on punctuality. The tour fee is 120 INR per person for foreigners (US $1.90) and 60 INR for Indian citizens – which is fair enough (even by Indian standards).

Unfortunately (or so it seemed), they don’t set a maximum limit for the group. Ours was about twenty people, which made 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).

The walking tour will take you around some temples (Hindu, Jain, and Muslim, including one of the most famous tourist places in Ahmedabad, the Jama Masjid) therefore respect the dress code. This means no clothes above knee length for both women and men, and women may be asked to cover their head and shoulders (in our case it was not requested) — for the women I suggest “go local” when it comes to dressing. It’s common for women to wear a kurta over leggings, and I can state from my own experience that it’s surprisingly comfortable in the heat.

Respect the local’s faith and religion because when the tour takes place (from 8 am to 10.30am) it’s time for prayer 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’s 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 pols in the old city

The old city is organized in pols, a term derived from the Sanskrit word pratoli, which means gate or entry. It’s also used to name these micro-neighborhoods in the old city of Ahmedabad – housing clusters formed by families that share the same caste, religion or profession.

Board with the community rules at the entrance of one of the "pols" in the old city of Ahmedabad
Board with the community rules at the entrance of one of the “pols”

Each pol has only one narrow street that leads to houses built closely together, always around a common open space, called chowk, or square. Some of these squares have a bird feeder in the middle (chabutro in Gujarati) 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). As you’ll see while walking around, these bird feeders are very common in this part of the city and are built in different heights (the higher the feeder, the harder it is for rodents to climb up and steal the seeds from birds).

Bright green chabutro (bird feeder) in the streets of the old city in Ahmedabad

Although private and secluded (usually the pol will be gated), there are still some old secret passages between pols, meant 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.

The door to one of the secret passages between "pols" during a Heritage Walk in Ahmedabad
The door to one of the secret passages between “pols”

Lambeshwar ni pol

At Lambeshwar ni pol you’ll see 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 19th century, the poet and Sanskrit scholar became famous for promoting the Gujarati language.

The bronze statue of Kalvi Dalpatram
The bronze statue of Kavi Dalpatram

Doshivada ni pol

In the pol of Doshivada, one common area with four architectural styles attest the cultural diversity of Ahmedabad – 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).

Mix of different architectural styles in the same street of the "pol"
Mix of different architectural styles in the same street of the “pol”

Doshivada ni pol shows us in great detail the uniqueness (and fragility) of the old wooden 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 significant damage from the 2001 great earthquake, due to an original building structure — small blocks of wood are placed between the bricks preventing the buildings from vibrating and swaying too much.

Visiting the old street markets

The Fernandes Bridge under Gandhi Road is a very familiar place for students — it’s 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 at its full power and glory in Manekchowk (a market opened from morning until 2 am). It’s also a vivid example of 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 – in the morning, miscellaneous religious articles (including food for the gods and grass to feed the cows in the Temples), jewelry in the afternoon, and street food in the evening. Each vendor has its space and time, and no one steps on anybody’s feet. In the afternoon there isn’t much (if any) running water to this area, 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.

Ahmedabad points of interest – the religious legacy

Swaminarayan Mandir Kalupur

Our tour started at 8.00 am sharp with a short slideshow telling us about the History of Ahmedabad and the architectural styles and curiosities we would see during our walk.

The setting place was near the 19th 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.

The monasteries at the Kalupur temple in Ahmedabad

Kala Ramji Mandir

A walk through the wood gate (with its blue painted security watch on top) in the pol of Haja Patel, took us through a narrow lane and up a few steep steps to the 400-year-old temple of Lord Ram (Kala Ramji Mandir), represented in a black marble statue in a sitting posture, inside a building surrounded by the community’s houses. The detailed and ancient wood carving of the arches and brackets of this building are stunning.

The security watch over the entrance of the "pol" in Ahmedabad
The security watch over the entrance of the “pol”

Astapadji Mandir

Those who follow Jainism are very keen on the privacy of their home, their customs, and their temples, therefore you aren’t allowed to take pictures of Astapadji Mandir — unlike the Hindu temples that are usually set in a central platform, open from all 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 100 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 common decorative element in Jain architecture).

The facade of a Jain Temple in the old city of Ahmedabad

Jama Masjid (Ahmedabad)

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 sight. 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 made in India around that time. It is also the final stop of the Heritage Walk.

Jama Masjid Ahmedabad - one of the most popular tourist places in Ahmedabad

Have you ever done this heritage walk in Ahmedabad? Leave your impressions about it on the comments below.


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