Written by Humera Ahmed
(A Highly Commended entry in the Heritage Writing Competition.)
I am at the House of MG, a boutique heritage hotel in Ahmedabad, India’s first UNESCO World Heritage City. It was here that the Indian Prime Minister hosted his Japanese counterpart last year. The hotel, a 2oth Century mansion, is spread over two havelis (traditional large townhouses) and was built by Seth Mangaldas Girdhardas, a textile magnate. It combines an old world charm with state of the art facilities.
Directly opposite it, is the iconic 16th Century Sidi Sayed Mosque, with exquisitely pierced stone lattice work known as jali in Urdu, depicting the ‘tree of life’. The mosque like many monuments built during the Gujarat Sultanate period, is an incredible fusion of Hindu, Jain and Islamic architecture.
Located on the banks of the river Sabarmati in Gujarat state, Ahmedabad was founded in 1411 by the Gujarat Sultan Ahmed Shah I. Over the years it became one of the richest cities of the medieval world with its wonderful textiles – cotton, velvet, brocades and silks – in great demand. During the British rule it became a vibrant cotton manufacturing hub and was known as the Manchester of the East.
The wealth earned from trade and business is reflected in the numerous havelis, palaces, step wells, temples and mosque that dot the city. The Sabarmati Ashram, some distance away, was the focal centre of India’s freedom struggle under Mahatma Gandhi
The best way to explore the old walled city is to take the Heritage Walk organized by the Heritage Foundation of Ahmedabad. I did just that. The walk begins at crack of dawn, 7am. It starts from the finely sculpted century old temple to the splendid 15th century mosque, near which are the Royal tombs. You can hear birds chirp, temple bells chime; you can join in the prayers (puja) and observe the people going about their daily chores in the Pols.
The Pol is the most unique feature of this city. It is basically a gated community, comprising of a number of houses of a certain profession, community or caste. The main features of a Pol are a labyrinthine network of streets and lanes, a gateway which leads into an open community space with a well or underground water reservoir and a cluster of houses with common walls and finely carved wooden doors and windows. Most Pols have a bird feeder which is intricately designed, and a shrine or temple.
Spread over 5.4 square kilometers, the old city 400,000 inhabits in 600 Pols. Most Pols are hundreds of years old and came up simultaneously with the city. The houses vary in sizes: some are common dwelling houses and some large havelis. Of the 12000 havelis, 3000 have been listed as heritage structures. A few have been converted into heritage hotels where you can experience life lived hundreds of years back. If you are lucky you can accept the hospitality of one of the residents of the havelis.
Festivals are celebrated with fervour in the Pols and during Uttarayan, a festival marking the end of winter, many of the residents open their houses/havelis to visitors. I visited the house of a well-to-do trader; it is more than a century old, and has three generations living in it. The interiors take you back to a different era with ethnic Gujarati style carved furniture, mirror work upholstery, stain glass windows, ornate doors, intricately carved pillars, and beautifully patterned mosaic flooring.
At the entrance is a raised platform (ootla) which is a meeting place for the menfolk. Inside there is a small courtyard around which runs a verandah (parasal), separating it from the rooms. The family spend most of their time in the courtyard and the parasal – children play, women carry out domestic chores and entertain neighbours. At one corner of the courtyard was a large wooden carved swing. Near the entrance two alcoves for placing earthen pots filled with water, so that a drink can be offered to visitors. It also had a small room for worshipping the family deity.
For lunch I went to the Diwanji-ni Haveli, more the 200 years old, now a luxury hotel. Besides the courtyard and parasal, it also has an underground water reservoir, a treasury and a secret exit. The intricate eves, the stained glass work and the wooden carvings were breath-taking. The food was delicious, authentic Gujarati, and the service excellent.
Ahmedabad’s walled city is a living heritage: visiting it I felt I had re-lived the times.
POSTED 22nd MAY 2019 by STEVE HANSON on behalf of HUMERA AHMED. Photographs were supplied by the author after the competition had been judged.