Passage through history: Heritage walk in Ahmedabad
May 27, 2018
We happened to be in Ahmedabad to attend the convocation ceremony of my niece Jyotsna at the Indian Institute of Management. Since we had an extra day in Ahmedabad, we were wondering how to spend it, and my friend, Chetna Desai, told us to take the heritage walk in Old Ahmedabad. This was one decision we didn’t regret taking.
East of the Sabarmati river lies the walled city of Old Ahmedabad. In July 2017, the Old Historic City of Ahmedabad, was declared as India’s first UNESCO World Heritage City. And a walk through the old city gives you a completely different flavour of architecture and heritage from the modern city of Ahmedabad.
The 1.5 km walk began at the Swaminarayan Mandir at Kalupur with a small slideshow outlining what we were about to see. And then our enterprising volunteer and guide Urvashi, took us on this marvellous journey through time. The Swaminarayan Mandir is a 19th century temple belonging to the Swaminarayan sect. The central gateway shows a blend of local, regional and British styles of architecture and sculpture. Corinthian columns accompany garishly coloured figurines of men and women, especially musicians and dancers. Colourful carvings painted in bright colours and made of Burma teak wood embellish each arch and bracket- a distinctive style which is typical of the Swaminarayan sect. The main temple complex houses the deities of Nar Narayan, Radha- Krishna, Dharmadev, Bhakti Mata and Harikrishna . On the ground floor, an idol in the form of a child, Ghanshyam Maharaj, is installed in white marble. The temple is housed in the courtyard of a large fortified haveli. The ornate three-storey haveli has artistically carved wooden pillars. Elephant, lion, peacock and flower motifs decorate the colourful complex.
The central gateway to the Swaminarayan temple
The Swaminarayan Mandir in Kalupur
Colourful carvings on top of the columns
The Haveli has intricate wood carvings
An idol of Ganesha wearing a South Indian styled turban
From the Swaminarayan Mandir, we moved to Kavi Dalpatram Chowk and Lambeshwar ni Pol. Dalpatram Travadi was a Gujarati poet and social reformer in the 19th century. A child prodigy, he began composing verses at the age of 12. He was a progressive thinker who opposed child marriage and supported widow reforms. Since his original house “Tulsi Manch”, had been destroyed in 1985, a facade of his house was recreated to build a memorial in his honour. In 2001, a bronze statue was added and this site was added to the Heritage Walk.
A statue of Kavi Dalpatram
Kavi Dalpatram’s house
Chabutaras or bird feeders are an intrinsic part of the lanes in Old Ahmedabad. Each of these is uniquely designed and decorated. Some of the houses have even made holes or dugouts for birds to nest.
A richly carved green bird feeder seen in Lambeshwar ni Pol
Below you can see a plaque saying it was built in 1908
A common myna finds a place to rest
The highlight of this walk is the tour of the pols. Pol is a word which originates from the Sanskrit word ‘pratoli’. It literally means ‘gate’ or ‘point of entry’. A pol (pronounced as pole) is a cluster of houses where several families of a particular caste, profession, or religion live together. Essentially these are self-contained neighbourhoods which have a gate, several narrow lanes, cul-de-sacs and secret passages. Over 600 pols have been recorded in historic literature. Ahmedabad has had a history of religious and sectarian strife. The purpose of these narrow settlements was to ensure security of each community at times when animosity raised its ugly head. Pols usually had their own squares called chowks and community wells. Each pol has its distinctive architecture and motifs, depending upon its inhabitants and their traditions. Gujarat has had a history of successive invasions. So these tightly clustered groups of houses have tightly regulated points of entry and gates guarded by security men.
Haja Patel Ni Pol
Khara Kuva ni Pol: The narrow streets have several secret passages to escape in conditions of strife
The gate of each Pol has this room where security guards would watch over and control entry
Community well in the pol
At the corner of the Haja Patel ni Pol is the 400-year-old Kala Ramji Mandir. The idols of Ram and Sita are seen meditating, while Lakshman stands on the side in guard. This is perhaps from their time in exile. The unique aspect of this temple is that the idols are made out of a black stone called “kasauti” which is used for testing the purity of gold. Intricate wood carvings adorn the temple premises.
Kala Ramji Mandir
Dilapidated houses along the route show flashes of their past glory, even though their maintenance is dismal.
This tall pole like structure is a sewage pipe, and the direction of the arrow is a marker for the direction in which it has been laid
Labyrinthine streets connect the various pols, each with its distinct flavour. It is awe-inspiring just to walk past these houses and see the amount of pride the owners had to decorate it in their style. These havelis are embellished with artistic wooden facades, carved brackets, fenestrated windows, and symmetrically designed balconies. Each pol has its religious and regional identity. At Kuvawalo Khancho we saw an amalgamation of Maratha, Persian, colonial and Gujarati influences on the architecture. Like in Sambhavnath ni Khadki, a predominantly Jain neighbourhood, you will find their unique style. The Jain Derasar and temple is concealed and the idol is placed below, and can be accessed with difficulty, perhaps to protect it from invaders. Another beautiful Jain Derasar can be visited in Shantinath ni Pol. The Zaveri Vad, a jeweller community settlement, has a strong room for the security personnel. In Chaumukhji ni Pol, one can see beautiful sandstone carvings, some of which have been recreated in marble. A combination of Jain and Hindu influences can be seen in the architecture in Astapadji Mandir. The 180 year old Harkunwar Sethani ni Haveli holds exquisite examples of carved brackets and wooden motifs which are well maintained.
Shantinath ni Pol
Maratha style architecture
Sambhavnath ni Khadki with its Jain influences
Sandstone carvings in Chaumukhji ni Pol
Exquisitely carved bracket in Harkuwar Sethani ni Haveli
The walk takes you along Fernandez bridge where book sellers display their wares and the old building of the Stock Exchange. Opposite to the Old stock Exchange building is the Mahurat Pol. Mahurat meaning an auspicious time to start something new. This name has been given as it is the first pol being established in the city of Ahmedabad.
Towards the end of the walk, in Manek Chowk, we visited Badshah no Haziro. This is the tomb of Sultan Ahmed Shah I who founded the city of Ahmedabad. The elegant mausoleum which is designed in Islamic style has a central hall and four small chambers at the corners. A pillared portico projects from the middle of each side. It houses the graves of the Badshah, his son and his grandson. Beautiful fenestrated screens are carved on all sides. The walk also took us towards Rani no Haziro where the queens of Ahmed Shah are buried.
Badhshah no Haziro
Beautiful lattice work in the windows
This heritage tour is often called the Mandir se Masjid tak tour, Because it ends at the Jumma Masjid (Also called Jami Masjid or Jama Masjid). The mosque is situated outside Bhadra Fort area, along the south side of the road extending from Teen Darwaza to Manek Chowk. The construction of the Jumma Masjid was completed in 1423. While there is chaos caused by urban life outside the mosque, the moment you step into the gates into the massive courtyard, you experience a strange serenity. The courtyard is surrounded by an arcade of columns decorated with Arabic calligraphy. In the centre is a water tank for performing ablutions or wazoo. The mosque is built of yellow sandstone. The main prayer hall has 260 carved pillars and 15 domes. There are several elements of Indo-Saracenic architecture all over the mosque.
This is how footwear is to be kept outside the Jumma Masjid so that the soles don’t dirty the premises
The massive courtyard of Jumma Masjid
Yellow sandstone carvings at Jumma Masjid
The prayer hall
The tree of life motif
This is the best way to discover Ahmedabad on foot. The 2.5 hour heritage walk begins daily (except on Diwali) from the Swaminarayan Temple in Kalupur at 8.00 a.m. sharp. Be there 15 minutes ahead of time. There is a small fee per person. Just to be sure call their Coordinator on 93270 21686, or 079-5391811 for confirmations. The walk is conducted by volunteers for the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation in association with the Foundation for Conservation and Research of Urban Traditional Architecture (CRUTA) in a remarkable attempt to conserve and promote the city’s heritage. Remember to wear good walking shoes. Also, there are several religious sites where you will be expected to remove your shoes, so wear footwear which is easy to slip on and slip off. It is good that they conduct the walk early in the mornings, as Ahmedabad tends to get sweltering hot in the summers.