Ahmedabad: By the banks of the Sabarmati

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Ahmedabad, or Amdavad to locals, will captivate you with its history, architectural gems, heritage walks and food, discover ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY

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Sometime in 1411 AD, while camping on the banks of the Sabarmati River, Ahmed Shah I saw a hare chasing a dog. Intrigued, he wondered if a typically timid hare could be so brave here, how brave would its people be! And so, he shifted his capital from remote Anhilwada Patan to a new riverside location. In a brilliant throwback to the legend, we saw the tenacious Amdavadi spirit on full display as a tiny goat took on a larger one, incidentally at the burial place of Sultan Ahmed Shah at Badshah ka Hazira near Jama Masjid. However, the city was named Ahmedabad not in honour of one man named Ahmed, but four!

When permission to found a new city was sought from revered Sufi saint Paigambar Al Khizr Khwaja, he set forth a strange condition. Only four individuals with the name Ahmed who lived by the rules of Islamic faith and never missed a single namaaz in life could hold the ropes to lower the foundation stone and ensure the prosperity of the city. The four eminent Ahmeds who fit the requirement included Sultan Ahmed Shah himself, worthy grandson of the first Sultan of Gujarat, Sheikh Ahmed Khattu Ganjbaksh, the saint of Sarkhej, Malik Ahmed whose tomb is in Pathanwada in Kalupur and Kaji Ahmed whose tomb lies in Patan. Thus, Ahmedabad came into existence.

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The Sabarmati river is emblematic of the city and has always played a key role in its story. In the 11th century the area around present-day Ahmedabad was called Ashaval or Ashavalli after local ruler Asha Bhil. When Solanki ruler Raja Karnadev of Anhilwara-Patan defeated him and established a city on the banks of the Sabarmati, it was called Karnavati. Being on the crossroads of trade routes from north to south or Saurashtra and Lat Pradesh, it attracted Jain traders and Brahmins who built several Jain and Hindu temples and monuments.

When Rajput rule came to an end in the early 14th century, Zafar Khan Muzaffar, suba (governor) of the Sultans of Delhi asserted his independence and began ruling Gujarat with Patan as his headquarters. The first three Sultans of Gujarat ruled from there but the expansion of their kingdom prompted them to move the capital from distant Patan to a more central location Karnavati, now Ahmedabad or ‘Amdavad’ as it’s called locally.

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The first structure to be constructed was Bhadra Fort. Built as the principal entrance of the palace complex, it was named after the ancient Rajput citadel of the same name at Anhilwada Patan, dedicated to goddess Bhadrakali. The fort’s massive towers and walls that withstood numerous conflicts finally surrendered to the onslaught of development. Similarly crowded by shops, pedestrians and vehicular traffic is the famous Tran Darwaza (Three Gates), the actual entrance to the walled city. Few know that the Gateway of India was inspired by this structure! Karanj, once a huge area called Maidan-i-Shah was where the sultan and his noblemen watched polo. It also served as a resting place for horses and elephants and a venue for Friday bazaars.

As the city evolved into a textile hub and grew beyond its confines, in the late 1970s, the capital was shifted 30 km further along the Sabarmati to the newly built, well planned city of Gandhinagar. Yet Ahmedabad still continues to be the commercial capital of the state and enthralls visitors with its shaking minarets, fascinating monuments, varied architecture, ancient stepwells and a plethora of museums.

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Heritage

From Hindu vavs (stepwells) at Adalaj, Jain temples and Islamic architecture to colonial influences, Ahmedabad’s heritage is a blend of all these and more. Recognizing its worth, in July 2017, the historic Old City of Ahmedabad was declared as India’s first UNESCO World Heritage City.

Old City
The highlight of the Old City is its numerous pols (derived from Sanskrit pratoli), self-contained neighbourhoods connected by narrow streets and squares with community wells and chabutaras or bird feeder pedestals. These pols were protected by gates, secret passages and cul-de-sacs, known only to its inhabitants. Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation with guidance from CRUTA Foundation runs a Heritage Walk every morning at 8am.

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After a brief slideshow, the walk starts from the world’s first Swaminarayan Mandir built in 1822 at Kalupur and founded by Shri Sahajanand Swami. The temple complex has three sanctums and is surrounded by wooden havelis to house monks. Led by a local guide, the tour takes visitors past various pols, mandirs and monuments.

At Kavi Dalpatram Chowk, we saw a bronze sculpture dedicated to Gujarat’s poet laureate – Kavishvar Dalpatram Dahyabhai (1820-98). He came to Ahmedabad at the age of 24 to study Sanskrit at the Swaminarayan temple and lived in the old mansion behind his statue.

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Lambeshwar ni Pol had intricately carved bird feeders and buildings with wooden pillars, beams and brackets. The Calico Dome built in 1962 along Relief Road was actually the roof of the calico mill shop designed by Gautam Sarabhai and was inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s concept of a geodesic dome. India’s first fashion show was arranged beneath this dome!

Khara kua ni Pol named after a salt water well had buildings bearing colonial influences – from Art Deco motifs to scenes like a European lady reading a book. Shri Kala Ram ji Mandir has a seated idol of Lord Rama carved out of black kasauti (touchstone). Kuawalo Khancho, named after a community well, had a mix of architectural styles – Gujarati, Maratha, Persian and colonial.

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We stopped to marvel at the unique parrot holes – small niches in the exterior walls of houses sometimes with matkas (earthen pots) embedded in the walls. Harkuvar Sethani ni Haveli, once the largest building in the old city, was the colossal mansion of Sheth Hutheesinh’s wife who fulfilled her pious husband’s dream of constructing a large Jain temple. It was fascinating to discover that 600 years ago the Manek river, a tributary of the Sabarmati, flowed on the very road we walked on! A little ahead, below Fernandes Bridge built in 1884 by the British, was Ahmedabad’s biggest book market Chopda Bazaar.

The 2hr heritage walk ended near Muhurat Pol, the first residential area established in the city, opposite the Old Stock Exchange. The House of MG, a Baroque-themed 1924 home converted into a heritage hotel, organizes an unusual heritage walk by night through hidden bylanes to Mangaldas ni Haveli, Kshetrapal Mandir, Lakha Patel ni Pole besides royal tombs of the queen and kings – Rani no Haziro and Badshah no Haziro.

Getting there: Start from the Swaminarayan Temple in Kalupur and end at Jama Masjid

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Jain monuments

The impressive Hutheesing Jain temple dedicated to the 15th Jain tirthankar Dharmanatha is a massive temple complex, initiated by wealthy trader Sheth Hutheesing Kesarisinh and completed by his wife after his death. Built at a cost of Rs.10 lakhs in 1848, the temple was constructed during a severe famine in Gujarat and created employment for hundreds of skilled artisans and supported their families for two years! Its colonnaded corridor with beautiful arches and manastambha (column of honour) are stunning.

Hidden in the bylanes of the old city are some spectacular derasar (Jain shrines). The temple in Shantinath ni pol, named after the 16th Jain tirthankara, was built in 1923 and has a lovely 19 inch idol. Lambeshwar ni Pol is named after a Shvetambar Jain temple while Doshivada ni Pol, inhabited by the goldsmith community, has a Jain library and marble temple of Ashtapadji. Shantidas Zaveri, a Jain merchant built the beautiful Chintamani Derasar in 1626. When Aurangzeb was suba (governor) during Shah Jahan’s reign, he desecrated the temple, but Shantidas secretly hid the images. His heirs installed the image of Lord Adishwar in 1943, the second image was installed in the cellar of Jagvallabh in Nisha Pol and the third one was installed in the temple of Suraj Mahal. Several other Jain temples are centered in Zaveriwad like Sametshikhar temple, Mahavir Swami’s temple and Shri Manibhadraji’s temple. You can spot the only derasar on a terrace while driving by the Sabarmati in Usmanpura depicting the future tirthankar Shri Simandhar Swami.

Getting there: Hutheesing Temple is located on Shahibaug Road at Bardolpura in Madhupura while most of the other Jain temples are within the walled Old City – Sametshikhar temple in Mandvi-ni-Pol, Mahavir Swami’s temple near Fatasha pol and Shri Manibhadraji’s temple near Rupam Cinema

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Islamic monuments

Sarkhej Roza is a beautiful Indo-Saracenic architectural complex fusing Persian elements with Hindu and Jain styles. Sufi saint Sheikh Ahmed Khattu Ganj Baksh, spiritual guide and mentor of Sultan Ahmed Shah chose to settle in the quiet environment of Sarkhej away from the city in his later years. After his death in 1445, Sultan Mohammed Shah commissioned a mausoleum in his honour, along with a mosque. Towards the end of the 15th century, Sultan Mahmud Begada excavated a central tank and added several pavilions, gardens, a small private mosque. Eventually it housed the tombs of his wife and himself.

However, Ahmedabad’s mosques are a treat for any architecture lover. Jama Masjid, one of the India’s largest mosques was built in 1423 at the intersection of four roads with an open court measuring 87,096 sq ft. Two tall minarets around its main arch were destroyed during an earthquake while two remain. Its three gates open to Manek Chowk, Pankor Naka and Kagdi Pol.

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Ahmed Shah’s Mosque was built by the Sultan in 1414 as a private prayer house for the royals. The central hall has exquisite perforated stone windows and corbelled ceilings with a muluk khana (screen hanging gallery) used by the Sultan. The zenana enclosure at the northwest corner has 25 richly carved pillars. Though smaller than the Jama Masjid, it is older and represents the earliest architectural style in its class.

Only two lofty minars remain of the Sidi Bashir Mosque built and named after the famous architect during the reign of Sultan Mahmud Shah I Begada (1458-1511). Destroyed by the 1755 earthquake, only its jhulta (shaking) minars still stand due to the unique plinth construction. Bai Harir Sultani mosque is a stepwell complex and maqbara built by Harir, the chief officer of the Sultan Mahmud Begada’s zenana.

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Rani Sipri’s Mosque built in 1514 by one of the Hindu queens of Nasir-ud-din Mahmud Shah I, is hailed as Masjid-e-Nagina (Jewel of a mosque) for its intricacy despite its diminutive size. Of particular beauty are the perforated stone screens, two slender ornamental minarets and six-domed roof. The Sidi Saeed Mosque built in 1572-73 by an Abyssinian who came to Ahmedabad from Yemen, during the reign of Sultan Muzaffar Shah III, the last ruler of Gujarat took our breath away with its carved jali. The stone lattice with intertwined trees, foliage, depicting the tree of life forms the famous logo for IIM Ahmedabad.

Getting there: Sarkhej is 8km south of the city centre. Jama Masjid is outside Bhadra Fort, along the south side of the road extending from Teen Darwaza to Manek Chowk

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Sabarmati Riverfront

Located in a quiet shaded nook on the river bank, the Sabarmati Ashram was founded in 1917 on the lines of Tolstoy Farm and Phoneix Ashram that Mahatma Gandhi had set up in South Africa. Hridaya Kunj served as the residential quarters of Gandhiji and Kasturba from 1918 till 1930. This was the hriday (heart) of the ashram that inspired all his national activities. Vinoba/Mira Kutir is a small hut where Vinoba Bhave stayed between 1918-21 and Madeleine Slade (Mira) between 1925-33. On display are quotes from eminent leaders and strangely addressed letters – ‘Gandhiji, Delhi’ ‘Mahatma Gandhi, jahan ho wahan’ and ‘Mahatma Gandhi, Mahabaleshwar, About 70 miles from Bombay’.

Gandhiji launched the Dandi March on 12 March 1930 from here, vowing not to return till India was set free. Thousands gathered on the historic Ellis Bridge across the Sabarmati to hear Mahatma Gandhi’s call for the salt satyagraha. Linking the western and eastern parts of the city, the 125-year-old steel bridge with its emblematic arches was the first of its kind in Ahmedabad. After floods destroyed the original Lakkadiyo Pul (wooden bridge) constructed by British engineers in 1875, a new bridge was made in 1892. Engineer Himmatlal Dhirajram Bhachech used imported Birmingham steel at a cost of Rs.4,07,000 to build it and named it after Sir Barrow Helbert Ellis, commissioner of the North Zone.

Since the estimated budget was Rs.5 lakh rupees, the Government suspected Himmatlal of using substandard materials. But an inquiry committee found that it was indeed a fine construction and Himmatlal was honoured with the title of Rao Sahib. When the bridge became too cramped with heavy motorized traffic, new concrete bridges were constructed on either side. In 1997, Ellis Bridge was converted into a pedestrian walkway to preserve it as a heritage landmark of the city. The once squalid river, which had become a seasonal stream, was revived by diverting the rivers of the Narmada and beautified into a scenic riverfront.

Getting there: 7km from the city centre
https://gandhiashramsabarmati.org

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Museums galore

From Doc’s Locks (Dr. Hiren Shah’s Old Locks Collection) to Surendra Patel’s Utensil Museum run by Vechaar (Vishala Environmental Centre of Heritage of Art, Architecture and Research) with thousands of utensils, including a 1000-year-old vessel, Ahmedabad has a wealth of rare museums. The Calico Museum’s nine halls showcase India’s textile traditions including the patolas of Patan and bandhnis of Gujarat (visits by prior booking only). City Museum tells the story of ‘Karnavati: Atit-ni-Zankhi’ at Sanskar Kendra, designed by French architect Le Corbusier. The cellar holds a unique collection of kites gifted by Bhanu Shah to Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, making it the first museum of its kind in India.

AutoWorld Museum, developed by Pranlal Bhogilal family, is the largest automobile collection in India with antique vehicles. Shreyas Museum and Adivasi Museum throw light on the tribal and folk traditions of the state. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel National Memorial Museum was established at Shahibaug (Motishahi) Palace where he stayed. While Gandhi Memorial Museum at Sabarmati Ashram is dedicated to the Father of the Nation, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai Space Museum is dedicated to the father of India’s space program.

Getting there: The Calico Museum is on Airport Road opposite the under bridge at Shahibag, Tribal Museum is at Gujarat Vidyapith while the City Museum and Kite Museum are at Sanskar Kendra near Sardar Patel Bridge behind NID in Paldi

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Food

The most popular street snack in Ahmedabad is dal vada, avidly consumed by locals who pop in for a quick bite at outlets like Shree Ambika Dal Vada Centre. Sold by weight ranging from Rs.20 (67 grams) to Rs.290 (967 grams), it is served hot with green chillis and salt. For something more substantial, try a Gujarati thali, which was first served commercially by Chandvilas Hotel in 1900. At fixed meal restaurants like Sasuji (Ph 079-26405065-66 http://www.sasuji.in) that open for lunch and dinner, enjoy a spread of dal, kadhi, chapati, puri, papad, rice, chatni, athana, kachumber and buttermilk for just Rs.270.

At the top end is Agashiye, the rooftop fine dine restaurant at The House of MG that offers two variants – a regular thali for Rs.935 and a deluxe thali for Rs.1265. Interestingly, starters like soup, methi gota, makai handva and patra are served at the alfresco waiting lounge. If you don’t mind a little drive, try the rustic charms of Vishalla, a big draw with locals and visitors. There are enough distractions like the Antique Utensils museum and live entertainment to keep you busy until your name is called out (with an appending ‘Bhai)’ and you are led to a low chowki. After a ceremonial hand-wash, a large traditional spread is laid out on sal leaf plates to be savoured in the yellow glow of lanterns.

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In town, Manek Chowk is a busy hub of gold and diamond trade by day but after the shops down their shutters, it transforms into an open-air food court with diverse snack stalls open late into the night. Little wonder one of the largest and most popular stalls is dedicated to churans and digestives! It’s also a great showcase Ahmedabad’s vibrant nightlife and locals swear by the city’s impeccable standard for women’s safety.

Due to the large Jain and Hindu population, vegetarian fare rules the roost. The first all-veg Pizza Hut in the world opened in Ahmedabad! However, not everything is vegetarian in Ahmedabad. For a non-veg fix, head straight to Bhatiyar Gali for mutton samosas, charcoal-grilled kebabs, tawa fry, salli boti and Surti 12 Handi.

Getting there: Agashiye is located at The House of MG boutique hotel near Siddi Sayyid jali, Vishalla is opposite the Toll Naka on Vasna Road in Juhapura

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Shopping

Manek Chowk, named after Hindu saint Baba Maneknath is an open market square near the city centre that serves as a vegetable market in the morning, a jewellery market through the day and a food market by night. In the old city, the cobbler shops of Madhupura sell mojris or traditional footwear while artisans of Rangeela pol make tie-dye bandhini. Rani no Haziro in the walled city near Manek Chowk and Sindhi Market are good spots to pick up bandhini and block printed fabrics. In the Gulbai Tekra area idols of Ganesha and other religious icons are made.

Come evening, shoppers congregate at Law Garden for a good bargain with some food on the go. It’s a good place to pick up Kutchi embroidery, mirror work fabrics, bedspreads, cushion covers, clothes and handicrafts. Being Mahatma Gandhi’s city, there are several khadi emporia. Sabarmati Ashram has a museum shop where you can buy khadi clothes, books, postcards, charkhas and other Gandhi memorabilia. Gujarati snacks like ganthia, muthia, dhokla, khandvi, patra, fafda, khakhra, sev, khaman and kachori, besides local sweets are also popular.

Getting there: Law Garden is accessible via Netaji Road near Ellis Bridge while Manek Chowk and Rani no Haziro are in the Old City

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FACT FILE

Chandrashekhar Solanki
Heritage Walk Co-ordinator
Ph 9327021686 Email cdsolanki3009@gmail.com
School students Rs.30, Indian visitors Rs.50, International guests Rs.100

Night Walk at The House of MG
Bhadra Road, Opp. Sidi Saiyad Jali, Lal Darwaja
Ph 7925506946 https://houseofmg.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article was featured in the March 2018 issue of Discover India magazine.

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