Ahmedabad – World Heritage City

Straddling the river Sabarmati, the city of Ahmedabad lies peacefully sliced into the old city on the east and the modern city to the west of the gently flowing waters.

A treasure trove of densely packed monuments, it is the worthy recipient of the UNESCO World Heritage City tag and delights its visitors with a rich tapestry of history and culture that it has woven over the ages, from the time of its inhabitation in the 11th century.

Going by the names of Ashaval and subsequently Karnavathi, it was eventually given its present identity 600 years ago by Sultan Ahmed Shah of the Muzzafarid dynasty in 1411 A D.

 

A brief glimpse of old Ahmedabad –

The rulers of the Muzzafarid dynasty (also known as the Gujarat Sultanate) built forts and walls around the city for its defense and hence it came to be known as the Walled city. The 10 km circumference of the wall was punctuated by several gates, each with a distinct name and identity. The walls were later removed but many of the gates still stand albeit in a poorer avatar of their original magnificence, many of them being used as street markets where even the inner walls have not been spared to display goods. The localities around them have taken their name as their identities.

The Bhadra fort still stands in front of the Teen darwaza gate and shares a wall with the Bhadrakali temple from which it is said to have got its name.

The walled city is now what is known as old Ahmedabad and is marked by forts, gates, mosques and pols (community residences) that form the salient points along the heritage route. History enthusiasts can revel in the  architecture of these structures and soak in the stories that they tell.

Today Ahmedabad is Gujarat’s largest city and is a bustling hub, with the ancient and the modern intermingling seamlessly, enabled by the many bridges that span the Sabarmati which provide easy access between both sides.

Things to do in Ahmedabad –

Being divided for the most part into distinct areas, one can focus separately on the ancient and the modern and plan their sightseeing schedule accordingly.

Bustling market places, hindu temples, jain derasars, mosques, town squares, forts, bridges, gateways, museums, stepwells, lakes and the very intriguing pols are what one would expect to visit on the eastern bank.

The Ahmedabad Junction railway station and the Sardar Vallabhai International airport are also located on this side.

The Western bank was connected to the city in 1875 via the Ellis bridge. Subsequently transportation across the river was further facilitated by the addition of around 9 more major bridges constructed across the 500 meter span.

This part of Ahmedabad is like any modern Indian city, albeit cleaner and better designed than most and is where one finds well planned residential areas, various educational institutions, several malls, offices and business centers.

The modernity is not totally devoid of the local though and one spots a touch of the traditional in some of the street markets and also a piece of history in the form of the Sabarmati Ashram.

Further south west also lies the Sarkej Roza tomb and mosque monument which is in the village of Makarba, 7 km from Ahmedabad and is a popular spot to visit.

The touristy options in Ahmedabad would include the Swaminarayan temple, Ahmedabad heritage walk (which covers many locations, details below), Day time and Night city tours, Manek chowk midnight food stalls, Bhadra fort, Bhadrakali temple, Teen darwaza, Calico textile museum, vintage car museum, Sidi Sayed mosque, Kankaria lake, Sabarmati ashram, Dada Harir ni vaav (step well), the Sabarmati waterfront promenade, Law garden shopping street, Sarkej Roza and so on.

The Jhulta minara (shaking minarets) monument was also recommended to me but I found that it has been closed to public. These are the minarets of an ancient mosque near the railway station area in Kalupur and shaking one of them is supposed to make the second one sway too.

My experiences –

I had almost 3 days to spare and I managed to cover quite a few of these places quite easily. I found that I had serendipitously booked myself a stay in a guest house in the old city and this worked out well for me because many of the places were within walking distance and February temperatures are quite conducive to outdoor exertions.

Swaminarayan temple at Kalupur –

This temple holds a position of special reverence, being the first temple of the Swaminarayan sampraday (sect). It was constructed in 1822 AD and its distinct architecture uses brightly colored Burma teak wood in its various columns, arches, brackets and carvings.

Entry is through a large gateway and apart from the main temple in the center of the courtyard, the surrounding buildings contain the offices and residences of the male and female yogis. There is also a guest house on the premises.

A short lane connects the main road (Relief road) to the entrance of the temple. The lane itself is a precursor to the impending journey back in time, with its ancient doors and walls.

It is also filled with the wafting aromas of snacks being prepared in the rows of little stalls, right from early morning to late night and is an indicator of how much the Gujaratis love their farsan (snacks).

My guest house was directly opposite this lane, a fact that I discovered only when I looked up at the board quite late in the day (pun intended) 😀

Hence I first visited the place when darkness was nearly setting in and being unable to click good pictures, I began chatting with a caretaker of the temple asking him what time I could come there in the morning. That is how I discovered that it was the starting point of the Ahmedabad Heritage Walk that takes place everyday and he instructed me to present myself at 7.30 am the next morning if I wished to participate in it.

Ahmedabad heritage walk – The points of interest in the old city are made easily accessible by the Ahmedabad Heritage Walk which is like a one stop shop (albeit with many stops :-D) that covers 20 heritage sites in one fell swoop and the experience is also enhanced by the knowledgeable company of the guide.

This activity was launched in 1997 and it is commendable that it has continued non stop till date. It is organized by the Amdavad Municipal Corporation in order to showcase the heritage and culture of the city and reveal parts that would otherwise remain hidden to the visitor.

The walk begins at the 19th century Swaminarayan Temple, Kalupur and displays 20 places of interest along the 2 km trail.

It begins sharp on time at 7.45 am with a 15 minute slide show at a chamber in the temple premises and takes a mere 3 hours to take you back a few centuries in time, finally culminating at the 15th century Jami masjid.

Called the mandir to masjid walk (temple to mosque), it aptly embodies the secular spirit of Ahmedabad which is also observed in the Indo Saracenic architecture of many of the monuments.

The fee is a mere Rs 60 for Indians and another Rs 120 for the optional Gujarati breakfast at a famous 100 year old restaurant.

We were a mixed group of Indians tourists and foreigners and some locals who had never done the walk before (imagine that :-D). I made friends with the lovely Lena from Dubai whose picture I had clicked unknowingly before the walk began. We were the only 2 who opted for the breakfast, so we spent a little more time together after the walk ended and the group dispersed.

Our guide was the young Shivam who was a final year student of engineering and he conducts this walk everyday before rushing off to college 😀

Shivam’s interest in heritage drew him to this hobby and his commentary was indicative of his knowledge and passion for his work. Of course we were admonished from time to time for lingering and loitering as we clicked pictures 😀 because the poor guy had to make it in time for class but nevertheless, our motley crowd thoroughly enjoyed his company.

We were herded under his able leadership through the bylanes of the Pols, stopping for a few moments of explanation at each of the designated points.

Our first stop from the temple was the Kavi Dalpatram chowk. Dalpatram was a famous Gujarati poet. The chowk or square houses his residence and is located in Lambeshwar ni Pol.

 

 

Pols are ancient residential community clusters where people linked by common factors like caste or religion lived together with the benefits of security and socio-cultural interaction. Originally designed for protection in times of communal unrest, these Pols were accessed via gateways that led to beautiful houses with a mix of architecture like Maratha, Mughal and even Indo Chinese at times. Intricately carved doorways, supporting brackets, pillared balconies and brightly colored walls were the hallmark of these structures.

Teak wood forms a large part of the construction. The ductility of the material is why these buildings actually survived the devastating earthquake of Jan 26th, 2001, while the modern buildings crumbled.

 

 

 

Large courtyards lay in front of the carved facades of the homes and the ubiquitous Chabutro was present in the midst of it all.

Chabutros are vertical, elevated lantern like erections which are bird feeders. The residents place the grains in the overhead chamber in order to provide food for the birds. At the base is another chamber that stores the grains and the stairs between the 2 chambers are cleverly designed so as to prevent predators like cats from climbing up and giving a whole new meaning to ‘Bird feeders’ 😀

The pols also had secret passageways and faux facades to confound the enemy and it was exciting for us to be led through one of them. Of course we were not confounded, since Shivam obviously knew his way and also we were not enemies 😀

Throughout the trail, we were transported hundreds of years back in time through the maze of alleyways and past a plethora of faded and decrepit doors that have an inexplicable charm of their own.

From the outside, I would never have imagined the existence of this hidden world and I felt like I had dropped in through a hatchway straight into a parallel universe or in this case, a Pol’allel universe !!!

 

We ambled through the network of gullies, making stops at tombs, temples, jain derasars, boutique hotels, havelis (mansions), domes and bridges. Some of the stops we made along the way are in the pictures below.

 

 

The last pol we saw was ironically the Muhurath pol (muhurath meaning beginning and hence the irony) and then we finally ended the walk at the magnificent Jami Masjid which again displayed the Indo saracenic architecture with jain and hindu symbols intertwining peacefully with the islamic.

Breakfast –

Breakfast is the optional part of the tour and Lena and I were escorted by Shivam to the nearby Chandravilas restaurant. He left us here after ordering our meal and then rushed off to college.

This a quite a piece of heritage in itself, being over a 100 years old and having had the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Amitabh Bachan and other celebrities dine here.

The decor in itself is most unassuming and from its appearance, one would not think twice of this place if one does not know its history.

A pre-set Gujarati breakfast thali (platter) was presented to us and we certainly had much difficulty finishing up the myriad treats tantalizing us from the plate.

After breakfast we spent some time exploring the streets that had come alive post 11 am. The locality is also known for shops selling authentic perfumes and we spent a while picking out a few gifts at one of the oldest and reputed establishments called Lala Parmanand and sons and were attended to by one of the ‘sons’ who was actually a grandson of the original owner.

Other tours –

The municipal corporation also conducts the Ahmedabad daytime city tour and the Ahmedabad Night heritage tour which are quite comprehensive and very moderately priced. Some of the spots are repeats of the morning heritage walk but it is still worth the time. Unfortunately I came to know of these when it was too late but it was some consolation that I had managed to cover some of these sights on my own. Going on the tour might have saved me time and eased the logistics though.

Manek chowk night market –

Manek chowk is named after Baba Maneknath, a holy man who is said to have been consulted for various approvals by the ruler Ahmad Shah 1, while constructing the nearby Bhadra fort. There is also a tiny memorial in the chowk (square) in his name.

Manek chowk today, has assumed various purposes and very interestingly dons 3 avatars through the day.

In the mornings this place serves as a vegetable market and during the rest of the day, it dazzles with its jewelry shops.

At night it turns into a mela of sorts and is thronged with people of all ages who come to eat from the several stalls that suddenly seem to sprout from thin air.

Known as the Khau gully (food street) this is where the midnight food market comes alive daily from nearly 10 pm to 2 am.

Chairs, tables, food displays, carts, stoves, utensils, menus etc make an appearance as if by magic and people tuck in magical amounts of food at that unearthly hour 😀

Apart from local snacks like Dabelis, steamed sweet potatoes and other Gujarati snacks, there also seems to be a great penchant for pizzas and sandwiches across the population.

Cheese is used most generously, with large blocks of Amul being grated with a flourish and snowing down freely to completely smother sandwiches and pizza bases.

Makeshift ovens do their job of grilling and at times blow torches are the tool which the cheese depends on to melt into a calorie laden yet appealing mass/mess 😀

‘Amul doodh peetha hai India” (India drinks Amul milk) is the jingle that the brand uses in its milk commercials. I thought that ‘Amul cheese khata hai Ahmedabad’ would be an apt option in this market 😀

The city is said to be extremely safe and low on crime, which is also why people venture out fearlessly at all hours. I had to conquer a 5 minute walk and a deserted street from my guest house to the chowk and not being of the overly brave (foolhardy) category, I was hesitant to proceed.

The caretaker of the guest house however, convinced me that it was totally safe even if I walked around at 2 am and at his assurance I set out at 11 pm to get a glimpse of the square. True to what he said, there was nothing to fear other than my shadow which did look rather spooky 😀 but then I summoned all my courage and made it to the venue.

A packaged cheese laden pizza that had emerged from under a hot oven, accompanied me on the way back and I consumed it in my room with many pangs of guilt. In fact I had to actually beg the incredulous man to stop the cheese shower.

Teen darwaza and Bhadra fort –

Teen Darwaza is one of the gates of the old city and is a structure with 3 arches (teen = 3, darwaza = door). This gateway stands opposite the Bhadra fort and its current purpose seems sadly to be a shelter for street stalls with its walls propping up various goods. The area around the gate and fort is extremely crowded and one has to squeeze through hordes of humanity to move around from place to place. However, there is relief in the fact that people are very decent and there is no reason to fear on any account.

The Bhadra fort is was build by Sultan Ahmed Shah -I and houses a palace. One can go to the top floor via a spiral stone stairway and obtain a view of the market below and the Teen darwaza a few meters away.

Timings are adhered to and one has to plan for at least an hour to go around the place at leisure. The gates shut at 5 pm. I went at near closing time and hence could not explore the place to my satisfaction.

Kankaria Lake –

This is the second largest lake in the city and is popular for its amusement park like activities that dot its circumference. Balloon rides, toy train rides and other rides appeal to visitors and there is also a zoo to entertain children.

I actually had no time to visit this lake but since I obtained a serendipitous shot of this from the sky, I will add this picture here 😀 That circular patch of blue is the lake, complete with the central garden called Nagina wadi which has a musical fountain and laser lights at night.

 

Sabarmati waterfront – there are promenades and walkways on either bank of the river. I was told that there was a garden on the east bank and a promenade on the west bank which was more interesting than the east due to the presence of an exhibition center, a few food stalls, bicycles on hire and also short speed boat rides.

I visited this place but really found nothing much to do there especially since the current exhibition was about furniture.

Law garden shopping –

Law garden is the shopping street of the city where a long row of stalls sell items like mirrorwork clothes, wall hangings, bedspreads, jewelry, footwear etc. Despite the ubiquitous nature of the products, there seems to be a never ending flow of customers buying these goods. For a tourist, these would make great gifts to take back. Bargaining is necessary but the vendors do have a final price marked in their heads and will not go below a certain point. However, they do take decisions quite fast and there is not too much time wasted in haggling. Across the road are the stalls selling regular clothing like t shirts, track pants etc.

Sabarmathi ashram

This ashram the lies on the west bank of the river Sabarmati, is famed for being the residence of Mahatma Gandhi. This is also the location from where the Dandi march of 1930 was launched.

Its premises contain a museum called the Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya, which holds memorabilia related to Mahatma Gandhi’s life and part in the freedom movement and also illustrates the various personal and historic events of his life via manuscripts, books, letters, photographs, life size pictures and the signature spinning wheel.

‘My life is my message’ – the handwriting jumps out at you, this little yet powerful and profound line quite summarizing up Gandhiji’s ethos and sincerity.

Hundreds of people visit the ashram everyday, some for sightseeing and some come to take part in bhajans or discourses or even to spin.

The aura and theme of non violence also seems to embolden the large squirrel population and they are seen bravely scurrying around very close to humans and providing some entertainment.

The rather large 36 acre space also has the Hriday kunj which was the actual residence of Gandhiji, a book shop, a shop selling khadi fabric and clothing, Prarthana bhoomi which is an open area where discourses are held, Magan nivas where various kinds of spinning wheels are exhibited, Mira kutir and Vinobha kutir which is a hut where Vinobha Bhave and Mira lived at different periods of time, the Udyog mandir where khadi technology was developed and Nandini the guest house. There are steps along side the river bank where people rest as they watch the gentle waters flow by.

There are 2 sets of washrooms on the premises. It is a pity that both sets of toilets did not display the best of hygiene.

During his stay at this ashram, Gandhiji was known to do his own work and even clean his own toilets. He would have not been pleased about this !!!

Apart from this everything is pleasant about the place and one can spend an hour or two going around and viewing the exhibits or merely soaking in the atmosphere of the place on the many benches provided there.

Sarkej Roza –

This is a tomb cum mosque cum palace complex which was initially built to house the mortal remains of Sufi saint Shaikh Ahmed Ganj Baksh who was a revered sufi saint and a very close advisor of Sultan Ahmed Shah 1. The word Roza stands for shrine or tomb.

Later on the sultan’s descendant Sultan Mahmud Begada built a huge stepped tank on one side, along with a palace for himself and then went on to build a mausoleum during his lifetime itself, where he and his family (son and wife) are also now buried.

Deeper inside the complex is a large mosque the Jami Masjid Sarkej, which was built by Muhammed Shah II. This architecture is different from most mosques due to the absence of minarets but the domes provide grandeur too. In the evenings, the setting sun provides a rim of light as a backdrop, with the domes silhouetted splendorously against it.

The monuments are famed for their stone trellis work and the interiors are embellished with the rays of the sun gently seeking their way through the lattices.

One has to cover the head before entering the place so carry a scarf or dupatta, failing which you will have to use the ones provided at the entrance. Footwear is also to be left in the cubicles provided at the entry.

Sarkej Roza is 7 km south of Ahmedabad in the village of Makarba and cabs are available to get there. I was accompanied by my friends from Ahmedabad, Sujata and Anand, who very kindly drove me there and accompanied me in my exploration of the place. We spent about 2 hours at the place. Photographs of ‘modeling’ as they put it, are not permitted hence we did not click any pictures of ourselves, though going by the ‘selfie-ers’ not many actually paid heed to the request.

My observations were that the place though beautiful, was in need of better care and upkeep. Also the 17 acre tank was totally dry and used in parts as a dump and in others as a cricket ground. Places of precious heritage like this, should be give due respect and maintained accordingly.

Even the surrounding locality is not in the most welcoming of states and is in need of a good sprucing up.

Things to do in the surroundings of Ahmedabad city –

More information on sightseeing in the surroundings of Ahmedabad city, will be available on my next post (coming soon).

Where to stay –

Ahmedabad is a major city and one has a range of options right from highly economical stays to the best of 5 star hotels.

Where to eat –

The city is a street food haven and there are food carts, small stalls and restaurants dotting the place. Fine dine options are several too and there are many places that serve traditional Gujarati thalis and a la carte options. One also has the option of various other international cuisines. As I mentioned earlier, pizzas and sandwiches for some reason seem to be very popular and are available in most places.

Apart from trying out the possibilities at Manek chowk and Chandravilas restaurant, I had a simple meal at Hotel Radhe in the vicinity of my guest house, on the caretaker’s suggestion.

My best meal in Ahmedabad however, was the one I was treated to at dinner by my friends Sujata and Anand. Madhavrao is a relatively new restaurant and serves Maharashtrian, Gujarati and Rajasthani cuisine.

The menu is sufficiently comprehensive and we picked the Kothimbir vadi, Goan Xitachi bhakri, Kanda bhajiya and Dahi batata puri.

The food was superlative and washing it all down with a glass of chilled, hygienic sugarcane juice was the highlight of my meal. Speaking of highlights, the palm jaggery ice cream and mohanthal with ice cream are indulgences not to be missed.

Ready to eat food also never seems to be in short supply in this city and there are many stalls and shops that sell snacks and even packed meals and ready to cook mixes for the convenience of those who are unable to cook full fledged meals for any reason.

Sujata took me to Phalguni, a store that can make a normal person go crazy and foodies go stark raving mad at the number of snack options that they stock.

 

Primarily selling Gujarati snacks, they have a few signature items from other states too and it is very easy to understand why this tiny basement shop is overflowing with hordes of customers at all times. Many NRIs also pack a large number of items to carry abroad.

Chikkis, pickles, sweets, theplas, rusks, juices, etc as well as seasonal items like Ponkh (green sorghum/jowar) are available here.

Where to shop –

Ahmedabad is a shoppers paradise for traditional wear, textiles and handicrafts and there are innumerable street market places as well as modern malls to indulge yourself.

Given below are a few of the places that I visited.

Ratan Pol street has a concentration of shops selling a wide variety of traditional wedding wear. The windows of the closely packed shops are constantly aglitter with shiny dresses and shoppers seem to be perennially agog with excitement as they throng this narrow street from morning to night.

The area around Teen darwaza and Bhadra fort is practically jam packed with vendors and shoppers and everything from peanuts to clothes to footwear to jewelry to utensils to many more items, are available here.

Law market is a veritable stash of all things in mirror work and crowds throng the place for their fix of wall hangings, bedspreads, chania cholis, skirts, footwear and even jewelry etc.

Across the road from the traditional stalls, are the shops selling more modern wear like T shirts, pants, track suits etc.

A few eateries are also in the vicinity where one can refuel after a hectic bout of shopping. The famous Swati restaurant is also walking distance from here.

Getting around –

App based cabs and autorickshaws are a convenient means of transport and the people are honest so chances of being taken for a ride (while taking you for a ride) are minimal.

Ahmedabad Municipal Transport Service (AMTS) is said to be an efficient service but I did not have the opportunity to experience it.

Best time to visit –

Ahmedabad is cold in the winter months of November to February. December and January are the high season and are considered the ideal time to visit, though temperatures go as low as 5 deg.

The rest of the year is hot and dry and peak summer temperatures of over 40 deg c, are not for the faint hearted and delicate bodied 😀

Getting there – 

Ahmedabad is an important city and hence very well connected.

The Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel International Airport is said to be the 8th busiest airport in India. It connects the city to several major Indian cities and also to international destinations in the middle east and far east.

One gets an initial feel of the city’s heritage through the airport decor with glimpses of the Teen Darwaza, Gir lions etc. A Gujarat tourism stall also greets arriving passengers who might want to obtain information on sight seeing etc.

The airport is a convenient 10 km from the city and there are several app based cabs for transport.

Ahmedabad also has its main railway station Ahmedabad Junction, at Kalupur. This is apart from the several other minor stations at various locations in the city. Ahmedabad Junction connects to many other locations in Gujarat and also to other important Indian cities. Trains are an economical and suitable mode of transport to this city.

Currently though, the station is under renovation with plans to architect it on a heritage based model. Hence the situation is rather difficult, with construction material strewn about, repairs being undertaken and an extreme lack of hygiene, all of which are hoped to be resolved once the remodelled station is operational.

Likewise, buses are also very convenient and many private and state run buses ply within Gujarat as well as interstate.

My journey –

I travelled from Bangalore and chose the fastest means of getting there, which was by flight of course … I have not mastered the art of teletransportation yet 😀

Many well known airlines operate several flights between Bangalore and Ahmedabad, through the day.

I flew on the 7 pm Spice Jet reaching Ahmedabad at 9.10 pm since I had to catch the midnight train to Bhuj to get to the Rann Utsav at The Tent City. The airport is barely 30 min away from the railway station.

Likewise, my return to Bangalore was also by flight.


For more pictures see My Facebook – Ahmedabad – World Heritage City  Also catch me on My FacebookMy Facebook pageMy Twitter and My Instagram

Please Note – The narrative is based on the inputs that I received from various sources as well as my own experiences.

Feb 9th – 12th, 2019

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