Ahmedabad's Heritage is one of its kind. There were no surprises that this walled city was chosen to be India's first UNESCO World Heritage city in 2017. So then how could we not indulge in some history when here? We signed up for the famous Heritage Walk which begins in the Kalupur area of the old city. We were in for a treat, walking in those narrow alleys, through secret passageways, taking in the vibes of the old community homes, beautiful petite temples, and grand Havelis. Here is a detailed walkthrough of the places we saw in the 'Heritage Walk' in Ahmedabad.
This is the starting point of the Heritage walk. This ornate Swaminarayan Temple is special as it is the first temple of the Swaminarayan Sampraday (community). The architecture and grandeur of the temple are so enticing, we remember just standing near the entrance and gazing up towards the towering doors, they were magnificent! You will find intricate wooden teak woodwork and opulent colors all around the temple. The walk usually commences here after a short briefing session.
Kavi Dalpatram Chowk
Kavi Dalpatram was a famous Gujarati and Sanskrit Mahakavi (Great Poet) Even in that age and time, he preached about the importance of education and supported social reforms like support for widow remarriage and opposition to child marriage. He had a great sense of humor and often spread important messages through his work. This statue and memorial are built in his honor. We can see the background which depicts his home from the 18th century.
Bird feeding tower (Chabutro)
In Hindus, providing food & water to the needy is considered a holy thing, and hence these bird feeding towers or chabutro, as they call it in the local language, were built. They usually have a tree-like structure to invite birds and also keep other strays aloof. Every Pol (living community area) had at least one bird feeding tower. They were an (unofficial) icon of the old city of Ahmedabad. It is said that the children of the community collect grains from every household and then store it in the designated chamber. A person then goes up using the stairs, puts grains and water for the birds. Thanks to these, the old city has many birds, and they show their presence especially in the evenings or early mornings.
Pols - Living community area
The walk takes you through these wonderful Pols, living community areas, which were a gated community back in the day. There were Pols as per religions or professions. So there would be a Jain Pol, or a Hindu Pol, or a Pol for just merchants. For anyone hearing this for the first time, this may come across as discrimination, but for them, this was a system. There was a strong reason behind segregating Pols in this way, for eg. If everyone lived together, a Brahmin waking up at 4 am and ringing bells during his early morning prayers may disturb and wake up a merchant who came late from work and vice versa. So they lived harmoniously within these Pols and often had secret passages in between Pols to facilitate communication or meetings in case they needed help from a member from the other community.
Kala Ramji Mandir
Every Pol quintessentially would have a temple. If it was a Hindu Pol, it had a temple dedicated to a Hindu lord. This is one such temple inside a Pol dedicated to Lord Ram. But this one is quite unique. Lord Ram is always depicted as a warrior prince. Most temples show him in a standing posture with a bow & arrow. In this temple, however, he is sitting in a meditating posture made from rare black marble stone. Also, unlike most statues of the Lord where he is accompanied by Lord Hanuman, this one is without one. So the reason for this is that this depiction of Lord Ram is from the Panchavati era when he was in exile in central India. At that time, he hadn't met Lord Hanuman yet, which he later did in Kishkinda (south India). There are only two such temples in India, this one and another one in Panchavati, Nashik which is the main temple of 'KalaRam'.
Cultural Influences in homes
Before World War II took place, many Gujarati folks had made Burma (now Myanmar), their home. When Japan invaded Burma, most of these people returned home and brought with them this unique architectural technique of using the best quality teak wood between the wall panels, this was a nice shock-absorbing technique. They also built full doors from teak wood. We can see many other signs of cultural exchange in the houses here. Some houses have large doors & windows with stained glass panels, and little or no carvings. These were colonial British influenced. Then there were pillars and barricades with intricate carvings showing the Mughal influence. A Maratha influence was evident in homes with little carvings and the door frames depicting a person with an orange, Peshwai turban. Some homes had brackets with elephant trunks carved and sometimes a bunch of grapes depicting the Turkish influence. It is enriching and overwhelming to see these still preserved so wonderfully!
A marble wonder with delicate wood accents, this simple temple is a treat to the eyes. The temple is dedicated to the 24 Jain Tirthankars, known to be highly knowledgeable and attained salvation. The temple has made a provision for rainwater harvesting inside the temple, which is beneficial to the residents of the Pol. Photography isn't allowed inside and one has to really go in and see the beauty of this place. Leaving you with a small glimpse of the entrance and those beautiful wooden doors :)
Sometimes, in addition to the Chabutras (Bird feeding towers), people made holes in the exterior walls of their houses. These were made with the intention of providing birds with shelters as there were no trees around in the Pols. Parrots made use of these often and hence the name Parrot holes. But essentially any and all birds made use of these makeshift shelters which are hollow areas on the walls posing as artificial nests for them.
Pols, Havelis & Bazaars
Just as how Pols were a gated living community for commoners, Havelis were gated big homes belonging to the rich people of the society. Then there were Bazaars- dedicated commercial areas, where the merchants sold their products directly to the people residing in Pols & Havelis, thus cutting the middlemen and having a win-win situation for both the parties. Here's a look at some of the famous Pols, Havelis & Bazaars.
One look at the carved facade and you know that this place definitely belonged to someone quite rich! You know what? You can even stay here and experience this royalty as this wooden heritage house has now been converted into a hotel keeping its charm intact.
Harkunvar Shethani ni Haveli
This 180-year-old Haveli was one of the biggest Havelis in Ahmedabad at that time. With 60 rooms most of which opened to a long balcony supported by pillars and what was then the longest wooden bracket in Ahmedabad, this grand Haveli also showcased Indo-Chinese elements in its architecture. Our guide told us that the owners of this Haveli were super-rich and well known. He said that Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru's sister married in that family. We don't know how true the fact is!
Doshiwada ni Pol
Belonging to the Jeweler community this Pol mainly consisted of Havelis, small & medium jewelry shops. This Pol extends into the Bazaar area - Manek Chowk.
It is known to be the 2nd biggest jewelry market in India after the Mumbai market. However, there is a matchless feature of this market. This jewelry market has little or no security deployed. Surprised? Well, the reason for this is, by night, after 10 pm, Manek Chowk transforms into a buzzy food market which is operational until 2 am. Once the market closes for people, the shopkeepers clean their stations, close shops, etc. By this time, it's daylight and almost the time for opening the jewelry shops again. This ensures automatic security for the shops! We missed Manek Chowk by the night and would love to go back someday and experience it, as we're told it's one helluva foodie-ride.
It is the 1st bridge in the history of Ahmedabad, built in the year 1884. Located on Gandhi Rd., there is a market under this bridge called the Chopra Bazaar, which is a well-known book market. Every student in Ahmedabad has visited it at least once. But this market isn't limited to just students. People of all ages, genders, and professions visit this market as it accommodates all kinds of books. The booksellers here are quite well versed and knowledgeable to refer books as per your needs.
Badshah no Hajiro
Ahmed Shah's tomb, where the royal founder of Ahmedabad was buried, is housed inside this ornate architectural cenotaph, known as Badshah no Hajiro in the local language. Women are not permitted to enter the tomb. The men need to cover their heads and also should be wearing full-length pants. Photography is allowed but discipline needs to be maintained.
Jama [Jumma /Friday] Mosque
Every Indian city has a Jumma mosque for community prayer. This was one of the largest mosques of that era, built in the year 1424. The mosque features 15 domes, 260 pillars, and was originally built only for the Sultan Ahmed Shah and his family. Mosques usually feature plain walls, but in this mosque, we come across wall minarets with lots of carvings, lotus motifs, etc. We can see a beautiful amalgamation of Hindu and Muslim styles in the overall architecture. Many motifs are similar to those used in the Jain and Hindu temples of the time, hinting that the workers belonged to these communities. The walk ends here.
Mandir se Masjid tak (From a Temple to a Mosque)
In this way, the walk will take you from Swaminarayan Temple to the Jama Mosque and give you a sense of cultural harmony present in those times. This harmony isn't lost even today. When Gujarat was struck by the deadly earthquake in 2001, the Muslim neighbors cooked food and reached it to the temple authorities of Swaminarayan temple & trust so that they could distribute it to the earthquake victims. Such show of solidarity makes one yearn for similar harmony everywhere in the country and the world :) Gujarat may be overall famous for being a vegetarian state but here in the old city, non-vegetarian (authentic and yummy, we tried) food is readily available, and no one has any objection to it. They all respect each other's choices and showcase this beautiful communal harmony.
Even if the walk ends at Jama Masjid, you can't truly end the heritage walk without having a taste of the century-old Chandravilas restaurant. It is said to be an iconic place as it has served many great personalities, including Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel, and even Raj Kapoor and Amitabh Bachchan. Head here to gorge on the oh-so-delicious fafda-jalebi combo and dhokla or come back later at lunch-time for their world-famous dal and wholesome Gujarati thali. It's the best way to treat yourself after walking that much :)
Ahmed - abad
The story of Ahmedabad being chosen by Ahmed Shah is rather interesting. Sultan Ahmed Shah was on the lookout for suitable land to start his empire. When he set foot in the present day Ahmedabad, he saw a dog being chased by a rabbit. He was quite astonished by this, as it is usually the opposite case. He called for his knowledgeable advisor and asked him about this. That's when the advisor advised him to set his empire here, as even the week elsewhere were mighty and strong on this land. And that's how Sultan Ahmed Shah named the land Ahmedabad (abad meaning flourishing)
We don't know how true the story is, but Ahmedabad has been the 'Karmabhoomi' (workplace) for many great people right from Mahatma Gandhi to Vallabhai Patel. It has some of the finest schools and colleges giving bright minds to the country as an ongoing process for years!
Hope we gave you enough reasons to visit Ahmedabad? And enough reasons to take this enriching Heritage walk in Ahmedabad's old city? Do let us know your views on this little history lesson :)