When Ahmed Shah I laid the foundations of his capital way back on 26 February, 1411, little did he know his legacy would earn the status of a World Heritage City six hundred years on. Nineteen years old at the time, Ahmed Shah I was the third Sultan of the Gujarat Sultanate (1407 – 1573). In July 2017, his city Ahmedabad beat Delhi, Mumbai, and Varanasi in the bid to become India’s first, and as of now only, UNESCO designated city.
There was much hullaballoo following this announcement. Mainly because it raised Ahmedabad to the ranks of Cairo, Edinburgh, and Rome in the global arena. These were cities which UNESCO believes have cultural, historic or scientific significance and are important for humanity as a whole and, thus, warrant protection.
What did Ahmedabad have that the other three, more hyped about, Indian cities did not. It is a question many still ask. It is a question which gnawed at me too, triggering a stay plonk in the heart of the historical quarter last winter.
As I explored the city, the answers slowly revealed themselves. First shyly, hesitantly. And soon, once you start recognising the signs, more blatantly. The answers were not at variance from UNESCO’s own claim to what helped Ahmedabad clinch the selection.
The more obvious is Ahmedabad’s state of multicultural coexistence in the form of juxtaposed religious institutions of all faiths, coupled with the unique Gujarat Sultanate idiom which created Islamic buildings using local [Hindu and Jain] traditions and crafts. There are 26 Archaeological Survey of India protected monuments in the city alone!
The second, and more veiled rejoinder, is the city’s settlement pattern behind its closed doors and gates. Old Ahmedabad’s medieval timber houses are self-sufficient in functioning and religious inclination. At a community level, this gets translated to gated communities called “pols” with its own religious centres, wells, and bird feeding towers. On a larger scale, the some 600 pols collectively form self-contained “purs” or neighbourhoods.
One common thread weaves through all of Old Ahmedabad, holding it together in space and time: Peaceful human accord.
Here’s my 36 hours in the historic city of Ahmedabad—a kaleidoscope of densely packed lanes lined with history. A gentle reminder that wonders are brought forth when individuality and community stay together, in harmony, for centuries. ❤
[Note: Top image: Self-portrait inside the Jain temple, Ashtapad Derasar (1856).]
Day 1: Morning: Historic City of Ahmedabad Walking Tour
What seem as small dwellings from the outside, often open into huge self-contained mansions. These homes, combined with the medieval self-sufficient gated communities they are grouped into, are unique to Old Ahmedabad.
Left: Elephant-headed Ganesha in the Swaminarayan Temple (1822), the very first temple built by the sect. Followers believe Swaminarayan (1781 – 1830), its founder, was god himself. Right: An effigy of the 19th Century Gujarati poet Dalpatram in Dalpatram Chowk.
Sambhavnath nu Derasar is one of the oldest Jain temples in the city. The pietra dura floor and columns inside reflect Mughal aesthetics.
What better way could there be to be introduced to the historic city than a heritage walk, and that too one crafted with much thought and sensitivity to local life and traditions.
The Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation runs a two-and-a-half-hour morning walk aptly titled “Mandir to Masjid.” Translated, it means “temple to mosque.” And that is exactly what it did, taking me from the first temple of the Swaminarayan Hindu sect, a splendid, wood-carved, multi-coloured edifice built in 1822 to one of India’s most beautiful mosques, the Jama Masjid built by Ahmed Shah I for private use of the Sultans in 1424.
On the way it wandered through medieval timber mansions filled with scores of rooms and quaint pols named after the communities they housed, stopping at exquisite marble Jain temples and neon-coloured chabutaras [bird feeding towers].
Don’t miss the royal badge and empty shoe of the 19th Century Gujarati poet Dalpatram’s bronze statue in front of his home in Dalpatram Chowk, the mix of Gujarati vernacular, Persian, Maratha, and Colonial architectural styles inside Kuawalo Khancho, and the stunning woodwork filled with Chinese dragons on the façade of the colossal Harkuvar Shethani ni Haveli.
Day 1: Morning: Brunch at Chandravilas
Once the walk ended, I indulged in an authentic Gujarati brunch at the 120-year-old Chandravilas. Past customers include the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel, and Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan.
Day 1: Afternoon: Revisit the Historic City on your own
Local smiles at Ahmedabad’s founder, Sultan Ahmed Shah I’s tomb.
For this afternoon, may I suggest you revisit the sites and explore the narrow lanes you walked past in the morning’s walking tour. I did. Old Ahmedabad’s charm lies in its secrets. This time enter the alleys that disappeared into nowhere and end up in charming, sun-dappled courtyards hemmed in by havelis. Be enthralled by the delicate Mughal-era pietra dura floors of the ethereal Jain temples.
Explore Ahmed Shah I’s mausoleum, most likely built by himself before his death in 1442 and play hide and seek with the children huddled in its corridors. Every night at 11 pm, a 600-year-old drum beating tradition at its eastern gateway signals the closing of the city gates. A stone’s throw away, and on a raised platform deep inside the market is Rani-na-Hazira, the tomb of Ahmed Shah I’s queen surrounded by her children and other female members of her family.
On the fringes of the walled city is the Sidi Saeed Mosque built by an Ethiopian in 1572 with its famed jalis or stone screens—the most spectacular being the “tree of life” with its swirling, leaf-lined, abloom branches, topped with a palm motif. Finally, wrap your explorations with a visit to Bhadra Fort (1411), Teen Darwaja, and Maidan Shahi where royal processions and polo games once took place. Today the Maidan is a bustling marketplace.
The ethereal “Tree of Life” jali in the Sidi Saeed Mosque is the handiwork of a 16th Century Ethiopian soldier.
Left: Jama Masjid, the mosque for the private use of the Sultans, was built from demolished Hindu and Jain temples by Hindu and Jain artisans using Hindu and Jain traditions; Right: Majestic Bhadra Fort, Ahmed Shah I’s stronghold.
Day 1: Evening: Dinner at Manek Chowk
Come dinner-time you don’t need to go far. Ahmedabad’s most celebrated eating joint is in the old city itself, with an interesting story to boot, behind its existence.
It all started with a need to ensure round-the-clock protection of the historic city’s jewelry precinct. Manek Chowk was turned into a street food market once dusk fell, a tradition that has been in practice now for decades, come hail or rain, right through the night to be dismantled only in the wee hours of the morning when the food stalls are briefly replaced with a vegetable market before the jewelers stride back in.
8 pm and tables, chairs, hungry locals and tourists alike, cram the Chowk’s lanes under the open night sky, while food stalls churn out mouth-watering meals faster than the blink of the eye. If you ever wanted to taste ice-cream, chocolate or pineapple sandwiches, this is the place to be. I am “old school,” so settled for a toasted cheese, bathed in cheese. 😀
Day 2: Morning: Hutheesing Temple, Raj Bibi Mosque, Dada Hari Ni Vav, and Adalaj Vav
Ahmedabad’s historic city, luckily for you and me, is not constrained to the old walled precinct. Its realm also includes four monuments, amongst others, scattered outside the walls, colossal in scale and lovely in form—these consist of a Jain temple, a Muslim mosque and two community step-wells, as I discovered.
Left: Entrance porch of Hutheesing Temple; Right: The Kirti Stambh in the courtyard was inspired by the column of honour in Chittore.
Hutheesing Temple, one of over 300 Jain temples in Ahmedabad, is often claimed to be the most beautiful Jain temple ever built with delicate marble carvings covering every inch of it. Dedicated to the 15th Jain Tirthankara, it was built in 1848 by Harkuvar Shethani, an eminent and influential woman in Gujarat. She was fulfilling her husband, Hutheesing Sheth’s unfinished dream to construct a large derasar [Jain temple] in the city. Fifty-two shrines line its courtyard, each containing a likeness of Dharamanath.
The Raj Bibi Mosque with its “shaking” minarets.
Renowned for its “shaking minarets,” a medieval architectural ploy used to counteract earthquakes, the Raj Bibi Mosque was built by Makhdu-Ma-I-Jahan, mother of Sultan Qutb-ud-Din Ahmad Shah II in 1454. It is one of the largest mosques in Ahmedabad. Unfortunately, one of the minarets was dismantled by the British Raj to study its architecture and never put back.
190 feet long by 40 feet wide, the ornate Dada Hari Ni Vav was built as a “travellers’ rest-house” in the 15th Century; Right: Detail, Dada Hari Mosque.
Dhai Harir Sultani [a name later corrupted to Dada Hari] was the superintendent of Sultan Mahmud Begada’s [Ahmed Shah I’s great-grandson and founder of Champaner] royal harem. She founded Harirpur at this place and built the present mosque and step-well in 1499. Her body lies interred in the mausoleum in the complex. Built in sandstone in the Solanki style to the tune of Rs 300,000, the step-well is five floors deep, held together with intricately carved columns.
Started by a Hindu and completed by a Muslim, Adalaj Vav is a fascinating synthesis of aesthetics: flowers and geometric shapes combined with deities and secular life.
Farthest of the four is the Adalaj Vav. It is also amongst the finest of Gujarat’s step-wells. Built initially by Rana Veer Singh, the edifice was completed by Sultan Mahmud Begada in 1498 in the Indo-Islamic style. The five-storey deep octagonal step-well is decorated with a range of stone carvings, from the secular to the erotic to the spiritual. Often called the Rudabai step-well, Rudabai was Veer Singh’s widow who, according to legend, cajoled Begada into completing the structure. Once built, she performed sati.
Day 2: Afternoon: Lunch at Kankaria Lake
Though more suited for an evening visit when it is all lit up and pretty, Kankaria Lake was built by Sultan Qutb-ud-Din Ahmad Shah II in 1451. The colossal 34-sided polygon-shaped lake with a circumference of 1.25 kilometres is lined with street food stalls.
Day 2: Afternoon: Sarkhej Roza, Ahmedabad’s Sufi Connection
The Sarkhej Roza ensemble is dedicated to Ahmed Shah I’s advisor, the Sufi saint Ganj Baksh. Left: Tombs of Sultan Mahmud Begada and other royal family members lie inside.
Shaikh Ganj Baksh’s tomb is one of the largest of its kind in Gujarat—the walls comprise of stone jalis in a variety of designs.
A visit to Sarkhej Roza is usually synonymous with solitude, peace, and tranquility. Unless you go on a Friday or a Muslim holiday when it blooms into a cacophony of colour and Islamic festivities. Which is what happened in my case. I happened to be there on Eid-e-Milad, also known as Mawlid and Milad-Un Nabi, which is Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. It was not planned that way. But if you would like to entrench yourself in another culture’s ethos, replete with its religious fervour, do give it a try.
Either way, the complex, made up of a mosque, tomb and palace lining a large tank is a visual treat steeped in a bygone, mystical era. An example of the early Islamic architectural culture of the region, it fuses Islamic stylistic influences from Persia with indigenous Hindu and Jain elements to form the composite “Indo-Saracenic” architectural style.
The site is dedicated to Ahmed Shah I’s spiritual adviser, Shaikh Ahmad Khattu better known simply as Ganj Baksh. After travelling widely, the Sufi saint came to Gujarat in 1398 and settled at Sarkhej. He was one of the four “Ahmads” who laid the foundation of Ahmedabad in 1411.
Ganj Baksh lived to 111 years and was much venerated during his lifetime. Myths about his miraculous powers are prevalent to-date. Upon his death in 1445, Ahmed Shah I’s generous, pleasure-loving son, Sultan Muhammad Shah II ordered the construction of the mausoleum and mosque in the saint’s honour. Subsequent Sultans further added to the ensemble in the following years.
PS. You are welcome to say a prayer or make a wish at the saint’s tomb. It is perfectly in order. 🙂
“… No wonder, if in order to bend before his shrine,
The whole surface of the earth raises its head.”
~ Persian stanza carved over the main marble entrance of Shaikh Ganj Baksh’s mausoleum (15th Century)
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