I ask Nirav Panchal, my guide on Ahmedabad’s City Heritage Walking Tour. It’s just past 8 am and we’re walking through the winding back streets of the old district of Ahmedabad.
“These are very old homes and people are still living here. They live with a medieval mentality. They are very hygienic.” He tells me.
Worshiping at the Swaminarayan [Hindu] Temple in Ahmedabad India.
That is good news for me. I love old cities that are actually still lived in—ones with breathing communities.
The pols’ temples are spare in size but ornate in design, and each has its own secrets and treasures. At one Jain temple, Queen Elizabeth, playing a sitar, is ensconced above a lintel, while lions lounge on either side of her. Another, the Jagvallabh Mandir, has its sanctum sanctorum in the basement; the 700-year-old marble idols of Tirthankaras, adorned with pure diamonds and rubies, were brought from the holy site of Palitana in Saurashtra. In the temple’s backyard
, a 400-year-old tank is still filled with rainwater collected from the roof and conveyed by pipes to the underground cistern.
Ancient quarters that have been given over to tourism and commercialism are of lesser interest to me. Already I’m liking Ahmedabad, this largest city and industrial powerhouse of Gujarat.
But Nirav’s last sentence catches me completely off-guard.
Hygienic is the last word in the English language that I’d use to describe this place.
The busy colour patterns are complemented by the buzz of mundane activity. “Manjula behn!” a vegetable seller cries as she negotiates a crooked street, and the customer so addressed promptly appears in a first-floor window. Elsewhere, through an open door, an old man can be seen teaching the Gujarati alphabet to a
little girl in thin pigtails and thick kajal. At the book market near Fernandez
Bridge, vendors starting their workday slam ledgers onto tabletops.
We are literally stepping over trash and food waste and dog and cow (and probably human) feces and there is lot of mud and dirt.
“Not like cleanliness hygiene,” he explains, “But ‘religious hygiene’. They are very careful about taking care of their spiritual duties.
The rheumy-eyed priests watch impassively as raucous boys play marbles in the pillared courtyard of a temple in Ahmedabad. The ash-smeared old men don’t say a word about the adolescent antics; they barely seem to breathe as they recline on a bench. They could be 80 or 100 or as old as Kala Ramji Mandir itself — a 350-year-old structure painted with vegetable dyes in a fading shade of verdigris. Both priests and temple exude the
mellow ambience of a bygone era that pervades the pols in the city’s old quarter.
At this point we duck into a Jain Temple.
I’ve never heard the term ‘religious hygiene’ and I’m still examining the concept in my head.
“No photos inside the Jain Temple. They are more strict then the Hindus.” We started the tour at Swaminarayan [Hindu] Temple, where I snapped some good shots. I stow away my camera.
Jainism is one of the oldest religions in the world, breaking from Hinduism centuries ago.
It has over 4 million adherents and centers around a philosophy of non-violence toward all living beings.
For almost five centuries, the pols’ network of gateways (the word ‘pol’ derives from the Sanskrit word pratoli or gate), guards’ cabins, cul-de-sacs and secret passages kept its residents safe during riots, wars and periods of social unrest
. But a more recent threat is less easily overcome: carved wooden houses are now being converted into cinderblock buildings, and charming chabutaras into makeshift, pop-hued shrines.
Cows in the street of historic Ahmedabad, India.
Nirav had wanted to take me inside other Jain Temples but he explains to me that because it had just rained, we were not allowed inside.
“The first 2 or 3 rains are considered impure. They are dirty. The atmosphere is being cleaned.
The sacred and the profane — religion and commerce — commingle in the pols, as seen in the reverence of shopkeepers for their livelihood and in the ubiquitous juxtaposition of shops and shrines. The clamorous, cobbled road at Fernandez Bridge leads to the Jumma Masjid and the adjacent tombs of Sultan Ahmed Shah I, who founded Ahmedabad in 1411, and his descendants. It comes as no surprise to find that Rani no Haziro, the hallowed burial site of royal ladies, now contains the city’s hotspot for trendy teens — Fashion Street.
This morning was exactly the second rain of the season. It is mid-June and the rainy season is right on schedule.
I don’t know much about Jainism, but Nirav tells me they have 24 prophets instead of Gods and that they are strict vegetarians and abstain from eating anything that grows underground, especially onions and garlic.
Before we leave the temple, he points out a rainwater catchment system.
The same type is used all around the old city. For hundreds of years these have caught and held pure water.
The Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) in 2000 started to place name plaques at the entrance to the pols to raise awareness about this architectural tradition among residents and visitors. It also conducts daily heritage walks since
1997 to showcase the art and culture of these
“But not the first rains of the season.” Nirav reminds me again.
The basins are lined with lime which are resistant to bacteria, as are the copper pipes which stream the water from the roof.
We exit the temple down a flight of stars, through a wooden gate.
Following the narrow road past goats and cows, we enter into what appears to be a cul-de-sac.
Marvels of urban traditional architecture - now threatened by development - Ahmedabad’s 6,000 pols are self-contained neighbourhoods consisting of clusters of houses laid along narrow streets. Each has a name and a distinct identity (often related to the community and caste of
the residents), and its own public courtyard
, chabutara or bird feeder, and a public well. The oldest, Muharat Pol, was built in the 1500s.
“If you entered here, what would you do?” Nirav starts pointing at doors that lead to homes and street-side toilets. “You’re trapped. It’s a dead end.”
I can tell he likes this part of the tour. He’s getting a bit giddy. I’m not sure what’s going to happen next.
Then he opens one of the doors.
“It’s a secret passageway!” We walk through the narrow, dark covered alley between buildings and reappear about 15 meters away on the other side. There are others like this in Ahmedabad.
260 colums support the Jama Masjid (Friday Mosque) in Ahmedabad.
Our last stop is the Jama Masjid (Friday Mosque).
The huge, peaceful courtyard seems a world away from the bustling market street immediately outside the north entrance.
At Kavi Dalpatram Chowk, a sculpture of the Gujarati poet, after whom the public square is named, contemplates a tulsi plant across the street. A reproduction façade marks the spot where his house stood in the 19th century. Then, as now, animals and birds were
integral to the daily life of residents. A well-preserved 100-year-old chabutara, with a granary cleverly built into its base, attracts the descendants of the pigeons the poet perhaps fed. The exterior walls of some buildings contain high niches, rimmed with stucco moulding, in which parrots nest. In the porches of temples
, squirrels swing on tin feeding trays.
The mosque is one of the most beautiful in all of India—incorporating a mix of Hindu, Muslim, and Jain architectural influences. It resembles a temple as much as it does a mosque.
Nirav points out a stone carving of the tree of life and reminds me that it is not an Islamic symbol.
“They had to utilize whatever decorative techniques the craftsmen and artisans knew at the time.” He adds.
Just as we exit the mosque’s prayer hall, with is dark interior of 260 columns supporting 15 principal domes, it starts to rain.
I part with Nirav. As he leaves, children quickly file into the courtyard to take advantage of it poor drainage.
The houses in the pols are typically compact and low-ceilinged, but some are prodigal of rooms as well as open space. Almost a century old, JaiSinghbhai no Haveli requires renovation, and cobwebs strangle an old-fashioned water pump at its entrance. But the decrepit air accentuates the grandeur of its 40 rooms and the romance of aerial bridges between structural
wings. The 180-year-old Harkunvar Shethani ni Haveli contains 60 rooms, most of which open on to interminable pillared balconies, supported by the longest carved wooden bracket in Ahmedabad.
The stone slabs fill with puddles and one by one the kids run and slide across the wet surface laughing.
Children playing in the rain in the courtyard of Jama Masjid.
The Heritage Walk of Ahmedabad is conducted by the Municipal Corporation on a daily basis beginning each morning at 8am. The group gathers on the first floor of the office outside Swaminarayan Temple.
The pols seethe with colour. Bright greens, yellows and oranges cover every pillar, plinth and spire of the Swaminarayan temple in Kalupur, built in 1822. Contrast is a cherished principle of design — a mint-green house has yellow shutters, a white house has royal blue glass windows. The stalls of Manek Chowk display polychromatic heaps of mukhva or after-dinner mouth fresheners, and the otherwise bland Shri Samvegi Upasrai Mandir has violet pillars.
The tour, through the otherwise disorienting narrow streets, is an excellent way to get a feel for old Ahmedabad and its 600 pols, or micro-neighborhoods of dilapidated, carved wooden houses and streets with common courtyards, wells, and chabutaras (bird-feeding towers). The tour costs 50 rupees ($80).
A chabutara, or bird-feeding tower in old Ahmedabad, India.