It will be a challenge to retain heritage city status

It will be a challenge to retain heritage city status
Ahmedabad, Amdaavad, Karnavati, Ashaval, Ashapalli, Shrinagar and Rajanagar. You may choose to call this city by any name it has assumed over centuries. The fact that it has now been bestowed upon with the tag of being India’s first city to make it to the Unesco’s World Heritage Cities is moment of pride for the citizens of this 606-year-old city.

 Though the earliest mention of settlement was recorded around 12th century under Chalukya dynasty, the present city was founded by Ahmed Shah I of Gujarat Sultanate on February 26, 1411 after he defeated Karna Bhil, a Koli chief of Ashaval. 

The most popular folklore of the city’s coming into existence remains that of sultan Ahmed Shah-I camping on the banks of Sabarmati river saw a hare chasing a dog. He was intrigued and sought explanation from his spiritual guru, who attributed it to unique characteristics of the land which nurtured such rare qualities of turning even a timid hare to be fearless enough to chase off a dog. Impressed, the sultan who was looking for a place to build his new capital didn’t go anywhere else.

Next came the Mughals, who added to the glorious architectural wonders of the city. In modern times Britishers brought in the railways and the enterprising businessmen of the city turned Ahmedabad in to a buzzing textile hub.

If British arrived here, so did Mahatma Gandhi, who brought Ahmedabad to the centrestage of India’s independence struggle. Mahatma felt that his Sabarmati Ashram would be the right place to carry on the search for Truth and develop ‘Fearlessness’. Fearlessness that even Ahmad Shah I saw on the banks of Sabarmati.

Over these six centuries, Ahmedabad has been gifted with rich heritage of over 2,600 heritage structures, including Hindu and Jain temples, stepwells, lakes and forts by the kings of Solanki dynasty as well as affluent traders  and mosques, dargahs, stepwells and lakes by Mughal emperors. If the city’s mosques and archeological monuments are reflections of the Indo-Islamic architecture, British colonial influence is visible in several educational, institutional and functional structures as 120-year-old Ellisbridge across Sabarmati. Add to this the exquisite simplicity of a Sabarmati Ashram by Mahatma.

“This is the uniqueness of Ahmedabad. It lies in its heterogeneity and the fact that its architectural story is unlikely. The city is an amalgamation of diverse trade-based communities, some all the way from Baluchistan, that settled here,” Dr Jigna Desai, associate professor and area chair for conservation, Faculty of Architecture, says. “Ahmedabad originated on the banks of a non-perennial river, in a dry/barren, resource scarce region but boasts of a historic core consisting of rich domestic architecture that uses structural wood from thousands of kilometers away. This richness, unlike most traditional feudal settlements, is not attributed to patronage of the rulers but to assimilation of all aspects of the act of building within its social system,” she adds.

It is this exquisiteness that helped Ahmedabad pip mega cities as Mumbai and Delhi to claim the coveted tag of being the World Heritage City. A fact highlighted by India’s permanent representative to Unesco, Ruchira Kamboj, while announcing the declaration of Ahmedabad’s selection to be amongst the 287 of the world heritage cities or 1073 heritage sites.

“It (Ahmedabad) epitomises the United Nation’s objective of sustainable development as it accelerates in its development,” she said on her social media handle.

 “During the last century, some of the most important international masters, artists and architects, have also made Ahmadabad as their most important base for their creations. This has continued the evolving nature of this historic city which has now become an important growing metropolis of the country and this is all the more reason to acquire its much needed World Heritage City Status,” Unesco said. What has put the city amongst the privileged club of heritage cities like Paris, Cairo or Edinburg is the living heritage of the 5.43 sq km of walled city, which today is home to over four lakh residents who reside in its densely populated 600-odd ‘pols’ or ‘puras’ (neighbourhoods) with clusters of centuries-old residences, bird feeders, public wells and temples. It is well protected by well-preserved 10-km long wall, which once consisted of no less than 12 gates, 139 towers, nine corners and over 6,000 battlements.

The conservationists and those in government began the process of getting the city recognition for its heritage since 1984,  when the first study for conserving heritage structures was instituted by Ford Foundation.

However, as Jigna Desai says, the credit for the status mainly goes to Prof Rabindra Vasavada who along with his team painstakingly and diligently worked over six years to put together the dossier for the walled city. “I do not think that for most of us, it was the status that made us work hard. It was the opportunity to further document and study the dynamics of such a city that made us give a lot of our time and energy to it. Once that was done, we believed that the status will help us conserve the architecture of the city and that was the prime concern,” she said.

Though those in government are making right noises for hailing the World Heritage City tag for Ahmedabad and promising to protect its core values, there are people like Abhay Mangaldas, who conserved a heritage structure and turned it around into a unique homestay, says this is just the beginning.

“It is an honour for Ahmedabad but with it comes responsibility of maintaining, innovating, restoring and keeping the heritage alive. This is no small challenge. The civic authorities will have to implement many of the plans and rules that it has on paper, which have sadly been blatantly flouted so far. All this is going to be difficult but I am optimistic,” Abhay says.

Jigna, on her part, says that World Heritage City is a brand and it has a huge danger of alienating the inhabitants if the future direction focuses only on the short-term economic gains through tourism. “However, it is also a huge opportunity for inclusive development and conservation. I remain optimistic that there will be enough investment in developing building codes, local area plans, sensitive infrastructure and other procedural modalities,” she adds.
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