The high & the mighty

Creative and colourful kites dot the sky at the International Kite Festival in Ahmedabad. Lakshmi Sharath suggests you visit this walled city which is also home to many majestic monuments...

International Kite Festival, Ahmedabad

It is a cold and a cloudless morning as I head to the 200-year-old Swaminarayan Temple in Ahmedabad in the wee hours of the day. The city is slowly stirring as the vendors prepare breakfast by the street corners while I stop for a cup of tea. The array of food baffles me. Soft and fluffy khaman and dhoklas along with crispy fafda and hot jalebi stalls vie for my attention as my taste buds are on fire. I am, however, getting late for an early morning heritage walk that starts at one of the oldest Swaminarayan temples in India.

Old, old town

The heart of Ahmedabad lies in the Old Town, which has earned the city its UNESCO World Heritage status. And this 6,600-year-old Walled City or Amdavad, as its called locally, is more than just a montage of monuments. This living heritage lies in the cluster of old neighbourhoods which are like small hamlets called “pols”. Each pol presents a tableau of architectural heritage, punctuated by chowks or squares, a Chabutro to feed birds and community wells and religious monuments.

These old gated colonies are filled with dusty secret passages with narrow lanes and bylanes as they tell stories of a bygone era and forgotten neighbourhoods. We stop at several monuments designed in the Indo Saracenic style of architecture, but it is the cultural mosaic that fascinates me. There are over 20 designated stops here including a few old eateries, but I am lost in the endless maze of mausoleums, havelis, mosques, temples, and markets.

The walk ends at Jama Masjid, built by Ahmad Shah, the founder of the city in the 15th century. Lost in the carvings and calligraphy, the mosque, built in yellow sandstone, stands as a fine specimen of the “Sultanate Architecture”. But it is the dome designed like a lotus flower and pillars adorned with bells that catch my attention. Ahmad Shah built the Bhadra Fort on the banks of Sabarmati river and established Ahmedabad as the capital of Gujarat Sultanate. It was during his reign that most of the Indo-Saracenic monuments were built.

Jama Masjid, Ahmedabad
Jama Masjid, Ahmedabad

There is a story about a seer, Saint Maneknath, often known for his magical powers, who helped Ahmad Shah build the Bhadra Fort. It is believed that the layout of the city walls was changed under his advice. The saint used to weave a mat during the day when the walls were initially constructed, but during the night he would undo his work that resulted in the walls magically crumbling down. Ahmad Shah was initially angry, but he later had a change of heart as the saint turned out to be his adviser. Manek Chowk, which turns from a vegetable market in the morning to a jewellery market in the afternoon, and later morphs into a food street in the evening, is named after the saint. Perhaps it is the magic that works wonders here as well. While Ahmad Shah lies buried in a mausoleum in Manek Chowk, the saint attained samadhi on the banks of Sabarmati.

The Acropolis of Ahmedabad

I potter around for a while, taking in the vibrant atmosphere of this town with merchants and traders bustling around. Ahmedabad is a treasure trove for heritage lovers — be it art, architecture or textiles. The city and its surroundings are filled with monuments, especially mosques and minarets. The Sidi Sayyed Mosque, built in the 16th century, Sarkhej Roza, often called the Acropolis of Ahmedabad, the Jhulta Minara or the Shaking Minarets, the Teen Darwaza, a beautiful pillared gateway, Adalaj or the ancient stepwell, are a few of them. There are museums galore as well, including the Calico Museum of Textiles, a tribute to the rich textile history of India, and for history buffs there is Sanskar Kendra, or you can hop on to the Auto World Vintage Car Museum.

I, however, head to Sabarmati Ashram, immortalised by Mahatma Gandhi. The silence is soothing after the hustle and bustle and the chaos of the Old Town. The sun is now streaming in while the river is basking at its own pace. One of the many residences of Gandhiji, he started his Dandi March from his home here. Hridajkunj as it is called, the living quarters of Gandhiji and his wife Kasturba, is thronged with tourists. A few of them are watching a lady do a demo as she spins khadi from the charkha with her nimble fingers. Another guide is explaining how Gandhiji used to write, read, pray, plant trees and spin khadi here, besides clean toilets himself, as a part of his daily routine.

A statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Sabarmati
A statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Sabarmati

“My life is my message,” says a life-size image of Gandhiji as I walk into a gallery filled with paintings and photographs from his life. There are several galleries here, each depicting a portion of his life besides manuscripts, letters, relics and a library filled with over 35,000 books.

Ironically, this part of the land was once located between a jail and a cemetery and Gandhiji was bemused by it, adding that the followers of the Satyagraha movement had to eventually head to both these places.

It is almost late afternoon, and I want to explore another facet of ancient history. Driving almost 30 km away, I head to the 15th-century stepwell, Adalaj, which is thronged with people. Dappled by the rays of the evening sun, the pillars and carvings of this five-storey well beckon me. I stand there mesmerised, as I look at this marvel. And yet there is an air of melancholy about it. According to legends, the stepwell was built by Rana Veer Singh to ensure that there was enough water for his people. But he was killed by a neighbouring king Mahmud Begada in battle before the stepwell was completed. The queen, Rani Rudadevi, was constantly harassed by the king and she apparently agreed to marry him under the condition that the stepwell was completed. However, when the magnificent piece of architecture was ready, the queen immediately jumped to her death. Standing there and looking down at the pool of water deep down in the earth, I realise that the tragedy only enhanced the beauty of the monument.

As the sun slowly set, it is time to head back to the city and savour the local cuisine before calling it a day. And it seems only apt that I end the trip on a delicious note as I binge on a delicious Gujarati thaali, soaking in the different flavours of the city.

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