In the early morning light, it seemed as if the sun had cast a golden halo, owing largely to the lovely white and ochre hues of the building. An air of serenity hung all around the Kalupur Swaminarayan Temple in Ahmedabad, broken only by the occasional ringing of the temple bell. There were only a smattering of devotees; of them was a group of women dressed in bright red and immersed in prayer.
I was at the temple for another reason: the start of the Ahmedabad heritage walk organised by Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation and the Foundation for Conservation and Research of Urban Traditional Architecture (CRUTA).
The starting point
Located in the old part, the Swami Narayan temple is a microcosm of the city and state’s history, that combines many influences. Built in a mix of Indian, British and Mughal architectural styles, this near 200 year old temple, stood on land donated by the British. There were numerous beautiful and colourful engravings and sculptures on the façade, columns, walls, beams and ceiling, along with depictions of people and dancers dressed in traditional Rajasthani and Marathi style as well as birds, animals, leaf and plant motifs. There was even a political statement: an engraving portraying the first Indian war of Independence in 1857.
Just outside the temple walls, the road was lined with vegetable and fruit vendors and pushcarts offering sweet and refreshing masala tea, just the right brew to fortify oneself before the walk. A handful of others had also arrived for the walk, so, led by a volunteer, we skirted the temple and made our way through a warren of narrow streets with old buildings sitting cheek by jowl. As we traversed the congested lanes packed with old buildings, the guide informed that Ahmedabad was established on the ancient site of Ashaval and Karnavati, on the banks of the Sabarmati river in the beginning of the 15th century by rulers of the Delhi Sultanate. It was later ruled by the Mughals and the Marathas before becoming one of the major centres of the Independence movement. As a result, the city was home to some exquisite Hindu and Jain temples as well as Islamic monuments.
Soon we came upon one of old town Ahmedabad’s iconic features, the pol. These are a cluster of houses, a neighbourhood in short, with narrow streets and passages with a central courtyard for a temple, a community well and a chabutara or bird feeder. In effect, a world unto itself, self-contained and protected. Pronounced as pole, these go back to the early 18th century and were a defence mechanism; they even had secret passages and hiding places known only to the people of the pol. When they were established, a pol contained people of the same caste, religion or vocation but this has changed now, though the pols continue to exist.
As we crossed from one pol to another, it was fascinating to notice that each had their own distinct features. At Lambeshwar Ni Pol, named after a Jain temple, I was mesmerised by old wooden doors and carvings. In another, a bright green bird feeder, perched on a column, caught my attention and I was struck by the ingrained sensitivity towards other creatures. Hidden in nooks and corners, I also found little shrines and temples, almost like tabernacles, dedicated to various gods and goddesses. And at Kharakua Ni Pol, literally saltwater well, the motifs were distinctly British and European. In Kuawalo Khancho, there were houses in different architectural styles such as Gujarati vernacular, Maratha, colonial and even Persian, literally rubbing shoulders.
Hidden among the pols is Kala Ramji Mandir, a 400 year old temple that looks almost like a house. It is among the few haveli mandirs where one part of the temple is used as a residence. Inside, a small courtyard fronted the main temple and was adorned with elaborately carved pillars and parapets. But the unique part is the main deity – an idol of Lord Ram in the sitting posture carved in black marble and hence the name.
A few minutes away is Harkuvar Sethani ni Haveli, an exquisite house with elaborate wooden carvings on the brackets, pillars and doors. Nearby is Fernandes Bridge, built in the late 19th century by the British, under which the city’s large book market was just coming to life. Shops nearby displayed brightly coloured traditional garments.
The road under the bridge suddenly opened onto a larger road on which stood the old Ahmedabad stock exchange, a regal building with intricate detailed work on the windows and facade. Further down the road was Manek Chowk, the city’s largest market. At that early morning hour, traders were just opening their establishments. A few sundry carts selling terracotta lamps and flowers were doing brisk business. Elsewhere, bright silver jewellery beckoned, while strong aromas wafted from another shop selling spices, condiments and assorted eatables.
By now, traffic had gradually increased and roads were getting busier. Though it was just getting to 10 am, the sun was blazing down and it was already uncomfortably hot, but thankfully the walk was winding up.
The last stop was Jama Masjid, which is round the corner from Manek Chowk and we walked past buildings with beautiful jali work before entering the sprawling grounds of the mosque. Almost 600 years old and built of yellow sandstone, the mosque was stunning with multiple domes, arches and a multitude of pillars with carvings of motifs and patterns. A sense of tranquility hung in the air. In the courtyard, it was like time had stopped momentarily. In fact, the entire walk had transported me back by a few hundred years and had given me a glimpse of Ahmedabad’s soul.
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Written by Anita Rao-Kashi