A Peek into Ahmedabad’s Unique History & The Coveted UNESCO Award 2017

The walled city of Ahmedabad received the coveted tag of becoming a UNESCO World Heritage City and became the first in India to receive this prestigious title in 2017. The honour of commemorating one of India’s oldest cities bring the city at par with other global, historical cities. This 600-year old city is a melting pot of history, rich culture of the bygone era and traditional heritage that is still found today.

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India, a strange and wonderful land,
Teeming with people and temples so grand,
Exotic spices so tasty to eat,
A delicate blend of sour and sweet…

As the eloquent words of this poet’s verses echoes in our minds, one immediately transcends into the surreal beauty that is India. One such feather on India’s cap is the beautiful, historical city of Ahmedabad, the capital of the state of Gujarat.

Th e history of this famed wall city is an interesting one. Going back into time, it is said that the foundation of this city was laid close to the Ellis Bridge, which was the fi rst bridge
across the River Sabarmati. A long time ago, there used to be a step well situated there called the Manek Kuva. Surrounding the Kuva (meaning well), was an imposing bastion called the Manek Burj.

It was around the Manek Burj that on a cold, wintery February afternoon in 1411, Ahmed Shah, the First, laid the foundation for the historic, walled city of Ahmedabad. Manek Burj was named after an ascetic Saint Maneknath, who is said to have initially opposed Ahmed Shah, but later on, helped him in the construction of the Bhadra Fort, and the city itself.

It is under his guidance that the chief architect Ahmed Khattu laid out the city, and in his memory the first quarter of the new city was called Manek Chowk. Saint Maneknath is said to have taken Samadhi, on a river island on the Sabarmati River. Till date, the saint’s direct descendants off er prayers at the Manek Burj every year on city’s foundation day, and on the occasion of Vijayadashami. Every city bears silent witness to the progress of its citizens, the
ebb and fl ow of life, and the passage of time, which lends the city its unique character, and Ahmedabad is no different.

Today, it is a city with character; a city which has seen history been written, and history
been created. Th e city’s unique architecture and town planning is an interesting mix early Islamic and Hindu and Jain architectural styles. Th e extensive use of timber in construction is notable.

Interestingly subsequent architects adhered to the original town planning style adopted by the early Islamic planners. The original city had a near square citadel, with three gates opening out to an open maidan. The main Jama Masjid was beyond the maidan at the center of the city. The residential areas were clustered around these main blocks, with common walls and narrow streets which allowed people to see and recognize each other’s faces.

These facets of building were also extended to and by the Hindu and Jain dwellers of the city as well.

The settlements were planned such that the daily place for worship was within walking distances of the residents. Landscaping and gardens formed a major aspect of the city’s layout. The initial city is said to have twelve gardens in and around the historic city including some important gardens around water structures.

The city’s architectural tradition also continued during the Mughal period and extended to Delhi and Agra by the Mughal emperors.

The presence of institutions belonging to many religions (Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Christianity, etc.) made Ahmedabad an exceptional and even unique example of multicultural religious co-existence. The city had been a part of the greater Maratha Empire and had been a key bone of contention between the Peshwas of Poona, and the Gaekwads of Baroda.

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The East India Company took over the city in 1818 and Ahmedabad was subsequently incorporated into the Bombay Presidency.Over time, Ahmedabad had become a traditional textile hub, earning for it the nickname of “Manchester of the East.” Ahmedabad played a key role in the Indian independence movement as well and played host to the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi at his Sabarmati Ashram, situated at the banks of the famed river. During the protests against the Rowlatt Act, textile workers in the city had burned down 51 government buildings in the city to protest a British attempt to extend wartime regulations after the First World War.

Taking in all these aspects into account, UNESCO recognized Ahmedabad as a World Heritage Site in July 2017, over several other Indian and International cities. The 600-year-old Ahmedabad thus joined the ranks of cities such as Paris (France), Vienna (Austria), Cairo (Egypt), Brussels (Belgium), Rome (Italy) and Edinburgh (Scotland), Bhaktapur (Nepal) and Galle (Sri Lanka) and other global, historical cities such as Arequipa (Peru), Oaxaca (Mexico), Asmara (Eritrea) and many more.to be bestowed this rare, prestigious honour.

The story surrounding the site chosen to build this city is also an interesting one. Ahmed Shah is said to have taken to the site while camping on the banks of the Sabarmati during one of his sojourns. It is said that he noticed a hare chasing a dog whilst on his camp. Intrigued, he is said to have asked a passing seer for an explanation.

The seer had mentioned upon the quality of the land, which endows a timid hare with the qualities to take on a ferocious dog. Impressed and convinced with the lay of the land, Ahmad Shah decided to build his new capital at that very spot.

A walled city of Ahmedabad still retains the essential community living structure which had formed the mainstay of the original city layout. One can still see hundreds of Pols here, which reflect this architectural style.

Ahmedabad is also a confluence of Hindu, Jain, and Indo Islamic art and architecture, a fact that influenced the UNESCO decision. Ruchira Kamboj, India’s Ambassador and permanent representative at UNESCO, felt that the city “epitomizes the UN’s objective of sustainable development as it accelerates in its development… chosen to be one of India’s first smart cities, while preserving its ancient heritage.”

From traditional houses and streets built in its unique Indo- Islamic architecture, with intricate traditional bird feeders or Chabutras that are found all over the old city. A good example of this is the ‘Karanj Chabutro’ which is believed to have been built in the 19th Century and is an example of exquisite wood craftsmanship by local artisans of that period.

Ahmedabad, which pipped Delhi, and Mumbai to earn the mantle of the country’s first heritage city, boasts of a 5.5 km walled city area with over four lakh people residing in old wooden residences in around 600 pols. Besides its unique architectural style, the fact that the city was the epicentre of the freedom struggle led by the Father of the Nation Mahatma Gnadhi, who called Ahmedabad his home, also swung the votes in Ahmedabad’s favour.

In the UNESCO’s citation, it was said that, “For over 600 years, Ahmedabad has stood for peace, as a landmark city where Mahatma Gandhi began India’s freedom struggle. It has stood for unity with its elegant carvings in its Hindu and Jain temples as well as standing as one of the finest examples of Indo-Islamic architecture and Hindu-Muslim art. And beyond this, it epitomizes the United Nation’s objective of sustainable development as it accelerates in its development. The presence of institutions belonging to many religions (Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Judaism) makes the historic urban structure of Ahmadabad an exceptional and unique example of multicultural coexistence.”

It is also important to note that Ahmad Shah and the Sultanate rulers also allowed a free confluence of architectural styles.

The city layout was planned in keeping with the settlement planning on the basis of human values and mutually accepted norms of community living and sharing. The sultanate rulers also used local art forms and styles and integrated the same into the building of the new city. Local craftsmen and masons were given full freedom to employ their indigenous craftsmanship. Therefore, the resultant architecture was a unique provincial Sultanate idiom unknown in other parts of the subcontinent.

Ahmedabad also scored over other cities on the settlement planning in a hierarchy of living environments, where the streets are also community spaces, which is representative of the local wisdom and sense of strong community bondage. The notings from UNESCO also stated, “The house is a self-sufficient unit with its own provisions for water, sanitation and climatic control (the court yard as the focus).

Its image and its conception with religious symbolism expressed through wood carving and canonical bearings is an ingenious example of habitat. This, when adopted by the community as an acceptable agreeable form, generated an entire settlement pattern with community needs expressed in its public spaces at the settlement level and composed the self-sufficient gated street “pol”. Thus, Ahmadabad’s settlement patterns of neighbouring close-packed pol provide an outstanding example of human habitation.

Today, taking forward its historical legacy, the city exhibits a character unlike no other. Known for its spirit in enterprise, Ahmedabad has emerged as a metropolitan city that houses many reputed academic institutions and progression in its economy, with tradition in its roots. Even though the city is known for its association and major events conducted during the movement, in association with Mahatma Gandhi, it is also defined through its addition to the complex architecture of the neighbourhood ‘pols’ and hosts the finest examples of the medieval Islamic Architecture.

The historical city of Ahmedabad is dotted with beautifully carved pol buildings (densely-packed traditional houses) within gated communities and traditional streets (puras) with public wells, many of them erected several years ago, historical walls and gates of the erstwhile Fort City, What stands out most in this historical city is the typical royal architecture of Bhadra Citadel built by Ahmad Shah, famous for its intrinsic carved royal palaces, mosques, gates and open spaces. The architectural style of Bhadra citadel is Indo-Saracenic style with arches and balconies and Islamic inscriptions on the arches of the fort.

To maintain its unique, historic charm, under the development project for Bhadra, AMC and ASI renovated the place between the fort and Teen Darwaza, earlier known as Maidan-Shah was also restored. A long stretch is laid down between Teen Darwaza and was declared as a pedestrian zone. Amenities like marble benches and stalls were constructed.

The city has flourished and remained the capital of the state for over six centuries up to the present time. Even though the city has seen various rulers of any religion, it still holds its authenticity in its culture and historical values. This city has demonstrated the power to co-exist in unity, with diversity and harmony. The city enfolds the unique quality throughout the year and makes it unique in its own sense. The land of old Ahmedabad is the third UNESCO world heritage site Gujarat, after Rani ki Vaav and Champaner-Pavagadh Archaeological Park.

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Understanding the structures of old Ahmedabad
Old Ahmedabad windows the old and the residential side of the city. This sector of the city is known as ‘Pol’ also known as the ancient, traditional houses. Each ‘pols’ were separately gated, where the community people would live in harmony and happiness. It is believed, that back in the days, the gates would only close at sunset and were guarded throughout the night. Bunch of traditional house or ‘Pol’ amalgamated to make a ‘Pur’ and number of ‘Pur’ makes a city, that had neighbourhoods and each unit is often self-sufficient for the residents that live in. These traditional houses in the community are typically built very close to each other and in a very distinctive style to represent harmony and unity. These traditional house ‘Pol’ and ‘Pur’ exists even today, but the living standard and lifestyle has changed certainly. The beauty lies I the houses of the ‘Pol’ which is made up of wood and intricate designs and carvings, front façade and interiors of the houses, as well.

As per the Archaeological Survey of India, the walled city has more than 20 protected monuments and other tourist attractions places like key museums that encompasses a rich architectural heritage and traditional legacy as a part of a local lifestyle.

In the late 20th century, the city was further expanded as the time and population demanded more infrastructure and development but amongst many things, twelve gates with carvings, calligraphy and few balconies of the ancient architecture which still exists.

Other Aspects of Historical Ahmedabad
About 8-km away from Ahmedabad, Sarkhej Roza is a sight which is not to be missed in the heritage and cultural walk of the city. Sarkhej Roza has a great stepped tank, mosques, palaces and pavilions. The buildings are considered as one of the remarkable architectures as a complete absence of arches and using the pierced stone throughout the construction. The infrastructure of Shah Alam, Sarkhejm Adalaj, Asarva reminds a common folk about the historical value of the city.

One can also explore the rich nightlife in the Night Walking tour, the Night walk usually starts at 10 at night, starting off from the Bird Feeder, Badshah no Hazario, The Old Stock Exchange. One can also explore the tasty delicacies at the end point at Manek Chowk which opens only at night.