The historic city of Surat has over the centuries bounced back with renewed vigour every time after it faced a massive setback
By: Revati Rajwade
The city of Surat in Gujarat is flanked by the Arabian Sea on its west and is divided horizontally by the meandering Tapi river. Thus, geographically it is a city that lies in proximity to water and owing to this its evolution has been largely governed by these water bodies.
In olden times, it was a very important seaport and thus vital for trade. Since its origin, Surat has had numerous rulers from various dynasties and religions. Control over the city was of paramount importance owing to it being a base for trading operations.
Flags of over 80 countries were seen flying on their ships indicating the vast range of trading partners that Surat could boast of. It was only when the East India Company established its factory at Bombay that Surat’s decline as a port began.
However, history speaks proudly of this city that bounced back with renewed vigour every time it faced a massive setback. It is known as a city that was scorched and ravaged, a city that has seen its prosperities turn into adversaries, but which finally revived and renewed itself.
By the early 20th century, the city’s population had escalated to over a lakh, and Surat was a centre of trade and manufacturing although some of its former industries, such as shipbuilding, no longer existed. There were cotton mills, factories for pressing cotton, rice-cleaning mills and paper mills.
Fine cotton goods were woven on handlooms and there were manufacturers of silk brocade and gold embroidery (known as Jari). However, in 1994, a combination of heavy rains and blocked drains led to flooding in the city. Dead street animals and public waste were not removed in time and thus a plague epidemic spread through the city.
The situation was so severe that a number of countries imposed travel restrictions on people travelling from India. Post this dreadful epidemic, the municipal commissioner of that time, S. R. Rao, and the people of Surat worked in tandem to clean up the city. The result of these systematic efforts led to Surat being one of the cleanest cities of India.
It has been selected as one of the 100 Indian cities to be developed as a smart city under Prime Minister NarendraModi’s flagship Smart Cities Mission.
Over the years Surat has shown rapid progress and has been the epicentre of the inception of several businesses. One of these industries has grown to such an extent that it has now become the identity of the city.
Surat is now known for diamonds and diamond-studded gold jewellery manufacturing. It accounts for the world’s highest rough diamond cutting and polishing business and the maximum number of the nation’s diamond exports.
Alongside these achievements, the Urban Development Authority of Surat is taking measures to counter the menaces of rapid urbanisation. An Outer Ring Road and Middle Ring Road have been planned to decongest the traffic from the major highways passing through the city.
Like other Indian cities, the urbanscape of Surat is a fine blend of rustic heritage and towering modernity. The public monuments like the SardarVallabhai Patel Museum is an aesthetically built structure with a relevance to the city’s inherent building style.
The collection in the museum represents the rich history and eclectic ethnic mix of Surat. The eclectic mix is apparent even in the built form with structures like the Science Centre and Planetarium flaunting its glass facades. The amphitheatre of this institution doubles up as a multipurpose zone and enriches the public spaces quota of the city.
The Swaminarayan Temple is a reminder of the belief in Swaminarayan which is shared by most inhabitants of the city.
An extract from the study called ‘ At the Core’ beautifully elaborates and celebrates the architecture of Surat. The notes say that some of the streets are a portrayal of the links that the city has with the past.
It is truly mesmerising to delve right into the depths of the intriguing past through the detailed facades, elements which make them their motifs. Surat’s settlement pattern and morphology is an example of medieval urbanisation. A study has shown that the port city’s morphological evolution and urban development lay in money mechanisms, the mercantile population and trading communities settling in the city.
There are a host of notable architectural structures of various religions which creates a unique architectural vocabulary. The famous monuments include the Surat Fort constructed by Khudawand Khan, Mughal Sarai constructed during the period of Emperor Shah Jahan, the Fire Temple of the Parsi community, the cemeteries of the English and the Dutch, the NavSaiyed Mosque, SaiyedIdris Mosque, Mirza Sami Mausoleum, Chintamani Jain Temple, and a host of other religious and cultural buildings.
European architecture is represented by the Tower, the Andrews Library and the Sir J J Training College. In addition to these, there are a large number of lesser known but equally significant buildings in terms of heritage and architectural value.
Apart from their architectural style and facade, they also demonstrate the building and construction technology that was used in the 19th and early part of 20th century in Surat before the advent of the RCC (Reinforce Cement Concrete) age.
The layout and interiors of these buildings reveal glimpses of the lifestyle enjoyed by families belonging to different communities in Surat, and throw light on various aspects such as culture, beliefs, social norms, status and role of women, trading practices, etc.
The authors, ManvitaBaradi and MeghnaMalhotra say: “The relevance of our built heritage is fully revealed only when it is positioned within the context of the historic understanding of the cultural heritage of the region. The layers it comprises, the processes of change it has faced, accommodated and rejected, with the resultant manifestations are a testimony to the continuing relevance of the built heritage.
“Being the most visible aspect of the cultural heritage, its significance as a vital engine of appropriate growth, incorporating both continuity and change, cannot be undermined. Such settlements, irrespective of their sizes, age or complexities, are characterised by the coming together of a combination of natural elements of heritage, and rooted in them, the manmade elements of heritage.
“Together they give the settlement its heritage fabric, which is its unique identity. It is the heritage fabric which differentiates one settlement from another. Consequently, the identity of Surat is different from that of Rajkot, or of Jamnagar from that of Bhavnagar, and of Ahmedabad from that of Hyderabad.”