A tangled mass of factories, mosques, temples and skyscrapers, Gujarat’s commercial hub, AHMEDABAD (or Amdavad), sprawls along the banks of the River Sabarmati, 90km from its mouth in the Bay of Cambay. The state’s largest city, with a population of around five million, is appallingly polluted, renowned for its dreadful congestion and repeated outbreaks of communal violence. However, the mix of medieval and modern makes it a compelling place to explore.
A wander through the bazaars and pols (residential areas) of the bustling old city is rewarding, but Ahmedabad is also packed with diverse architectural styles, with over fifty mosques and tombs, plus Hindu and Jain temples and grand step-wells (vavs). The Calico Museum of Textiles is one of the world’s finest, while Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram is an essential stop for anyone with an interest in the Mahatma.
Particularly in the old city, it’s advisable to cover your mouth and nose with a handkerchief to reduce inhalation of carbon monoxide. In 2002, a controversial canal project diverted water from the River Narmada into the Sabarmati, which previously had virtually dried up outside the monsoon. This has given the city a cooler feel, but Ahmedabad has a long way to go before it can breathe easily.
In mid-January the city plays host to the world’s largest kite festival.
The historic heart of Ahmedabad is the old city, an area of about three square kilometres on the east bank of the river, dissected by the main thoroughfares of Relief Road (also called Tilak Road) and Mahatma Gandhi (MG) Road, and reaching its northern limits at Delhi Gate. It’s best to start exploring in Lal Darwaja, taking in the squat buildings of the original citadel, Bhadra, the mosques and tombs of Ahmedabad’s Muslim rulers, as well as vibrant bazaars and pols – labyrinths of high wooden havelis and narrow cul-de-sacs that still house families all belonging to the same caste or trade.
When Ahmed Shah inherited the Sultanate of Gujarat in 1411, he moved his capital from Patan to Asawal, a small settlement on the east bank of the Sabarmati, modestly renaming it after himself. The city quickly grew as artisans and traders were invited to settle, and its splendid mosques, intended to assert Muslim supremacy, heralded the new Indo-Islamic style of architecture.
In 1572, Ahmedabad became part of the Mughal Empire and was regarded as India’s most handsome city. It profited from a flourishing textiles trade, but two devastating famines coupled with political instability led the city into decline. It wasn’t until 1817, when the newly-arrived British lowered taxes, that the merchants returned. Trade in opium grew and the introduction of modern machinery re-established Ahmedabad as a textile exporter. In the run-up to Independence, while Mahatma Gandhi was revitalizing small-scale textile production, the “Manchester of the East” became an important seat of political power and a hotbed for religious tension. In recent years, communal rioting – in particular a series of ugly clashes between Hindus and Muslims – has darkened Ahmedabad’s reputation.Read More
Sabarmati (Gandhi) Ashram
Sabarmati (Gandhi) Ashram
At the northern end of Ashram Road, the Sabarmati Ashram is where the Mahatma lived from 1917 until 1930, holding meetings with weavers and Harijans as he helped them find security and re-establish the manual textile industry in Ahmedabad. In keeping with the man’s uncluttered lifestyle, the collection of his personal property is modest but poignant – wooden shoes, white seamless clothes and a pair of round spectacles. The ashram itself is no longer operating, but many people come here simply to sit and meditate. Regular evening sound-and-light shows are also held.
Almost ninety percent of women who work in India are self-employed. Outside the protection of labour laws and the minimum wage, they are subject to exploitation, often at the hands of unscrupulous banks and private lenders. Ahmedabad, however, has maintained a tradition of self-help since the days of Gandhi, achieving global recognition as the base of the ground-breaking Self-Employed Women’s Association, SEWA. Founded in the early 1970s, SEWA provides legal advice, training, support and childcare, and runs its own co-operative bank.
Following a major slump in the textile industry in 1984, SEWA set up training centres in weaving, sewing, dyeing and printing, and provided efficient machinery. This helped to re-establish many women in the textile labour force, and provided an outlet for their products. In 1987, a SEWA protest against sati (widow burning) and a campaign to have verbal divorce and polygamy banned in Gujarat resulted in a change in the law. SEWA also strongly opposes the sex determination tests that lead to female foeticide, particularly widespread in Gujarat. With almost a million members nationwide, more than half of them in Gujarat, the organisation is now involved with projects throughout India and overseas.
It has two craft shops: one on the east side of Ellis Bridge, in the organization’s reception centre, another on CG Road at the Banascraft Chandan Complex.