A tangled mass of factories, mosques, temples and skyscrapers, Gujarat’s commercial hub, AHMEDABAD (pronounced “Amdavad”), sprawls along the banks of the River Sabarmati, about 90km from its mouth in the Bay of Cambay. With a population of around seven million, it is the state’s largest city and has long faced appalling pollution, 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 old city is rewarding. Ahmedabad is packed with diverse architectural styles, with more than 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 must-see 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.
When Ahmed Shah inherited the Sultanate of Gujarat in 1411, he moved his capital from Patan to Asawal, on the east bank of the Sabarmati, renaming it after himself. It 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, on the back of a flourishing textiles trade, came to be regarded as India’s most handsome city. However, 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. A new wave of prosperity came from the burgeoning opium trade, while the introduction of modern machinery re-established the 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. While its reputation has been darkened by violent communal rioting, Ahmedabad remains today a booming hub for textiles as well as for IT, education, jewellery, chemicals and pharmaceuticals.