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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 an extended population of more than 7.2 million, it is the state’s largest city (and was the capital until it was moved to Gandhinagar in 1970) and India’s sixth largest – and a metropolis of appalling pollution, dreadful congestion and outbreaks of communal violence.
However, its mix of medieval and modern makes Ahmedabad a compelling place to explore – a wander through the bazaars of the old city is particularly rewarding. The city is packed with diverse architectural styles throughout, 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 a must-see for anyone with an interest in the Mahatma.
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, which has been plagued by high carbon monoxide levels in the past, has a long way to go before it can breathe easily.
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 and Mahatma Gandhi (MG) Road, and reaching its northern limits at Delhi Gate. It’s best to start exploring in the Lal Darwaja area, taking in the squat buildings of the original citadel, Bhadra, the mosques and tombs of Ahmedabad’s Muslim rulers, as well as vibrant bazars and pols – labyrinths of high wooden havelis and narrow cul-de-sacs.
The solid fortified citadel, Bhadra Fort, built of deep red stone in 1411 as Ahmedabad’s first Muslim structure, is relatively plain in comparison to the city’s later mosques. The palace is now occupied by offices and most of it is off-limits (some of it, at the time of writing, due to renovation work), but you can climb to the roof via a winding staircase just inside the main gateway. Across from the fort to the east is Alif Shah’s Mosque, gaily painted in green and white. Further on, beyond the odoriferous meat market in Khas Bazaar, is Teen Darwaja, a triple gateway built during Ahmed Shah’s reign that once led to the outer court of the royal citadel. A trio of pointed arches engraved with Islamic inscriptions and detailed carving spans the busy road below.
Famed for the ten magnificent jali (lattice-work) screens lining its upper walls, Sidi Saiyad’s Mosque sits in the centre of a busy roundabout. Built in 1573, the two semicircular screens on the western wall are its most spectacular, with floral designs exquisitely carved out of the yellow stone. The stonework within depicts heroes and animals from popular Hindu myths – one example of Hindu and Jain craftsmanship influencing an Islamic tradition that rarely allowed the depiction of living beings in its mosques. Women cannot enter this mosque, but the gardens around it afford good views of the screens.
Small but artfully simple, Ahmed Shah’s Mosque was the private place of worship for the royal household. Sections of an old Hindu temple, perhaps dating back to 1250 AD, were used in its construction – hence the incongruous Sanskrit inscriptions on some of the pillars in the sanctuary. The zenana (women’s chamber) is hidden behind pierced stone screens above the sanctuary in the northeast corner.
The spectacular Jama Masjid, completed in 1424, stands today in its entirety except for two minarets destroyed by an earthquake in 1957. Always bustling, the mosque is busiest on Fridays (“Jama Masjid” literally translates as “Friday Mosque”), when thousands converge to worship. The 260 elegant pillars supporting the roof of the domed prayer hall (qibla) are covered with unmistakeably Hindu carvings, while close to the sanctuary’s principal arch a large black slab is said to be the base of a Jain idol inverted and buried as a sign of Muslim supremacy.
Immediately outside the east entrance of the mosque, the square Tomb of Ahmed Shah I, who died in 1442, stands surrounded by pillared verandas. Women are not permitted to enter the central chamber, the site of his grave, or those of his son and grandson.
The jewellery and textile market of Manek Chowk is filled with craftsmen working in narrow alleys amid newly dyed and tailored cloth. Further into the market, to the east, and surrounded by the dyers’ colourful stalls, is the mausoleum of Ahmed Shah’s queen, Rani-ka-Hazira. Its plan is identical to Shah’s own tomb, with pillared verandas clearly inspired by Hindu architectural tastes.
The small, elegant mosque of Rani Sipri was commissioned in 1514 at the queen’s orders, when her husband ordered the execution of their son for reasons not fully understood. Her grave now also lies in front, sheltered by a pillared mausoleum. The stylish mosque, also known as Masjid-e-Nagira (“Jewel of a Mosque”) shows more Hindu influence than any other in Ahmedabad: its pillared sanctuary has an open facade to the east and fine tracery work on the west wall.
The minarets are all that remain of the Sidi Bashir mosque, built in 1452, which was named after one of Ahmed Shah’s favourite slaves. More than 21m high, these are the best existing example of “shaking minarets” – built on a foundation of flexible sandstone, probably to protect them from earthquake damage – once a common sight on Ahmedabad’s skyline, and now useful protection against the vibration of nearby trains.
The Jain Hathi Singh Temple is easily distinguished by its finely carved columns. Built entirely of white marble embossed with smooth carvings of dancers, musicians, animals and flowers, this serene temple is dedicated to Dharamnath, the fifteenth tirthankara, or “ford-maker”, one of 24 great teachers sanctified by the Jains.
The Calico Museum of Textiles displays India’s finest collection of textiles, clothes, furniture and crafts. Highlights of the morning tour include exquisite pieces made for the British and Portuguese, an embroidered tent and Shah Jahan’s robes from India’s royal households. There are patola saris from Patan and extravagant zari work that gilds saris in heavy gold stitching, bringing their weight to nearly nine kilos. Other galleries are dedicated to embroideries, bandhani tie-and-dye, textiles made for overseas trade and woollen shawls from Kashmir and Chamba. The afternoon tour includes the galleries of pichwais and other temple paintings and decorations, including Jain statues housed in a replica haveli temple and centuries-old manuscripts and mandalas painted on palm leaves.
Northern Gujarat abounds with remarkable step-wells – deep, with elaborately carved walls and broad flights of covered steps leading to a shaft – but Dada Hari-ni Vav, just outside the city’s old northeast boundaries, is among the finest. While it’s a Muslim construction, built in 1500, the craftsmen were Hindu, and their influence is clear in the lavish and sensuous carvings on the walls and pillars. Visit around 11am when the sculpted floral patterns and shapely figurines inside are bathed in sunlight. Bai Harir’s lofty mosque and lattice-walled tomb stand just west of the well, while a couple of hundred metres north of the complex is the neglected Mata Bhava-ni Vav, probably constructed in the eleventh century, before Ahmedabad was founded. It’s profoundly Hindu in character, and dedicated to Bhava-ni, an aspect of Shiva’s consort Parvati.
The Sanskar Kendra Museum is worth a visit, covering subjects such as the history of the city, urban growth, sociological development and the activities of Gandhi and the freedom movement. The Patang Kite Museum in the basement showcases the city’s Kite Festival – the world’s largest.
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.
The most obvious day-trips from Ahmedabad are north to Adalaj, with its impressive step-well, and beyond to Gandhinagar, with its extraordinary Swaminarayan religious complex. South of town, the lake, pavilions and mausoleums of Sarkhej make a pleasant break from the crowded city, while further south is the ancient Harappan site at Lothal.
Near the mouth of the River Sabarmati, by the Gulf of Cambay, is Lothal, one of the largest excavated Harappan (or Indus Valley) sites. Foundations, platforms, crumbling walls and paved floors are all that remain of the prosperous sea-trading community that dwelled here between 2400 and 1900 BC, when a flood all but destroyed the settlement. A walk around the central mound reveals the old roads that ran past ministers’ houses and through the acropolis. The lower town comprised a bazaar, workshops and residential quarters. Evidence has been found here of an even older culture, perhaps dating from the fourth millennium BC, known as the Red Ware Culture. You can see remains from this period and from the Indus Valley Civilization in the illuminating museum adjacent to the site.
Before the Mauryans took over in the fourth century BC, India’s greatest empire was the Indus Valley Civilization. Sophisticated settlements dating back to 2500 BC were first discovered in 1924 on the banks of the Indus in present-day Sindh (Pakistan), at Mohenjo Daro. Further excavations in 1946 in Punjab revealed the city of Harappa, from the same era. In its prime, this great society spread from the present-day borders of Iran and Afghanistan to Kashmir, Delhi and southern Gujarat. It lasted until 1900 BC, when it was destroyed by heavy floods.
A prosperous and literate society, importing raw materials from regions as far west as Egypt and trading ornaments, jewellery and cotton, it also had a remarkable, centrally controlled political system. Each town was almost identical, with complex drainage systems. Lothal, close to the Gulf of Cambay in southern Gujarat, was a major port. Although much about this complex society remains unknown, similarities exist between the Indus Valley Civilization and present-day India. For example, like Hindus, the Indus Valley people had a strong custom of worshipping a mother goddess, and there is evidence of phallic worship, still popular among Shaivites.
The BJP’s landslide victory in the 2002 election was seen by many as a shock, but the events of that year made it much less surprising. After the brutal attack on Hindu pilgrims at Godhra on February 27, 2002, when 58 were killed, riots rampaged across Gujarat. The death count reached almost one thousand, earning Gujarat’s BJP chief minister Narendra Modi the moniker “Muslim killer” for standing by as the violence continued. There were even allegations that the officials “were directly involved” and helped to cover up the state’s involvement. PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee later apologized and announced a US$31 million rehabilitation package, but a political campaign pledging to prevent another Godhra saw Modi go on to a landslide win.
In 2004, however, following protests against biased state authorities, the Supreme Court ordered further investigation into the riots, calling for a reopening of more than two thousand dismissed cases. In 2007, Tehelka magazine published secretly filmed footage of senior Gujarati Hindu politicians, mainly from the BJP, describing their involvement in fanning the riots. The report alleged that Modi ordered the police to side with Hindu rioters and sheltered the perpetrators from justice. Still, he was resoundingly re-elected and his ascension has continued unhindered; on May 26, 2014, he became prime minster, gaining a majority in the Lok Sabha (the lower house of the Indian parliament) – for the first time, for any party, since 1984.
Modi may appear untouchable for now, but others involved in these events have not been as lucky. In 2011, dozens of those guilty of the Godhra fire were convicted and sentenced, and a year later hundreds more of the rioters were convicted, including a former state minister, the first political figure to be officially implicated in the events.
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 by unscrupulous banks and 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 cooperative bank.
Following a major slump in the textile industry in 1984, SEWA set up training centres in weaving, sewing, dyeing and printing, providing efficient machinery. This helped to re-establish many women in the textile labour force, providing 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 female foeticide, which is particularly widespread in Gujarat. With more than a million members nationwide, more than 600,000 of which are in Gujarat, the organization now tackles projects throughout India and overseas.
Top image: Borij Derasar, a Jain Temple in Gandhinagar - Gujarat State of India © Leonid Andronov/Shutterstock