Inside India’s first UNESCO World Heritage City: Ahmedabad – Walled City Treasures
The folklore goes that in the year 1411 AD, Sultan Ahmed Shah of the Gujarat Sultanate was hunting along the banks of the river Sabarmati. While he waited by the river for his prey he saw a strange sight, of a hare chasing a dog, rather than the other way around. This led him to conclude that the place was blessed since a weak prey had the courage to shove away the predator. Hence he moved the capital of his sultanate from the city of Patan to that place and called it Ahmedabad. He constructed a walled city with 12 gates (real number is still disputed) which eventually turned into an important trade hub of the region.
It is this 600 year old walled city on the eastern bank of the river Sabarmati that became India’s first UNESCO world heritage city in July this year.
Recently I was in the town and took an independent early morning walk in the walled city to explore some of the heritage sites among other places and clicked some pictures. Here’s the first of the 2 part series exploring the city.
The Jama Masjid of Ahmedabad, built in 1424 AD by Sultan Ahmed Shah, the founder of Ahmedabad. It has in total 707 pillars including interior pillars and those in the veranda. The compound has a capacity of 25,000 people. There were minarets on it too, but in 2 separate earthquakes in 1819 and 1957, they were destroyed.
The architecture and the carvings are derived from an amalgamation of Islamic, Hindu and Jain designs.
Ahmed Shah, being a supposedly progressive ruler, also got built in the mosque a separate praying area for women. On the upper floor, behind these carvings, it was designed in a way that the women can see the praying area but men couldn’t see the women praying.
I thought that the calligraphy in the corridors depicted the 99 names of Allah, but apparently this is not it. Do let me know in the comments if you’re aware about what these are.
The tomb of Sultan Ahmed Shah – Badshah’s Hajira. Next to him lie the tombs of his two sons.
Back in the day at the upper level of the gate of Badshah’s Hajira, in the chamber as seen in the picture above, every night at 11 drums and shehnai used to be played indicating closing of city gates. It is still happens today, a family has taken up the responsibility and without fail, each night at 11 they continue the tradition.
The right wing has been trying hard to de-islamicize the city but the fact remains that Ahmedabad was given its name by Sultan Ahmed Shah and the Karnavati narrative is mostly bunkum. If it wasn’t for the architecture and heritage from the city built by Ahmed Shah, Ahmedabad wouldn’t be enjoying this prestigious title of UNESCO World Heritage City today. Though bit closer to the real name, the govt. authorities have started using the colloquially uttered name ‘Amdavad’ for the city, as evident from the way the Municipal Corporation calls itself ‘Amdavad Municipal Corporation’.
One of the gates of the walled city is Teen Darwaza. It has got an interesting story associated with it. Folklore goes that 600 years ago a guard had stopped Goddess Laxmi from leaving the city without the permission of Sultan Ahmed Shah. The goddess promised to stand there till the guard returned with the permission. The guard went to the king and asked to be beheaded. The goddess was hence forced to stay back since guard never returned. In his memory and to honor Laxmi, a lamp still burns 24X7 at Teen Darwaza. Till his death in 2014, for 50 years a gentleman called Jabbar Mirza used to maintain it. Since then, his wife Zainat Bibi continues with the task. It is believed that the city of Ahmedabad is prosperous till the lamp is burning, if it goes off, the consequences won’t be pleasant.
Here’s Zainat Bibi (pictured above) still at her age keeping the lamp lit 24X7 in the honor of a Hindu goddess. That’s how syncretic Ahmedabad was once.
Not too far from Teen Darwaza, Jama Masjid and Badshah’s Hajira, is Manek Chowk – a jewellery market by the day and a vibrant food bazar by night.
Manek Chowk derives its name from the Hindu Saint Maneknath. Another folklore goes that when Sultan Ahmed Shah started constructing the walls of the city, Maneknath was’t happy with his dwelling place being turned into a city. When the wall was being built during the day, Maneknath with his powers used to demolish it overnight much to the chagrin of the Sultan. In order to pacify Maneknath, the Sultan decided to name the main square of the city after him. At Manek Chowk lies the resting place of Maneknath as well.
Also at Manek Chowk lies the building of the now defunct old Ahmedabad Stock Exchange.
There’s another mosque nearby called Rani Sipri’s mosque, or Masjid-e-Nagina. Another beautiful piece of architecture and a gem not well known. It was commissioned in 1514 by the Hindu queen Sipri, the wife of Mahmud Begada, the sultan of Gujarat at that time. It is also known as Masjid-e-Nagina (Jewel of a mosque) because of the intricate carvings on its walls. A 19th century visitor, James Ferguson, said that the only minarets that would surpass the beauty of Cairo would be of Rani Sipri’s.
The extremely intricate carvings give Rani Sipri’s Mosque its charm. The beauty lies in the detail.
There’s another gem in the walled city of Ahmedabad. The Magen Abraham Synagogue, established 1934, of the Bene Israeli Jewish community. Unlike the Malabar/Cochin Jews of Kerala and the Baghdadi Jews, they came to India quite late, and are mainly based in Bombay and Ahmedabad. Only a handful of Bene Israelis remain in Ahmedabad, the acclaimed author Esther David being one of them. This synagogue binds them together. Also many of the Bene Israelis from Ahmedabad left for Israel when it was formed. Sad to see dwindling Jewish numbers in India today.
Just opposite to the Synagogue is the Parsi Fire Temple. Imagine this, a Synagogue in a Muslim area, along with a Parsi Agiyari. That’s how multi-cultural and tolerant Ahmedabad was once, which the political class has been gradually changing over years.
Another unique aspect of the walled city of Ahmedabad are its Pols, i.e. the residential quarters segregated on the basis of community, profession or religion. They’re characterized by their peculiar layout and the architecture of the houses. Above are few pictures of the houses of the pols, notice the design of the balconies, windows etc. More on it in the 2nd part of the series ‘Inside Ahmedabad’ to be uploaded soon.
Meanwhile, here’s some Fafda, a Gujarati snack served with pickled Papaya usually had around the time of the festival of Dusehra, what better way to satiate your hunger while exploring the city. 🙂