What I always hate about large cities is the difficulty in quickly finding a place to stay. When I arrive into Ahmedabad, it is only eight in the morning. The ride from Vadodara has been surprisingly short, just over an hour to cover the distance of 95 kms. For the first time I have travelled on a National Expressway, the first of its kind connecting Vadodara to Ahmedabad. The ride is so smooth and noiseless, I can hardly believe I was in India. The signs all along the road are easy to read. The divider is planted profusely with colourful bougainvillas for most of the way. Road shoulders and service lanes are as wide as necessary. For once I realize that if we put our mind to it and exercise necessary political will things can be done. India could become an equal in the company of advanced nations.
I pass a couple of magnificent mosques. The mihrabs project out from the western wall in detailed stone carvings. They are very much in the style of Champaner. I wander around for a while and finally manage to find a room. The entrance is a small doorway. The building looks shabby from the outside and an open cowshed right in front plays home to a handful of tethered cows. Inside, the room is small and windowless. Cigarette smoke filters in from the corridor. I don’t particularly like it but I have to put up with this for a couple of nights.
I say couple of nights because according to my map there are lots of places of interest in Ahmedabad. No tourist interested in architecture can hurry up his or her visit to this city. I freshen up and step outside to start an exciting day of city exploration.
Just a few paces from where I am staying, a few boys and men are busy coating threads with coarse purple coloured paste. The threads are strung taut between wooden poles. The men walk from pole to pole running their purple hands over the threads. Another man is busy stringing new white threads between the poles for the next round of processing. In a corner, a man is winding up these threads on to their gaudy plastic spindles. The whole thing is colourful.
‘Manja,’ replies one of them when I ask him about the threads.
These are threads coated with powder glass and abrasives. They will be used in kite flying. In fact, during the time of the Uttarayan festival – which coincides with what in Tamil Nadu we call Pongal – kite flying is a popular pastime in Gujarat. The festival is just a few weeks away and all over Ahmedabad makeshift camps are setup to meet the crazy demand of the season.
I hang around for many minutes watching these workers busy so early in the morning. Their days will be extra long for the next couple of weeks. I take some pictures and videos and they are happy to pose. They think they will make it to the local newspaper.
‘I will upload it to my site. Loads of people from all over the world will see you,’ I try to convince them. They seem skeptical. Going by the number of visits to my blog, strangely they are right!
It is quite rare for me to take auto-rickshaws but I wish to save time today. So I take one to get to Gandhiji’s famous ashram. En route I pass ruins of gateways and the last walls of ancient fortifications. It was in the early part of the 15th century that Ahmed Shah founded the city of Ahmedabad. It was towards the end of that century that his son Mahmud Shah Beghara fortified the city.
‘Who follows Gandhiji today?’ complains the auto driver. ‘Everyone is a bloody cheat.’ He launches into a long string of complaints about the government, the ministers and the civil servants. We cross the river Sabarmati by the Subhash Bridge, one of many bridges in the city.
‘Enjoy your visit to the ashram,’ he wishes as I step out at the ashram gates. ‘Gandhiji’s ways are really what we need today.’
The ashram was founded in the early part of the 20th century. The place is beautifully maintained by the banks of the river Sabarmati. Gandhiji’s personal artefacts are preserved. A spinning wheel, a walking stick and a writing desk are some of the things preserved. A sand-filled rectangular space under the shade of a large neem tree marks the place of many important gatherings and prayers. It is now almost a temple and sanctified ground for many visitors. A statue of the leader sits cross-legged in the middle of a green lawn. A museum traces his life history, principles and achievements. I read with interest. The place is quiet. It matters little what is one’s own disposition. Here, everyone becomes quiet, talks softly and takes time to reflect on meanings and messages they can use in their own lives.
The buildings here are little modern when compared to those at Sewagram. I like the latter better.
Morarji Desai Smarak
I walk back towards Subhash Bridge by the road that runs parallel to the river. A little distance from the ashram is a memorial park dedicated to Morarji Desai, a political figure in pre-independent India and later India’s Prime Minister of a coalition government. Despite his many contributions, he is popularly remembered for drinking his own urine as a remedy against piles.
The green lawns are intersected by neat walkways. It looks quite simple and rather uninteresting. I come out to the road after a brief peep.
Calico Textile Museum
I stop at a posh restaurant for a nice thali meal. It is not exactly authentic Gujarati cuisine but the meal is good. I walk my way to the museum. Firstly, the name draws me to it. Calico textiles were introduced to the world by the weavers and printers of Calicut and gain widespread popularity in England during the Industrial Revolution.
‘Museum is closed,’ tells me the guard at the entrance. It is only half past one. Perhaps they will open after lunch.
‘What time will it reopen?’ I ask.
‘Open only 10.30 to 12.30,’ he replies. ‘Wednesday closed. Come back on Thursday.’
For a famous museum of this nature it is a pity that it has so limited opening hours. They say it’s to preserve the precious exhibits. Just my luck, today is a Tuesday. Apparently, there is a quota of visitors per day. Visitors have to come early and register in advance.
I admire the massive wooden door at the entrance to the museum and the beautiful brackets supporting the eaves. I consult my map to figure out my next destination.
Dada Harir Vav
I hire an auto-rickshaw. Fortunately for me, he knows all about this stepwell. He says it isn’t far from here. We go past some narrow roads and dirt tracks to arrive at this well. This appears to be an old residential area. Once I step out of the auto-rickshaw, I know immediately that this is a fantastic stepwell.
If I had been impressed by the Ujala Baodi at Mandu, this one is simply beyond words. It is bigger and better preserved than Geban Shah’s Vav at Champaner. Laid out in East-West direction, steps and landings go down to the well shaft at the western end. At its deepest, the well is five levels. Decorative work is superb at all levels. Balconies with parapets open into the octogonal space at all levels. Perspectives all around are stunning. Wandering through the spaces of the well at different levels takes me to a different world.
I chat up with an old caretaker of a mosque behind the western end of the well. With his permission I climb up to the roof of the mosque and get a view of the well and low domes on the mosque. The twin minarets are gone, levelled off at the height of the pistaq. The mosque is small but packed with beautiful stone carvings typical of the style of Gujarat Sultanate. Even the steps are decorated with geometric motifs. Another building next to the mosque seems to be a mausoleum of some sort. The man explains to me some history of the place but I don’t bother to remember much of it.
Architecturally, here is a perfect example of the Hindu influence on an Islamic building. Jharokhas or projected balconies on ornate brackets decorate the facade. The mausoleum sports beautifully carved parapets and half pillars while normally in mosques the space would be an open corridor around the main building.
I watch local boys playing and chatting. I return to the stepwell. I sit down for many minutes to do a sketch of the plan and some of its decorative motifs. I think I can squeeze in more visit before sunset. I put away my sketchbook. I’ll have to complete the drawing later. I hurry to the main road and see if I can get an auto-rickshaw.
Hathee Singh Jain Temple
In the end I actually walk to this temple from the stepwell. The distance is not too great but it is half past five and getting dark fast. The temple is admitting its last visitors for the day.
A Jain merchant by the name of Hathee Singh constructed this temple in the year 1850 AD. As temples come and go, this is not a very old temple by Indian standards. Like the many Birla Mandirs across the country this temple too bears the name of the patron rather than the name of the deity enshrined within. Such was rarely the case in ancient India.
The temple has spectacular carvings. Every inch of stone surface is carved to such beauty that I find it difficult to focus on anything in particular. The temple has three prominent entrance porches around a central mandapa under a dome. Cloisters surround the courtyard. White marble of these cloisters give a cooling mood. Every shrine here is topped with a spire and the line of spires make an impressive sight on the outside, very much like the old temple at Chanderi. The cusped arches of the cloisters make superb perspectives as they stretch from one end to the other.
Among the wonderful sculptures are stone brackets containing dancers and musicians standing on corbelled pedestals fused to capitals. Semicircular arches contain three-dimensional cusping packed with fine details. Projected balconies above the main entrance porch on the outside are masterpieces on their own. Two small towers flanking the entrance portico at the back suggest either a novel architectural element or simply an inspiration borrowed from Islamic minarets. The entire temple complex is exemplary of Indian art at its best.
I take some time to observe the pujas going on in the sanctum. Devotees come and go but I guess the temple will be a lot busier in the mornings. The sun has set and it is quite dark now. Nearby is a Jain stambha or tower. It appears to be a newer construction. It is an exotic structure with balconies, miniature shikaras, reliefs and jali screens. It is square at its base, octogonal at midlevel and finally circular at the top. Despite its grandeur, I somehow like the simple Jain stambhas of old India, the kind of stuff I had seen in Moodbidri, Karnataka.
Sidi Sayed Masjid
In the morning I take a bus, do a bit of walking and arrive at this mosque to the sound of barking dogs. The mosque stands next to vacant land which is perhaps a park but needs maintenance. I enter it and realize that this is not it. The dogs rush towards me. I make a hasty exit. I walk along the fence with the dogs going crazy on the other side. I find the entrance to the mosque next door. The barking continues for a while.
For a mosque of such fame, the scale and grandeur it first presents is quite modest and shall I say disappointing. But I know the specific reason why this mosque is so famous. There are here two jali screens set within pointed arches. The packed design and artistry of these screens are world famous. I find both of them set on the western wall of the mosque.
One of them has a central palm tree growing together with another tree with a wavy trunk. Its branches spread out in beautiful curves and whorls. Branches give rise to their own branches and tentrils. The way their entwine, alternating between forward and backward, this is not a simple two-dimensional view. The carvings deliberately put one branch behind another. This gives the elements of the composition closeness, intimacy and interdependance. Flowers and leaves fill the spaces. The entire work is carved out of many stones but the arrangement is so precise that it could be easily be mistaken for a single stone.
The other jali screen, which I like only a little less than the first one, has three trees alternating with four palms. The central tree, the largest, is the main element of the composition. Its trunk branches early on and its thick branches rise vertically entwining freely into each other. Branches spread out wider at the higher level and in part join with higher branches of the other two trees.
Looking at the western wall from the outside, these two jali screens flank a central blind arch. The ends of the wall contain two more arches which are packed with jali panels in the traditional manner. In other words, these two screens are divided by transoms and mullions. Thus, in East-West direction the mosque has five bays and three in the North-South direction. The twin minarets survive only to the level of the prayer hall. The ceiling on the inside betrays small domes but from the ground level outside none can be seen. The mosque appears plain and without a dome. The central square ceiling has beautiful corbels. Circular ceilings with small domes have plain squinches and ornamental arches beneath them.
I chat with the caretaker for a few minutes, get his permission and snaps a few pictures. My visit here has been short but enjoyable.
I arrive here at ten this morning. The place is empty and so quiet that it can almost be thought of as an ancient ruin standing grandly to suggest its former glory. The fact is that this mosque is still actively used and is the main mosque of the city. I have come at the right time and take my time to admire the wonder of this mosque.
Built by Ahmed Shah, it is as grand as its counterpart in Champaner built by his grandson. The facade has a high central arch flanked by two smaller ones, smaller only in relative terms. Pillars leading into the main prayer hall complete the facade at the far ends. In this manner, the facade is a combination of arches and pillars. The twin minarets survive to the level of the prayer hall. From the central arch I can see the tall pillars going straight up to a higher level. This open arch brings in ample light into the prayer hall. This space rises to a high central dome standing above the third level. Beautiful parapets and jali screens define this space.
Overall, the mosques has 15 domes symmetrically arranged. It will take much patience and study to count the number of pillars and pilasters. The open courtyard is spacious with corridors in three sides. Small domes decorate the roofs of these corridors. At the eastern end, houses crowd just outside the mosque boundaries. Boys are flying kites from the roof of the eastern corridor. A fight has broken out somewhere and a couple of women are arguing loudly. In the center of the courtyard is a tank for ritual ablutions. Only a couple of devout men are praying inside the mosque.
I sit inside for a while and lean against a pillar. Except for the tall pillars of the central portico, others are rather plain. Mihrabs are beautiful. At the northern end of the prayer hall is a second level enclosed in beautiful jali work. This might have been a royal enclosure or enclosure for women alone. The minarets, or what’s left of them have superb details. Even the veins of leaves can be seen. Lotus petals open up and cast their shadows to make a striking picture. Patterns, squares, triangles, trees, trunks, leaves and kumbhas are all part of the decorative repertoire. Brackets under the chajjas of the minarets are richly carved.
From the Jami Masjid I take to the streets nearby. I walk past shops busy preparing for the kite festival of Uttarayan. This is definitely big business at this time of the year. Little boys stand awestruck by colourful kites on display while their fathers haggle on the price.
Not knowing what to do next, I have lunch and proceed to Science City. It is some distance away from town but there are buses to it. I arrive there to the crowds of school groups. I spend a couple of hours here but the place doesn’t interest me all that much.
On the way back I stop somewhere and blog for a couple of hours. I return to my room and wash my clothes. At half past seven I realize that I have forgotten my PAN card at the Internet center. I take an auto-rickshaw and rush to the place before it closes for the day. It takes me sometime to find it. I make it just in time. It is five minutes to closing.
‘I don’t have your PAN card,’ tells me the manager. ‘We always return it immediately.’
‘Check with your boy. Let’s call him now,’ I argue.
We call him but he insists that he had returned it to me. I search in the cubicle. The manager checks his drawers and log book. I check my pockets, as if I hadn’t checked them before. There it is, in my shirt pocket which I rarely use.
I take a bus back to where I stay. I realize that there is much more to Ahmedabad that I have missed – the Shaking Minarets, Sarkhej Roza, Shreyas Folk Museum, Tribal Art Museum and countless other stone mosques. Perhaps I’ll have a chance to return to Ahmedabad sometime in the future.