Thursday, 14 April 2011

A [HERITAGE] WALK TO REMEMBER…


Narrow winding streets, traders, buyers and even cows, vehicles and rickshaws zipping past as the sodium street lights engulf you in a haze of yellow glow. So, is it a Bombay suburb? Well, not even close. This is the old walled city of Ahmedabad, famous for its many havelis and gates.

We had reached Ahmedabad on a day when the mercury was sizzling. The night was however cooler and we decided to go on a ‘heritage night walk’ of the city, once known as the Manchester of the East.

According to a legend, Sultan Ahmed (from whom the city gets its name) observed a hare chasing a dog, while camping on the banks of the Sabarmati. The act of bravery of the animals impressed him. The people would be even braver, he felt. He thus decided to build his new capital there. Later, his grandson, Mahumad Begada, would fortify the city with a 10 km wall and twelve gates.

The Badshah no Hajiro Mausoleum
The guided night-walk is organized by the Cruta Foundation and the House of Mangaldas Girdhardas, an urban heritage hotel. The one hour long walk which starts at ten in the night at the Mangaldas ni Haveli (Mangaldas’ Haveli) and ends at the Badshah no Hajiro, takes you through the havelis, some still in good condition, and the labyrinthine lanes (pols in Gujarati) while simultaneously acquainting a person with the history, architecture, tradition and culture of the old city.

Mangaldas ni Haveli, acquired by the Mangaldas family and restored to a cafĂ© and a craft center is our staring point. The buildings of the old city, according to the Mangaldas brochure, ‘are two to three floor structures – all interconnected yet in different styles. The ground-floor road-facing rooms are used as shops and the interior comprises of a kitchen and residential rooms around a central courtyard with a steep staircase leading to higher floors. They also have an integrating rain harvesting system with underground water-storage tanks.’

Our small group of about twelve people was led through the walled city by Jonny, our guide.

These pols, he told us, are interconnected. One can enter through one pol, and get out of another (only if you know your way!). The buildings also have many secret doors, doorways and basements which were used by the freedom fighters during the freedom movement.

The buildings have wooden carvings and the wood is Burmese teak, Jonny told us, flashing his torch on the facade of a haveli to drive home his point. The wooden beams that supported the balcony of one haveli had dragons carved on it. An interesting example of oriental influence on the architecture of the old city! The beams that supported another wooden parapet had elephants carved, although artfully hidden. The wooden pillars supporting the galleries and floors were also intricately carved.

Musicians playing their instruments during the closing of the gates

From the Mangaldas’ Haveli, we stopped at Diwanji ni Haveli, once the residence of the Diwan of Bhuj. It was dark inside. Jonny guided us with his torch. The haveli, now in a dilapidated condition, would soon be restored to its original glory, he informed. The haveli had a well and also a basement with a tank to harvest rain water. A narrow flight of stairs took us down to the arched tank which once served as a hiding place for freedom fighters. Picking our steps carefully through the bits of furniture and wood strewn around, we moved out of the haveli and proceeded to our next heritage building, the B D College.

The B D College, built in the Georgian style, was the first girls’ college established in Ahmedabad. Just opposite was the first Ayurvedic College, Sharma Ayurvedic Centre. ‘Look at the windows carefully,’ Jonny said as he flashed his torch on the windows which could rotate 360 degrees.

Picking our way carefully we entered the Khetarpal pol, where lies the Khetarpal Mandir. The idol in this mandir is believed to be made of pure butter and wrapped in silver foil. How the idol has not melted is a divine mystery. Next, we had a look from the outside at the Old Stock Exchange Building. The deserted two storey building still has a place of pride as the first stock exchange of Ahmedabad.

The Badshah no Hajiro, the exquisite mausoleum of the king of Ahmedabad, was our next stop. Inside are three graves. In the center lies King Ahmed, flanked by his son and grandson. To emphasis the craftsmanship, Jonny showed us a part of another tomb where someone else had inserted a thin piece of incense stick between the intricate marble carvings. The gaps were just millimeters apart! Badshah no Hajiro lies opposite to the Rani no Hajiro. It is said that the king always wanted his queen to be by his side. And true enough, the Rani no Hajiro can be seen from the balcony of the Badshah’s tomb.

The clock struck ten-to-eleven as we neared the end of the walk. At a nearby gateway, we heard the thumping of drums accompanied by the strain of a shennai-like instrument. Jonny led us through a narrow flight of stairs to a small room above the gateway. Two musicians were playing the instruments: a tradition as old as the old city, signaling the closing of the gates for the day. This tradition, we were told was carried out by the same family for the past 600 years in honour of the Sultan who founded the city!

Our night walk ended at the famous Manek Chawk which doubles up as a gold jewellery market during the day and an open food court in the night!

POSTSCRIPT
As Ahmedabad shrunk to a dot from the window of my flight to Goa, I began thinking. With such a lot of archaeological and historical wealth in Goa, isn’t it time we all thought of a ‘heritage night walk’ in different parts of our state?

(A Version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: June 19, 2009)

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