On the face of it, the modern city of Ahmedabad may be brash and upwardly mobile, a bushel of fine-educational institutions and high-powered youngsters. But that’s just a surface observation. An exploration of the historic old city presents an entirely different side of the story, dismissing with glee the armchair wisdom that the world has become a homogeneous place.
A guided heritage walk through some of the most ancient parts of the city offers glimpses of the 15th century. Life in these parts is still about living tradition.
That the option exists for this walk to be taken at night lends atmosphere to an experience — which begins with a twelve-minute rickshaw ride from the House of Mangaldas — through meandering narrow lanes (pols) where the buildings are two or three storey structures and there are as many friendly dogs pottering around as there are people.
An ancient home
For those who came in late, the Mangaldas Ni Haveli — estimated to be over 200 years old — is a splendid example of the carved wooden architecture of the time. The road-facing rooms have been converted into a café and a Crafts Centre. But greater than the desire to buy pretty pillow-covers and dancing dolls — all handmade by craftsmen in collaboration with designers — is my eagerness to explore this haveli’s interior, which reminds me of a finely constructed theatrical set.
A crowd of curious travellers are spread out in the kitchen and residential areas adjoining the central courtyard. They listen with rapt attention to the guide’s stories of ancient pomp. As I run my fingers along the carved façade of the wall, the guide talks with pride of the integrated rain harvesting system with underground water storage tanks that have been constructed here.
Into the pols
Suitably impressed, it is time to stroll out into the pols, each an anthology of stories that fade in and out of each other. Along the way we meet the characters in these unfolding narratives: the bejewelled farmer who tells us that the most authentic place to eat ever so slightly sweet vegetarian fare is at the terrace restaurant Agashiye and a street urchin promising to accompany us to the Jumma Masjid “located just minutes away” if only we’ll cross his palm with a few rupees. An ancient lady who grew up in the salt plains is ironingclothes in a rustic barn, while quoting Gandhi to us.
We pause to photograph her midnight industry as she asks in the fashion of a community mother if we have visited Sabarmati Ashram yet. Have we stood in line to see the fine Calico Museum of Textiles? What do we think of the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi?
The businessman from Toronto on the tour with us does not hear the little old woman for he appears eager to buy over half the heritage buildings he sees.
Nightly food court
But this familiar attempt to encircle the world with money, hug it close and thereby control it, is soon forgotten as we emerge onto Manek Chawk — the main bazaar of the old city — that becomes an open food court at night. The market is a bright compost of rickety shops, people buying fruit from brightly lit stalls with myopic concentration, motorbikes with heart-shaped balloons tied to them and a general glut of optimism that lives along with the dust and noise.
As the moon rises like a red sun in the sky, we run into a tradition that dates back 600 years. In a small room above the gateway leading to Raja no Haziro, sit drummers who sound the beats that signal the closing of the city gates at 11 pm every night.
Open-minded travel Groups of men squat outside in dark alleys like city ghosts chatting about the day gone past. A little boy with torn clothes runs up to me and offers me some gram. He asks for nothing in return. It is a mini-epiphany of sorts — to be offered unconditional warmth from the end of the earth’s queue.
When I arrived in Ahmedabad with the thought of spending a few groovy nights on the town, I imagined stunning museums and fine restaurants, but nothing quite like this experience. Perhaps I need to start packing for my next journey with fewer preconceptions and a more open heart.
When she isn’t teaching at St Xavier’s College, Sonia can be found brandishing pen and camera on her travels around the world