Nineteenth century travel writer John Murray had once remarked upon the invisibility of Ahmedabad from the extensive accounts of foreign travellers in India. “It is hard to account for the scant attention paid to Ahmedabad by modern travellers from Europe unless its reputation as an industrial centre and the fact that there has been prohibition there since 1938 has deterred them,” he wrote. Barely noticed by the modern day traveller and very often ignored by historians, Ahmedabad is one of those industrialised cities of India where the past and present have fused together beautifully and produced a landscape that unlike most other statured cities of India, owes very little to European domination.
On Saturday, the 606-year-old walled city of Ahmedabad, was declared India’s first World Heritage City. The organisation for world heritage cities lists a number of criteria for a place to be listed in it which includes ‘bearing testimony to a cultural tradition or civilisation which is living or has disappeared,’ ‘representing a masterpiece of human creative genius,’ and ‘exhibiting an important interchange of human values over a span of time, or within a cultural area of the world,’ among several others.
Ahmedabad has stood out among more popular Indian cities like Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai to fit into the criteria of the the world heritage city. Established in the year 1411 AD by Sultan Ahmad Shah of Gujarat, Ahmedabad was a product of the Sultan’s ambitions to create a trading rival to the neighbouring Hindu trade centre of Asaval. Further, he wanted Ahmedabad to be the centre of his own line of dynasty that would replace the old Hindu capital of Anhilvad Patan, located nearby. Later, Ahmedabad was taken over by the Mughals, the Marathas and the British. However, the city’s distinctive quality lay in the fact that it was a region that was built and maintained exclusively by the local trading population, resisting every attempt by the foreign rulers to intrude into its sociological framework. As noted by historian K S Gillion, the traditional cities of India are mostly viewed through the eyes of European travellers, who in turn compare them to the cities of the West. “But Ahmedabad was, to some extent, an exception. Here was a city with a corporate tradition and spirit, a hereditary bourgeois elite, and a history of indigenous financial, commercial, and industrial activity,” he writes.
From being one of the oldest trading points in India to becoming the centre of the Indian freedom struggle under Mahatma Gandhi and then later becoming a model for sustainable development in modern India, here are a few reasons why Ahmedabad deservedly won the tag for world heritage city.
A thriving centre for trade
When Sultan Ahmad Shah established the city, he invited merchants, weavers and skilled craftsmen to come to Ahmedabad and help build it into a flouring centre for trade and commerce. While the city exchanged hands from one ruling dynasty to another, it remained a major attraction to enterprisers from across the globe. Ahmedabad lay at the crossroads of the caravan routes to Rajasthan and Delhi in the north, Malwa in the east, Sind in the west and the ports of Cambay, Surat and Broach in the south. Its location ensured it gained a status of a thriving industrial centre where Dutch and English East India company ships would come for trading in indigo, saltpetre and textiles. By the time the Mughals took over in the late 16th century, it had already become a splendid city, rich in culture and architecture.
The reputation for trade acquired by Ahmedabad in the 15th century has been maintained ever since and Ahmedabad, till date, holds a name for being a thriving commercial centre and its inhabitants are famed to be few of the sharpest business minds in the world.
An architectural blend of Hindu-Muslim culture
The richness of architecture present in Ahmedabad is enhanced by the cultural fusion of Hindu and Muslim elements. For a long time while the city was ruled by Muslim monarchs, the wealth in the region was in the hands of the Hindu and Jain merchants. Consequently, while most of the public buildings were of Muslim ownership, the tone of the architecture evidently loaned much from Hindu artistic traditions. Pillars were brought in from the nearby Hindu kingdoms and Hindu and Jain craftsmen were employed to build them. “Ahmedabad’s mosques and tombs are unpretentious in size, but the rich detail, the delicate tracery, and ornamented minarets make them most distinctive and more Indian in feeling than Muslim architecture elsewhere in India,” writes historian Gillion. The Sidi Saiyyed Mosque built in the 16th century is one of the finest examples of this Indo-Saracenic style of architecture and is a major touristic attraction in the city today.
Ahmad Shah’s mosque, Teen darwaza, the Jama masjid and Qutub Shah’s mosque are some of the finest examples of a rich historicity in the city.
The centre for Gandhi’s freedom struggle
If trade is what marked the antiquity of Ahmedabad, then the nationalist uprising is what ushered it into a phase of modernity. Ahmedabad’s place in modern history writing owes a great deal to Mahatma Gandhi choosing it to be his starting point for carrying out his struggle in India. While much is said about Gandhi’s personality and skills to motivate the indigenous population to rise against the British, what is often forgotten is how the intrinsic qualities of a certain urban centre might have aided Gandhi in the process.
In Ahmedabad, unlike in Bombay or Calcutta, the elite who became a part of the freedom struggle, did not in any way identify with the Europeans. The trading class who made up Ahmedabad was rooted in local traditions and were fiercely opposed to European impact much before Gandhi set up his base there. The indigenous nature of Ahmedabad provided Gandhi with the best platform for promoting nationalistic themes such as a belief in swadeshi products and the firmness to destroy colonial rule by hitting out at its economic roots. Writing on the subject of Gandhi and Ahmedabad, historian Makrand Mehta said that having emerged as a major centre for the cotton textile industry, Ahmedabad provided Gandhi the necessary base for popularising the spinning wheel in the country.
Opposition to European interference in shaping cityscape
In his work, ‘Colonialism, Indigenous Elites and the Transformation of Cities in the Non-Western World: Ahmedabad (Western India)’, author Siddharth Raychaudhuri says that the process of transformation of non-western cities in the colonial period has most often been described as a one way process, where European rulers have shaped the physical and social dimensions of the city. In the case of Ahmedabad though, Raychaudhuri maintains that a section of the indigenous elite opposed the restructuring of the city by the colonial government and instead carried out their own reorganisation of the urban centre. Further, they also maintained an indigenous political and social hegemony in the city.
What gives Ahmedabad its distinct flavour as opposed to any other Indian metropolis or industrial hub, is that despite being a modern centre for commerce and industry, the city owed very little to the Western world for attaining that modernity. The city’s tradition of resisting European influence also ensured that its methods of bringing about development were also locally viable and consequently more sustainable.