Four reasons why Ahmedabad has become India’s only World Heritage City

Barely noticed by the modern day traveler 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 owes very little to European domination.

Written by Adrija Roychowdhury | New Delhi | Updated: July 9, 2017 5:23 pm
Ahmedabad, world heritage city, ahmedabad world heritage city, India's first world heritage city, India news, Ahmedabad news, Indian Express Lithograph by Dutchman Philip Baldeus depicting Ahmedabad and Sabarmati river. c.1752 (Wikimedia Commons)

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, world heritage city, ahmedabad world heritage city, India's first world heritage city, India news, Ahmedabad news, Indian Express Architecture at Ahmedabad, the Capital of Goozerat, photographed by Colonel Biggs, 1866 (Wikimedia Commons)

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

Ahmedabad, world heritage city, ahmedabad world heritage city, India's first world heritage city, India news, Ahmedabad news, Indian Express The Juma Masjid in Ahmedabad (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Ahmedabad, world heritage city, ahmedabad world heritage city, India's first world heritage city, India news, Ahmedabad news, Indian Express 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. (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Ahmedabad, world heritage city, ahmedabad world heritage city, India's first world heritage city, India news, Ahmedabad news, Indian Express Ahmedabad and its environs, ca 1914 (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

 

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    sanjiv roy
    Jul 15, 2017 at 9:36 am
    I am sorry to say that this decision of holding out status of World Heritage City to Ahmedabad is not justified by the arguments placed in your article. Somewhat misplaced it is. If other cities are considered on the parameters you described, so many other cities like Delhi, Kolkata, Lucknow, Patna, Agra, Jaipur, Bhopal etc would rather fit the definition more than Ahmedabad. Whether it is old cultural values, historical artefacts, scriptures, literati etc. , so many cities of India would excel Ahmedabad.
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      Pankaj
      Jul 10, 2017 at 7:11 am
      How can you forget contribution of Le Corbusier French architect in Ahmedabad. As east side of Ahmedabad is Indian, west part is mostly model on european style.
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        Rajiv
        Jul 10, 2017 at 4:57 am
        Cygnus is absolutely right. Satish Rajan are congressman. I am local since 1962 I have seen Chipman, Madhav , helping Latif, Muslim Gundas to create riots as they failed. Gujarat Samachar was burnt by them. Patidar riots are from.congress to destabilize good governance of Modi. I am truly Amdavadi so will tell the truth. Pappu failed. Congress is most corrupt with 2G Koyla scams..... Etc. Yes other cities like Delhi, Arab, Jaipur, Varansi, Ujjain, Humping, Vijaya Nagar should be not overlooked as they are old heritage.
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          IslamForFoools
          Jul 10, 2017 at 1:55 am
          All Indian express could find from Ahmedabad is one mosque and one Gandhi, what a racist editor. No Hindu iden y monuments in Ahmedabad? Fck you racist media
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            Paramveer
            Jul 10, 2017 at 1:19 am
            Gentlemen, Look at the criteria, the above article quotes, for the designation of "Heritage City". While one can say that many other cities may also qualify, one cannot deny that Ahmedabad/Amdavad certainly does. The one to note, ‘bearing testimony to a cultural tradition or civilisation which is living or has disappeared,’ Ahmedabad/Amdavad certainly qualifies, while we in Bombay/Mumbai, Delhi, Calcutta/Kolkata tended to paint ourselves in the colours of the powers to be, currently holding sway, be they Colonial, Mughal, Congress, BJP, Ahmedabad/Amdavad tends to buck all trends and maintains a distinct iden y of its own politically, socially and culturally (currently the Patel agitation in north Gujarat for the doubters) The argument that this "indigenous nature" of the city provided Gandhji with the best platform to launch nationalistic themes is interesting. Though how much of this distinctive iden y was the result of Ahmedabad/Amdavad not being a cosmopolitan city is debatable
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              Ashish Singh
              Jul 9, 2017 at 8:00 pm
              Rather strange, Ahmedabad surges past Delhi,Agra, Jaipur to get declared India's first world heritage city. The last 3 cities as per history have seen bigger historical importance in comparison to Ahmedabad. Ahmedabad has never had a all India image in the era of 1000-2000 AD. It never was the capital of powerful all India rulers like Chandragupta(Patilaputra-Patna), Vikramditya(Ujjaini-Ujjain), Harshvardhan(Indraprastha-Delhi), Cholas( Hampi), Mughals( Delhi/Agra), Britishers(Calcutta,later New Delhi). Obviously it is the hidden hand of the present day Gujarat lobby which has helped it.
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                mark
                Jul 9, 2017 at 9:21 pm
                You are right. I'm afraid it's already bit late for Delhi Agra, Jaipur is a wonder. Not to mention some key hindu pilgrimage cities ( Varanasi, Ujjain, and so many other) that are in dire need of protection. PLS note than I'm not an hindu, but they must certainly be considered as major components of world heritage. Material and spiritual.
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                rajan
                Jul 9, 2017 at 7:49 pm
                Adrija is wrong in saying that Gandhi started his struggle against the British from Ahmedabad. In fact, he init iated his journey in India from Champaran in April 1917 by raising his voice against the high-handed exploitation of poor ryots by the Indigo planters. It's surprising that the state which has so many Muslim monuments has two of the most desc ipable characters heading the Union government and BJP. They have been unabashedly promoting violence against Muslims and are systematically working to suppress minorities beginning with Mohammedans. They, without doubt, are hate-mongers whose only agenda is Hindu's domination in a Hindu Rashtra. They want to change Nation's history by promoting Hindutva by spreading disharmony. If we continue to vote for the party of bigots, they will take India down the path of destruction.
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                  Cygnus D Swam
                  Jul 9, 2017 at 8:05 pm
                  Rajan, Where do you get this nonsense from? Gandhi established his Ashrams in Ahmedabad and he came back from South AFrica with that view. Besides, rioting was not invented by BJP. Congress Party, under Chiman Patel and Madhav Sigh Solanki used it as a state policy. In fact, it is only Modi who has brought peace to Agmedabad and Gujarat. Don't rely on Barkha and Sardesais for news. Ask locals.
                  Reply
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                    Sailesh Patel
                    Jul 9, 2017 at 10:02 pm
                    Cygnus I am a local and I can say that Rajan is absolutely correct. The BJP RSS and other gunda organisation used Ahmedabad as a lab to see how they can divide and rule and after doing that successfully copied it all over India. You can see the results. In the eyes of the world India's fair name is being disgraced and sullied by lynchings riots and minority bashing I am here on a visit to Los Angeles and all I here is the bad name brought to India by Modi and his gang
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                      Truth
                      Jul 9, 2017 at 10:24 pm
                      Keep up the good work Sailesh---- we need more non-Bhakts to unveil all the lies spread by Modi-Shah and Company !!!
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                        Cygnus D Swam
                        Jul 10, 2017 at 3:26 am
                        Sailesh, 1969 and 1983 riots were more ferocious than 2002. All riots were actually from the laboratories that Solanki and Patel built. Modi had just taken over as CM in 2002 and could hardly be blamed for what started in Godhara. Everyone knows in Amdavad that Solanki signed off with burning Gujarat Samachar press at the height of riots in 80's. So, learn history before opening your mouth.
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                          Truth
                          Jul 10, 2017 at 4:06 am
                          Let Modi-Shah continue bringing "peace" in Gujarat if that's what Gujarat thinks of them.........the rest of India can do without them !
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                          Rajiv
                          Jul 10, 2017 at 4:42 am
                          Rajan, If Hinduism is not promoted in India then should you expect to promote in Saudi, Pakistan, Iran, UAE, Indonesia, Bangladesh..? Wrong, unjustified arguments. How country India will be down if Hindus are ruling? Do you want to create another Pakistan? All Hindus, Muslims, Jain, Christians parsi are Indians with equal rights. Don't be bias if hindu or Muslims are ruling India. Jai Hind.
                          Reply
                        3. S
                          Sunil Sharma
                          Jul 9, 2017 at 7:05 pm
                          The old tradition of having religious riots and killing has been kept intact till as recently in 2002. Great killing history should be on records of Intorelance to people inside the city
                          Reply
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