The city of Ahmedabad, which is on the verge of celebrating its 600th birthday is not only a city steeped in history but is evolving harmoniously in its new avatar as a city of modern cosmopolitan fervor. The average man on the street is suave with lots of cash to spare. It is a rich city by Indian standards and has its share of NRIs who pump in the much-needed foreign exchange into the local economy.
At first glance, the visitor to Ahmedabad will be deceived by the rather old Mughal structures like mosques and the Indo-Saracenic style of architectural facades that dot the landscape of the city. But make no mistake, Ahmedabad is a city, which is every bit modern with its own share of glitzy shopping malls, theatres, amusement parks, quality restaurants and a pulsating cultural scene with colorful festivals lined up throughout the year.
I have been fortunate enough to visit this incredible city on numerous occasions largely to take stock of the Tourism scenario and have been invited to visit the state of Gujarat courtesy of the Tourism Corporation of Gujarat.
Most tourists have a preconceived notion that the city of Ahmedabad is steeped in tradition and is conservative in its outlook, which is not true at all. This is one Indian city, which has a character of its own and here the past blends with the present in a very judicious manner.
The city was founded by Mughal emperor Sultan Ahmed Shah way back in 1411 A.D. on the periphery of River Sabarmati. If popular Gujarati folklore is anything to go by, it is believed that emperor Sultan Ahmed was perplexed by the fact that one of his trusted dogs known for its tenacity was frequently attacked by a Rabbit, which led him to arrive at the conclusion that if the Rabbits in this part of the world are so daring and fearless, undoubtedly the native people of this land must be even more courageous.
Since the entire city is graced with impressive monuments, mosques, mausoleums and pavilions the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation with the tacit support of CRUTA and the Swaminarayan Trust have launched a novel way of exploring the varied charms of this incredible city – “The Heritage Walk of Ahmedabad.”
The walking trail has been thoughtfully planned by experts and there is a reserve pool of volunteers who offer their services as guides to the visitors. Encouraged by the positive feedback from like-minded tourists like me, I decided to embark on a walking tour of Ahmedabad.
We commenced our walk from the majestic Swaminarayan temple and passed through meandering streets covering a plethora of havelis, ancient temples, pols and intricately designed architectural facades mostly belonging to the Indo-Saracenic style. My walk was made even more memorable by the fact that my guide Pavitran literally knew the entire city by the tip of his fingers. No question went unanswered, and he kept me amused all throughout my walk, often revealing tidbits from the city’s rich virile past, which otherwise would have remained unknown to me. We covered the entire trail in 2.5 hours and still, there was no sign of fatigue.
I was shown some of the most outstanding facades of the city by Pavitran and couldn’t help marveling at the ingenuity of the architects. There are numerous buildings that bear the signature stamp of master architects of the stature of Louis Khan, Le Corbusier, Correa and Doshi.
Any mention of the city of Ahmedabad evokes memories of Mahatma Gandhi – “Father of the Nation” and an extraordinary human being who shook the mighty British Empire single-handedly by his remarkable method of “Non-Violence & Non-Co-operation”. He lived the life of an ascetic at the world-famous Sabarmati Ashram, which is ideally located on the banks of River Sabarmati and planned many of his non-violent strategies to dethrone the colonial rulers. I thoroughly enjoyed the evening’s Sound & Light Show that innovatively depicts the Mahatma’s gradual ascent onto the world stage from his humble beginnings.
The numerous visits to this enchanting city have confirmed my conviction that for someone who is interested in exploring in-depth the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture, there is no other city better equipped than the city of Ahmedabad. Be it the Jumma Masjid or the Siddi Sayed Mosque, each one of them is a masterpiece and great place to broaden one’s architectural horizons.
I was rather fascinated by the elaborate architectural patterns of the Jain temples of Ahmedabad. They are mostly ornately carved and are a treat to watch. Among all the Jain temples of Ahmedabad, the magnificent Hateesingh Jain Temple is by far the most outstanding. This majestic temple was built by a rich Jain merchant way back in the year 1850. What baffled me was not only the sheer enormity of the temple but also the huge amount of White Marble that has been exclusively used to build this temple. This temple is dedicated to Dharamnath, the 15th Jain apostle.
The ‘Step Wells’ that are a characteristic feature of the state of Gujarat too are very conspicuous by their presence in Ahmedabad. The innovative manner in which these ‘Step Wells’ descend below in even more majestically done up chambers at the ground level bears ample testimony to the ingenuity of the local artisans who built them several centuries back.
Of special significance are the ‘Doshiwada ni Pol’, ‘Zaveri Vad’ and Chaumukhji ni Pol where I saw numerous ornately done up temples. What amazed me was the meticulous manner in which the wooden carvings were concealed under seemingly plain exteriors. Make it a point to visit the 110-year-old Harkunvar Shethani ni Haveli which isn’t that far.
The magnificent Iskcon temple true to its typical characteristic trait of building absolutely grandiose Radha Krishna temples worldwide doesn’t disappoint its devotees at Ahmedabad with its truly regal architecture. Apart from taking part in the divinely ordained evening “Aarati”, you may also partake in the “Prasadam” during the luncheon. The vegetarian fare is mouth-watering and the prospect of joining in ‘community feast’ can be a very rewarding experience for those who are less initiated in Hindu mores and traditions. In the evening, after Aarati, the temple conducts inspiring spiritual lectures and discourses that are very elevating. Try to coincide your visit to the Iskcon temple during the colorful festival of “Rath Yatra”, which usually falls in the month of March-April.
The old city of Ahmedabad will make the first-time visitor beguile with its impeccable plan. There are a plethora of pols and self-sufficient quarters wherein a sizeable number of people from both the Hindu and Muslim communities dwell. The stand-out features of a typical Old Ahmedabad neighborhood are the winding alleyways that extend all the way to a square where one can sight the quintessential ‘community wells’. The exclusive “Chabutaras” (bird feeding zones) are very conspicuous by their presence.
As we moved through the Fernandez Bridge all the way to Manek Chowk where we rested for a brief while at a teashop, my guide Pavitran revealed to me the legend of Manek Baba on whose memory the square was named. There is also the Manek Baba Mandir in close proximity to the ‘chowk’ where he is believed to have entered into a bottle, yes, a bottle!!! to demonstrate his magical powers to the founder of the city -Ahmed Shah.
I have heard of museums that showcase artifacts, objet d'arts and ancient historical relics. But never a museum exclusively dedicated to textiles. I was told by my guide Pavitran that the Calico Museum of Textiles is one of the finest Textile Museums in the world. From the outside, the museum façade isn’t all that impressive. But, the moment you step inside the museum premises, a whole new world of textiles opens up in front of you.
Every day, discerning fashion designers and lay visitors come to visit this one-of-its-kind museum of Ahmedabad. We meet two budding textile designers from Leeds Metropolitan University in the UK who had come with the sole aim of researching the intricate embroidery works on the royal tents used by the then Mughal emperors as they moved from one place to another with their entourage. According to Daniel Anderson, one of the Brits – “This museum is a storehouse of information. The rich repository of rare textile items on offer, particularly those belonging to the Mughal era is outstanding. We are still at a loss to understand how the craftsmen of the Mughal era could embroider such masterpieces without the aid of sewing machines. The sheer wizardry on display at the museum will put to shame the most accomplished modern-day fashion designers”.
Apart from the Calico Museum, another surprise package that awaited me was the Ahmedabad Kite Museum. I was completely awestruck by the sheer diversity of the kites that were showcased at the museum. There is an exclusive chamber that artistically depicts the evolution of kites from ancient times to the modern-day. The huge collections of kites are methodically arranged on the basis of regions.
For the eternal architectural buff, a visit to Sarkhej Roza and Shah Alam Roza could be a very rewarding architectural experience. Even with my rudimentary knowledge of architecture, I was fascinated by the sheer elegance of the exclusive complex of Sarkhej Roza. Inside the premises, apart from the palace and the intricately designed pavilions, there is a tomb dedicated to Mehmud Shah and his beloved queen as well as a mosque. It was hard to fathom that none of the facades used arches. Instead, stone latticework has been used extensively.
Sometimes, constant exposure to historical facades can be unexciting for those less initiated in architecture. Don’t you worry! There are fabulous nature-based recreational options within close proximity to the city. I especially found the Kankaria Lake, which extends for more than a mile to be very interesting with its regal palace on an island. Apart from indulging in some light recreational pursuits like boating, one can also visit the miniature zoo and the Museum of Natural History.
However, if you desire to be somewhere that would take you out of the cityscape, the fabulous Nalsoravar Bird Sanctuary is an interesting option. We saw a motley crew of Japanese tourists armed with their Nikons and Cannons at strategic points of the bird sanctuary. The Japanese are the world’s most sought-after tourists when it comes to bird watching and from their august presence, I was convinced that this sanctuary was no ordinary one. Here you can have a date with avian species like Flamingoes, Brahminy Ducks, Herons, Pelicans (they are just cute) and White Storks from a stock of more than 250 odd avian species that are known to breed in the lake’s favorable microclimate.
Modern-day Ahmedabad is pulsating with activity. A visit to the city’s principal promenade – the glitzy C.G. Road reveals the newfound obsession of Ahmedabad’s crème-de-la-crème when it comes to celebrating life. From multiplexes to water parks and exclusive clubs to top-end multi-cuisine restaurants, the city offers a multiplicity of entertainment options to the discerning world traveler.
As far as shopping is concerned, watch out for the big brands – the Pantaloons, Circle P, Hours, Feminatown, etc… are all here. However, most visitors to Ahmedabad are obsessed with the locally manufactured Bandhini sarees, Tanchoi sarees, and the intricate Zari works that are available in and around the city’s central shopping neighborhoods like Bapu Nagar, Ellis Bridge, Kadia, Kalupur, Lal Darwaza, Maninagar, Raipur and Vadaj.
Boutique stores have added an entirely new dimension to the shopping scene in the city of Ahmedabad and they showcase the designer outfits of some of India’s celebrated fashion designers like Rohit Bal, Monapali and others of their ilk in the extremely classy boutiques like Bandhej, Monapali, Sukruti, Elan and Kalaniketan.
For souvenir shopping, the best bets are the Khadi Gram Udyog Emporia, Hastakala, Kapasi and the exclusive Saurashtra Emporium. They are well stocked with indigenously manufactured items ranging from sarees to clay utensils. The prices too are moderate.
The eating out scene too is fabulous with a plethora of quality restaurants that dot the city landscape. A typical Gujarati dish (Thali) will come with Roti, Daal or Kadhi, Basmati rice and seasonal vegetables. The average Gujarati cuisine is very nutritious and has a sweet flavor unlike the other states of India where it is invariably spicier. I couldn’t resist the temptation of indulging my taste buds in the indigenously produced Sweets like Halvasan, Malpua, Sutarfeni, Shrikhand (my favorite), Basundi, Ghari & Gheabar (especially the Surat varieties), Puran Poli, Son Papdi and a whole lot more.
I fell in love with Shrikhand, which is basically strained yogurt and is the principal dessert in the local Gujarati culinary landscape. I especially liked those with slices of Mangoes and tidbits of dried fruits.
Some of the city’s prominent restaurants are Mirch Masala at Swastik Char Rasta, the Sheeba Restaurant at Navragpura, and Tomato’s – The Diner at C.G. Road. The latter claims to be the only American Diner Restaurant in India. Apart from Indian cuisine, Tomato’s also offers delectable Italian, Thai, Mexican and Chinese fare.
For ice cream, waffers and mango pulps drop in at the Vadilal Soda Foundation just adjacent to Karanj Police Station.
Ahmedabad is easily accessible from other parts of India. Paramount Airways operates regular flights to Ahmedabad from cities like Chennai, Coimbatore, Trivandrum, Madurai, Calcutta, Tiruchirapally and Hyderabad.
The road and rail networks linking Ahmedabad to the other metropolitan cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, and Kolkata are extensive. The frequency of trains operating in the Delhi and Mumbai sectors, in particular, is plenty. Kolkata and Chennai too are well connected by trains to Ahmedabad and vice versa.
Ahmedabad has a wide variety of hotels to suit every budget. Among the luxury hotel properties are The Taj Residency, Ummed Airport Circle, Le Meridien, Fortune Hotel Landmark, and Cama Park Plaza to name just a few. Most of them are centrally located and offer all the modern amenities that are expected of a star category hotel. From 24-hour room service, high-speed Internet connectivity, same-day laundry, mini bar, attached marbled bathroom, multi-channel TV that beams BBC, CNN, National Geographic, etc… telephones, and individual climate control (in some cases) are offered to the discerning guests.
However, if one is looking for government-run accommodation, the Toran Gandhi Ashram Hotel just opposite the Sabarmati Gandhi Ashram is a very good option. There is a sense of history in this neighborhood due to the hotel’s close proximity to the Gandhi Ashram. There are many tourists, who in spite of knowing that there are numerous star category hotels in Ahmedabad, still choose to stay at the Gandhi Ashram Hotel run by the Tourism Corporation of Gujarat.
There is no dearth of budget category hotels in the city and some of the popular hotels for backpackers are Hotel Siddhartha Palace, Hotel Prithvi, Hotel Bombay, Hotel Moscow, Silver Oak Club & Resort, Hotel Riverfront, etc.