Ahmedabad – A city with a rich cultural heritage – Esther David

Culture is Power.

It empowers cities and the people who live there.

In the fifties, Ahmedabad was known as a city of textile mills.

It also had a rich legacy of Gandhi Ashram, ancient Islamic Architecture, Temples, Step-Wells, Bird-Feeders known as ‘Chabutras,’ ‘Pols’ and ‘Havelis;’ made with intricate wood carvings.

It was then; that the world’s best known architects came to Ahmedabad on invitation and gave a new flavour to the city with their architectural marvels.

One of Le Corbusier’s first buildings was a cultural center known as Sanskar Kendra, where the people of Ahmedabad saw the famed photo-exhibition, ‘The Family of Man.’

Today, there are many more cultural centers, auditoriums and art galleries, which showcase visual arts, performing arts, music concerts, dance festivals, theatre and various other activities, which are making the city into a cultural center of Gujarat.

Ahmedabad is a magical city.

It has Shaking Minarets, a Walking Mosque; ‘Chate-Pir-ki- Dargah,’ the niche of a Laughing Lady; who made weepy children smile ‘Hasti Bibi no Gokhlo.’  

It is a city without walls, but is still known as the Walled City. Here, there are bazaars with jingling bangles, the smell of new brooms, raw mangos, fresh vegetables, green mint, pink candy floss, the forbidden cart with the coloured bottles of sherbet and pickles, which lend certain richness to our life. This feeling still holds true in some parts of the old city. Maybe, it is quickly changing its character and identity, yet, it has retained its 604 year old heritage and efforts are being made to declare it as a UNESCO, World Heritage City.

Each and every part of the old city has a story or fable attached to it. The streets and Pols of the old city are known in context to these and most areas of the walled city are marked with an image, which become symbolic of these spaces, where it is not unusual to see people sitting around a tree and retelling stories of the ‘…good old days…’

A well known story is about Manecknath; a sage who wove mats and had a dispute with Sultan Ahmedshah, who was building a fortress around the city. Much to the Sultan’s bewilderment, the walls, which were built during the day, turned to rubble at night.

The Sultan was mystified by the occurrence, till he discovered that, when Manecknath removed the threads from his mat, the fortress fell.

Later the dispute was resolved and the badshah built the fortress. This is how Maneck Chowk, the open bazaar in the old city gets its name, as it is the venue of Manecknath’s memorial.

Manek Chowk also houses the main vegetable market, which has as much inside, as outside; on the pavements. Here, during summer, mango, the king of fruit, reigns supreme, with as many poetic names as possible from hafooz, kesar, badam, gulab, totapuri, neelam to sundari with mounds of raw green mangoes rajapuri, vanraj, desi, sold along with green figs.

They have everything from chikoo, corn, papaya, gooseberries, guava, apples, plums, berries, bananas, water melon, pineapple and sweet-lime.

Ahmedabad also owes its existence to the Sufi Saint Sheikh Ahmed Khattu.

The city was conceived in the Saint’s magical mind.

Sultan Ahmedshah was his follower and seeked his advice for the foundation of the city. Khattu told him to find four religious men to lay the foundation stone of the city.

Another well known story is that, it is believed that Goddess Laxmi lives in Ahmedabad.

According to folklore, late one night, when the Goddess stood at the main entrance to the city at Teen Darwaza; she knocked on the massive gates. The guard opened the gate against rules, as in those days; all gates of the walled city were opened at seven in the morning and closed at seven in the evening to the beat of drums.

The guard refused entry to the Goddess and asked her to wait. He left her standing there, as he went to take permission from the Sultan.

When the Sultan heard about the guard’s folly of stopping the Goddess from entering the city, he beheaded the guard. Actually, there are many versions to this story.

Later, the emperor rushed to welcome the Goddess; but she had disappeared into the city.

Since then, it is believed that Goddess Laxmi resides in the walled city and brings prosperity to the people of Ahmedabad.

An eternal lamp is kept burning in an alcove of the central arch of Teen Darwaza; in memory of Goddess Laxmi’s presence in Ahmedabad.

These stories are the soul of the city.

Ahmedabad is also known as a city of dust – ‘Gardabad.’

It is a city of contrasts, where there is Moghul architecture and the best of modern architecture, from Sultan Ahmed Shah to Le Corbusier to Louise Kahn. 

Newcomers often dislike the city for more reasons than one, but, if you meet them in a couple of years, you will learn that they have settled down in Ahmedabad. 

The city has a tendency to grow on newcomers to the city, creeping into their sensibilities, as slowly; they start admiring its pace and history

Ahmedabad is now a highly developed city, but look closely and you will see that it still retains the quality of an overgrown village. Between the malls and high rise apartments, you will see glimpses of various communities in  traditional dresses, along with their cattle and other animals. For a change, one can also see them on motorbikes wearing jeans instead of ‘dhotis,’ sport shoes with a tell-tale turban and ear-studs. Our traffic moves along with camels, cows, dogs and elephants, as kites and vultures patrol the skies. Lines of langurs sit on walls, as bee-eaters, sunbirds, peafowl and a variety of smaller birds can be spotted in the green patches of the city, which also attracts a variety of migratory water- birds during winter, like Rosy Pastors, Flamingos and Pelicans. It is also during winter that the city creates quiet another atmosphere during ‘Uttrayan,’ the festival of Kite-Flying. Earth and sky, fill with kites and the air resound with cries of ‘Kaipo-Che,’ in true Ahmedabadi spirit. The village-feeling is further accentuated when you see vendors selling earthenware at almost all street corners. Like our haute couture and nouveau cuisine, these co-exist with the biggest boutiques of the city.

Yet, between shopping complexes and towering housing societies with their aquarium apartments, you could be surprised to see an ancient ‘Chabutro,’ as it rises majestically between hoardings and buildings.

This is Ahmedabad, which has a combination of Islamic architecture, modern buildings and old ‘Havelis’. The newly landscaped Sarkhej Roza from1458 A.D., a Spanish hacienda type bungalow, a house with glass walls, the parrots and peacocks in the brass chain of a swing, Kankaria lake, Naginawadi; the summer palace of Sultan Qutbuddin, the zoo, the glass façade of a commercial complex; shining in the neon lights, a tiled roof of an old house, the last chimney of a long forgotten textile mill, the fragrance of Arabia wafting from ‘Bhatiyar Gully’- a street of master chefs known for Moglai cuisine, the folk paintings on the  huts of migrant labourers, the sand-stone surfaces of mosques, the fragrance of sandal wood emitting from the cool interior of temples with marble floorings and the kaleidoscopic colours of textiles in Ratan Pol, as shop keepers call out in Gujarati, “you do not have to pay to see…;” which is in contrast to the policed-off-the-rack-shopping in malls.

Ahmedabad is an ancient city with a rich heritage. Yet, it still retains its living culture through its architecture, performing arts, visual arts, textiles, food, folk arts and life styles. It is a vibrant colourful city, which is a mixture of old Moghul monuments and modern architecture. Although, it is an industrial city, it has still retained a certain old-world character. Ahmedabad is also known for its tea-stalls, which can be seen all over the city.  Most people enjoy sharing a cup of tea with friends, known as ‘cutting chai.’

Food, also forms an integral part of Ahmedabadi life. The Gujarati thali is well known, as it is based on the Indian aesthetics of ‘Navras,’ the nine flavours and colours of life. Similarly, during Navratri, the nine nights of dancing, the city becomes truly Gujarati, when Ahmedabadis perform raas-garba dances in their sparkling Navratri dresses and jewelery.

Even as Western Ahmedabad is fast becoming a city of malls and high-rise housing complexes, the old city continues to preserve some rites and rituals, like the playing of drums at Sultan Ahmed Shah’s mosque, reminding us, that once upon a time, the Walled City was a Fort, which protected us and was linked to the ‘Darwazas’ or gates.

But today, the walls have disappeared, the gates stand alone and the city has grown with many arteries, which cut across the river and beyond.

It is said, in ancient times, Saint Dadhichi had hidden in his spine, the weapons of the Gods and lived here; in this; our city, in an Ashram, where the lion and the lamb lay down together at his feet. This is also the land of Mahatma Gandhi and one can feel peaceful, while sitting on the ghats there, on the banks of River Sabarmati.

Since 1451, Ahmedabad already had a rich heritage of the arts, known as the Western Indian style of painting on palm-leaf in bright colours.

One of the early works on the city was by the Dutch painter Philip Baldeus, who made a print in 1672, titled ‘The City of Ahmedabath.’ Later, in 1850 Captain Biggs of the East India Company documented the architectural monuments of Ahmedabad.

By then, painter Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) had already entered the hearts and homes of the people of Ahmedabad with his prints of Indian gods and other mythological characters. He paintedIndian subjects with Western techniques and inspired many artists, when he came to Ahmedabad for a brief period.

The turning point came in 1878; when Nobel Laureate; poet Rabindranath Tagore came to Ahmedabad to stay with his elder brother, thereafter, he often visited the city.

With this, as a background, art activities gained momentum through the efforts of painter Ravishanker Raval (1892-1977). As a young boy, growing up in Bhavnagar, he was so desperate to paint that he made a brush with the hair of his top-knot. When, he came to Ahmedabad and started an art school.

It is a fairly unknown fact that Mahatma Gandhi also played a pivotal role in the creation of a cultural ethos in Ahmedabad. When he organized the Haripura Congress; he asked famed painter Nandlal Bose of Rabindranath Tagore’s art school, Santiniketan and Ravishanker Raval to paint together. Itwas the beginning of a new era of the arts. 

Later, when young aspiring painter Chaganlal Jadav befriended N.S.Bendre who headed the painting department of Vadodara’s Faculty of Fine Arts, he was exposed to various art forms and painted in the French impressionistic stye. His work impressed the young Ahmedabad based mill-owner Amit Ambalal, who started painting under Jadav’s guidance. Later, he was to leave his family business and take to painting, creating his own language in terms of form, theme and humour.

While, Haku Shah created quiet another genre of painting, by merging tribal forms with modern idioms.

During this period, Piraji Sagara was also experimenting with mix media techniques using old wood carvings and merging them with human figures.

Soon, younger artists were experimenting with mix media techniques and abstractions, giving another dimension to the arts.

Today, the art scene has a global appeal, with more and more artists turning towards Installation art and other multi-media techniques.

So, while exploring the cultural background of the city, we understand that all arts have existed together in Ahmedabad.


In this context, it is important to understand that Indian mythology gives great importance to the five elements of the universe; that is earth, sky, air, water and fire. So, any object made with clay, immediately conjures images of these elements. Clay is the symbol of our earth-and-craft-based-culture and our inheritance of clay objects, which have come down to us from the Indus Valley Civilization, the remains of which can be seen at Lothal in Gujarat, which have similiarities to many clay or terracotta forms made by certain communities of Gujarat.

In fact, in earlier times, our homes were also built; in tune with the natural rhythms of the sun, moon, wind and rain.

Yet, since the last many years, clay plays a minimal role in our lives. This has resulted in the slow disappearance of potters’ from the ‘gaams’ and ‘puras’ – the village-like settlements situated in and around Ahmedabad. Maybe, because of the arrival of filtered water plants, which have taken over the water-pot or ‘matka’-culture from the city. Since, the last few years, most potters have left for their villages or have stopped working, so, most consignments of terracotta objects come to the city through middle-men.

For the aesthetically inclined, it was a fascinating sight to see our potters’ working on their wheels. They made pots, while sitting on the floor, making bowl after bowl from one single ball of clay. Their hands were sensitive to clay, which was kneaded, thrown on the wheel, centered, raised, given a form, dried; eventually fired in a pit, removed, cleaned, as the women appllied a red-ochre-slip and dried them in the sun. Later, the potter would knock the surface of each pot with his knuckles; to hear the perfectly-fired-sound-of-the-pot. This entire process had a magical quality.

Nevertheless, clay has re-appeared in our lives, as it is often used by designers. In a similar manner, ‘Warli Art,’ ‘Pithora Painting, ‘Kutch-Clay-Relief-Work’ are extensively used in interiors with expertise taken from crafts-people. Besides clay, wood carvers, stone carvers, bamboo artists, textile artists and others who work with their hands; understand their material and form a link between all arts.

Today, Ahmedabad is known to be a city with a living culture, which has a history of more than six hundred years, where all arts have existed together, making Ahmedabad into a city with a rich cultural heritage.

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