August 17, 2017
An old city steeped in heritage and charm, colourful fabrics and a rich textile history, and thali plates bursting with flavours you won’t find anywhere else, Ahmedabad has become one of MADELENE PEARSON’s favourite places to visit during a tour of India. Here, she explains why.
Framed in the pale blue and green of her open doorway, she was seemingly oblivious to the costumed band player in front of her. Instead, she stared straight into the lens of my camera. Click.
At that moment, when I captured what I now call the Ahmedabad Girl photo, my interest in this city piqued. It was as if this unknown girl was inviting me to her city, asking me to explore it further. And so I have, discovering an intriguing place with many layers.
I’m not sure why Ahmedabad isn’t on everyone’s list of must-see cities to visit during travel in India – it’s always on mine. But then again, I’m glad it’s not hugely popular with tourists, even though it deserves to be, because that might lessen its charm. An easy hop from Mumbai by plane or a six-hour train journey, this relatively unknown city has so much appeal.
Ahmedabad has an interesting and at times troubled past. The city has been rocked by a deadly earthquake and roiled by riots. It’s also one of the main cities in Gujarat – one of India’s most prosperous states – and home of the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
It holds a significant place in India’s history for it was here where Gandhi began his famous Salt March, and is the centre of one of the country’s major industries: cotton and beautiful textiles. Visit Gandhi Ashram and the world-class Calico Museum, both in Ahmedabad. There’s also the Mill Owners’ Building and Indian Institute of Management to see, both striking buildings architecturally.
The Ahmedabad I love so much isn’t just these fascinating sights or its rich history; it’s what I’ve found in the everyday, among the people and on the streets.
In the old city you can see the many different pols, or neighbourhoods, with their crammed – and in parts, crumbling – havelis, or houses, their glory faded long ago. From the outside they look worn and empty, but inside life goes on and families live here as they have for many generations. Some of these havelis are now being painstakingly restored and turned into guesthouses such as Mangaldas ni Haveli.
In these narrow, maze-like streets you’ll discover the bird feeders each pol shares, and community noticeboards where each neighbourhood still, to this day, writes in chalk the events and news from the pol such as births or deaths.
There are small and unique industries like the man sewing intricate clothes to decorate the deity statues in temples and, at certain times of the year, you’ll see special craftsmen such as the kite string makers.
There are temples and mosques humming with daily prayers, an old haveli built from Burmese teak that’s now used as a school, vegetable sellers making their rounds, breakfast snacks and chai being sold and, at the end of the day, a buzzing market of stall holders and food vendors.
And it was here some years ago, on an early morning heritage walk in the old city, I found the Ahmedabad Girl. Since then what I have discovered is a city that’s full of the colours and flavours of life in India, packed with history and pride. A place easily explored because of its small size, and a place where some of the traditions and heritage – that are being lost elsewhere in the modernising India – are still retained. If you experience it yourself, you might just fall in love with Ahmedabad too.
Madelene Pearson will share her love of Ahmedabad with travellers in November. The city is one of four stop on her 10-day Fabulous India tour, starting in Mumbai on November 10.