Old Ahmedabad

The Ahmedabad founded by Sultan Ahmed Shah in 1411 was a walled city made up of communities called “pols.” These are self-contained communities with only one or two entrances, gates that could be closed at the first sign of communal trouble. They also feature secret passageways among themselves that are difficult to discover unless someone points them out to you. The pols still follow communal lines: ones for Hindus, Jains, Muslims.

The homes have intricately carved window coverings, doors and balconies, features that don’t exist in modern architecture. “The old city had a concealed drainage system which in parts is still in use,” according to the website of Vaarso, a cultural heritage website. “Key points had wrought iron poles serving as escapes as vents for the subterranean tunnels. Each pole was crowned with a directional arrow indicating a nether bifurcation of the tunnels, this forming a dotted map of the entire system.”

Each home or “haveli” was built on a “tanka,” or water reservoir. “Rainwater harvested from the multi-leveled, jig sawed rooftops, brought down in a series of copper pipes, filtered through a layer of charcoal, lime and pebbles found its way to the storage tank” according to Vaarso. To compensate for felling trees, residents built chabutras, where residents leave grains and water for birds. “The ‘pol’ gradually transmogrified into virtual fortresses of calm and safety as the hold of the Imperial court in Delhi weakened and skirmishes and fiefdoms arose waving banners of defiant revolt and independence in various parts of a fractured kingdom, assailed internally by ambitious and disgruntled warlords and externally by flexing colonial European powers in an elusively notorious search for spices and a controlled amalgamated assimilation of territories,” Vaarso says.



The mad warriors of Holi 2013. Ellisbridge, Ahmedabad, Gujarat. They pounced on me like vultures swooping on fresh carrion.

On the night before Holi, my aunt and her two daughters-in-law gathered silver matlas filled with water, and a thali with popped dhana and a few coins. The sun had already set and we walked in the darkness to what was – surprisingly, in the urban density of Ahmedabad – an empty field next door where an adolescent-sized bonfire about eight feet high licked towards the sky. People were already gathered around the fire and my relatives exchanged subdued greetings with them. What was just neglected urban pasture a few hours earlier was now holy ground, a place where good was beating back evil.

The story goes that Hiranyakashipu, the great king of demons, was granted a boon by Brahma that he could not be killed “during day or night; inside the home or outside, not on earth or in the sky; neither by a man nor an animal; neither by astra nor by shastra.” (I’m not sure exactly why a God would grant such a power to a demon king but perhaps it was all part of the let’s-all-get-along movement among the divine and the damned at the time.) Anyhow, Hiranyakashipu began to think a little highly of himself, as one  might since even death did not now have power over him, and demanded that he be worshipped as a God. But his son Prahlad refused. He was a devotee of Vishnu. So Hiranyakashipu  ordered that his son to be put to death by fire. Prahlad would be held on a pyre in the lap of his sister, Holika, who herself had a boon that fire could not harm her.

Instead, because of his devotion Prahlad was saved while his sister burned. Thus, the beginning of the “Holika dahan” that takes place each Holi eve. Small effigies are placed in the bonfire to represent the siblings, one made of highly flammable material while the other is fire-resistant. This was a darker side to a holiday I knew only as a light-hearted frolic when we would throw colored powder and water at each other.

The colors come the day after, on Dhuleti, and mimic the frolics Krishna had with milkmaids, known as gopis. Today, people go from house to house, color-bombing and throwing buckets of water on friends and family. We had set out for another cousin’s house yesterday only to find when we got there that he had run away! So, sporting our shades of hot pink, purple, green and yellow, we zipped along Ahmedabad’s unusually quiet streets for a food stall and enjoyed vada pav.

Patan, carved

Patan was built in 745 as the Solankis solidified their Indian empire, and it was a major center in the kingdom that stretched much beyond Gujarat’s current borders. It remained a capital through Moghul rule until Sultan Ahmed Shah moved the capital to Ahmedabad in 1411. Even as Patan exchanged hands from the Solankis to the Sultanate to the British, Patan has become a major center for Jains and home to nearly 200 temples, both major derasars and neighborhood shrines tucked amid homes in the smallest of pols. P.S. is a Jain and showed me several temples, pointing out the iconography in elaborate mirrorwork and wood and stone carvings.

Patan is also home to the Rani ki Vav, or “Queen’s stepwell,” an elaborately carved stepwell that was built in 1063. It was commissioned by Queen Udayamati, the wife of Solanki King Bhimdev I and has more than 800 carved sandstone images with the 10 incarnations of Vishnu as the central team. P.S. and I spent more than an hour gazing at the various reliefs. She has been coming to the vav since childhood and knew many of the panels by heart. Among her favorites – and now mine – are of the apsaras, the buxom courtiers who are shown bathing, wearing earrings or just from the bath, unknowing that a scorpion has nestled itself onto the robe she is about to wear.

Living amid history in Patan

Samuben and Menama enjoy the fresh air
Peacock brass door handle

Peacock brass door handle

Patan, in northern Gujarat, has been described as a “living museum” and I agree. Walking through the pols’ narrow lanes gave me a sense of the life in Gujarat my Dad describes when he was growing up in the 1940s and 1950s. The small-town feel came in no small part because of P.S., a now retired doctor who had worked with my dad at a Mehsana hospital in the 1960s. Patan is her hometown; she spends half the year there and she’s an enthusiastic tour guide.

The architecture in this small city is notable. Many of the homes still bear the carved wooden facades and brackets that were common features in Gujarat until concrete began to replace them. Thankfully, modernity has largely eluded Patan’s neighborhood havelis. Its out-of-the-way location and relative obscurity mean the city is definitely on the less-traveled Gujarat tourism path.

We wandered around its pols, a shortened Sanskrit word for community or neighborhood, stopping along the way for the doctor to chat with friends and neighbors – in some cases, more than one generation – she’s known her entire life. Apart from the main artery in and out of town, Patan’s streets are quiet – save for the occasional bovine that always commands the right-of-way in India – and encourage leisurely strolling.

my scarf

my scarf

Patan’s most famous export is its Patola saris, once weaved for Solanki emperors 800 years ago. Weavers use a technique called double ikkat that results in the exact same design on both sides and can be worn either way. P.S. took me to see her friends Satish and Parish Salvi, who belong to one of only three families left who weave Patola. In their upstairs studio the two brothers showed me how they create this unique Gujarati art.

It’s a complicated dance between fingers and threads where a single weft thread binds it all together.  The threads themselves are painstakingly dyed according to a preset pattern and knots are used to distinguish between each color during the consecutive dying processes. Saris take more than five months to make and can cost as much as $11,000.

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India’s new royalty of business tycoons are now the patrons of Patola’s finest weaves. But they must be prepared to wait. If you place an order with the Salvis today, they will deliver it four years from now. That’s their waiting list, and they said they recently turned down a lucrative contract to make wedding saris for a prominent industrialist’s daughter.

The saris could become harder to get. Neither of the brothers have sons to carry on the tradition and they are both divorced. The scion of another weaver family, Rahul Salvi, had given up his architecture career to return to the family business but found that taking up weaving made him less desirable on the matrimonial market. “Educated girls seem to find it below their dignity to marry a weaver,” the then 32-year-old was quoted as saying. “They want me to settle in a city and find a ‘decent’ job.”

A small moment of hope

DSC_0380For all of the real economic progress that India has made, poverty and hardship are harsh realities for many Indians. A recent story in the German magazine Spiegel is a rather merciless illustration of the gulf between have and have-nots.

There are government services and social aid but a variety of corruption and inefficiency means squandered resources. Indifference is both a coping mechanism to deal with the vastness of the need and a tool for some individuals to be able to simply concentrate on what they personally can be responsible for.

Earlier this month, I visited a facility run by the Bharat Vikas Parishad which manufactures artificial limbs for the poor. My dad had made a contribution to them in my grandmother’s name and he received a letter asking him to be there to help present a limb to a handicapped person.  Since I was here in Ahmedabad, Dad asked me to go.

We weren’t sure what to expect. Was this to be a formal ceremony of donors and recipients? It turns out that most Sundays the group hosts an open house of sorts where disabled people are welcome to come in and get fitted for prosthesis. The Parishad puts up fliers at temples and in other public areas advertising the service.  (It also runs a mobile facility that travels out to rural parts of the state.) When the limb is ready, the recipient travels to Ahmedabad for pickup. This was the point of the letter and on this particular Sunday, things were, not atypically, running late.

So we visited with Praful Velani and about half a dozen of his fellow trustees who gathered to discuss charity business over masala chai. He gave us a tour of the place. Artificial legs and hands painted a mocha brown to resemble Indian skin tones were scattered about. He showed us an oven used to heat the limb’s final shape in place, a swastika painted on its door to bless its operation. DSC_0368

The group’s main charitable effort is providing the limbs and they seemed earnest in their desire to help out fellow Indians who were less fortunate. One of their projects is a sort of matchmaking service where they try to encourage marriages between disabled young people. “Many of these young men earn good salaries and would provide a good home,” he said. For the young women, such a marriage could be a lifeline. It is often toughest convincing the parents of disabled girls, he said, as they are used to considering them “damaged” and of no use to society since a “normal” family wouldn’t consider them eligible to marry their sons.

The group has given 1,100 people an artificial limb in the last year and its estimates that about 1 million people in India don’t have a hand or a leg. We then met Kantaben Rabari from the village of Jetpur, about 150 kilometers away. She’s 35 and a housewife, and she had lost her right arm in an accident. My family’s donation was used to build her a new arm. As she tried it on, she wiggled the new fingers as she tried to loosen the bracket that controlled them so she could sip from a cup of water, and I was humbled to meet her.

Surya’s temple at Modhera

An hour’s drive north of Ahmedabad’s hustle, amidst agricultural fields, lies the elaborately carved Surya temple at Modhera. Built by a Solanki emperor in 1026, the temple was designed so that the first rays of the sun fell on the image of Surya, the Sun God, at the equinox. Solankis were considered to be descendants of the Sun God, and at the time of the temple’s construction Modhera was part of a thriving Hindu empire based out of Patan, a town to its north.

Being Muslim in Gujarat

I wrote earlier this month about the play “Tales of Tears” staged by the Ahmedabad group Apna Adda. As I mentioned, I was introduced to the group by Zahir Janmohammed, a fellow Indian-American writer who’s here in Gujarat working on research related to the 2002 riots. I was reading through his work last week and found this essay illustrating the difficulty, if not danger, of admitting he was Muslim during that time. Indians, as perhaps other ethnic groups do, identify each other through their names. Shah, for example, is a flashing red star indicating that I am Gujarati and of certain castes. South Indian names are unique as are Bengali ones.

Zahir found he was unable to even disclose his real name. I found his essay on the inability to express even this most basic form of identity sad and powerful. It originally appeared last month online at Cafe Dissensus. I thought it worth reading and wanted to share it with you.


We Are More Than Our Name

By Zahir Janmohamed

I kept waiting for the phone to ring during the Gujarat riots in 2002. The week before I left for India, my father invited his Gujarati Hindu colleague Rupa Aunty for dinner at our house in California. When I was a kid, I tied the rakhibrotherhood bracelet on her son. When my mom was diagnosed with cancer, Rupa Aunty was the first to spend the night with us at the hospital.

“If you need anything at all,” she told me just before I left for India, “my family is from Ahmedabad and we will be there for you.”

I grew up in California mispronouncing names of Gujarati dishes like thepla and my trip to Ahmedabad in 2002 was the first time anyone in my family had returned since my grandparents left Gujarat for Tanzania in the 1920s. This – my father kept reminding me – was my trip “home.”

Twelve days after I arrived as a service corps fellow with the America India Foundation, a train carrying Hindus was attacked in the Gujarat city of Godhra on February 27, 2002. The Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, who may well become India’s next prime minister, was quick to blame the attack on Muslims.

The next morning, a Hindu mob carrying swords, torches, and kerosene filled bottles walked on my all-Hindu street in Ahmedabad looking for Muslims – Muslims like me – to kill. They made us shout names of Hindu deities that my parents taught me to say with reverence. In the distance I could see a lone business, owned by a Muslim, up in flames. When the mob passed, I ducked into an internet café and passed the front desk, hoping I would not have to sign in with my unmistakably Muslim name. But a young man stopped me.

“Sir, your good name, please?” he said, handing me a clipboard.

“My name,” I told him, “is Sanjay.”

I closed the curtain in the internet booth and held back tears as I emailed my parents the lie I needed to tell them: yes mom and dad, I am safe.

My father, a devout Muslim whose fondness for Mahatma Gandhi and Hinduism prompted him to give up meat as a young man, kept calling me during the riots.

“Have my friends contacted you? Have they offered to help?”

I did not need to tell him the answer. He knew.

“Just come home,” my father pleaded. India was suddenly alien and would never again be called “home” by anyone in my family.

During the riots I worked in the relief camps of Ahmedabad where tens of thousands of displaced Muslims fought for space and food in spaces half the size of a soccer field. I will never forget 12 year old Sadiq who watched both of his parents burned alive. In my six months working in the relief camps, I never heard him say a word. No one did.

When I returned to the US, the Gandhi picture my dad gave me when I graduated from high school was no longer hanging in my childhood bedroom.

“Gandhi is dead,” my father said.


All I wanted do after the riots was to talk about the riots. I traveled across the US for a year giving lectures. Everywhere I went I carried a small yellow plastic bag filled with newspaper clippings and photos of the homes, mosques, and lives I saw destroyed. When people doubted me, I would open up my bag.

“Here, this is what I saw. It really happened.” But many chose not to listen.

I grew distant from my friends. I stopped watching basketball. I started taking anti-depressants. My smile, friends kept reminding me, disappeared.

I switched my career to human rights and spent nine years working in Washington DC, mostly at Amnesty International. But I kept wondering: what happened to all those children I met like Sadiq who saw so much? How do they – and how do I – move on?

In March 2011, I quit my job as a foreign policy aide in the US Congress and returned to Gujarat for the first time in nine years, against the advice of my psychiatrist.

When I arrived, Hindus would not rent an apartment to me because I am Muslim and Muslims – now more insecure after the riots – told me they did not trust me. I ended up staying with a Hindu friend of mine. But there was one condition: I could not use my real name in the apartment building. Sanjay was back.

I begun conducting interviews and when I explained to Muslims in Ahmedabad that I returned using my own funds to write about the riots – and that the riots filled me with a loneliness that has not yet disappeared – some laughed.

“You are writing about 2002? Write about 2011.”

They have a point. Muslims I interviewed say they want more than justice. They want an end to employment discrimination. They want paved roads. They point out that in the Muslim ghetto of Juhapura where over 350,000 live, there are only six high schools – none of them government run.

But above all, Muslims in Gujarat told me they desire to be treated and viewed by their fellow Indians as Indians.

Last year, I interviewed a man named Nadeem Saiyed who organized survivors of the Narodya Patiya massacre to bear testimony to what they saw. A few months after I interviewed him, he was fatally stabbed 28 times. When I learned of his death, I replayed the audio from our interview. One line continues to haunt me.

“I was born,” he kept saying, “in the Gujarat riots of 2002.”


I hear this all the time. I think this all the time. But sometimes the pressure to “move on” becomes too intense and I fail to say these words.

Yes, the riots are over but the wound continues. Narendra Modi, after all, is popular in Gujarat because of the riots – not – despite the riots.

Today I am back in Gujarat and I live just two blocks away from where Nadeem was stabbed. When I decided to return to Gujarat this year to conduct more research, I was determined to retire “Sanjay” because I am exhausted from inventing a Hindu family that I do not have so that I may live in Gujarat.

After I failed to find an apartment in a Hindu area using my real name, I was forced to live in Juhapura, an area, some say, is the largest ghetto of Muslims in all of India. Police line is the street that functions as the “border” that surrounds this area and many Hindu rickshaw drivers refuse to enter Juhapura because they are “afraid.” On my street, a rickshaw driver, a real estate tycoon, a judge, and a nationally known journalist live side by side. I hear all of them repeat the same thing: “We live here because we have no other choice.”

Today in Juhapura I do not have regular running water in my apartment and my electricity cuts out often – something unusual in most parts, in particular in Hindu-dominated sections of Ahmedabad. When I finally registered my apartment lease with the police, a very kind Hindu officer told me I should be careful.

“The area you are staying is called mini-Pakistan and there are a lot of Pakistan intelligence (ISI) agents in the interiors.”

But it is here, only in this Muslim ghetto, where I feel safe.

I received the keys to my apartment the day before the Muslim celebration of Eid-al-Adha. The next morning I wore a crisp white Muslim style kurta over a pair of pleatless khakis and carried a white prayer skullcap in my hand.

All the men in my building had gathered at the front entrance. One man in his late 70s held his hand out as I came downstairs.

“Young man, I have not heard your complete name.”

I smiled and said the words I had to conceal so many times in Gujarat to survive.

“My full name,” I told him as we walked towards the mosque, “is Zahir Sajad Janmohamed.”