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.

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.