Ahmedabad’s old city, with its gates and havelis, is a study in architecture and social hierarchy of the bygone era

The old, walled city of Ahmedabad is a contrast to the new city that’s known for its spic and span environs, well laid out roads and dedicated bus lanes. The old city, best explored on foot, gives a glimpse into Ahmedabad’s fortified past, its havelis and colonies segregated by deeply rooted caste and social structure.

A visitor can choose morning or evening heritage walks, organised either by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation or private players like the House of MG. There is a choice of areas too — one can do the ashram walk in the vicinity of Sabarmati or near the Calico Museum of Textiles or start at the Mangaldas hi Haveli. We took the last option, making our way through narrow lanes on a crisp morning.

The Mangaldas ni Haveli is a beautifully maintained wooden architectural structure more than 200 years old. The same cannot, however, be said about many other havelis in the area. A few are well maintained and in usable condition while many others, despite their crumbling jaali structures, continue to be inhabited by large families. Several others havelis lie abandoned as families have moved abroad seeking better prospects, leaving beside kith and kin who now live in the newer side of the city. In some cases, the old structures are used as storehouses for business enterprises.

The old city has around 360 ‘pols’ or gates with the Mahurat Pol being the first. Each pol, in some cases suffixed with ‘khadki’, leads into a small housing colony where people pursuing different vocations used to live. The deep division of social strata is evident from some of the names, for example ‘Khacharasi ni Khadki’ or where the sweepers and rag pickers lived.

The old city throws up magnificent Jain temples, densely populated market areas and many structures bound to pique tourist interest. The guides will not miss pointing out at the old Ahmedabad Share and Stock Brokers’ Association where Dhirubhai Ambani started his career as a broker.

Besides this structure in Manek Chowk, we find small traders with their desks filled with weights, measures and chemicals promising to check purity of gold ornaments. Moving ahead, we make our way to Rani na Hajiro and Juma Masjid, two of the biggest landmarks in that part of the town.

Built in the 15th century by Ahmed Shah, the Rani na Hajiro is a mix of different architectural styles and was the last resting place for queens of the era. Today, the building is surrounded by a maze of market lanes selling colourful fabrics and accessories for women. The walk ends at the sprawling Jama Masjid, a 15th century yellow sandstone structure.

(The writer was on a visit to Gujarat as part of a Kutch textile trail organised by Jaypore-Breakaway Journeys. www.break-away.in)