Commercial Surat is a busy tangle of jagged textile markets and prodigious diamond factories. The latest to join the cacophony are artisanal coffee shops tucked away in leafy residential corners, international burger and churro joints on the main street facing shopping complexes and coaching centres that guarantee a dream ticket to the U.S.
Visitors to the city drive on the various bridges across the Tapti and visit the haunted houses on Dumas beach. Some drive to the industrial belt of Suvali beach (Hazira) where the oil and gas plants slowly give way to an open horizon where the Arabian Sea meets the ever-changing sky.
But now, quietly but determinedly, a movement launched by the citizens of the city has been unveiling a whole other set of attractions. Now, travellers can make midnight visits to the Khammavati stepwell by the light of old-fashioned kerosene lanterns, walk through the old Parsi localities with their arched-door houses, intricately carved windows, brackets and wooden shutters, or check out the Turkish hammam at Surat Fort. Until a few years ago, few Surat dwellers knew the height of its very prominent clock tower (which celebrates 150 years this year) or the fact that it had a number of stepwells, but a public-private heritage revival project is changing that rapidly.
Civil engineer Prakash Hathi, longtime resident and one of the founders of the revival movement, found it unsettling that Surat had no iconic symbol. “Many cities have a unique symbol that forges their identity (Charminar in Hyderabad, India Gate in New Delhi, and so on), but Surat doesn’t have any.” Moving beyond culinary markers like undhiyu and locho that the city is well known for, Prakash joined hands with Prabhakar Singh, an embryologist and art enthusiast, to start Darohar, a non-profit dedicated to reviving the port city’s history and identity.
“Darohar started out as a catalyst, and brought together people from various agencies working in this field, including INTACH, Heritage Foundation, Archaeological Survey of India, and Surat Municipal Corporation,” Hathi says. Taking a modern approach to reviving history, the organisation made a model of the clock tower and took it to institutions and events to raise awareness. They launched guided walks and social media campaigns, quickly becoming the go-to folks for heritage in Surat, whether tourism or conservation. “Now, I get distress calls from concerned citizens saying they found something that looks old and we go check it out. We have started documenting all the heritage sites of Surat, are working on rehabilitation of some minor sites, and putting together all resources and research in a unified public domain (the website, suratheritage.com, is slated to launch on September 10),” says Hathi.
The epicentre of the project is Surat Fort in the city’s Chowk area, surrounded by seven other monuments identified by Surat Municipal Corporation. In fact, there are heritage cells in each municipality to encourage preservation efforts. Conservation architect Sumesh Modi, who restored Surat fort, recounts the city’s history, “Surat Fort was built by the Gujarat Sultanate in the 1540s for protection from the Portuguese who ruled the seas and collected tax. Then, Akbar came to Gujarat in 1572 and took over Ahmedabad, Khambat, and Champaner. Akbar laid siege to Surat for 47 days and finally took possession of Surat Fort on the 48th day. Surat prospered under Mughal rule; businessmen were given security, and exchange of money and encashment of gold were encouraged. Surat became a port of embarkation for Haj pilgrims. In the 1800s, the East India Company took over the fort, turning it into their revenue record office. Much later, when the big ships couldn’t enter Surat due to silting, Britishers shifted base to Bombay, precipitating the decline of Surat.”
The fort has been restored such that six different layers of history are visible. Modi explains: “We got clues to the different influences from studying the construction, which is identifiably unique. These are described in detail at the fort exhibits.” Photographer Sanjay Choksi, who has worked with the Corporation, says, “Chronological records of how many ships came to Surat and British survey maps are also displayed at the fort.” Walk into the revamped fort and you will find a Turkish hammam, a British tea room, a Dutch courtroom, and Armenian slabs.
Modi’s agency, People for Heritage Concern, restored the first phase and opened it to the public in April 2018. In 2019, Surat Fort won the Smart City Award. “From 100 visitors a month, the footfall has increased to 5,000. We take pride in the fact that the erstwhile Nawab of Surat, Mir Jafar Imam, and his son Moin Mir (London-based author) have visited, as has the princess of Dubai, researchers from MIT, and many domestic and international tourists,” says Modi. Phase two of the fort is complete and will open to the public this Diwali.
This has given momentum to the movement. Modi says, “In collaboration with a private trust, we have just finished renovating a 100-year-old Gothic church just 1km from the fort. Instead of demolishing old structures, many residents are now restoring private residences and commercial buildings in the Chowk area. Before 2016, there was no vision. Now, residents know that heritage is important.”
Today, besides the iconic clock tower at the city centre, visitors can get a glimpse of the city’s rich legacy in the Khwaja Safar Sulemani tomb, the British Cemetery, Khammavati stepwell, and the 350-year-old Chintamani Jain temple. Here’s to hoping these historical gems continue to get due recognition and conservation earns its their rightful place in the collective memory of Surat’s citizens.
The writer is a Bengaluru-based freelance journalist and former qualitative researcher.