Sunday, 23 September 2018

Ahmedabad - "Those Gujaratis will steal your heart with their food and their friendliness"

I can't say I wasn't warned. Before I left Delhi for Ahmedabad I was told that "those Gujaratis will steal your heart with their food and their friendliness". Well the food was fabulous and the generosity of the people astonishing. I don't think I've ever been anywhere quite like it. I was given free food in markets, drank countless cups of chai for which payment was steadfastly refused and was invited into the homes of complete strangers who saw me admiring their houses.

Ahmedabad is also a perfect city for photography especially in the  bazaars where I loved the colours of the fresh fruit and vegetables, the smell of the spices and the relaxed, unhurried attitude of the stall holders. People smiled, said hello or good morning and in some cases begin to engage me in as much conversation as we could manage given my ten words of Hindi. Chai was sent for during several of these interactions. Numerous people told me they had friends or family who had lived, worked or studied in London and one man, on hearing where I was from shouted Dewesbury, have you been to it?.  I haven't but he has.

Textile merchant Dewesbury, have you been to it?
Vendor, fruit market
Vendor, vegetable market
The narrow streets of the old city also offer rich opportunities for photography with their havelis, some of them 200 years old. Many are in poor condition, but others have been well looked after or recently restored. As I walked through the streets, admiring the buildings, people would appear at their doors, greet me and on occasion invite me inside to look around and even to take pictures. They were curious about my interest in architecture and some were happy to share their stories. Pankaj is 72 although he looks much younger. He saw me admiring his beautiful double doors and insisted on opening and closing them in various combinations to allow me to take pictures. He told me he is a Bachelor of Arts, once worked for Tata and then ran a business selling towels and bedding. Some years ago he had to give up work to look after his mother. She has now passed away and although he has siblings he lives alone. But I am happy he said.

Pankaj is a Jain as is Suraja. A petite, most charming lady she was the wife of a High Court judge. Now a widow, all of her family are overseas and she is cared for by two young women. Sitting in her living room with the main door open she noticed me looking at the building and called for me to come inside and to admire the decorative details above the internal doors. A very elegant woman, she insisted on removing her spectacles before I photographed her. This tidying oneself up before a picture is something that many older people do when a portrait is requested.

Pankaj  I am happy
Saruja
Much of life is lived in the street here. Having had a career that involved the promotion of reading and literacy, the sight of someone lost in a book is something that excites and attracts me. In one of the lanes I noticed an elderly woman sitting on the floor of her open fronted shop, Gujarati novel in hand, completely engrossed in what she was reading. I was able to get quite close to her without attracting attention but the sun was merciless on that day and it was hard to be sure that I had captured the moment. The result was not perfect but the picture below gives some idea of how reading can carry us away. There is a small bookshop not far from where I saw the reader. It was closed when I passed but there were piles of books outside. There was no obvious reason for this but it was good to know that once our friend has finished her book she won't have to go far to get another one.

The reader
New stock at the book shop
Relaxing on the platform
Usha waiting for her lift
Many houses in the old city have a raised platform on which domestic tasks or business can be carried out. I saw people using them as rest areas or in some cases as a place to wait for someone to come and meet them. Usha was waiting for her motorcycle lift. I was taken by the contrasting colours of her sari against the pale green peeling paint behind her. The girls in the white uniforms are waiting for their school bus. The older woman sitting behind them saw me with my camera and called me over to photograph the group. When I explained that I am from London she became very excited and told me that a family living in her building will be visiting there very soon. 

In the streets immediately beside the Swaminarayan Temple, there are several of these platforms, some of them rising to ten or more steps above the street. One particular platform runs the length of several houses. The range of activity being carried out there included an open air tailoring business, people hanging out their laundry, a dog resting and two street vendors sitting beneath the platform. Such colour and activity generated by a simple structure.

Waiting for the school bus
A busy morning in the old city
Those platforms are not the only outstanding architectural feature of the old city. There are some spectacular doors here too. Many of them are made from Burma teak which is resistant to termite infection and has enabled the doors to last for over a century. Ahmedabad doors are so admired that    owners are occasionally persuaded to sell them, sometimes for scandalously low amounts. One story has it that a homeowner in urgent need of cash let his doors go for just 20,000 rupees or just over £200. Surely the shipping would have cost many times more than this.

Ahmedabad's architectural heritage goes back several centuries and includes a number of stepwells, once numerous across India but now disappearing. Man made structures, they descend as many as nine levels into the earth to a pool of rain water once used for drinking, washing and other day to day items. Many of them had ingenious drainage systems allowing water used for one task to be re-used for agriculture and other purposes. As well as supplying precious water, the step wells are also a cool, shaded place providing respite from the blistering sunshine of a Gujarat summer. They are also works of art with ornate stone carvings in a range of styles due to different artists being used for each part of the structure.

The late 15th century Adalj Vav is the most well known of Ahmedabad's step wells but I also enjoyed visiting the Dada Hari Vav, built in 1500 adjacent to a mosque. Descending to the lower levels of the well, I noticed a series of red coloured hand prints printed on the walls. These are the marks of young women from the area, married into families in other cities who would leave their handprint here so that their parents could come and "visit" them whenever they wanted. The Dada Hair Vav had fallen into a shocking state, used as a rubbish dump and for illicit activity until Government intervened some years ago and ensured more appropriate care and management of this important monument.

Doors to the Mehta Haveli
Entrance to a Jain temple
Dada Hari Vav
Ahmedabad is also home to some of India's most iconic 20th century architecture. The streets around Relief Road contain many fine examples of Art Deco from the 1930's and beyond. The style seems to have lasted longer here than in many other places. Many of the buildings carry their date of construction with several not being completed until the 1950's. Sadly most of them are in very poor condition whilst others have been demolished or altered beyond recognition. I have been unable to find details of the architect for most of them and it seems that much of this important built heritage may be undocumented.

On a brighter note, the works of Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn have been accorded more respect and have been maintained at least reasonably well. Some of these buildings are difficult or even impossible to visit, especially the private homes. However, it is possible, by prior arrangement, to visit Kahn's magnificent Indian Institute of Management, completed in 1962. The highlight is Louis Kahn Plaza around which the library, classrooms and faculty offices are arranged. The spectacular red structure manages to combine modernity with references to the city's past, with its arches, columns and approach to providing light and shade.

It is also possible to visit Ahmedabad's Magen Abraham synagogue. Built in 1934, it was designed entirely in the Art Deco style and is the work of  Daniel Samson and Ellis Abraham Binjekar. The pink exterior has several classic deco motifs as does the interior, including sunbursts, ziggurats and speed lines.
Indian Institute of Management
Magen Avraham Synagogue
Art Deco building, Relief Road
Yusuf Patel, the New Irani Restaurant
Much as I love strolling in a city, I won't be happy unless I can find a cafe in which to retreat for a while. Thankfully the coffee chains do not seem to have arrived here. Instead there are numerous places that at first glance may seem run down, but don't be fooled, they are full of character and characters and offer good food at low prices. Yusuf Patel's family came to the city in the 1930's and in 1941 his grandfather established the New Irani Restaurant. Yusuf is the third generation to manage the business. Originally only chai was served but now snacks and meals can be had too. The building is partially open to the elements and in need of a lick of paint, but it is also atmospheric and very popular. Mr.Patel was keen to know what I thought of the chai. It was delicious. He happily posed for a picture but not before removing his glasses and straightening his clothing just as our friend Sara had done earlier.

The Chandravilas restaurant opened 120 years ago. It is famous for its thali but more so for its jelabis, freshly prepared near the entrance in full view of the street and the waiting customers. The sweet smell is irresistible and I succumbed to a small plate of them together with the obligatory cup of masala chai. Famous customers have included Mahatma Gandhi and Bollywood icon Raj Kapoor.

Preparing the jelabis, Chandravillas Restaurant
Ramesh
I cannot end this post without mentioning someone I met during my stay. Ramesh is a shoe shine. He works outside the Lucky Restaurant, sometimes alone and sometimes with his brother. Ahmedabad's streets are very dusty and I was happy to use his service more than once during my short stay. For a mere 20 rupees, my shoes were made to look like new. Not only that, he provides slippers for customers to wear whilst their shoes are cleaned which means you can nip into Lucky for a quick cup of chai whilst you wait. That's what I call customer service. Thank you Ramesh.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I was warned about the Gujaratis. They are indeed friendly people and their food is delicious. Ahmedabad suits me. I love its architecture, bazaars, chai stalls, cafes and most of all it's people. I have also been told that in India I must expect the unexpected. This must account for the girl who I saw tightrope walking at the side of road. Not only was she balancing on a rope, she was also carrying a series of vases on her head. I will sign off with her and with Gaurav, a stall holder in a small bazaar just outside the city and possibly possessor of the best smile in Gujarat.

Expect the unexpected
Gaurav, the best smile in Gujarat
You might also like Scenes From The City Of Joy - 2, "Pay Me In Dollars, I Want To Buy A House"
You can see more pictures of India here.

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