Heritage Walk of Ahmedabad, Ahmedabad

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Heritage Walk of Ahmedabad, Ahmedabad

Attraction - Address: Relief Road, Ahmedabad 380001

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Review of "Heritage Walk of Ahmedabad, Ahmedabad"

published 03/01/2017 | koshkha
Member since : 26/12/2005
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Seems it takes a lot to get many reads these days so be assured that all are appreciated.
Excellent
Pro Fantastic small group tour. Very great value
Cons None - I'd do it again in a heartbeat
exceptional
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Family Friendly

"Walk the Walk"

Friendly, relaxed locals

Friendly, relaxed locals

There’s more to Ahmedabad than Gandhi

In 2015 we spent a few days in the Gujarat city of Ahmedabad, not a place that’s normally considered very much of a tourist attraction. Aside from being the home of Mahatma Gandhi and more recently, the home city of prime minister Narendra Modi, it’s more famous for being a city with no alcohol and - until recently - almost no non-vegetarian food. If you’re looking for a party city, it’s unlikely to be Ahmedabad that you choose. We weren’t looking for a party city - so that was probably a good thing. We were looking for architecture and local colour and were drawn to the city by the chance to stay at a place called the French Haveli. If you are interested, you can find my review here on the site.

Ahmedabad today is a large, sprawling city but the original old city was founded way back in 1411. Some might argue that the number one ‘must do’ for tourists in the city is a visit to Gandhi’s ashram, I’d disagree and say that probably the best thing to do in Ahmedabad is the Heritage Walk that’s organised every morning by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation. This aims to introduce visitors - both Indian and foreign - to Ahmedabad’s special community housing concept; the Pols. It runs 360 days a year - taking time off during Diwali - and costs foreigners 100 rupees per person. At the time of our visit, that was about a pound (today maybe £1.25) There are also walks organised by one of the city’s heritage hotels - the so-called ‘House of MG’ and these are available in both the morning and evening at rather higher prices and with shorter durations.

From Pol to Pol

It’s really quite difficult as an outsider to get a flavour of local life in most big India cities. Sure, you can wander about around your hotel, maybe take a nicely sanitised ‘slum tour’ in Mumbai, or just take your chances blundering about without too much clue where you’re going and with plenty of potential to get yourself into trouble or to thoroughly offend the locals without even trying. The Heritage Walk in Ahmedabad is led by local heritage students and teachers who know the Old City and have taken time to get to know the inhabitants and who share their pride in their area. Hence you’re taken through the Old City in small groups and the inhabitants have got used to seeing people wandering around, taking photos of the weirdest stuff and smiling like idiots at everybody who passes (or maybe that’s just me!)

As far as I can tell - and Wikipedia confirm it, for what that’s worth - Pols (pronounced as poles) are unique to the Old City of Ahmedabad. They represent community clusters within which the inhabitants of each pol are united in terms of their profession, religious caste or religion. One pol might be inhabited by Jains, the next by Hindus or Muslims. Book-keepers might gather in one pol and next door there might be engineers or tailors. Some pols are tiny - little more than a small courtyard - whilst others are the size of small villages. You could call it a complex ghetto system, but I think to do so would not do justice to the general collaboration of living shoulder to shoulder with people different from yourself.

That said, whilst most of the time everybody rubbed along well, the pol system also served to protect communities at times of communal unrest. Most pols have one large guarded ‘gateway’ entrance that can be closed off during times of strife, and maybe one or two ways out via secret passages or tunnels.

Wikipedia lists 174 different pols in Ahmedabad whilst another site I was reading claims there are 360 and one blog I checked claimed about 600. Which is true? I don’t know but whatever the total, it’s a lot.

Taking the tour

The morning tour starts at 8 am and leaves from a building just opposite the Swaminarayan Mandir (temple), in Kalupur district. Our hotel lined us up with an auto-rickshaw to pick us up at 7.30 and drive us to the temple in plenty of time. We paid a chap with a ticket book for our tickets and then went to have a look at a small exhibition of photographs. I’m not sure if you can just turn up and take your chances or whether it’s compulsory to pre-book but I think the guy at our guesthouse had called ahead to book us two places.

Hot tip - if you do this tour, do take a look at the temple before you start the tour as you won’t be taken in there during the walk and the tour ends in a completely different place.

We kicked off at 8 am with a short slideshow about what we’d see. At that point we were the only people who had turned up so we had to sit up straight and pay attention. My husband is a terrible person to have on a tour as he never stays still and never wants to listen to any guide - especially if they have a tricky accent. I was nervous that it might turn out to be a very long morning. Fortunately two men turned up whilst we were looking at the slideshow and when the four of us set off with the guide, the two guys bought everybody a tea from the roadside vendor just outside.

Cup or Saucer

It’s not particularly relevant to the pol heritage but it is a very Ahmedabad ‘thing’ so it’s worth mentioning that in the city a lot of people drink their tea from the saucer. I’ve heard two different reasons offered for this. One is that the climate is so hot that tea cools down very slowly in a cup and much quicker in a saucer and the other is that people in Ahmedabad are too busy making money to wait for their tea to cool down so they use the saucer. It’s not uniquely Gujarati but it’s the only place I’ve seen it done by a lot of people.

Off we go

Our guide was a graduate from the local university who had studied history before starting doing guided tours. His English was fantastic and he was happy to answer any and all bizarre questions we could ask - including ones about drinking tea. Our fellow walkers were a Malaysian architect and his Indian colleague and having them with us gave a different perspective to the tour as the Malaysian guy would get very excited about wooden brackets or odd door lintels and suchlike.

Tea drunk, we followed our guide past a group of men making brightly coloured kite strings which are impregnated with glass powder for use on fighting kites. That’s another thing that Ahmedabad is famous for; a kite festival which runs each year in January. There’s even a kite museum in the city which is worth a half hour visit if you find yourself in the right area.

Religiously speaking, the tour starts at a Hindu temple, ends at a Mosque and stops off for a short tour of an underground Jain temple. Along the way you’ll see other religious sites, temples and burial places but this tour is not primarily about religion; it’s about people’s day to day lives and in India, religion is always part of those lives.

Pol life

The tour takes place in the morning, leaving after most people would have already left for work, but at a time when the local ladies would be doing their chores for the day. We saw people cleaning the pols, doing their laundry and dishes, and tidying their homes. The tour leader marched us into each pol, often then taking us through the buildings - with a nod to the owners - and out through the escape routes into the next pol. Many of the houses are not in the greatest of repair but PM Modi has apparently said money will be spent to improve the heritage structures. Let’s hope he doesn’t get assassinated for destroying the Indian economy by withdrawing all the banknotes first - but I digress.

Birdfeeders

There are two very distinctive things you find in the pols. One is a throwback to the days of British rule. These are a system of poles (as in tall metal things, not pols) with directional arrows that help identify which direction the sewage system flows. The other are the chabutaras or bird feeders. When the old city was first built, the city’s founders were worried about the cutting down of trees on the land that was cleared for the building plots and the impact the loss of trees would have on local birdlife. Consequently chabutaras were built - like super fancy bird tables on tall pedestals to provide a nesting spot and a feeding place for the birds. Each pol has one or more of these intricately carved bird feeders - though it did seem that mostly the little squirrels were eating all the food.

The Jain temple

Whilst Hindu temples and Muslim mosques are easy to find in India, it’s a bit of a treat when you can get access to a Jain temple as they are not so widespread. Going into a Jain temple requires you to remove any leather you might be wearing - watch straps, leather bags, belts etc - and leave them outside. From memory I think we also had to leave all food and water outside too. Women are also prohibited from entering during their periods - something worth knowing before you get there.

This particular temple is underground and was apparently built that way 400+ years ago to protect it from the likely attack of Emperor Aurangzeb, one of the less ‘tolerant’ of the moghul leaders (he’s the one who locked up his dad Shahjahan for blowing all the family wealth on building the Taj Mahal).

To market, to market to buy a fat…...elephant

We came across a market place that’s apparently a very lively location in the evenings but in the morning it was a place for feeding your cows and elephants. I was not expecting to suddenly stumble across some elephants in the middle of the old city, so I did get rather excited at this point.

From then on we passed through more pols and headed towards the Jumma masjid (congregational mosque), passing a queen’s tomb along the way - very popular with the local goats for some reason.

The mosque was built in 1423 by Sultan Ahmed Shah, the city’s founder. It’s thought that it was the largest mosque of that period and is believe to have been the largest congregational mosque in India until Shahjahan built the Jamma Masjid in Old Delhi more than 200 years later. With a classic nod to recycling, many of the stones used in its construction were plundered from destroyed Jain and Hindu temples. Unlike the mosque in Old Delhi, there are no parasitic men hanging around insisting that women dress in smelly old housecoats before demanding ‘donations’. There’s also no fee for photography - or anything else, actually. It’s a beautiful peaceful spot.

Our guide left us at the mosque, we tipped him, and had half an hour to kill before our autorickshaw guy reappeared. Time for my husband to drink some tea from his saucer and for me to take some extra photos. And then it was time to head back to the haveli for a very late - and much needed - breakfast.

Worth it?


Absolutely. This tour is one of the best I’ve ever taken in 20 years of going to India. We were lucky to be such a small group - we did see one other ‘coach tour’ with about 30 people and felt glad that we were just 4 people and a guide. He took us to places we could never have entered and showed us stuff we’d never have noticed, and totally convinced us that Ahmedabad is worthy of a lot more tourist attention than it usually gets.

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Comments on this review

  • beautybuff published 25/02/2017
    nice x
  • angelboouk123 published 29/01/2017
    E x
  • Violet1278 published 16/01/2017
    An outstanding review. E from me.
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Product Information : Heritage Walk of Ahmedabad, Ahmedabad

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Attraction - Address: Relief Road, Ahmedabad 380001

Product Details

Type: Attraction

Continent: Asia

Country: India

Address: Relief Road, Ahmedabad 380001

City: Ahmedabad

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Listed on Ciao since: 16/09/2016