I headed to Ahmedabad, not because it was a logical destination for backpackers. The French haveli I was going to stay was, in fact, the fascination. I mean the idea of staying in a 150-year-old (though now artistically restored) tradition Gujarati haveli, would interest anyone, and I was no different. Then later I found that French Haveli was located in a 400-year-old walled community of Dhal ni Pol, which only added to the charm of staying in the old city of Ahmedabad. It brought me back to the age when Ahmedabad was known as the Manchester of India.
As I got off the auto-rickshaw at Raipur Darwaza and slowly walked inside the gated community of Dhal ni Pol, the Kites, a few dozens of them, suddenly reappeared like memories. It turned out that I happen to be in Ahmedabad a few days before the kite festival season Uttarayan, a holiday also known as the Makar Sankranti. Evidently, more colourful street scene and the many lively conversations were only waiting for me in the days to come.
As I walked a little deeper, I found the many happy locals sitting outside their congested homes, as if only waiting for my welcome, in their own unconditional way. Some were even peering from their ancient looking window, sharing a confused look at my 60 ltr rucksack and a much customary Indian face. As I struggled through a few intermingled by-lanes of Dhal ni Pol, and before I could even reach my place, I was stopped by a curiously looking family, asking for my whereabouts. The youngest of all, probably in his late teens, spun an immediate invitation to join them for some kite flying.
My first few hours in the city turned out to be that simple – talking to the locals and even celebrating a festival with a family.
At this time of the year, people from across the world might just be looking uninterested and lazy after a series of traditional Christmas and New Year festivities, but not so in Ahmedabad. Here the streets were preparing for some action. People were ready to revel and celebrate.
Uttarayan – Possibly The Best Time To Visit Ahmedabad
Unlike other Hindu festivals, Makar Sankranti, or Uttarayan, is the only festival to fall on a fixed date every year – January 14th and is celebrated across the country, in different forms. This is the day when winter officially ends and spring begins – making a transition period symbolizing harmony and growth.
I have grown to celebrate it as Lohri – a Punjabi tradition celebrated with an incredibly massive bonfire (the bigger the better) and family gathering. In Gujarat however, Makar Sankranti is known as Uttarayan, synonym with kite flying – and is celebrated across the state, with a total bang.
For days, preceding the festival, the markets in Ahmedabad fill with colourful kites waiting to be bought by the heaps. Pretty much every street, particularly inside the old town, start preparing for the big day.
As I reached Ahmedabad, a couple of days before Uttarayan, I found almost every local vendor busy coating the glass powder for the kites’ flying and fighting string – with their hands painted in red and yellow and green. From mobile kite vendors to big shop sellers – everyone was dwindling with their own share of the ration.
The day of Uttarayan only provided what was expected – perhaps to the next level. Pretty much the entire town spends the day on their terraces. A few thousand kites (creating a confusion of which one belonged to whom) claimed the skies. They were everywhere — in the sky, on treetops, on cables. The atmosphere was not short of a carnival. Festivities were in the air!
Later in the evening, after the sunset, the night festivities began. People released paper lamps. The sky was now filled with floating lights. The entire sight was phenomenal — something that I’d never experienced in any other part of my country.
The Lifeline Of Ahmedabad Is Its Pols
Pols, or the neighbourhoods, is yet another exclusivity. They are the lifeline of Ahmedabad, and make up its old city, in a more conscious form. Exploring the pols during your time in Ahmedabad is definitely a no miss.
Each pol is a housing cluster which comprises many families of a particular group linked by caste, or religion. It is believed that they were originally made as a protection measure during the communal riots in the city. Today, they act as the city’s tourism highlight, laden with stories which go down generations.
Many pols are now part of the cottage industry, thereby creating a lively atmosphere as you walk inside them. Heritage of these pols has helped Ahmedabad gain a place in UNESCO’s tentative lists. No wonder, they are an interesting evolution in the urban lifestyle and the testimonies of Ahmedabad’s rich history and heritage.
To best experience the pols, just walk down a few narrowest streets in the town (the narrower the better) and watch happy locals busy in the daily life and soak up the amazing architecture — representing Mughal, British, Maratha and Persian colonies.
Exploring Ahmedabad On A Heritage Walk
The Heritage Walk organised by Ahmedabad’s Municipal Corporation is the best way to understand the city’s rich history. It starts at 8 am daily at the Swaminarayan Temple and ends in nearly two and a half hours at Jama Masjid. No pre-booking required. Just show up at the temple a few minutes before 8 am and you can buy your pass on the spot.
I would have walked through the same parts of the city, as I did during the heritage walk, and not carried a mindset to remark, as I rather did after the walk. After meandering through the many historic alleys and a few pol communities, I could see the old town of Ahmedabad much clearly.
The amazing part was that I could amble in the old city without ploughing my way through milling crowd. Early mornings are wonderful, silent and uncrowded to walk around old Ahmedabad. I noticed the residents busy with their mundane. We even entered a couple of houses to see the architectural heritage, amidst of the owners of houses busy with their routines, and not the slightest sign of antipathy on their face for us intruding their privacy; actually many would be intruding their privacies each day. Perhaps that is the essence of our cultural heritage, I learned. You feel familiar.
Where To Stay In Old Ahmedabad
Inside the city of old Ahmedabad, you can find a cluster of 300+ pols. And among them, nearly 2000 traditional Gujarati havelis (as the number stands today). They share the standard architecture, with a central internal court, an ancient rainwater harvesting system and the many intricate wooden carved facades.
Of these 2000 traditional havelis many have recently been restored as tourist homes. To my experience, staying in one such traditional homes is the best way to experience old Ahmedabad – even if for just a day, as most of them charge a big price, which often exceed many backpacker’s travel budget.
I stayed in French Haveli, a 150-year-old artistically restored haveli, which has been restored by Rajiv Patel and his organisation, City Heritage Centre. It was located in the heart of Dhal ni Pol. A few minutes’ walk from the haveli took me to the famous and the always busy Manek Chowk market, the nearby Muslim tombs of Ahmedabad’s first King and Queen and the beautiful Jama Masjid.