The morning led us to the very start of the Morning Heritage Walk in Ahmedabad starting at the Swaminarayan Temple bustling with devotees.
Shree Swaminarayan Mandir Kalupur: Passing by the vegetable carts’ owners calling out their wares early in the morning, we got to the gate of the Swaminarayan temple. It’s somehow clear that the temple has no dearth of donations from the religions followers.
The temple was built on land gifted by the British government to Swaminarayan who was the founder of the Swaminarayan Sampraday, referred to as a Hindu sect but locals seem to see it as a different religion entirely. The temple is made of Burma teak wood and has grand carvings in various colors of dancers, gods and insignia from folk culture.
Around the temple, the large structure houses visiting pilgrims in comfort. The clothes of the idol are changed 7 times a day and never re-used ( we won’t go into my thoughts on that for now). The building also houses an area for the students of the sect to live and learn from the religious teachers.
While we were wandering around the area ourselves a man yelled to me to not come back towards the temple but take the gate outside to leave the premises. Needless to say I was utterly confused, but without having the Gujarati to clarify, walked into the alley outside hoping to meet Anand back somehow. In a short while I luckily met a lady heading towards the temple and to my luck she did speak Hindi and explained to me that it was simply the head of the temple entering the premises which meant no one was supposed to walk in his way. Ahem..
A separate part of the structure is only available for women to visit. While it was a mansion earlier it now houses the Samkhya Yogi women(the equivalent of nuns within the Swaminarayan Sect). The wife of the current spiritual head of the temple holds prayers here and is considered the spiritual leader of the women in the sect. I entered the place and with bright saris hung out to dry it felt like a secret but communal space for the women.
For some reason it was one of the few places that we’ve visited that evoked significant reaction/opinion from us, in the end leaving us quite conflicted about the whole space. We were therefore glad to leave and walk into some of the 360 pols(gated communities) within Old Ahmedabad for the rest of our heritage walk. The pols have some characteristics in common- small intentional holes in the outside walls sometimes decorated- to allow for parrots to nest while being just the right size to disallow bigger birds to enter. It is said that sometimes even earthen pots were embedded into the walls to allow for the birds to rest in the absence of trees. Between layers of bricks there is also plenty of food left for several generations of chipmunks who seem to have a merry run of the place. There are also at frequent intervals. Chabutaras (often ornate, bird houses) with plenty of food left for birds , mostly pigeons, too. These small gestures towards the animal kingdom are supposed to have been inspired by the Jain religion that upholds beliefs about all life being sacred.
Kavi Dalpatram Chowk (Lambeshwar ni pol): Kavi dalpatram was a 19th century progressive thinker and poet who contributed significantly to Gujarati literature at a time when it was not popular among writers. Today, in his memory there lies the façade of his house re-created and his statue in bronze. He’s supposed to be affectionately referred to as Dadu(grandpa) by the local children, who undoubtedly like me find it inexplicably fun to insert their foot into the empty bronze shoe that’s part of the statue. Our guide explained the designs of the houses from the times- while the houses themselves were not very large, the courtyard was where most of life happened due to the unforgiving heat of the place. Sleeping, cleaning vegetables, socializing, working on seasonal handicrafts, children playing were all marginally better outdoors where the breeze could provide some respite.
Calico Dome: was a dome that housed the Calico mills stores in the 1960s in a state which is to this day famous for its textile businesses. The 5 pointed dome is considered a marvel of mathematical precision. It also hosted the first fashion show in Ahmedabad. While it has collapsed in earthquakes in the early 2000s there are proposals to restore it.
Kala Ramji Mandir (Haja Patel ni Pol): while the warrior God Ram is most often in the upright posture in all temples, this 400 year old one is supposedly the rare exception of him seated and also made with a black stone called Kasoti. The seated posture is supposed to represent his time in exile from his kingdom with his wife and brother. We say temple, but one gets the feeling of walking uninvited to the an older era and a private space since the rest of the building functions as residences of the locals. The priest however is a friendly gentleman so do stop for a chat if you’re up for it. The hindola festival is celebrated with the idol where the idol is placed on a swing decorated in different ways(flowers, mirrors,dry fruits, pearls etc) every single day during the Hindu month of Shravan and gently rocked.
Legend : has it that the idols were found buried under the ground and then the temple was built due to that. This is a common legend for many temples in India.
Khara Kuvo ni Pol : is named after the hard water well in the center of the pol that continues to nonchalantly bear witness to the ongoings in the pol.The pols also housed temples within them since many communities had rigorous religious needs to pray several times a day for even upto 3 hours in the mornings- so having a temple just a few steps away from their homes was a matter of convenience.
Kuvavala Khancha (Doshivada ni Pol): Here it’s possible to notice doors leaning to one side- an impact of the earlier earthquakes the region is subject to. However the construction with layers of bricks and Burmese wood have led to the structures still surviving due to the flexibility of the wood. While the alleys inside the pol are winding and long, it was designed to also defend the pol from any attacks. From the very end of thepol there is a secret passage to the outside that is not apparent to someone who doesn’t live there looking like just another door to a house. There is also an area with homes on all 3 sides , each with a different style of architecture- Persian, Mughal, Maratha and European.
But my favorite part of the heritage walk was learning that in this was a pol where every home had a well……wait for it…right in the middle of the small rooms within the house.This was not the typical well one sees in village homes at the edge of the house facing outward . Despite us interrupting their day, the older couple who owned the house were gracious enough to welcome the assortment of people of various of colors and sizes into their home to peek at the small opening of the deep well, casually covered with a utensil. The well is still used by them for their daily needs.