Ahmedabad: Legacy in stone

The architectural history of Gujarat is fascinating with each invading ruler stamping his mark on the state

Ahmedabad: Legacy in stone

Percy Bharucha

Perhaps the question of legacy keeps kings and rulers awake. There is a primordial urge to mark territory, an urge that years of evolution have failed to extinguish. The modern version is what you might call cubicle decoration. But years before the two-legged mammal was banished to grey carpeting, the singular obsession of those in power was to lay claim to land.

But once invaded, what were the rulers to do? Like an ex-lover’s belongings, the remnants of their predecessors dotted the lands they now held sway over. Perhaps, if they could bend brick and stone to their will, they could invade the collective memory of their subjects and colonise their minds. Grander structures would have to be built, edifices of scale that would dwarf those that existed, visual poetry entombed in rock that would make their subjects gasp in wonder. You would have to create something truly marvellous to enter into local folklore, to be the setting of oral history, passed down through bedtime tales and by old men sitting at village squares.

Now imagine if a city were to undergo such tremendous transformations over and over again. Like the green room of a talent show, Ahmedabad has been that battlefield of invaders for centuries, each successive wave trying to outdo the previous one. Their modus operandi to set down their culture in stone cements their hold over the city. ‘To be there, for good.’ Not surprisingly, this is also the tagline of a multinational banking and financial services company. But the good thing about the Solankis, the Mughals, the Marathas, the British, all jostling around, is that you could throw a rock anywhere in the city, and it would probably hit a Unesco site. Contemporary Ahmedabad enjoys an envious status in the architectural history of the world, disproportionate to its relative size.

In 942, the Chowra dynasty was superseded by the Solanki or the Chalukya dynasty, who marked their ascension to the throne through feats of bravery, resisting invasions both to the north and the south and by commissioning a series of grand temples. The prime examples of these were the Rudramal Temple on the banks of the Saraswati in Patan and the Rani Ki Vav Stepwell in Patan. The temple construction that began in 943 was finally completed in 1140. In Netflix time, that’s a mammoth 197 seasons. The Rani Ki Vav stepwell was constructed as a memorial to King Bhimdev Solanki in the 11th century. Designed in the Maru-Gurjara style, it was an inverted temple with seven levels of stairs, over 500 principle sculptures and a thousand minor ones. It was added to the Unesco World Heritage Site list in 2014, but like most things in India, attained true popularity once it was printed on the new 100-Rupee note.

The architecture of the Solanki period (942-1422) is marked by innovation and experimentation and a creative manifestation of secular freedom, sculptural motifs that did not fit into the prevalent Shavism or Vaishnavism sects that enjoyed royal patronage as well as depictions of the Shakti tradition and smatterings of Vedic deities. Not a single nook has been left unadorned, each aperture for sunlight transformed into a reflection of the times and imaginations of master craftsmen, with observational scenes of dancers and monks and those dreamt forth of celestial maidens, demigods and mythical beings of all kind.

In 1297, almost a hundred years after King Prithviraj of Delhi and Ajmer was slain, the Sultanate eye and crescent banner turned towards Gujarat. The first wave of the northern sultanate led to the sacking of Khambat, Sidhpur and Somnath. While the clashing of swords and scimitars continued, it was in 1398, in a coup that could rival a House of Cards episode, that Muzaffar Shah I declared independence from the Delhi Sultanate. He proclaimed himself Sultan and established the Gujarat Sultanate as Delhi recovered from the chaos of Timur’s invasion. He was succeeded by his grandson Ahmed Shah I, who was adamant to situate the seat of the power on the banks of the Sabarmati river. In what could only have been a rare fit of inspiration, he named it ‘Ahmed’abad. The foundation work was carried out under the supervision of ‘four Ahmeds’, viz. Ahmed Shah himself, Malik Ahmed, Shaikh Ahmed and Kazi Ahmed. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Ahmed Shah was not noted for his devotion to art or education, nor did his reign have a marked history of intellectual or cultural pursuit. But he lacked little motivation when it came to emulating a spirit of might that his predecessors had left behind, amply chiseled in rock.

The same hands that were devoted to finer techniques of building stepwells and filigreed temples, governed strictly by the rules of the Silpas, were now asked to build mosques and tombs. This architectural overhaul, rather than constrain or stilt the hereditary artisans, gave rise to a new combination of Indo-Islamic architecture; the master builders were no longer stymied by their own rules. It has been said that out of all the provincial styles of Islamic architecture, the Gujarat expression is the most indigenous one. The finest example of this is the Jami or the Jama masjid, which could be termed as the consummate architectural manifestation of the Ahmed Shah period. It is this mosque that carries within its nave and aisle structure the indigenous style of temple architecture. The modifications made to the mandapa or pillared hall of the temple design, the innovation of the “rotunda” in the centre so it could sit well within a mosque sanctuary — these were the elements that fused together two distinct traditions.

Connecting the Jama Masjid to the king’s citadel is a wide thoroughfare upon which was built the triumphal arch, Teen Darwaza, built to present the enthroned king with an elevated terrace where he would be observed by the adoring eyes of his populace. There are few pointed arches in India to rival these, with the arrangement of the three oriel windows on brackets. The entire notion of such an effort was to present a spectacle rivalling the pomp and pageantry of the gods. The arches were dwarfed only by the pride of those that sat upon them.

Another grand gesture in this style is the Sarkhej Roza built by Muhammad Shah II dedicated to the memory of Shaikh Ahmed Khattri, a mausoleum and mosque complex that later served as the family tomb and imperial necropolis. The complex is suffused with Hindu ornamentation and motifs; the ringed domes, pillars and brackets are the Islamic stylistic counterparts to those. There could be no grander gesture than to ensconce what Benjamin Franklin called, ‘food for worms’ in such an ornate covering for posterity.

The fall of the Mughals opened the doors for the plundering Marathas in the 18th century, their entry and rule was a footnote in the larger scheme of Ahmedabad’s history. The British entered Gujarat most innocuously as businessmen and mediators for the warring Marathas. Their troops took Ahmedabad in 1780. With the British came a more pragmatic approach to architecture and construction. The newer buildings were built for business and administration. To span the eastern and western parts of the city, the Ellis Bridge was built twice, originally from wood and later from steel in a bowstring-arch truss bridge design that became synonymous with the iconography of Ahmedabad. The Town Hall and Electricity House were designed by Claude Bartley with inspiration from the Art Deco movement.

The stroke of the midnight hour brought in European masters and individualistic styles to traditional Indian architecture. In 1954, BV Doshi moved to Ahmedabad to supervise four Le Corbusier projects, forging intimate bonds with the textile barons of Ahmedabad. It is hard to imagine modern Ahmedabad without the influence of BV Doshi and Le Corbusier. Corbusier buildings were adapted to the natural challenges of life in India, the unrelenting sun and the blazing winds. The use of concrete rooted these structures in the industrial spirit of the locals. Corbusier took cues from India’s provincial architecture, introducing deep reveals, overhanging ledges, thickened facades and grand pillared halls to temper the light and wind that flows within these spaces. Doshi himself is more philanthropic in his approach, building spaces that encouraged interaction and conversation between classes and communities. The interlinked buildings of the Mahatma Gandhi Labour Institute, where almost each exit led to a terrace or plaza, stimulate ideological exchanges. It was Doshi that brought Luis Kahn to design the IIM-A campus. Its exposed brick and monumental scale is punctuated by the geometric harmonies that serve as stone irises and softly illuminate spaces enclosed within. These buildings were to herald the new wave of modernist architecture that radiated throughout India from these few epicentre cities. It is by no humble measure that Ahmedabad happens to be one of them. Daniel Libeskind puts it better than most when he says, “Architecture is the biggest unwritten document of history.

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