Why 18th century French traveler Taverniere described Ahmedabad ‘nothing inferior to Venice’

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Sidi Saiyyed mosque

By Hemang Desai*

Cities appear and disappear only to reappear in the tableaux of Indian civilization. Cultures and civilizations grow in cities and in turn help cities thrive which is why human creativity and ingenuity always flower in cities. It is for this reason that urban historiography is a crucial engagement for a country; history writing provides the framework both for the explanation and debate about the past of a city. In the case of India however, urban historiography has a very weak base of traditions to draw inspiration from. Most of Indian urban historiography follows colonial models; to paraphrase Prof. D.D. Kosambi, it is written by either a European urban historian or his Indian disciple. What is needed is an authentic indigenous attempt of Indian urban historiography.

The historic city of Ahmedabad was founded in the surge of Islamic conquests that had swept through India in the fourteenth century. It was established in 1411 AD by a noble, Ahmed Shah, a converted Panjabi Tank Rajput, who had rebelled against his overlords in Delhi. The new rulers of Gujarat, keen on establishing their superiority in the material realm, had undertaken  a frenzied program of building activities in  their new capital of Ahmedabad. Their model was the impressive Hindu architecture of the previous centuries that they had mercilessly destroyed in iconoclastic zeal and  which they wanted to outshine to raise themselves higher in the estimation of their subjects..The result, after one and a half centuries, was the ‘Sultanate Architecture’ of Ahmedabad, considered a high point of world architectural heritage. This architecture along with the Jain, Swaminarayan and Hindu temples of the city is a veritable safari of monumental architecture which attracts lovers of beauty from across the world to the city of Ahmedabad.

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Rani Sipri mosque

The architecture and design of the new town of Ahmedabad (Latt. 23* 00, Long. 72* 35’), a walled town situated on the river Sabarmati, was a continuation of the Hindu building  traditions by other means. These Hindu traditions were the heritage bestowed upon the material realm of Gujarat by the Solanki and Vaghela rulers. The Solanki architecture, done in what is called the maru Gujarat style of architecture, was of course a continuation of the classical Indian Gupta art by other means. These ‘other means’ in the case of Ahmedabad were the new Islamic stylistic elements brought in by the new rulers. The city lies close to an older Solanki trading centre Karnavati, on the 371 kmilometer long river Sabarmati and is 173 feet above the sea level.

That it was the seat of a splendorous court is testified by a French traveler, Taverniere, who had visited the town in the eighteenth century describing it as “the headquarters of manufacturing, the greatest city in India, nothing inferior to Venice for rich silks and gold stuffs curiously wrought with birds and flowers.”  Of course, the splendor had an economic base that came from the fertile agricultural lands of Gujarat and particularly from thousands of years old trading traditions of Gujarat.

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Kankaria

A treaty with the then rulers of western India, the Poona Peshwas, brought Ahmedabad under the British rule in 1817. The British were keen on annexing Ahmedabad because of “the commanding influence which the sovereignty over the city of Ahmedabad confers on its possessor in the estimation of the country at large.” At the time of the British arrival, the medieval economy of Ahmedabad had hung on three threads: gold, silk, and cotton. The great British rule of law helped flowering the strength of the Ahmedabad mahajans (trade guilds), and aided by the opium trade to China, by 1839 the town was “in a most flourishing condition and progressing rapidly.”  Small wonder that a very important Indian urban historian of the city, Maganlal Vakhatchand Shah, declared that the British rule should last forever in the city.

Modern textile technology further oiled the Gujarati virtues in ‘reinventing’ Ahmedabad. Its booming business in textiles had given Ahmedabad the status of ‘ Manchester of India’  by the First World War.The success of  modern textile industry in Ahmedabad is a puzzle for the business historian as the town was considered  unsuitable for the industry on account of its climate. Some of these mills survived as late as 1989. The incredible success of textile industry in Ahmedabad may be viewed as the triumph of Gujarati virtues of pragmatism, innovation and creative collaboration. It was for this town that Mahatma Gandhi had felt ‘ a predilection’ after his return from South Africa in 1917, staying on in the town for thirteen more years and directing the historic non-violent movement against the British colonial power in favour of self-determination for the Indian people.

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Ahmedabad Textile Mill-owners’ Association building

Their successes in textiles turned the 19th century Ahmedabad mahajans into fine institution- builders of the twentieth-century; they played visionary role in creating institutions like Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Indian Institute of Management (IIM), National Institute of Dessign (NID), and Ahmedabad Textile Industry’s Research Association (ATIRA) during the middle of the 20th century. These textile tycoons were sophisticated enough to erect buildings of these institutions by attracting world famous architects like Louis Kahn, Le Corbusier, Achyut Kanvinde and Charles Correa to the city, making it a Mecca of modern architecture.

Pharmaceuticals, Construction and Textiles are the main industries of Ahmedabad of today. The town contributes 14% of the total investments in all stock exchanges of India. The Municipal Corporation was formed in 1950 (present budget:120 million $ US , area 191 sq km, population: 4.5 millions). Sardar Patel, a great comrade of Mahatma Gandhi and the architect of modern India, was once a mayor of Ahmedabad. Sardar Patel, who famously described Indian cities as a form of hell once, had a vision of Indian cities as heavens for Indian urban dwellers. And that is the lodestar that must direct the movement of this great city towards its future without becoming a tale of two cities: one rich and the other poor.

*Freelance journalist and writer based in Ahmedabad. Author of “Annals of Reinvention: Discovering Ahmedabad” (Click HERE to download)

Images: Deval Pino Shah, Ajay C Patel

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