Ahmedabad: Manchester of the East
Founded by Sultan Ahmed Shah in the early 15th century, Ahmedabad is the former capital city of the western Indian state of Gujarat.
Unlike its neighbouring state of Rajasthan, which is dotted with history palaces, forts, and the desert - Gujarat is one of the hidden gems that has its own share of history to showcase.
Ahmedabad was best known in the late 19th century for its textile factories, which employed tens of thousands in what became known as "The Manchester of the East" because of its cotton exports to the United Kingdom. Even in the days of Emperor Akbar, who conquered the city in 1573, the textile trade to Europe made the place an economic centre for the Mughal Empire. Emperor Shahjahan, famed for his creation of the Taj Mahal in Rajasthan, spent some of his best years in Ahmedabad.
Eventually, the Mughal Empire gave way to the Maratha dynasty in 1758 until the British East India Company took control of the city in 1818 after the Third Anglo-Maratha War. A British Military Cantonment, established in 1824, and then in 1864 a railroad to Bombay 330 miles southeast, further opened the city to development. You can view rare textiles and historic artwork at The Calico Museum and the Sarabhai Foundation, donated by the Sarabhai family, leading textile mill owners and philanthropists, but remember to book weeks in advance as tours are limited.
Today, this industrial and commercial city, home to five and a half million people, attracts foreign visitors primarily because of the role it played in the life of Father of the nation of India Mahatma Gandhi.
It is here that Sabarmati Ashram was founded in 1915, which became Gandhi's second home from 1917.
His room has been left as it was, with his round glasses, books, and small spinning wheel.
On the banks of the Sabarmati River, which divides old and new city Ahmedabad, the Ashram serves as a museum to the nationalist movement, which Gandhi spearheaded from Ahmedabad, where civil unrest in 1919, led by textile workers angry with British legislation, caused the burning of 51 government buildings. Stand-up life-size photographs depict the leaders who stood with Gandhi in the fight for independence.
Gandhi not only established the Navajivan Publishing House here in 1919, but in 1920, the Gujarat Vidyapith centre of learning. Denied a British charter, it was finally considered a university in 1963. Gandhi's non-violent approach to independence inspired him to initiate the Salt Satyagraha, or Dandi March, in 1930 from this ashram, a march that resonated throughout the British Empire. Visitors today visit a centre designed by Charles Correa.
Ahmedabad attracted a number of renowned architects and works by Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Indian architect B.V. Doshi, the first to win a Pritzker Prize, can be found throughout the city, though the most famous architectural site is that of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) established December 11, 1961, by the Government of India, the Government of Gujarat, Harvard Business School and Indian business leaders.
IIM commissioned American architect Louis Kahn to create a campus. From 1962 until his death in 1974, with the assistance of B.V. Doshi, Kahn created a red-brick institution famous not only for its educational significance, but also for its architectural achievement. Even Howard University contributed, and the steps leading to IIM's Library are dedicated to Howard. The Ravi Mathai Auditorium, named to honour IIM's founding director, was designed by Indian architect Anant Raje.
Ahmedabad remained Gujarat's capital until 1970 when the purpose-built capital city of Gandhinagar was created 16 miles north.
Nearby, another great attraction is the Swaminarayan Akshardham, a vast temple complex set on 23 acres inspired and created by Pramukh Swami Maharaj and inaugurated on October 30, 1992.
Built in pink sandstone, with 97 intricately carved pillars and 17 domes, the Mandir is stunning in appearance. Alas, they allow no photographs, but the site is well worth a visit, though closed on Mondays. Its pristine environs are in striking contrast to many of Ahmedabad's religious sites, mainly located in historic old Ahmedabad.
Ahmedabad's population is approximately 89 per cent Hindu, 13.5 per cent Muslim, with Jains, Christians, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, and Jews comprising the rest of the population.
Visiting religious sites on an autorickshaw tour of old Ahmedabad, virtually entering people's lives just by putt-putting along the narrow streets, was the highlight of our visit. Jama Masjid, or Great Mosque, built by Sultan Ahmed Shah in 1423, is enormous, with intricately carved yellow sandstone fretwork to separate the women's section from the vast interior, where 260 pillars support the mosque's 15 domes. Stones from demolished Hindu and Jain temples were used in the mosque's creation.
Nearby is the Tomb of Ahmed Shah. Another must-see is the 15th-century Sidi Bashir Mosque, famous for its shaking minarets. Siddi Saiyyad Mosque, in the northeast corner of Bhadra Fort, provides an example of Hindu- and Persian-influenced Indo-Saracen architecture and is renowned for its Tree of Life in yellow sandstone, created by one of Ahmed Shah's slaves in 1572.
The marvellous Hathee Sing Jain Temple, built in 1850 by Jain merchant Sheth Hutheesing, is intricately designed.
In the northeast of the old city is Dada Harir Vav, built in 1500. This is a stepwell, beautifully carved walls and pillars leading down to watering wells where travellers could refresh themselves.
Hotels are still business class, not in the luxury league of many Indian tourist destinations, but we were comfortable at the Hyatt Regency and enjoyed dinner out at the vegetarian Rajwadu Indian Restaurant one evening.
Gujarat is a 'dry state' - alcohol sale and consumption are prohibited for Indian citizens. Foreign passport holders need to obtain a liquor permit from a liquor shop or large hotel, which will allow them to drink in the privacy of their homes or hotel rooms.
Ahmedabad is today a rising centre of education, information technology, and the home to two of India's largest pharmaceutical companies. There is also the Sardar Patel Stadium with a seating capacity 54,000. The stadium has hosted many cricket matches.