Often overlooked as a tourist destination, Gujarat’s largest city and erstwhile capital has a layered history worthy of a closer examination. Here’s how you can make the most of your time in Ahmedabad.
Gujarat’s metropolitan hub, Ahmedabad is a city of contrasts. Despite being one of the largest cities in the country, and with at least five centuries of heritage monuments, and a longer heritage of crafts, its most popular epithet has been ‘the Manchester of India’, one that it had to share with Kanpur. Yes, it remains an industrial-economic powerhouse, but with a plethora of varied attractions that satiate the intrepid traveller.
Sure, you will have to look for these treasures. Specialised museums abound, whether it is the historic Calico Textile Museum or the newer Auto World Vintage Car Museum, the unique Husain Doshi Gufa, the futuristic Vikram Sarabhai Space Exhibition or the unusual Conflictorium.
Ahmedabad is also a hub for arts and crafts. It got a huge post-Independence boost when the National Institute of Design was established here, or perhaps because of its legacy in design, which then helped the outreach of crafts to well outside the state. It is also a food hub, from traditional vegetarian Gujarati fare to increasingly more cosmopolitan offerings as the city’s wealth has grown in recent decades. While not as well-known as some other Gujarati cities for ice-cream, it is nevertheless a must try for the visitor.
Here are some highlights from a city that has largely been overlooked as a tourism destination, undeservingly so. While some are much loved landmarks, others are more niche destinations that are well worth the time.
There are few Indians, hopefully, who would not have heard of Sabarmati Ashram, Gandhi’s primary residence after his return to India. Spread over 36 acres on the banks of the river Sabarmati, it was selected so that it could provide enough space for some of Gandhi’s pet projects, such as animal husbandry and agriculture. Yes, additions have been made such as a new museum, the Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya, designed by late architect Charles Correa, but the goats and cattle still remain too — descendants perhaps of those who were contemporaneous to Gandhi? Worryingly, there are whispers about converting it to a Gandhi-themed ‘park’!
Ahmedabad’s main fort — built initially by the city’s founder, Ahmad Shah (reigned 1411-1442) and added to by succeeding rulers and later governors once the city was absorbed into the Mughal empire — is actually a fort city. Chock full of palaces, residential and official buildings, shrines, gardens, wells, and flanked by walls interspersed by numerous towers and gates, it is today hemmed in by the surrounding city. Within its premises is the Bhadrakali Temple, almost next to a mosque.
The eastern side has a structure called Teen Darwaza, once the entrance to a large open square, not to be confused with Lal Darwaza, which is the main entrance to the fort itself. Unlike many of India’s forts, this one is almost not a tourism attraction but a part of the daily life of the city, so integrated is it with its surroundings. Also, no open square exists anymore, but a pitiful stretch of lawns. Must visit however to understand one of the most religiously divided cities in the country.
Sidi Saiyyed Mosque
If you are familiar with IIM-A, India’s premier management training institute, you may recall its famous logo — a tree of life. Yes, the inspiration for this tree is present in Ahmedabad, and can be seen in the heart of the city, on the walls of the Sidi Saiyyed Mosque. Do look at this filigree/jaali work in marble closely to appreciate the finer details — its delicate, intricate carving has been held up as a benchmark ever since. Built in 1572-73 during the reign of the last ruler of the Gujarat Sultanate, Shams-ud-Din Muzaffar Shah III, the year that the sultanate ended too!
Calico Textile Museum
The best tribute to the city as ‘the Manchester of India’ is at the Calico Textile Museum, established even before India became a republic by the famous Sarabhai family (think Vikram or Mallika). Set up as a specialised museum depicting historical and technical study of Indian textiles by siblings Gautam Sarabhai and Gira Sarabhai in 1949. Built around a courtyard resembling a house, it has traditional façades reused from old houses in the area. Today it has one of the finest and largest collections of Indian textiles, from historical to contemporary — an exemplary showcase of the subcontinent’s textile traditions.
Vechaar Utensil Museum
If it is unique museums that are your jam, look no further than the Utensil Museum, which has a collection of over 4,500 unique individual items — from tiny spoons and forks to urns so massive, they are hard to fit into interior spaces. Now more than four decades old, this museum is part of a ‘food’ complex that was established in 1978 with a vision to change the way Gujarati food was seen. The collection includes not only utensils from various parts of India, but some even from central Asia. You could marvel at the intricacy of Mughal-era jars or wonder at a copper ‘pressure cooker’, or gaze at ‘dowry boxes’ or smirk at ‘naughty’ nut-crackers.
Husain Doshi Gufa
You may have visited a number of art galleries, but rarely one with the flair of Husain Doshi Gufa or Amdavad ni Gufa. At first glance, you would be forgiven for thinking these are space pods but it’s a unique juxtaposition of architecture and art. Designed by the architect Balkrishna Doshi, it exhibits works of artist Maqbool Fida Husain. Doshi and Husain, stalwarts of the Indian creative scene in the years immediately following Independence, took inspiration from sources such as the Ajanta Caves, Girnar’s Jain temples and Paleolithic cave art to conceive a most unusual space.
Auto World Vintage Car Museum
For car lovers, especially those interested in their evolution, a visit to the Auto World Vintage Car Museum is a must. Fans can satiate themselves by gazing at more than a hundred cars including marquee names such as Rolls Royce, Bentley, Mercedes, Maybach, Austin, Chrysler, Cadillac, and Buick among them.
Standing by the tranquil Kankaria Lake early in the morning, it’s hard to believe that beyond the ring fence of lush green tree canopies is a bustling city. Rarely has any Indian city got such a large lake at its centre, manmade at that. Constructed in 1451 during the reign of Ahmad Shah II, the lake, which includes a pleasure garden called Nagina Bagh, remained a favourite with visitors and royals down the decades. Today, it has been transformed by the addition of a number of more modern attractions, including a zoo, an amusement park, a children’s park, cycling tracks, a toy train, Segways, etc.
In India, Ahmedabad is perhaps the city with the largest number of theme-based museums, and perhaps none more unusual than Conflictorium. Centred around the theme of conflict — sadly Ahmedabad has seen more violent conflicts in recent years than most Indian cities, the museum is divided into six spaces — including a Conflict Timeline, which outlines the history of violence in of Gujarat since 1960, and an Empathy Alley, which has audio recordings and silhouettes of post-Independence political leaders. The Moral Compass showcases the Indian Constitution, and visitors can see, read, and touch it, while The Memory Lab lets visitors jot down their thoughts and wishes, which they can then put in empty jars. Any effort to reconcile divided peoples is laudable indeed.
The Kite Museum
If it’s kites, it has to be Gujarat. The Kite Museum is another unique museum in the city, and one with a more popular appeal. Initially a private collection, it took its current form in 1986. Housed in the Le Corbusier Sankar Kendra, it today depicts not just the history of kite making in Gujarat, but also has some of the most unique kites on display from a wider world.
Good to know
Shopping: Ahmedabad is known for a variety of retail products, none more so than textiles and handicrafts. Easily the best-known traditional market is Law Garden night market, which, of course, opens in the evening. Ideal for mass shopping. A more modern option is Ahmedabad Alpha One, the city’s largest and arguably the trendiest hangout. There are many more established shopping areas, from the old city’s Manek Chowk to Rani No Hajiro Ahmedabad Cloth Market, Lal Darwaza Market and Sindhi Market.
Shrines: Ahmedabad is notably full of religious destinations. Easily the most notable temple is the relatively new Akshardham Temple, dedicated to Lord Swaminarayan, located in neighbouring Gandhinagar. Other well-known temples include Shree Camp Hanuman Mandir, Vaishnodevi Temple and the ISKCON Temple. Jama Masjid is the largest mosque in the city. Other historic ones include Sarkhej Mosque, Usmanpura Mosque, Rani Rupavati Mosque and Rani Sipri Mosque.
Food: Gujaratis love eating out, and Ahmedabad caters to every budget with a wide range of food. Popular snacks, often available in several avatars as street food, include dhokla, khakhra, thepla, fafda, dabeli, sev and farsan. Non-vegetarians can delight in mutton and chicken samosas. The Gujarati thali is distinctive for its local curries and other preparations, and again available across prices. Expect, and watch out for khandvi, Gujarati kadhi, methi no thepla, dal dhokli, aamras. Also, yes, visitors from outside the state are permitted liquor in this ‘dry state’.
Stay: In recent years, a number of top hospitality brands have opened, including Marriott, Taj, Hyatt, Hilton, Novotel, Holiday Inn, Radisson, Lemon Tree. The latest and largest is again in Gandhinagar, the Leela, also India’s first hotel built on airspace above the city’s railway station.