Ahmedabad was the first Indian city to become a UNESCO World Heritage City in the year 2017. A large part of this recognition was thanks to its quaint neighbourhoods or pols , that are a central part and a living core, of this old historic city that is over 600 years old.
Ahmedabad was established in 1411 by Ahmed Shah of the Gujarat Sultanate, who made it his capital. The city may have been founded by an Islamic ruler but it attracted people from all communities who made it their home. These individuals settled in and created its unique culture.
Indian cities are traditionally organised into neighbourhoods, where house cluster together – they are the mohallas in North India, peths in Pune, paras in Bengal and pols in Ahmedabad. The word ‘pol’ itself is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘pratoli’, which means ‘gate’.
Ahmedabad has around 600 pols, some dating back almost 600 years, with Muhurat Pol near Manek Chowk, in the centre of the old city, believed to be the first pol of this city. The pols have a distinct structure and way of functioning. At the entrance of each pol is a gateway with a residence above it for a guard. Each pol has a notice board at its entrance, which conveys important information to its residents.
The pol is usually run by a panch, which consists of community elders who take care of the day-to-day activities of the neighbourhood. Pols are generally made up of people belonging to the same community, and one can often find a temple or a mosque dedicated to the community’s faith. Some of the city’s most exquisite temples like the Shaninath Jain Temple and Jagvallabh Temple are situated within these pols. Most pols also have a chabutra, a bird feeder, a well and a small open space in the centre.
Many of Ahmedabad’s pols have interesting names – some are named after the resident community, some after famous persons, animals, landmarks, a deity or a temple and some even after family relationships. Some interesting examples are Kansara Pol, after the Kansara community, who traditionally make metal utensils.
The Desai ni Pol is named after the Desai community, which originally lived here. Zaverivad was originally home to jewelers; Haja Patel ni Pol is probably named after a person called Haja Patel, who may have once been an important resident; and we even have Mama ni Pol. The origins of some of these names may be lost in time but they do lend character to the neighbourhoods.
The pols also had an interesting mechanism to protect their residents in the event of a siege or raid. Each pol was self-contained and had heavy wooden gates protecting the entrance. Once the doors were shut, there was no way for outsiders to enter a pol. The doors had intricate locking mechanisms that were difficult to break. Many of them were interconnected through narrow passages, some disguised as the facades of homes. One such passageway is near Shantinath ni Pol.
Also, these houses in a pol are interconnected, allowing the residents to quickly move from one roof to another. All these mechanisms allowed the residents to communicate quickly and to escape in times of calamity or an attack. One of the first things the British did after the Revolt of 1857 was to remove the gates from the pol entrances so that their access couldn’t be blocked.
The houses in the pols are quite beautiful and are mostly made of wood. The interior usually has a central courtyard with a swing, around which the rest of the house is built. Each house has a water tank called the tanka, which can go up to 40 feet deep and hold thousands of litres of water.
Ahmedabad city has a strong tradition of feeding birds and animals. To attract birds into densely populated residential areas which lack trees, local residents built chabutras in all the pols. The chabutra is a highly ornamented bird-feeder that sits a few feet above ground. The residents and shop owners of the locality make sure there is grain and water in them for the birds. If one is lucky, one can even see squirrels competing with birds to grab a quick snack at these chabutras!
While most pols in the city are residential, Ahmedabad’s Walled City or Old City has neighbourhoods that are a mix of commercial and residential structures called ols. An ol was designed to have shops at the ground level and residential spaces on the upper levels. Some of the popular ols are Chandla (for prayer-related items), Kandoi (sweets and other edibles) and Chudi (for wedding-related items).
The city of Ahmedabad has been under different rulers during the course of its existence and this is reflected even in the architecture of its havelis. One can see examples of Gujarati vernacular, Mughal, Maratha as well as colonial architecture in the pols.
In times when the world is discussing climate-responsive architecture, it is interesting to note that these pols had incorporated climate-sensitive elements 600 years ago! The tightly packed streets of the pols are much cooler than the surrounding areas because of the way they are designed and also due to the wood used to build these houses.
Unfortunately, in the last few decades, living in pols began to be seen as ‘downmarket’ and people started moving to newer parts of the city in the west, an area that lacks the charm of the old.
Many of the havelis were converted into warehouses or began to embrace immigrant communities with very different cultures and lifestyles. But some residents have stayed on and they, along with some entrepreneurs, are working to revive the historic city by showcasing its charming culture.
Kavi Dalpatram: Gujarat’s Poet Reformer