A soft arrival at the House of MG, a massive boutique operation in the old town of Ahmedabad and the home of a 19th century dynasty of textile entrepreneurs. The building is decorated with exactly the same tiles as our hall at home. We stay in the massive room use for confinement in the ladies’ quarter. Not cheap but the essential place to stay in India’s 5th largest city. The taxi drive from the airport is the culture jolt you need; past the suburban colonies of bureaucratic and military India, through the slum settlements with homebuilt wedding carts and fairground rides, past the bird feeding stations, an old colonial church, elaborate roundabout sculptures, the Gandhi murals in the underpass and into traffic hell.
Directly across from the hotel is the Siddi Sayyed mosque. Dating from 1573 the carved stone windows are the unofficial symbol of the city.
Sprawling across the roof of the hotel is a wonderful restaurant, Agashiye, which specialises in massive and good quality thalis for about £7. (OK, that’s probably the most expensive thali in town.)
A walking tour of the old city
The first morning we wake to the empty streets at 7am – the old city doesn’t sem to rise until 10am – and find a rickshaw to take us to the Swarmi Narayan temple. A man there who had recently visited Leicester told me that they’d been chanting there since 4am. The priests are pouring milk over small statues. Boys are chipping away at large blocks of sandstone.
We join a large group for the morning heritage tour. There are two obvious westerners; one from London, one from Jordan. The guide leads us through the maze of the old city; past fighting kite string makers covering the plastic line with powdered glass paste, and into the pols. The pols are enclosed neighbourhoods, often complete with a defensive gatehouse, ‘secret’ passageways, a temple and a selection of elaborate bird and squirrel feeders. Many of the houses still have heavy carvings and mix European, Mughal and local styles.The local heritage organisation is helping people to renovate buildings, working with foreign architects and are ultimately trying for a Unesco World Heritage listing. We visited a private temple and an underground Jain temple.
The tour ends at the great Friday mosque. Built in 1424 for the private use of the rulers, the courtyard leads you to a forest of 260 columns and a raised screened area for the women. The mihrab are decorated with hindu bells and flowers.
We wander back to see Shah Ahmed’s mausoleum; early 15th century. No women allowed in the inner are. Ducks & goats wander around the graveyard that has positioned itself next to the burial place of the city’s founder.
Nearby the royal women were buried, in another raised construction. The locked building is surrounded by squatters who act as defacto caretakers. They let us in to the open courtyard to show us the marble graves under their fabric covers. The caretaker’s children play among the graves, flying their kites.
That evening we met our driver Deep Singh who drove us to Vishalla, a faux village restaurant in the suburbs. Slightly oddly there is a utensil museum attached to the restaurant which, despite our initial scepticism, was worth wandering around. A vast collection of pots, inevitable betel nut cutters, dowry containers & earthenware from across India.
We had another vast thali. Repeated waves of servers quickly lead to culinary overload. We ate cross-legged under canvas awnings. There was entertainment in various arenas: music and puppets. There are pictures of Indira Gandhi and a young Big B at the entrance.
The start of the trip
On Thursday morning we’re driven to the Hutheesing temple, between the hotel and the Calico museum. Built in 1849 it’s pretty and the first of many Jain temples that we’ll see. The central shrine is surrounded by 52 shrines each adorned with an image of one of the 24 Tirthankaras. The buildings – no photos allowed – are covered in carvings, and best of all, sitting on some rickety home-made scaffolding, were about 30 people of all ages, from small children to the elderly, polishing the carvings with grinding sticks.
The Calico museum is one of the great textile museums of the world. A private collection set in a group of buildings rescued from the old city But it’s officious and bureaucratic, security obsessed and user unfriendly. You need to pre-book one of two tours a day and be rushed through an astonishing collection at high speed. No photos, no notes. Lights are switched off as you are pushed into the next room. And much of the fabric is encased in user-unfriendly plastic protection
But what an astonishing collection; an entire Mughal tent kit, 17th century painted calico, a selection of ikats, applique from Orissa, naive quilting from Bihar and an entire temple wagon from Tamil Nadu. Lots of embroidery from Kutch and examples of tie-dying. Phulkaris too; ours would have fitted in well here.