We arrived at Ahmedabad by bus from Baroda. All I could see from the dirty window were lines and lines of newly built houses stretching as far as the eye could see. All-purpose businesses filled every available space and co-habited with motorbikes, rickshaws and cows. I had seen the occasional cow in Mumbai and a few more in Baroda but they are an intrinsic part of the population here in Ahmedabad, alongside squirrels, goats and the ever present dogs.
Ahmedabad could be like any other Indian metropolis, the never ending suburban avenues jammed with traffic and scattered shopping malls and glittering advertisements. But it isn’t. Ahmedabad’s true magic lies at its heart, within the old city.
Streets narrow and curve, sinuously opening space through colonian mansions, crumbling but operating shops, hindu and jein temples, mosques and Havelis (traditional Indian houses). Walking these streets in the morning hours, when traffic is relatively quiet and shop owners haven’t woken up yet, we are transported to a past age through wooden corridors and windows painted in light blue, green, pink and cream. Intricately carved doors attract our view, possibly guarding unspeakable secrets whilst richly decorated columns support the weak and trembling structure. Most of these architectural wonderlands lay empty, decaying with time without a second glance from its human neighbours. Sadness comes just by picturing a near future visit to the city when I would find a dusty gigantic empty space instead of the mansion I am looking at. Time, however, doesn’t render a second and follows its course, stopping for nothing and no one.
An unexpected discovery was The House of MG, a restored Haveli mansion turned into a boutique hotel, in front of the Sidi Saiyyed Mosque. We made a pit stop in their restaurant to grab a bite to eat and later wondered into the building, marveling at the antique furniture and mosaic tiled floors. After buying a pair of vintage silver and turquoise earrings from the Kutch Desert and a woolen scarf, we stumbled upon a small craft museum on the first floor, housing an impressive collection of garments from the Gujarat state. The dedication, preciseness and delicacy Indians deliver in their manual labours never fails to astonish me. Mothers dedicate years to weaving, dyeing, embroidering and embellishing garments from sarees, skirts and tops to blankets, shawls and headwear. Each and every piece is guarded together towards the creation of a substantial dowry for their daughter’s wedding. Despite it being made from a loving place, these customs make me slightly uncomfortable. Tradition, centuries of craftsmanship which should be preserved stand alongside rules, customs and attitudes towards women which need to be erased. Tension and struggle are constants all throughout India as its communities face the future.
By sunset we reached Jamma Mosque. We entered its square courtyard through an incospicuous gate only to be blinded by sunlight shining on the stone floor. Arches and columns cover the perimeter whilst a rectangular pool sits at the center, allowing men to wash before entering the sacred space for prayer. We lingered shyly on the edge of the steps, feeling as if we were not quite supposed to be there. After asking a man sitting under the arches on a nearby stool and receiving a lousy nod, we entered a rectangular space lined with columns. These grid-like composition was only broken in a few places, opening to reveal a dome, carved in its entirety with geometrical and natural designs, always from the vegetal world since the depiction of animals is not allowed. We ambled looking upwards, noticing the contrast between the ancient architecture and the rusty lightbulbs and metallic fans hanging from the high ceiling. Never ending carpets were placed in line with the columns, stretching from one end to the other, covering the stone floors, giving a domestic feel to the building. In our awe we forgot to cover our heads; we were quickly reminded to do so later by three older men.
Afterwards, we sat on one of the sides of the square courtyard and watched the men and women enter and exit the space, some to wash and pray and others simply to socialize. A young boy flying a red kite with skill rushed about to keep it in the air. He ran back and forth, bathed in a soft orange light reflecting on the mosque walls and the fountain water. Three young men dressed in white kurtas and trousers hurriedly crossed the courtyard whilst a woman brought her husband a towel to pat himself with after washing in the central pool. In the midst of these routine tasks, a goat came through a gate to our right and leisurely made its way around before being escorted out by a man. The smooth mechanism of the day to day was broken for a second by the animal, only to become part of it by the next.
The citizens of Ahmedabad live in their familiar chaos, accepting spontaneity along with the rising sun. Nothing a cup of chai won’t cure.