Sole Sister

Cruising in the single lane


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Change agent

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The revered Mahatma in peaceful contemplation on the lawns at Sabarmati Ashram. 

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An ashram visitor takes a leaf out of his guru’s book.

It’s not surprising that one of the most serene places in Ahmedabad is the ashram founded by the revered Mohandas Gandhi – the Mahatama (Great Soul) or Bapu (Father). In contrast to the outside hustle and bustle, colour and commotion, the ashram on the banks of the Sabarmati River opens to green lawns, sandy quadrangles, low-slung, simple, airy bungalows and shady trees. Visitors stroll at ease around the grounds and museum, taking in the so-familiar images and props of the Mahatma – his walking staff, spinning wheel and displays illuminating his innumerable familiar exhortations captured in handwriting and print.

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Bapu’s famous staff and spinning wheel. 

 

Gandhi’s desk; the view from the window.

Mohandas Gandhi was a native Gujurati, born to a middle class family. He studied law in the United Kingdom, returned to India a qualified barrister then was offered a job in South Africa. The racial prejudice he encountered in South Africa spurred him not only to return to India but develop his philosophies. Prime among these was the removal of the British from India and the non-violent methods by which this might be achieved. The peaceful atmosphere of Sabarmati Ashram, established on 17 June 1918 – 100 years ago last weekend –  was the perfect place to contemplate peaceful pathways to change. The venerated Father of the Nation and his wife Kasturba stayed at Sabarmati Ashram for over a decade. It was from here that he began his famous march across India, defied the salt tax and urged his countrymen to spin their own simple “khadi” cloth to sideline the need for British  manufactured textiles.

 

India gained its independence from Britain in August 1947 but, within a year, the beloved Gandhi was dead, cruelly assassinated by a Hindu devotee who was wrongly convinced that the Mahatma was to blame for the partition of the new nation into (roughly) Hindu India and Moslem Pakistan. Relations between the neighbours – and once peaceful co-inhabiters of the one country – have grown increasingly hostile with each passing decade. Hardly the kind of change that Gandhi had envisaged.

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Words of the Guru. 

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Ashram signage (left); Gandhi’s signature in numerous languages.


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The city that Ahmed built

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Ahmed Shah I tomb.

The locale suffix abad attaches itself to cities across Iran, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan and the Indian sub-continent. It’s a strong reminder of the influence that the ancient superpower of Persia had on its neighbours. -Abad derives from the Persian meaning “cultivated place” and, according to that go-to source Wikipedia, commonly is added to the name of a city’s founder or patron. Such is the case with the old capital, and largest city, of Gujarat State, Ahmedabad. Or Amdavad as it’s known in the local dialect. The suffix emphasises an essential aspect of Ahmedabad’s personality:  it’s Moghul and Muslim roots.

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Ahmed Shah I Mosque. 

Ahmedabad was established in 1411 by an early Muzaffarid Sultan of Gujarat, Ahmed Shah I. He chose a site along the banks of the impressive Sabarmati River which begins life in the hills of Rajasthan then meanders across Gujarat for about 400 kms, feeding on monsoon waters until it reaches the Arabian Gulf. He named the city for himself,  his spiritual advisor, and two other worthy Ahmeds of his acquaintance. During the almost-200-year Muzaffarid reign, Ahmedabad blossomed into one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the world, graced with a distinctive architectural style encouraged by the sultans that blended Islamic elements with Gujarat’s indigenous Hindu and Jain traditions. Gujarat’s Islamic style was the forerunner of  elements found in Mughal architecture including ornate mihrabs and minarets, perforated screens  of carved stone and cupola-topped pavilions. Many centuries later the banks of the Sabarmati in Ahmedabad were to become the site of one of the Mahatma Gandhi’s ashrams.

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Ahmedabad’s elegant Stock Exchange, India’s second oldest. 

Ahmedabad assumed  the capital mantle of Gujarat State when the new nation of India was created in 1948. Then in 1970 the honours went to Gandinagar further up the Sabarmati, though the High Court remained in Ahmedabad.  But significant immovable reminders remain including Ahmed Shah’s mosque, built in 1414, the oldest in the city, and his tomb.  The latter also houses the tombs of his son, Muhammed Shah II and grandson Qutub-ud-din.

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From little things…… Ahmedabad is now a city of over 7 million and makes it onto lists of the 20 fastest-growing cities in the world. Being close to Mumbai, the old Bombay, the city benefitted from its early commercial significance. The decorative Stock Exchange, built in the mid-1800s, is India’s second oldest. As India’s sixth largest city it is an important industrial and economic hub, houses many educational and research institutions, and flourishing heavy and chemical industries. The name Adani, as instantly recognised in Ahmedabad as Australia, has its corporate headquarters there.

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For all its bustling modernity one of the most charming parts of Ahmedabad is Ahmed Shah’s old city.  Tourists happily avail themselves of early-morning walks around the area before the tumult of the day overtakes. Reminders of an ornate and more elegant past can be gleaned from the tumble-down backstreets where the influence of British architecture also survives. Happily, as in other cities around the world, past beauty is being restored in many places.

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Young Jain nuns going to early morning devotions. 

Beautiful Jain temple.

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Shaken and stirred

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The Royal Chhatardis site in Bhuj. 

Those who have lived in an earthquake zone know the terror invoked by a sizeable shake.  Even more modest ones – in the four to six Richter Scale range – are unsettling. So imagine the distress of Gujuratis on January 26, 2001 when they were jolted by a quake of almost eight on the Richter scale and lasting for over two minutes. Some 20,000 people died, almost 170,000 were injured and almost a million left homeless. It was one of the worst earthquakes ever in India. The citizens of the city of Bhuj, only about nine  kilometres from the epicentre, were among the hardest hit.

The memory or the earthquake remains strong in Gujarat State. Throughout our travels we listened to countless grim tales of the toll it had taken: loved ones lost, homes destroyed, possessions gone; vital infrastructure shattered. Ahead of our stay in Bhuj we were cautioned about the rawness of grief that remained even after almost two decades. Visiting the house of a renowned textile expert, one of innumerable victims of the seismic catastrophe, his son proudly but sadly pointed out the intricately carved wooden front door frame which they had managed to salvage from the rubble of their previous family home.

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Of course, it’s not just contemporary infrastructure which crumbles under the forces of a quake. Antiquities also suffer. In Bhuj one such casualty was the intricately decorated Royal Chhatardis, or cenotaphs.  The term chhatardis derives from the word for umbrella, because of the umbrella-shaped dome of the structures. They house no bodily remains, as these were cremated, but serve as memorials. The Royal Chhatris were built in the 18th century by Jadeja ruler Rao Lakhpatji who reserved a particularly impressive Turkish-influenced, bejewelled blue-domed structure, for himself.  Walking through the extensive tract of memorials  the visitor notes that rank did not save the ruler from the earthquake’s might, his cenotaph  revealing significant damage among the many other fallen sculptures. But overall this vast sandstone shrine, intricately depicting gods, goddesses and royalty, retains a regal atmosphere of a bygone era of beauty and extravagance.  State finances are being directed into restorations as was funding to get Gujarat back on its feet after the devastation. The resilience of the human spirit still stirs the emotions.

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