Vivid portrait of a city
Reviewed by Ram Varma

Ahmedabad: From Royal City to Megacity
By Achyut Yagnik and Suchitra Sheth. 
Penguin Books.
Pages xx + 348. Rs 450.

OLDER than the great towns founded by the British, Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, and older than Jaipur founded by Raja Jaisingh, the city of Amdavad, as its residents call it, was founded by Sultan Ahmed Shah of Gujarat in 1411 AD. The British brought a touch of the Oxidant, of the Gothic and the Renaissance, to their towns. While Raja Jaisingh planned Jaipur on the principles of vastu, Sultan Ahmed Shah patterned his citadel on the old city of Patan, built by ancient Hindu rajas, from where he moved the capital of Gujarat to the brave new city commemorating his name.

Unlike the capital city founded by Tughlaq on the outskirts of Delhi before him, which vanished like a daydream, or Fatehpur Sikri, near Agra, by the great Akbar after him, which has become a museum piece, Ahmedabad, on the banks of the salubrious Sabarmati, has gloriously flourished. This book is a fine portrait of the city by two of her lovers.

The book carries the burden of history lightly and the reader has vivid glimpses of the cityís growth through the ebb and flow of time. The authors, having dug deep into the Persian, Arabic and Gujarati sources, have rummaged the pages of Tarikh-i-Ahmedshahi, a panegyric to Sultan Ahmed Shah in Persian by his court poet, Hulvi Shirazi, Mirat-i-Ahmadi written in Arabic by Ali Muhammad Khan, Diwan of the province during Moghul times, and books by Gujarati historians, Maganlal Vakhatchand and Ratnamanirao Jote, and have drawn a convincing, true to life portrait. What emerges is a rumbustious city of mosques (in Sultanate and Moghul times), mills (in British days) and malls (in modern times).

Two quotes about the city would be in order. One by Abul Fazl in Ain-i-Akbari: "A noble city in a high state of prosperity, situated on the bank of Sabarmati `85 For the pleasantness of its climate and its display of the chicest productions of the whole globe it is almost unrivalled." The second by Christopher Farewell, an Englishman who assisted the opening of an English factory in 1615: "Amadavaz, the great and populous citie, `85 rich in trade in variety, indicos especially, by means of a generale confluence of most nations in the world, English, Dutch, Portugals, Jews, Armenians, Arabians, Medes and Persians, Turks and Tartarians cum nullis alis."

The builder of the magnificent Sidi Saiyyad mosque with the famous intricate jaali that has become the visual symbol of Ahmedabad was Sheikh Saiyyad from Abyssinia. And here is a vignette from history: In 1487, a party of merchants from Iraq and Khorasan were bringing 400 horses and some fabrics for Sultan Mahmud Bagada by the inland route when they were robbed of all their possessions near Sirohi. Somehow they reached the Sultanís court in Ahmedabad and he not only ordered that they be given full payment from the royal treasury but also forced the Raja of Sirohi to return all the horses. The Raja sought forgiveness and handed over 370 horses and compensation for the remaining.

A fascinating detail into the evolution of self-governance in Ahmedabad is provided by the raising of the Town Wall Fund during the time of Collector Arthur Crawford in the early 19th century. He wanted to levy a tax of 14 annas per head to raise Rs 20,000 annually for the repair of the city wall which had been dilapidated. The cityís mercantile elite objected to this form of "taxation without representation" and instead suggested a small increase in town duties on export and import but ensured that the Quazee and the Nagar Sheth were associated in the implementation of the project. The public representation on the Town Wall Fund Committee was increased later to 30 and became a precursor of the Municipal Committee.

Ahmedabad, the authors maintain, was Gandhiís karmabhumi, and they provide interesting facets of Mahatmaís life and work as a kind of bonus read. Itís a well-written, enjoyable book, which I would unhesitatingly and wholeheartedly recommend to the reader.