A narrow network of dusty lanes and by-lanes, sunlight trickling through congested concrete, intricately carved wooden pillars and doorways, half broken creaking wooden windows, dusty wooden doors some with shining steel locks and some that appear to have been shut forever – these are just few of the things that greeted us as we stepped in through the gateway of Hari Bhakti Ni Pol.
‘Amdavadi Pols’ had piqued my interest when I first read about them in a newspaper article. The article had mentioned that these Pols significantly contributed to the 600-year old Ahmedabad City being declared as a world heritage by UNESCO. I was intrigued and the article gave only a faint idea about Pols.
Pols (pronounced as Poles) are Ahmedabad’s cultural identity and represent a unique legacy. Therefore, it featured in my list of things to explore in the city. During this trip across some places of Gujarat, I was with my parents and exploring Pols wasn’t something I could do with them. Hence, I was looking out for an opportunity to slip out on my own and go Pol-hopping.
A cousin sister happened to be in Ahmedabad for some work on the same day. She called me saying that she had read about these old havelis (mansions) in the in-flight magazine and wanted to go visit them. I instantly knew it was the Pols she’s talking about. Both of us hatched a plan and set out in the afternoon for our most looked forward to walk through Amdavadi Pols. The enriching experience of the 3-hour walk surpassed our expectations and we wished we would have had time for more.
The word Pols is derived from the Sanskrit word Pratoli, which means gate. Pols are a conglomeration of houses usually inhabited by people and families linked together through caste, culture or profession. They are living testimonies of the social unrest that existed in the region hundreds of years ago. Each Pol remains guarded by its own entry gate. In earlier days, these gates would be shut at night. Each Pol also has its exclusive secret exit gate, which is privy to Pol members only. During an attack, men would defend the entry gate, while women and children would escape into the labyrinth of pathways through the secret exit gate.
Each Pol also has a dedicated temple and a chabutro or bird feeder. Chabutro are tall poles that the people of Ahmedabad put up for birds. These were built with the idea of providing home to birds as trees were chopped off to build the city. A thoughtful gesture perhaps but replacing trees with man-made cement poles – I wish they knew better!
Pols are located within the walled city of Ahmedabad and have no space for motor vehicles. The narrow winding alleys are best explored on foot, bicycles or two wheelers. Apparently, there are more than 300 such Pols. While many people have moved out to live in better localities, many still prefer living in the Pols. Almost all the heritage houses in the Pols we visited were in a dismal state. I hope the authorities are aware and do plan to renovate some of them. Or else it will be a sad loss of heritage.
We walked from one dusty narrow lane to another, crisscrossing and trying to make sense of the maze that we were enthusiastically navigating. Nearly at every turn in the narrow lanes, we bumped into either cows or oncoming two wheelers. We came across a number of Pols in our pathway – Hari Bhakti Ni Pol, Khadia Pol, Fatasa Pol, Sheth Ni Pol, and Sakari Ser Pol.
Somewhere, we entered a Pol temple where we offered our prayers to Lord Krishna, who was the residing deity. There we met and chatted with a Baa whose toothless smile and wrinkled face stole our hearts and we felt like giving her a tight hug. She offered us laddoos as prasad and spoke at length in Gujarati while we tried our best to figure out what she had to say with very little success whatsoever.
My cousin didn’t miss a chance to peep through open windows whenever she found one, a habit she carries from childhood. At one time, she discovered an entire room filled with jewellery boxes and two men sitting in a corner with whom she went on to a serious discussion about the prices, where they supply those boxes, etc. In another, she found people busy sewing some kind of traditional stuff, maybe bags she thought not bothering to get into a discussion this time.
We realised that many Pols are part of some cottage industries that allow people to earn their livelihood without leaving their homes. We also noticed that though the pathways and the entryways were very narrow, the houses inside were quite spacious.
Pic 11: A haveli that was simple and not so elaborate.
My cousin was on the lookout for two specific havelis, ones she had read in the in-flight magazine – Mangaldas Ni Haveli and a certain French Haveli. Both these have been converted to hotels now. We did locate Mangaldas Ni Haveli. There were two of them – Mangaldas Ni Haveli-I and Mangaldas Ni Haveli-II.
Mangaldas Ni Haveli-I is a residential home and had a lock hanging on the front door at that point in time. Mangaldas Ni Haveli-II was the hotel. With no inhibitions, my cousin knocked on the door and it was opened by a gentleman. When she requested for a look inside, he demanded 100 bucks per person. We happily paid and took a tour of the inside. My cousin, with her penchant for interior design, was much more excited than I was.
I had a cap on time as I had a train to catch. So, we couldn’t go looking for French Haveli. I left while my cousin continued exploring Ratan Pol, which is now a wholesale market place.
Allured by what I heard from her I just had to go explore Ratan Pol, which I did when I had a day in Ahmedabad during my return trip. Overexcited with prices that I thought were dirt cheap, I only landed up burning a hole in my pocket, but that’s for another day….