Founded in 1411 by Sultan Ahmed Shah on the banks of the river Sabarmati, Ahmedabad is today India’s seventh largest city and also one of the subcontinent’s few medieval cities which continue to be prosperous and important.
Soon after it was established, the royal city of Ahmedabad became the commercial and cultural capital of Gujarat in 1572, Ahmedabad lost its political pre-eminence, but continued to flourish as a great trading centre connecting the silk route with the spice route. Briefly under the Marathas in the eighteenth century, Ahmedabad experienced a dimming of its fortunes, but with the beginning of British control from the early nineteenth century the city reasserted its mercantile ethos, even as it began questioning age-old social hierarchies. The opening of the first textile mill in 1861 was turning point and by the end of the century Ahmedabad was known as the Manchester of the East.
When Gandhi returned to India from South Africa in 1915, looking for a place where he could establish ‘an institution for the whole of India’, it was Ahmedabad he chose. With the setting up of his Sabarmati Ashram, the great manufacturing centre also became a centre for new awakening. It became the political hub of India, radiating the message of freedom struggle based on truth and non-violence. After Independence, it emerged as one of he faster-growing cities of India and in the 1960s Ahmedabais pioneered institutions of higher education and research in new fields such as space sciences, managements, design and architecture.
Yet, through the centuries, Ahmedabad’s prosperity has been punctuated by natural disasters and social discord, from famines and earthquakes to caste and religious violence. Ahmedabadis have tried to respond to these, trying to meld economic progress with a new culture of social harmony.
Coinciding with the 600th anniversary of the founding of Ahmedabad, this broad-brush history highlights socio-economic patterns that emphasize Indo-Islamic and Indo-European synthesis and continuity, bringing the focus back to the pluralistic heritage of this medieval city. Evocative profiles of Ahmebadai merchants, industrialists, poets and saints along with descriptions and illustrations of the city’s art and architecture bring alive the city and its citizens.
Achyut Yagnik is the founder-secretary of Setu; Centre for Social Knowledge and Action, an Ahmedabad-based voluntary organization which has been working with marginalized communities since the early 1980s. He was a journalist and has also taught development communication as visiting faculty at the Gujarat University. He is co-author of the book Creating a Nationality: Ramjanmabhoomi Movement and Fear of the Self.
Suchitra Sheth studied visual communication at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. She has been associated with Setu and now teaches at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at CEPT University, Ahmedabad.
Achyut Yagnik and Suchitra Sheth have co-authored The Shaping of Modern Gujarat: Plurality, Hindutva and Beyond.
This is the biography of Ahmedabad, a city founded by Sultan Ahmed Shah in 1411, which is on the threshold of completing 600 years of existence. Of all India’s major cities today, Ahmedabad is, in terms of antiquity, second only to Delhi. The other metropolitan cities, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad and Bengaluru, are younger, though bigger and more populous. There are numerous places in India which are older but unlike most of them which are today small, insignificant towns, Ahmedabad holds the distinction of having remained prosperous and prominent through the centuries. Yet, these years have not been smooth; the ebbs and flows in fame and fortune have left their mark on the city and the past continues to shape the present. This is what the volume hopes to capture and present.
We have chosen to term this volume a ‘biography’ for we see it as the account of the life of a city, viewing the city as a living entity shaped by its rulers and citizens. In such an account myth intersects with history, domination with dissent, and tradition is transformed by innovation. Ahmedabad has experienced all these aspects and reflects them in its mosques, mills and malls and in the millions who live here.
Though we maintain a chronological framework, the past six centuries do not receive equal space in this biography. The first five chapters cover the first four centuries starting with the foundation of Ahmedabad and events till the eighteenth century, teasing out political, social and economic threads. The next five chapters, by and large, explore the long nineteenth century which was so crucial in the shaping of modern Ahmedabad. The final five chapters, beginning with the arrival of Gandhi, focus on the upsurge during the freedom struggle and early years of independence, ending with the ferment of the final phase as the city searches for a new way to be.
A biography such as this one necessarily builds on the narratives of other scholars. The sources we have consulted to put together this volume have been rich, with varied styles and emphases. Insights into the early centuries of Ahmedabad’s establishment come from Persian and Arabic sources made accessible to us in Gujarati and English by dedicated historians, epigraphists and translators of the twentieth century. Compared to most provinces of India, Gujarat is richer in Persian and Arabic historical writings. From the period of the Gujarat Sultanate in early fifteenth century, a large number of Islamic scholars from Iran and Arabia migrated to Gujarat and settled in prosperous cities like Patan, Cambay and Ahmedabad and were attached to the royalty, nobility or religious institutions. In an age without printing technology their writings were reproduced by a class of scribes called ‘warraq’ which emerged from the educated section of society, both Muslim and Hindu. Combining exceptional speed with beautiful handwriting, they transcribed Persian and Arabic texts in a short time and it was clue to them that books could reach distant centres of Islamic learning and libraries could flourish. During Mughal rule arrangements were made by the state for the training of warraqs in most major cities of the empire.
These Persian and Arabic texts recorded geographical descriptions, historical details and a glimpse of life in their times. Following the tradition of history—writing which started with the expansion of the Delhi Sultanate in the fourteenth century; these accounts are centred on the royalty and focused on political developments; the belief that all monarchs and their kingdoms lay under the protection of a Sufi saint permeates their understanding of the order of life. In these works prose is interspersed with verse, either composed by the authors themselves or by well—known Persian poets giving them a lively quality which is apparent even in translation.
We would like to note the contribution of two Persian historians in particular. The first is Hulvi Shirazi who was a celebrated Persian poet in the court of Sultan Ahmed Shah. Shirazi composed Tarikh-i-Ahmedshahi, a panegyric to the Sultan in verse, which is the only contemporary insight into the foundation of the city and the early expansion of the kingdom. The manuscript was extant till the reign of Akbar and, though unavailable now, we know its contents through verses quoted by later historians. Shirazi’s family background or even his real name is not known but it is believed that he died in 1473.
The second scholar of note, Sikandar Manjhu, was born in mid sixteenth century. His father, Muhammad alias Manjhu, was Humayun’s librarian and later settled in Gujarat to serve nobles of the Gujarat Sultanate. Sikandar witnessed the conquest of Gujarat by Akbar and then served Abdur Rahim Khan—i—Khanan. His book Mirat-i-Sikandari is the only Persian history which covers the entire period of Gujarat Sultanate (1407-1572). For Sikandar one of the essential conditions of history—writing was true presentation of facts in detail and, accordingly, his history is a mine of information on political, social and cultural aspects of the Sultanate. The book also quotes previous historical works on the subject and in fact we know if Hulvi Shirazi’s verses and other writings like Tarikh-i-Mahmudshahi and Tarikh-i-Babadurshabi because Sikandar quoted them. When Jahangir visited Ahmedabad in 1618, he honoured Sikandar by visiting him at his home, an indication of how well respected Sikandar was in his time.
Other informative Persian sources are those which focus on the Delhi Sultanate or Mughal Empire, indirectly giving us valuable information about the city and its position in medieval India. Among these are Abul Eazl’s Ain-i-Akbari and Nizamuddin Ahmad’s Tabqat- i-Akbari and even Jahangir’s own memoir, Jahangirnama. We also get accounts and impressions about the different cities of Gujarat, markets, mint, measurements and commercial linkages from travelogues written by European travellers and merchants who came to the region from the early sixteenth century.
Ali Muhammad Khan’s Mirati-i-Ahmadi
However, the Persian source which this biography has drawn upon the most is Ali Muhammad Khan’s Mirati-i-Ahmadi, through its Gujarati and English translations. Born in 1700, Ali Muhammad Khan came to Ahmedabad at the age of eight with his father, who was appointed newsreader in the Mughal administration. Ali Muhammad Khan too entered the Mughal administration and by the mid eighteenth century became the imperial diwan of the province. Mughal authority was waning in Gujarat and Maratha power was on the rise. As diwan Ali Muhammad Khan was in charge of state papers and documents and based on these he wrote Mirati-i-Ahmadi 1761. The book covers the history of Gujarat from the tenth century onward but its main focus is on the Mughal period. Comparable to a modern government gazetteer, it contains details about political, social and religious conditions of the province and its capital. The khatima or supplement of this sourcebook gives us a vivid description of eighteenth—century Ahmedabad with its topography, mandirs and mosques.
The decades of Maratha rule that followed produced no historical works and the next set of sources is from the mid nineteenth century when the British took control of Ahmedabad. A little less than a hundred years after the Persian Mirati-i-Ahmadi came the first history of Ahmedabad in Gujarati to which too this biography is greatly indebted.
Maganlal Vakhatchand’s Amdavadno Itihas
From the mid nineteenth century a new generation with modern education arrived on the scene. New literary forms, like autobiography and diary-writing, were cultivated in Gujarati and the private sphere became more pronounced. A western notion of history and historiography permeated this new educated class. One of the earliest ‘modern Ahmedabadis’, Maganlal was born in 1830 into an established Jain family of the city. He was part of the first batch of students in Ahmedabad’s first English school where he absorbed western education and, with it, a western outlook. In 1850, at the age of twenty he won a competition organized by the Gujarat Vernacular Society to write a history of the city: The printing press had just been introduced and the prize-winning essay was published in 1851 as ‘Amdavadno Itihas’. It was the first history of the city in the Gujarati language and the term ‘itihas’ or history carried a modern conception for the first time. From this stage onward historians and scholars wrote in modern Gujarati or English.
In the preface to his essay, Maganlal describes the sources he consulted. The first section on ‘ancient’ history was based mainly on Mirati-i-Ahmadi and, not knowing Persian, he used James Bird’s English translation. This was followed by the ‘modern’ period which focused on the beginning of Maratha rule followed by the capture of the city by the soldiers of the East India Company. Maganlal’s comments on the depredation of the city by the Marathas was based on narratives gathered from the older generation of his time. The third section describing ‘present conditions’ makes interesting reading as it describes the city’s pols or residential enclaves and suburbs with their social composition. The final chapter throws light on contemporary trade and manufacturing of the city. Maganlal later became secretary of the Gujarat Vernacular Society and of Ahmedabad municipality and was active in establishing girls° schools and the first modern library, all of which he accomplished before he died in 1868 at the young age of thirty-eight. Like many of his contemporaries, Maganlal greatly admired the British, terming their rule Ramrajya in his book.
Contemporaneous with Amdavadno Itihas were two other books by English authors: H.G. Briggs’s The Cities of Gujarashtra and Mary Carpenter’s Six Months in India. Though neither focused solely on Ahmedabad, they deserve mention for offering unusual glimpses of everyday life in the city.
Ratnamanirao Jote’s Gujaratnu Patnagar: Amdavad
From 1885 a new municipal government with elected members set into motion intense debate and dialogue about the future of the city. City leaders compared Ahmedabad with other Indian and even European cities and implemented measures to upgrade civic amenities.
European ideas about urbanity, urban planning and also heritage made a deep impact on the upper crust of society. We find insights into this new urban perspective and praxis in Gujaratnu Patnagr. Amdavad, voluminous full—length Gujarati book on Ahmedabad. Written in 1929 by an Ahmedabadi, Ratnamanirao Jote, it covers the past and present of the city, based on Persian, Sanskrit, Gujarati and English texts as well as Jain religious and literary sources.
Born in 1895, Ratnamanirao graduated from the Gujarat College in 1919 and joined a business firm dealing with cotton yarn and cloth. Business took him away from the city for the next twenty—five years but he continued to write on historical subjects. At the age of thirty- four he published Gujaratnu Patnagar: Amdavad (The Capital of Gujarat: Ahmedabad) running into more than 800 pages and accompanied by numerous illustrations. The preface outlines the subjects covered in the book: history, architecture, trade and commerce, and important places. It also describes in great detail the topography of the city, its suburbs and pols and the last hundred pages are devoted to life sketches of the sultans, subas, saints, poets and prominent merchants who shaped the city over the centuries.
The breadth of the book and the depth with which the city is explored apart, what is striking is Ratnamanirao’s point of view: at the time the book was published the city had recently experienced a long textile workers’ strike, intense violence around the Rowlatt Satyagraha and communal identities were getting sharpened. Against this backdrop, Ratnamanirao explores and describes Ahmedabad with a progressive and secular outlook. While dispassionately analysing past rulers and administrators, Mughal, Maratha or British, the city, its people and their well—being always remain at the centre of the book, making it the third important sourcebook for our biography of Ahmedabad.
We cannot complete our brief appraisal of source material without mentioning the eminent historian of Gujarat Manekshah S. Commissariat, who was a professor of history at Gujarat College. His three-volume- history of medieval Gujarat is a monumental work published between 1938 and 1980. These volumes cover me political, economic and cultural history of Gujarat with a survey of the province’s chief architectural monuments and inscriptions as well as some interesting documents in the custody of the city’s leading families. Since most important political events of the city as well as monuments and inscriptions of Ahmedabad are included in this work, it becomes indispensable for a greater understanding of the city’s variegated past. The third volume ends with the advent of British rule and thus these three volumes detail the development of the city in its first 400 years.
By the early twentieth century a few educated Ahmedabadi women began to write. Vidyaben Nilkanth and Shardaben Mehta, sisters who were the first two women graduates of the city, wrote extensively from social, cultural and literary perspectives and one can cull a few impressions of the city from these. But we still have to wait for women’s reflections on the city and its developments.
We have highlighted three historians to whom we owe a scholarly debt and when we read their accounts critically we realized that their life experiences have shaped their perspective and their writings. And so it is with us. Both of us have spent our adult lives in Ahmedabad and have been involved in the cultural and academic life of the city in different ways. These experiences have surely informed our perception and would be reflected in our writing. To be ‘insiders’ in this way is a privilege and also a limitation. Enjoying our privilege we have tried our best to transcend our limitation. We hope our modest attempt to link our present with the past will encourage other Ahmedabadis and scholars from outside to write accounts of the city with their own perspectives.
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