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Ahmedabad turns 608! How is the city really approaching its Heritage today?

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Ahmedabad turns 608! How is the city really approaching its Heritage today?

608 years ago, Ahmedabad began its journey towards becoming the urban hub of culture it is today. And the city’s recent status as a UNESCO World Heritage City has put it on the map. So what is the story of the city’s heritage today? What is working? What is not? Let’s go over the story of Ahmedabad’s heritage in its 608th year.

In 1411, Sultan Ahmed Shah, who was all of 22 years old at the time, established Ahmedabad in his name. Graphic designer and pol-dweller Ashish Mehta says that Shah invested 5 crores to bring workers and craftsmen to the city to make it the place it is today. Fast forward 600 years or so, and Ahmedabad is changing in the blink of an eye. Buildings that were so expertly built by artisans are being destroyed for one reason or the other, such that the city’s people and planners have been compelled to band together through heritage campaigns.

So what’s really been the scene around heritage conservation in the ‘World Heritage City’? And what do the communities that embody the living component of that heritage think of the changes that are happening, or not happening? Are they even part of the discussion? We find out.

How have we been managing our heritage so far?

People of Ahmedabad noticed the need for heritage management long before the tag of ‘World Heritage City’ was awarded to the city. In 1996, the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) Heritage Cell was established. This is when much of the footwork of conservation began. Professor Debashish Nayak was a trailblazer at the time, who created awareness about the city’s heritage through the establishment of several initiatives, including the Heritage Walk.

Swaminarayan Temple & Jami Masjid

In 2013, a Heritage Management course was introduced at Ahmedabad University Centre for Heritage Management (CHM). Soon after, in 2014, 3,98,474 euros were awarded to Ahmedabad University by the EU for construction of the “Cultural Heritage and Management Venture Lab”. The Lab has organised exhibitions and symposiums on Ahmedabad’s traditions, revival projects, seminars on textiles, documentation, and general programmes to increase public awareness about Ahmedabad’s history. has been one of the beneficiary of the project.

In 2017, UNESCO voted to give Ahmedabad the tag of “World Heritage City”, and ICOMOS gave guidelines for the improvement and maintenance of heritage sites. In 2018, the AMC budget allocated 5 crore rupees to the heritage programme. And in 2019, UNESCO representatives will conduct an evaluation to take account of Ahmedabad.

Sounds great, but is there a balance in our approach to heritage?

“There has to be a balance,” shared a CHM student, “Between development and preservation.” Out of the AMC’s 2019 budget, however, which totals a sum of Rs 8000 crore, only 5 crores has been allocated to activities that preserve the city’s heritage. The rest of the amount is dedicated to developing modern infrastructure. Is this a balanced approach? Or is this kind of prioritisation but necessary for progress, for people to live comfortable lives?

One could say that the true test of a city’s resilience is in how accessible it is to its people. After all, there is no city without its citizens. While the heritage tag is a valuable asset to Ahmedabad, isn’t it true that a city must change according to the needs of its people?

What do the people of Ahmedabad think of the heritage programme?

Is it possible that there is also an intangible and living component of this ‘heritage’ that the documents fail to mention? The chai-walla sitting at the same bus stop in the old city for 20 years knows the story of every family in the neighbourhood. However, he is not included in the UNESCO heritage document, and how can he be? If he is included, each person living in the city would have to be cited. Because heritage has, time and again, been proven to reside in the communities that dwell within it.


The kids playing ball in Bhadra plaza, and a mother and daughter sharing a mango dolly under Kaaran chabutro–these are all facets of heritage. When I spoke to graphic designer Ashish Mehta, he shared, “Everyone has a story.” He rattled off names from all the generations of major food vendors in the Walled City. He can name the children of the famous Das Khaman, even after they have gone off to the USA to run other businesses. He remembers a time when the immensely popular Raipur Bhajiya Shop, which operates out of an official storefront today, was nothing but one man with a stove who sat underneath a peepal tree to fry bhajiyas that could fill the stomachs of hungry mill labourers as they left work every day. These are the people who live in the Walled City of Ahmedabad; people who share multi-generational relationships with their neighbours, who have stories that are intensely invested in the communities they are in.

There are certain aspects that make Ahmedabad special and lend it the ‘Outstanding Universal Value’ (OUV) that has gotten it the UNESCO Heritage tag. But, shared a student of the Centre of Heritage Management at AU, the main reason the city received the tag was due to its legacy in providing for the “cultural coexistence of communities”.

So what is the best test of the heritage programme? Surely, it is the people. So we asked around the heritage city, to see if any changes have taken place. And we received a mixed bag of responses. It seems as though the discussions happening in classrooms and offices may not be including the people who actually make up the city’s heritage. An anonymous source stated that no change has happened, but added that there is an increase in tourists which does bring economic and other, benefits to the people.

So how do the people of the city really figure in the discussions around heritage?

CEPT University faculty and architect Jigna Desai highlighted that there is a danger that the people themselves will want to monetise their heritage. For example, the pol houses, which were previously viewed as being burdensome, are now cultural assets. And with the rise of boutique heritage hotels and heritage havelis that only exist for tourists, there is less opportunity for local people to use spaces that once served as crucial community spaces in their daily lives. So how exactly are these assets being treated today? This is the important question. And if ultimately, people simply need a way to live in their built environment with a minimum quality of life, then any policies put in place –or indeed, any money invested in conservation– have to make sure that this goal is achieved.

Ahmedabad old city map. Image source:

According to the dossier prepared for the nomination by the CEPT Centre for Conservation Studies, the Walled City’s polswith their winding allies and secret passageways, which are features of Islamic architecture, add to the uniqueness of the heritage city. But in protecting the heritage architecture of the city, are there stipulations in place to protect the people who are inhabiting these works as well? Or is the city being turned into a ‘theme park’ that is meant to attract tourists? These are the issues that will be discussed by the recently formed World Heritage Trust, headed by conservation architect Ashish Trambadia, and a group of local architects, alongside organisations like the National Institute of Urban Affairs, and the National Institute of Disaster Management. In addition, CEPT University’s Centre for Heritage Conservation (CHC) hopes to playa more active role in conservation, and to take into account many factors when giving inputs for government policies.

How can the city’s new generation of conservationists help?

Many students studying in Heritage Management and Conservation programmes today hail from outside Ahmedabad. While these students make every effort to acquaint themselves with the city’s history and encourage heritage activities, people like Ashish Mehta would like to see them integrate their understanding of heritage with the reality on the ground. Further addressing this issue of academic urbanism versus tactical urbanism, Jigna Desai said, “The disconnect is there (because of limited resources or time) but it is improving as more (heritage management) programmes are putting hands-on exercises in their curricula.”

At Ahmedabad University’s Centre for Heritage Management, “conversations have been starting” this semester, with more students taking on projects that engage with the communities and aid the AMC with research and documentation.

a bustling Ellisbridge & Teen Darwaza

So how do we move forward from here?

What can we do to preserve the city’s heritage while moving forward to Ahmedabad’s 608th birthday, and beyond? How can we not only appreciate but also engage with the heritage that exists within the hearts of the people of Ahmedabad? A senior executive shared that in the next year, the AMC World Heritage Trust will hopefully be focused more on the “sociocultural aspect” of heritage, over and above its architectural aspect. Because though the UNESCO guidelines are essentially given by an outside body, “it is the city’s responsibility to conserve its heritage with authenticity and integrity.” The AMC will be the entity on the ground.

Jigna Desai’s take is that currently, “conservation is taught as a one-time practice. We have to consider that, once conserved, what will it (the heritage) become? What will make sure that those initiatives stay in place?”

Bhadra Fort & Sabarmati Riverfront

In general, what’s being done to preserve the heritage in Ahmedabad is indeed a great deal. There is always a very legitimate need for development and change in a city, along with a need to protect its history and culture. It seems that conversations are now beginning to happen, which is what matters. Perhaps it is in all of our hands to engage in our heritage and educate ourselves, so we can learn more about our 608-year-old city!

Photographs : Rajkumar Rao

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