Beyond Mumbai: The Architecture of Ahmedabad

Christie’s international director of Asian art, Amin Jaffer, examines six centuries of design in this Gujarat city.

Founded by Ahmed Shah in 1411, Ahmedabad, on India’s northwest coast, developed as the capital of the short-lived independent sultanate of Gujarat, and its growth was marked by the splendid architectural commissions of its various early rulers. The mosques, palaces, tomb complexes, and forts from this sultanate period fuse sparse Central Asian Islamic forms with the more richly ornamented architectural and visual traditions of local Hindu and Jain communities, reflecting the cultural dialogue that existed between the religions at the time. In the late 16th century Gujarat was incorporated into the Moghul Empire, and construction ceased substantially until British rule and the building of Victorian railway stations and colleges. But it wasn’t until the Indian textile boom of the 20th century, which established the city as the Manchester of the East, that Ahmedabad really saw its second golden age of architecture, with mill-owning families commissioning remarkable examples of the modernist style.

Today this city of nearly five million, in the present-day state of Gujarat, is rapidly transforming, becoming one of India’s major industrial and commercial hubs, but it remains a must-visit spot for anyone interested in the last six centuries of subcontinental architecture, from traditional Gujarat stepwells to the work of Louis Kahn.

Jami Masjid (1424)

Built as the main congregational mosque of the city, the Jami Masjid (Friday Mosque) was perhaps once the largest in India. The grandiose columned structure, with its monumental arch, was part of an elaborate building project that included a royal square and a processional avenue leading to the Teen Darwaza. This triple gateway today marks the entrance to the old city, a fascinating maze of streets and bazaars. Like many religious buildings of the period, the mosque is celebrated for its elaborately carved and pierced stone screens called jalis, which were designed to admit air while blocking the sun. Gandhi Rd.

Sarkhej Roza (1445–51)

Sultanate architecture’s sublime beauty may be most evident at Sarkhej Roza, the home of Shaikh Ahmed Khattu, a Muslim saint who observed Sufism, an esoteric branch of Islam. Six miles from the city, Sarkhej was a place of pilgrimage and retreat in the 15th and 16th centuries, a favorite spot for generations of royals who littered the landscape with palaces and tombs characterized by a fusion of Gujarat post-and-lintel architecture and symmetrical Islamic domes and arches. Of special note is the two-story Queen’s Palace, a hauntingly beautiful ruin. Sarkhej Rd.; sarkhejroza.org

Adalaj Vav (1499)

The technical accomplishments of the sultanate period are best understood by visiting one of the many stepwells (vavs) in and around Ahmedabad. Conceived to store and provide easy access to water, the vavs also created cool communal spaces for recreation and relaxation. Adalaj Vav, just north of the city and erected by Queen Rudabai, presents just one example of the many buildings sponsored by royal or wealthy women of the time. With five underground stories, massive columns, and intricately carved friezes, the well reflects the marriage of form and function in typical Gujarat style. Gandhinagar Hwy.

Sidi Saiyed Mosque (1573)

The jalis at the Jami Masjid are sensational, but nowhere are they finer than at the Sidi Saiyed Mosque, a must-see, even if today it stands in the middle of a busy roundabout. The carving of sinuous plant forms in the stone latticework is done in a naturalistic, almost romantic style. The mosque is named for and was built by a slave of African origin who rose in prominence in the court of Ahmed Shah. Near Lal Darwaja

Millowner’s building (1951–56)

Joining form and function, of course, continued to be prized in the 20th century, especially among Ahmedabad’s industrial elite, for whom Le Corbusier’s statement “A house is a machine for living in” resonated deeply. It was Chinubhai Chimanbhai of the Ahmedabad Textile Mills Association who invited Le Corbusier to design a headquarters for the organization. The resulting building exemplifies the architect’s style: a concrete grid-based structure, daring engineering, and innovative use of form, with sharp color contrasts against the plain concrete and an interior infused with a gentle light. Le Corbusier went on to create two private houses here—Shodan Villa is closed to the public; you can visit Sarabhai (on the grounds of the Calico Museum, see “Textile Capital”) by appointment—but true fans of the designer might also want to visit his somewhat run-down Sanskar Kendra, or City Museum. Ashram Rd.; atmaahd.com

IIM Ahmedabad (1962–74)

Thanks to the energies of Vikram Sarabhai, a physicist from a textile-manufacturing family (and the commissioner of the previously mentioned Corbusier villa), the architect chosen to develop a campus for the Indian Institute of Management at Ahmedabad was Louis Kahn. His remarkably atmospheric redbrick campus, the highlight of the trip for anyone interested in midcentury architecture, fused monumental modernist tradition with the local aesthetic and use of space. Its principal areas are defined by daring, almost improbable features—multiple tiers of arches and staircases that entwine to create beautiful forms seemingly inspired by a Surrealist canvas. Vastrapur; iimahd.ernet.in

Textile Capital

Because of its weaving and embroidery traditions, Ahmedabad attracts textile aficionados as well as architecture buffs. The Calico Museum of Textiles (by appointment only; Shahibag; calicomuseum.com) has one of the finest fabric collections in the world. Gathered by siblings Gautam and Gira Sarabhai, scions of a distinguished textile-producing family, the museum’s extensive holdings of fabrics and garments are for religious, domestic, and courtly use. These materials are housed at the Sarabhais’ garden compound, in buildings incorporating historic house façades, balconies, and doorways. Bandhej (Freeway Mall; S.G. Rd. and Shreekrishna Centre; bandhej.com) sells contemporary textiles loomed, dyed, and printed by hand from across India.

Inside Ahmedabad

Getting There

The flight to Ahmedabad from Mumbai is just under an hour. Otherwise the journey is a 10- to 11-hour car trip—or an 8- to 10-hour train ride—from Mumbai.

Staying Put

House of MG Abhay Mangaldas, the scion of a mill-owning family, restored and converted his family’s 1924 mansion into this charming 15-room boutique hotel, located in the city center and across from the Sidi Saiyed Mosque. The best rooms are the Mangaldas Suite and the Verandah suites. Mangaldas himself (abhaymangaldas@houseofmg.com) is a great Ahmedabad resource for those considering a trip to the city. From $145 to $210. At Lal Darwaja; 91-79/2550-6946; houseofmg.com.

Le Méridien Ahmedabad Overlooking the Sabarmati River, this modern business hotel offers all the conveniences of international chain accommodations. From $210 to $2,000. Near Nehru Bridge; 91-79/2550- 5505; lemeridien.com.

At Table

Agashiye At this rooftop eatery in the House of MG, guests taste Gujarat thalis (multicourse dinners) cooked in an open kitchen. Dinner, $20. At Lal Darwaja; houseofmg.com.

Mangaldas ni Haveli Also owned by the Mangaldas family, this rooftop café serving Gujarat snacks and a daily-changing à la carte vegetarian menu opened in August in a restored 18th-century wooden house in the old city. Easiest access is via shuttle service from the House of MG. At Laka Patel ni Pol; houseofmg.com

Vishala This rustic, alfresco spot, an institution in Ahmedabad, serves local fare. Guests sit on the ground in traditional Gujarat style and watch village entertainment and dance. The attached Utensils Museum is also worth a look. Opposite Vasana Tol Naka; vishala.com

Note: Gujarat is a largely vegetarian and alcohol-free state.

Getting Around

Guides Both Gautam Popat (91-98/7921-5313) and Kavita Raval (91-98/2582-0540) speak English and know the city inside out.

By Car and Autorickshaw Motorized rick-shaws are the most convenient way to travel in the old city. Mohammad Malik (91-98/2594-5393) is a reliable driver—English-speaking and well-versed in the city’s places of interest. Former rickshaw driver Shaikh “Johnny” Mukarram now leads car tours (91-98/2436-1058).