Understanding the walled city of Ahmedabad through Jada Bhagat ni pol

Between a row of brick-and-mortar houses, an intricately carved wooden door behind carved wooden pillars on a verandah overlooking the street attracts attention. The rusted mesh on the other iron grill door of the house appears to be crumbling with age. This is one of the many houses that have remained closed in Jada Bhagat ni pol, one of the numerous gated neighbourhoods in Ahmedabad’s Dariapur.

Jada Bhagat ni pol is among the bigger pols in the walled city, with around 100 houses of which nearly a tenth have remained shut for decades. Adjoining the pol is the Dabgarwad market which got its name from shops that once sold drums and other musical instruments. It also shares its boundary with Mohallapura, a Muslim locality, and you can spot children from both neighbourhoods busy in a game of cricket on a street outside one of the closed houses.

Even the 2001 report mentions that “a conservation plan is more than possible due to the fact that the integrity of the quarter has been preserved”.

The architecture, design and life in the pols of Ahmedabad’s 610-year-old walled city, tagged a World Heritage City by the Unesco, continue to inspire urban planners and students of architecture.

In the summer exhibition organised by CEPT University students in Ahmedabad last month, one of the themes – Vernacular Resurgence – focused on the Jada Bhagat ni pol, proposing to recreate its synergies in modern projects. “The pol and pol houses have changed drastically. With houses turning into shops or warehouses and residents moving away, the pols are no longer the strongly knitted communities they used to be. Beautiful vernacular buildings are getting replaced by characterless concrete blocks. While some portions have retained their ecosystem, others have deteriorated rapidly,” says Fateh Singh, a teaching associate with the faculty of architecture who had worked on the project.

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The grand entrance gate leading to the band-shaped Jada Bhagat ni pol is said to have got its name from a resident who led his neighbours on foot to the Ranchhodji temple in Dakor, thus earning the sobriquet of ‘Bhagat’ (devotee).

Interlinked pols and safety

Ramaben Bhojak, 69, who has been living in a four-storeyed house in the pol for the last 25 years, says: “In earlier years, this pol would belong to only Patidars who would neither sell nor lease to other communities. But over the years, especially after the 1985 riots, they moved outside the walled city. Many even moved abroad. Today, few Gujarati families live here. Marwaris or residents from Rajasthan now occupy these houses.”

Bhojak’s family of five, among the few remaining Gujarati families that live in Jada Bhagat ni pol, moved in from another nearby pol, Bhojak ni Vadi, 25 years ago as their family expanded. Their 14-room house is unique in that one end of it opens to Mohallapura.

Bhojak’s family of five, among the few remaining Gujarati families that live in Jada Bhagat ni pol, moved in from another nearby pol, Bhojak ni Vadi, 25 years ago as their family expanded.

Among the Marwari families here is that of Vinodkumar Darzi who bought a house in Jada Bhagat ni pol around 15 years ago. “Today houses in pols are sold like flats – different storeys are sold to different buyers,” Darzi says. Three of the four members in his family work as tailors.

“We have heard stories from the 1985 riots about how this house was a safe passage for people and saw it ourselves during the 2002 riots. The specialty of this pol is that it links to other pols and by walking through houses one can even reach near the railway station without going out on the road,” shares Bhojak as she narrates an incident from 2002 when her husband had to catch a train and she led him to the railway station safely.

She also shares stories of communal harmony during the Covid pandemic and subsequent lockdown when Dariapur was declared as one of the earliest micro containment zones by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC).

“We cannot think of moving out and staying anywhere else in the city. Here there is so much security, harmony and peace. In all these 25 years, we had never locked our house while moving around, there is no problem at all in finding an autorickshaw even at 2 in the night. Also, when everyone outside the pols, including our relatives, complain about the heat, we never felt the need to install an AC as it is naturally cooler in the pols,” says Ramaben Bhojak.

Retaining the original pol structure

The Jada Bhagat ni pol has found mention in several documents, one of which is the report ‘Recommendations for the conservation and revitalisation of the walled city of Ahmedabad’ jointly prepared in 2001 by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Urban Development, Directorate of Architecture and Heritage, and by the French Association of Artistic Action as part of which a team from France had studied the walled city. “The pol is clearly delineated and has been since 1881. Owing to a large cusp which extends to pol to the south west its shape suggests that this pol was built after the neighbouring ones which it envelops or perhaps that it was amputated from the neighbouring pols. This would explain the fact that this pol has no square, the square having remained in the parent pol…,” it says.

The pol is designated by a series of four houses near the entrance gate which stand out due to their wooden facade decorated in traditional ways. “The facades appear to be the oldest and from the beginning had wood panelling on two storeys. In the 20th century, the second floor panelling was replaced with loggias with a balustrade. According to 1961 census, these highly decorated traditional facades would appear to date back to 1810 to 1860” the French report adds.

The reason for selecting this pol, says second-year CEPT student Shreeya Luharuka, is its ‘originality’. “While many houses in other pols we surveyed for the project had either been brought down or renovated or converted into shops and godowns, the Jada Bhagat ni pol has over 70 per cent of the houses still more or less in their original forms.”

Even the 2001 report mentions that “a conservation plan is more than possible due to the fact that the integrity of the quarter has been preserved”.

“Though over the past century, and especially the last five decades, the city has witnessed a major decline and massive loss to its priceless heritage, the focus and challenges were to be able to personalize and customize spaces for individual needs and aspirations of a family, by designing a residence at an actual site in the walled city. Before working on the design, understanding and sensitizing ourselves to this context within which we propose to build is extremely crucial,” the students’ studio brief explains.

While the students even studied different houses in pols, including Deewanji ni Haveli, to familiarise themselves with pols, the group of twelve spent weeks trying to understand the social fabric in pols. “In order to acclimatize with this context, a thorough study of the planning and organization of the pols and the pol houses was conducted. To be able to truly appreciate the vernacular designs, one has to also study the use of materials, construction techniques and structural systems. These designs were made for people of a bygone era and one needs to understand the impact of the dramatic shift in lifestyle of the current day user living in these homes in order to cater to their needs and aspirations,” the CEPT brief says.

Building for the future

Speaking about the relevance of pols and their houses, Fateh Singh says, “The typology of the pols may be considered as the beginning or original inception of what we understand today as gated communities. In my understanding… as long as the model of the pol exists, it is ingenious and will keep evolving and inspiring design perspectives.”

“In terms of lifestyle, we can witness families living as neighbours for generations and that living ecosystem is what adds soul to otherwise what is just built form,” Singh adds.

“We live in times of extremely divided perspectives. Conserve, build, fulfil the demand, demolish… etc. It is very important to question the very philosophy because of which the old city gets its character. All art and craft require visionaries and patrons for them to be able to flourish. Something that is built out of patronage for architecture and crafts cannot be compared to something that is built with no vision for the future but only to fulfil the immediate ‘demand’,” says Singh.

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