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Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Community Living – Heritage Locked In The Pols

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Pradeep Chamaria
Pradeep Chamaria
I am a photojournalist. Love to travel to unknown and unexplored vistas. Since 1992, I make places desirable for other travelers through experiential Travel Writing.

As I walked through the engorged network of narrow lanes of the Pols, a brand new form of life started revealing. All I could see were chaotic streets and meandering lanes full of clusters of centuries-old houses. Celebrated for its vivacious living heritage, the 606-year-old walled city of Ahmedabad, Gujarat, spread over 8.7 square kilometers is a kaleidoscope of a traditional community consisting of a population of about four hundred thousand. There are about 600 pols with approximately 60,000 houses. It’s difficult to believe that so many thousands of houses can exist in such a small area.

Entrance to a Pol (pic: Pradeep Chamaria)
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I was transfixed by the distinctive character of the pols – that of communities living independently, yet intertwined with others. These pols have been instrumental in getting the tag of UNESCO Heritage City for Ahmedabad (locally called – Amdavad), which was founded by Ahmed Shah-I in AD 1411 and has over a period of time seen various cultures flourish.

The word, Pol meaning a gate or an entry, is believed to have been derived from Pratoli, or from Latin, Portal. I personally feel that the pols truly merit a place in the listing of the wonders of the world and I will tell you why!

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Pols are perfect examples of community living and can be described as Ahmadabad’s very own living museum. Fed by gated labyrinths of old streets called puras, they are self-sufficient with community wells, blind alleys, very unique ‘Chabutaros’ (ornate wooden pillars supporting bird feeder where birds flock to feed) and secret passages all built artistically. They also have an exceptional design of drainage system to ensure no water logging and also a unique rain harvesting system.   

Life in a Pol – Lady going through her Daily Chores (Pic: Pradeep Chamaria)

At the Pols, Heritage seems to have been preserved as they set an example of the essence of community living in today’s times. Each self-contained neighbourhood comprises of numerous houses; some of them intended to be hidden passages, passing through houses with families still living there.

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I was just letting myself carried along by a tidal wave of bodies as they moved across busy with their daily chores, totally overlooking me. The aroma of freshly fried ‘Fafda’ (Gujrati food) and ‘Jalebies’ (dessert) made me hungry, as I stood at the entrance of a Gujarati house to shoot an ancient-looking window. The lady inside came out to check, “Who is this?”

OMG, I wondered why did I trespass onto someone’s private property and it surely was an offense. I said sorry and started walking away, but I heard her saying, nothing wrong Mota Bhai (elder brother), come inside. There is much more to look at inside, this is a heritage house.

This took me by surprise and as I stepped in, the lady of the house welcomed me and offered traditional Gujarati Jalebies and Fafda. Thanking her for making me feel comfortable, I savored a few pieces.  

Now my camera started talking and captured the intricate carvings on the pillars and vibrantly colored wall murals. As I prepared to leave, the lady invited me for dinner in the evening; it was overwhelming. Suddenly a thought occurred to me about how we interact with people today! We give them our social media addresses and forget them. 

Interior of a house as seen from the entrance – exquisite carvings on the pillars (Pic: Pradeep Chamaria)

The omnipresent feeling of brotherhood was felt in every pol that I went into. I weaved my way past hundred such houses, trying hard to stay focused and not disturb the daily routine of the residents as they kept greeting me with a lot of smiles during the walk.

I had walked for just a few hours and had already enjoyed savoring homemade Fafda and Jalebi as I moved in from house to house. I drifted from the crowd to crowd, neighborhood to neighborhood in the walled city through various Pols like the Lambeshwar Ni Pol, Doshiwada Ni Pol, Haja Patel Ni Pol, and Khara Kuva Ni Pol. The oldest pol in Amadavad is the Mahurat Pol, which was built around 1714.

The pols were crammed with people for whom hospitality, helping each other in their daily chores, sharing the going-on in the world seated on Otlas every evening are like ‘essential services.’

I was amazed to experience the feeling of community and safety that existed in the close-knit families of the Pols – the harmony and respect among the residents evident through shared walls and common courtyards, Angas and Otlas.  

Now, you must be thinking what exactly are Otlas? Otla is that portion of a house where the residents usually meet and communicate with outsiders, and what we call a courtyard i.e. the open space of the veranda, also known as Anganu or the Angan.

These serve as a common space for Pol members to assemble every evening and spend time together to share their happiness and sorrows.

After a couple of hours of walking around the pols of Ahmedabad, I realized that I have touched the tip of the iceberg only. The old walled city was a gem indeed. Each building, street, or corner was a marvel in itself and each home had a multitude of stories to tell and for me, it was a treasure trove of exploration.

HOW TO GET THERE

Ahmedabad is connected by trains and flights from all over India. You can also reach your destination via road.

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