Ellis Bridge

Ahmedabad was founded on the east bank of the River Sabarmati in the 15th century. Until 1871, there was no bridge across the river from the city to the west bank. In that year, a wooden bridge was constructed.

A few years later, the wooden bridge was destroyed by floods. In 1892, a steel bridge was constructed. This was designed by an Indian engineer HD Bhachech and named in honour of a British colonial official named Ellis.

The Ellis Bridge remained in use until 1997, when it was closed. By 1999, two concrete bridges were constructed, one on each side of the old bridge. These new, wider bridges form what is now known as the Swamivivekananda Bridge. The old Ellis Bridge flanked by the two concrete bridges, heavily laden with traffic, has been preserved as a heritage monument.

The old Ellis Bridge, which existed when Gandhi returned to India from South Africa in about 1917, leads from the old city to Kochrab, where the Mahatma set up his first ashram in India.

Feeding the poor

A few years ago, I was on Calcutta during the August monsoon. As I waded through the filthy rain water flooding the streets of a bazaar area, I noticed that at quite a few clothing material shops run by Moslems there were huge pots of rice and dal or curry. These were manned by shop staff. They were doling out this food to various poorly clothed passers by.

I asked what was going on. One shop keeper told me that during Ramadan it was considered virtuous to feed the poor while the faithful Moslems upheld their required daily fasting. This charitable activity impressed me.

During a recent visit to Ahmedabad in February, I passed an eatery, whose signboard read Muslim Kifayat Hotel, hotel being Indian English for restaurant.

Kifayat is the Urdu word for ‘sufficiency’. It may have other meanings in Hindi.

The restaurant under discussion is on one side of the enormous market place that extends from the Bhadra Fort through the three arches of the 15th century Teen Darwaza and beyond.

Rows of benches are lined up on the pavement in front of the open fronted restaurant. Often, these are occupied by people, who appear to be extremely impoverished. Food (all vegetarian) is prepared at the front if the restaurant in huge pots and a tandoor oven.

One of the men running the Kifayat Hotel explained that the meals they served – dal, rice, freshly cooked rotis, and vegetables – are normally priced at 40 rupees, but poor people pay no more than half of that amount.

Later while exploring Ahmedabad we spotted other eateries like the Kifayat Hotel, and like that place they had rows of benches in front of them. Often, these seats were quite crowded with men, women, and children.

I have yet to discover whether the charitable eating places we saw on Ahmedabad are self-financing or to some extent assisted by charitable institutions.

P.S. just before publishing this, I visited a Hindu temple in Koramangala, Bangalore. Every Thursday, lunch is provided free of charge to anyone who turns up, regardless of their religious belief.

A peculiar street object

Happy Valentine’s Day!

In the historic centres of both Ahmedabad and Baroda (Vadodara), there are a few very tall, several storeys high (higher than the buildings next to them), metal poles sprouting from the pavement. They are all topped with metalwork objects as illustrated in my photograph published below.

Most people, whom I asked, had no idea what purpose these poles and their curious apparatus served. I posted pictures of these tall poles on Facebook, and then received a number of suggestions as to what they might be. Most people, seeing the arrows, suggested that they may have been old weather vanes for determining wind direction, but I felt that this was an unlikely for these poles that look as if they were put up by a municipal authority.

One person I asked in a street in Ahmedabad thought that the poles had something to do with drainage, maybe ventilation. I quite liked that speculative reply because the spheres surmounting all of the poles have two short pipes attached to them.

Recently whilst looking at the Internet I came across a picture (see https://www.arcgis.com/apps/MapJournal/index.html?appid=4c10a18d5cfa4da486df492765c2ad54) like mine. The picture was taken in Ahmedabad and is described as a sewage gas vent. This tallies with what I was told by one bystander.

A sewage gas vent that might have rotated to catch the prevaing breezes seems to be a plausible function for these poles BUT I cannot yet be sure if this is correct.

If anyone reading this can enlighten me more, please drop me a line or two in the comments section of this blog.

Chilling with ceramics

All over Gujarat, in villages and towns and in between, I have seen concrete benches whose surfaces are covered with ceramic tiles or selected flat fragments of broken ceramic plates.

Fragments of ceramic tiling are also used to cover outer surfaces of buildings. A notable example is the curious Amdavad ni Gufa in Ahmedabad designed by architect BV Doshi.

Also, I have seen floors inside buildings covered with a mosaic of tiled fragments, rather than wood, clay, carpeting, or marble.

Why is ceramic tiling used so much in Gujarat. The answer is related to Gujarat’s usually hot climate. I am not a physicist, but the following seems to be the explanation. Ceramic tiles conduct heat well and dosperse heat rapidly from its point of contact.

A surface feels cool to the touch if heat flows from your body to it. The faster the heat is conducted from your body, the cooler the surface will feel.

Providing that the ambient temperature is below body temperature, ceramic tiles, unlike for example wood or carpet, will always feel cold to the touch. This is because heat flowing from the body to the cooler ceramics does so very rapidly in this material. The heat flows away quickly from the point of contact into the rest of the ceramic. In contrast, when you touch wood or cloth, heat will flow from your body to the material but will be dispersed away from the point of contact far slower than in ceramic. Therefore, touching wood or cloth gives rise to less of a sensation of cooling than touching ceramic.

Furthermore, covering buildings with ceramic as described above helps insulate their interiors from being warmed by the hot sun, which shines in Gujarat.

If my physics is faulty, please help me get it right by submitting a polite comment.

PS Metals have an even higher thermal conductivity than ceramics, but a far lower thermal capacity. This means that at any temperature, it will take far longer to warm a piece of ceramic than a similarly dimensioned piece of metal.

An art bookshop in Ahmedabad: Art Book Center

This small gem of bookshop in Ahmedabad is a wonderful discovery. It was recommended to us by Mr Shukla who is the General Secretary of the Ahmedabad Textile Mill Owners Association, which is housed in a masterpiece by the architectural genius Le Corbusier.

The bookshop, a true life Aladdin’s cave, is on the first floor of a residential building. It is reached by a steep ladder like staircase typical of those found in houses all over Gujarat. The steps lead to a balcony which is festooned with colourful folkloric items. A doorway leads from there into the shop itself.

The walls of the small, cosy shop are lined with neatly stacked book cases. Piles of books rise from the floor. On the walls and in between the book cases, there are numerous folkloric artworks and practical items including beautifully embroidered and printed textiles. We were welcomed by Manarbhai and Ketan, one of his two sons. They invited us to sit down.

Manarbhai worked for many years as a typist in the Mathematics Department of the University of Gujarat. He was no ordinary typist. He was able to type mathematical equations, which was no easy feat in the era before computerised word processors became available.

Manarbhai began his book business as a part time enterprise. In 1970, he converted part of his home into what is now his shop. At first, he only opened his shop on weekends. Now, it is open every day between 10 am and 6 pm.

The shop specialises mainly in books on art and architecture. It contains many books about textiles. Many of the volumes available are rare editions. If what you wish is not stocked, Manarbhai and his sons will do their best to source it, and then send it to you anywhere in the world.

It soon became apparent to us that Manarbhai and Ketan are extremely knowledgeable about books in the fields on which they specialise. They are also sensitively intelligent salesmen. Very quickly, they assessed our particular interests and began showing us books that were in harmony with them. We came away with a valuable selection of books that will help satisfy our curiosity about the fascinating history of the city of Ahmedabad.

This is a bookshop for true book lovers and collectors. It should be on every bibliophile’s itinerary. What Manarbhai cannot find for your bookshelf is probably not worth having.

Address: near Jain Temple, Madalpur, Ellis Bridge, Ahmedabad 380006

Side steps

Here is something I first noticed when visiting the temple town of Somnath: side steps. I have seen better examples of what I am about to describe in Ahmedabad (see photo).

Staircases take up space. In many older Gujarati buildings, internal staircases are so steep that they resemble ladders. Good examples of these may be seen at the birthplaces of Mahatma Gandhi and his wife in Porbandar.

External staircases linking raised entrance doorways to the street sometimes require many steps. If the treads of the steps are parallel to the external wall, a large staircase would have to project far into the roadway, restricting the usable width of the latter.

One solution to reducing the footprint of an external staircase is often adopted in Gujarat. That is to make the treads of the steps at right angles to the external wall rather than parallel. This works well, and reduces the encroachment of private front staircases onto the public thoroughfare.

It might be you one day

All over Gujarat (and in other parts of India that I have visited), I have seen wild creatures being fed in urban areas. Wild dogs are offered biscuits and other scraps. Pigeons and crows are given grain and water, often in special feeding and drinking vessels. Cattle are fed foliage at Hindu temples, and so on.

When I asked someone about this very prevalent public animal feeding, he told me that all of it was due to members of the Jain communities. I was unsure about the accuracy of this response. So, I asked other people about it. One autorickshaw driver in Ahmedabad, a Muslim, assured us that it was not just the Jains who care for the untamed creatures in the city; everyone cared for these animals.

Recently, when visiting a mosque in the centre of Ahmedabad, I spotted three bowls filled with clean water in front of the 15th century masjid. I asked a caretaker what purpose these bowls served. He pointed at the pigeons roosting high up in niches and balconies on the facade of the mosque.

Now, a fanciful idea entered our minds. If you believe in reincarnation, then there is every reason to care for all creatures. For example, that pigeon enjoying grain on one of the many pigeon coops, which can be seen in Ahmedabad and other cities in Gujarat, might be a reincarnation of your great aunt. More worryingly, it might be you or me, who will be reincarnated as a wild dog or maybe a wild pussy cat.

If you do believe in reincarnation or do not totally disbelieve in it, it is best to play safe and look after the urban wildlife around you. You never know, but it might be you one day!

Now, you might object to the above by saying that Muslims and Christians do not believe in reincarnation. And, you will not be wrong. Now I will make a wild conjecture. Many of today’s Indian Muslims and Christians had Hindu ancestors, all of whom believed in reincarnation. Is it not faintly possible that a trace of this belief might not have been inherited by their non Hindu descendants? And, if I am right, might this help to explain the care for animals that is exhibited by members of all of the great religions of India? I am only “thinking aloud”, as my late father in law used to say when he was suggesting something that did not meet with the family’s approval.

Ganesh in the graveyard

One Tree Hill Garden is a luxuriant little park on the shore of Kankaria Lake in Ahmedabad. At one end of the park, there is a small graveyard. The graves, which date back to the 17th century, mark the final resting places of some of the Dutch folk who worked in the trading post that the Dutch East India Company established in Ahmedabad at that time.

The graves are crumbling and most of them have lost their inscriptions. A few stones bear the incomplete remains of now barely legible inscriptions.

In about 2000, a Dutch foundation constructed several attractive Islamic looking concrete shelters over some of the gravestones.

I noticed that someone had placed a plastic model of the Hindu deity Ganesh next to one of the dilapidated graves. We showed this to a couple of the garden’s workers, one a Hindu and the other a Muslim, and mentioned that this is a Christian grave.

The Hindu gardener said that whoever had put the Ganesh there had good intentions, but did not understand what he was doing. My wife said that it did not matter because all people respect the same God and Hindus include Jesus as one of their own. The Hindu nodded in agreement. The Muslim looked doubtful.

The Muslim gardener was reassured when my wife suggested that Christianity and Islam share some common roots.

As we left these two fellows, my wife said she could hardly imagine having theological discussions with gardeners in a public garden in England.

A zoo in Ahmedabad

I was very keen to visit the Kamla Nehru Zoo in Ahmedabad. I had read much about it in a fascinating book, The Book of Esther, by the Ahmedabad author Esther David. She was born into a Beni Israel Jewish family. Her father Reuben David, a self taught veterinarian and keen naturalist, established the zoo on the shore of Lake Kankaria in 1951. The lake is man made and dates from the mid 15th century.

You can explore the zoo on foot or, for a modest fee, you can be driven around it in an electric vehicle. The driver stops wherever you wish and also helpfully draws your attention to cages and enclosures containing interesting creatures. Some of the cages look quite old and a little cramped, but the enclosures are quite spacious.

The reptile house contains a series of generously large enclosures housing snakes, both venomous and not.

Recently, a new part of the zoo has been built a little way around the lake, separated from the original establishment. The new part is called ‘Nocturnal Zoo’. Barely lit corridors connect poorly illuminated cages. Once your eyes have adapted to the darkness, you can view animals who are usually most active at night. Some of these animals seemed to enjoy sleeping in the artificial night. Others, including various bats and beautiful owls and some jackals, were fully awake. The Nocturnal Zoo is well designed and, I hope, would have met with the approval of the very creative Reuben David.

Shaking minarets

A pair of minarets is all that remains of a mosque. They stand within the precincts of the main railway station of Ahmedabad. The rest of the mosque was destroyed long ago.

Apart from being attractive, these two minarets, the SHAKING MINARETS, are special. They are able to resist earthquakes. They shake or swing instead of falling to pieces during seismic activity.

The large Jumma Masjid in the heart of Ahmedabad lost its two mighty minarets as a result of movements of the earth long ago.

No one knows why the Shaking Minarets are able to resist seismic disturbances. They are not the only minarets in the city that have this ability. When, long ago, British investigators took one of this kind of minaret to pieces, they were unable to discover the secret of its stability. They were also unable to reassemble the structure properly.

Some suggest that the Shaking Minarets are of Persian design and that their stability has something to do with the sand in their foundations.

I cannot offer an explanation, but would like to make an observation. The Shaking Minarets are constructed with brick like stones that are well separated from each other by something like mortar. Most other minarets that I have seen are made with close-fitting blocks of stone, with minimal gaps between them.

Back in the 1980s, a very violent storm hit the southeast of England, where I was living. As the storm buffeted my house, I could feel it swinging from side to side. I feared it might fall down, but it did not. The house, like the Shaking Minarets, was built of bricks separated from each other by mortar. I felt that the stability of my house was due the fact that the latticework of bricks and mortar gave its walls a flexibility, which absorbed and reduced the impact of the forces hitting it. Maybe, it is the mortar between the brick like stones of the Shaking Minarets that allows them to disperse the seismic energy and by so doing causes them to swing rather than collapse.

I am no engineer. I am just ‘thinking aloud’, but as no one can yet explain the ability of these minarets to resist destruction, I offer the above.