Ahmedabad races to save icons from ruin

The ruins of the 15th century Tombs of the Queens building at the Sarkhej Roza complex in Ahmedabad. The city's crumbling, 600-year-old mosques, traditional markets and ornate homes have been named India's first Unesco city, despite objections from h
The ruins of the 15th century Tombs of the Queens building at the Sarkhej Roza complex in Ahmedabad. The city's crumbling, 600-year-old mosques, traditional markets and ornate homes have been named India's first Unesco city, despite objections from heritage experts.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

India's only Unesco heritage city being choked by pollution from traffic and trash

AHMEDABAD (India) • Traffic chokes the centuries-old stone archway into Ahmedabad's historic quarter, the snarl of honking rickshaws and sputtering buses coats the monuments of India's only heritage city in a greasy layer of soot.

Conservation experts warn that Ahmedabad, one of the world's most polluted cities, faces a mammoth task defending its newly won Unesco status as its fragile cultural icons decay under neglect, traffic and trash.

The 600-year-old enclave was named India's first World Heritage City in July - despite warnings from some of Unesco's own experts that it lacked a convincing plan for protecting its ancient citadels, mosques and tombs.

Ahmedabad hosts the towering Bhadra fort, the legendary stone latticework of the 16th-century Sidi Saiyyed mosque and countless relics fusing the unique Hindu and Muslim architectural styles of its conquerors.

The authorities hope the global recognition from the United Nation's cultural body will restore community pride in the crumbling, garbage-strewn old city. "They themselves also will be slightly more restrained in dirtying the places," said Mr P. K. Ghosh, chairman of Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation's heritage conservation committee, of the city's inhabitants.

But many families that once fastidiously tended to ornate wooden homes in the old city are leaving in droves for the comforts of the modern city outside, tired of shabby living conditions.

Long-term resident Jagruti Vyas hoped the Unesco listing would bring standards in her dilapidated neighbourhood into line with newer areas beyond the old city's walls. "We hope to see similar changes, such as this part of the city becoming cleaner," she said from the narrow doorway of her wooden home.

Some long-neglected quarters, sealed off from the outside world by labyrinthine alleys, are well beyond restoration.

But it is the pressures of modern Ahmedabad - the chronic air pollution, crushing traffic and chaotic urban sprawl - that experts say are also rapidly eroding its cultural capital. The cramped heritage district was never built for cars, yet today thousands of trucks and rickshaws are diverted through its narrow lanes and alleys.

The grinding congestion tears apart roads and fouls the air with fumes, streaking stone-carved monuments with black exhaust stains. Long-flouted laws banning construction near heritage sites have also hampered efforts to save Ahmedabad's treasures from ruin.

In the heart of the old quarter, just the dome of a mediaeval mosque is visible behind a tangle of shops, electricity wires and flats illegally erected around the sultanate-era relic.

Ornate homes have been torn down and replaced by garish structures "totally incongruous" with history, said Mr Ghosh. He said the heritage listing would give teeth to those safeguarding Ahmedabad's architectural heritage. "Pulling down the exquisite old architectural pieces will not be easy now," he said.

Some long-neglected quarters, sealed off from the outside world by labyrinthine alleys, are well beyond restoration. Many "pols" - clusters of settlements identified by Unesco as bearing "enormous" historical value - are all but abandoned, the iconic wooden homes collapsing from neglect.

Ahmedabad's conservation committee has three years to document close to 3,000 buildings of heritage value to strict Unesco standards - a monumental task for Mr Ghosh's small team. Unesco could revoke or downgrade Ahmedabad's listing to "heritage in danger" should the deadline be missed and the committee fail to show it has slowed the decline and destruction of the old city.

"Getting the listing was one thing, now meeting that challenge is more important," said Mr P. K. V. Nair, Mr Ghosh's deputy.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 18, 2017, with the headline 'Ahmedabad races to save icons from ruin'. Print Edition | Subscribe