Narayan Rabari Desai smiles with endearing pride. “I’ve hosted guests from 35 countries,” he says, standing at the reception of Dodhia Haveli, a 200-year-old home-turned-guest house in the old town of Ahmedabad. As I leaf through the guestbook, I see there are messages from well-known French and Spanish architects, German designers, British students, all of whom have experienced haveli life here (haveli means simply “home” in Gujarati; these just happen to be very beautiful old ones). There is one striking omission, though: there are no Indian travellers. And so, pretty early on, my suspicions are confirmed: in India, very few people know much about the 600-year-old city of Ahmedabad.
Some may think of it as the major industrial-economic hub of the north-eastern state of Gujarat; others may know it as the home of current prime minister Narendra Modi. But that’s probably it; not many of my fellow countrymen are aware that Ahmedabad is one of the most significant historical cities in India. In fact, in 2017 the city surpassed rivals like New Delhi and Jaipur to become India’s first UNESCO World Heritage City. Even fewer know about the people who’ve spent years slowly restoring its 18th- and 19th-century houses into some of the most stylish, sought-after homestays in India. I’d come to meet those people.
“Quaint, heritage houses stand next to epic, lost-world architecture that reflects the city’s Mughal, Maratha and British rule”
My morning started with a bone-rattling rickshaw tour of the old city with Muhammed Malek, my driver-cum-guide, who’d promised to show me rebooted havelis as well as his own hidden gems. But first, breakfast: the narrow lanes here aren’t big enough for four-wheeled automobiles, so the only option is to walk or, as we do, take a rickshaw. Grazing past bikers, bicycles, hand-pulled carts and cows, we speed through a second-hand book bazaar unfolding under the Fernandes Bridge before we arrive at Chandravilas, a neighbourhood restaurant known for its traditional Gujarati breakfast. Within minutes, a platter of fafda (savoury sticks), papaya and gram-flour chutney, sautéed green chillies and jalebi – a popular, doubly delicious Indian dessert – reaches the table. It’s an intense explosion of flavour and texture – salty, tangy, sweet – and easily my best meal in Ahmedabad.
But there’s much to see, insists Malek as he hustles me back to the rickshaw. We re-enter the labyrinth of narrow lanes where quaint, heritage houses stand next to epic, lost-world architecture that reflects the city’s Mughal, Maratha and British rule though the ages: first the 15th-century Jama Mosque, then the Abraham Synagogue, then the Khamasa Parsi Agiyari, followed by the glittering, mirrored Jain temple and, finally, the unsung 16th-century tomb of Rani Sipri, with its exquisitely carved walls reminiscent, I think, of Indian bridal jewellery. The old town is home to scores of mini-bazaars, too, including the Mughal-era Bhadra Fort Bazaar and the loveably chaotic, only-in-India Manek Chowk, which changes avatar three times per day: early morning, it’s fruit and veg for sale; in the afternoon, it sells gold and silver wares before turning into the city’s best street-food market in the evening. Malek seems to know everyone.
“Ahmedabad is tourist friendly but not ‘touristy’ – it’s a real place”
“Gamthiwala is a fourth-generation block printer and his textiles are very popular,” he says, returning a gesture to the owner as we pass. “Agarwal has the best silver jewellery and Jain Handicrafts has amazing antiques,” he continues. “I had a client who bought a lot of wooden doors from him and had them shipped to Paris.”
The tour concludes in Dhal ni Pol, a small neighbourhood that is home to the French Haveli, my home for this trip, where Narayan, its caretaker, is waiting outside, smiling again, as children play gully cricket down the alley. It’s here I’d meet the man who’s restored the building, real-estate developer Raviv Patel. He’s running late, I’m told, so I walk around the haveli, amazed at how such a contemporary but sensitive restoration is possible anywhere in India, never mind Ahmedabad. This could be Amsterdam or Nice or Seville. It must’ve taken months, years even.
“Oh, it did,” laughs Patel ruefully over coffee, as he explains the story actually began as far back as 2007. At the time, he was developing skyscrapers when architect Kamal Mangaldas invited him on a walk around the city’s old town. It was there, he tells me, he met Debashish Nayak who, he freely admits, “changed my life”. A resident of the city for five years, Nayak was the founder of Ahmedabad’s heritage tour and had become known as the godfather of the city’s restoration movement. By then, he’d had experience of similar projects in cities like Kolkata and Jerusalem and he’d got good at pulling in resources and support from big institutions and wealthy backers. He also had a knack for getting locals to take a sense of pride in their heritage. Patel, it turns out, has family ties to Ahmedabad.
“So when he asked me to purchase this Deewanji ni Haveli in 2007, I don’t know what came over me, but I said yes,” explains Patel. “I guess it was a feeling. I suppose I liked the idea of doing something with purpose.”
But it wasn’t easy. Now one of Ahmedabad’s most popular guesthouses, his first project (still known as Deewanji ni Haveli) was so dilapidated that the city’s municipal corporation had issued the neighbourhood with warnings about its safety. Though he bought the site for next to nothing, the cost of the restoration went into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. There were other challenges too, including a skills shortage. Given the lack of local artisans, Patel had to chase a master craftsman out of retirement. Meanwhile, Nayak, who had signed a friendship agreement with Valladolid in 2008, was able to enlist two students from the Spanish city who specialised in restoration. Before long, a team of 50 was working on the site. For his part, Patel would visit heritage cities across Europe to gain confidence in his project.
If it sounds extreme, the stakes were high, says Patel. “We were restoring a 300-year-old home to such a degree that it would last another 300 years – so, for sure, we had to make sound decisions,” he says. Eventually, the project was completed: in 2016, Deewanji ni Haveli opened as a popular culture centre, hosting art exhibitions, music performances, corporate seminars, even film shoots.
At a similar time, Patel’s second project, the French Haveli, was gaining immense popularity with travellers looking for authentic Indian homestays. Based on their commercial success, the movement gained traction: two more havelis were sold to well-off restorers including Dodhia Haveli (to Nairobi art entrepreneur Chandrakant Dodhia in 2013) and Baghban Haveli (to a local, Gujarati family in 2016), both to be redeveloped on a similar model. Still, it’s not just Patel and Nayak working to preserve the city’s heritage. In 2004, Abhay Mangaldas (the son of Patel’s life-changing architect friend Kamal) converted his 1924-built family home into House of MG, now likely the most spectacular heritage hotel in Ahmedabad. He would later redevelop two more old town properties, Mangaldas ni Haveli 1 and 2.
“At the time, I was the only one investing in this part of Ahmedabad so I would get people trying to sell me their ancestral homes,” he tells me, on my second day in the city. “But I remember going to visit the original home of [Mangaldas ni Haveli 1]: there was no electricity, I’m walking around in the dark with a torch and, as I wiped the dust away on the beautiful floors and the antique teak finishing, that was it, I knew I had to take it.”
The house is now an immaculate, tenderly restored totem of Mangaldas’s persistence, where one of two plush suites offers an open-air terrace, one of the most coveted spots in the city during Ahmedabad Kite Festival (6–14 January 2020).
Before we depart, I ask Abhay what he thought of Ahmedabad’s growing prospects as a destination for international travellers. He’s upbeat. “What makes the old town here different from anywhere in the world is that’s it’s living, breathing heritage – it’s not a cute sightseeing spot, it’s tourist friendly but not ‘touristy’. It’s a real place,” he says. “And part of that experience is the chaos. But there are enough travellers who want to experience that. And that’s what these havelis offer: comfort amid the chaos.”