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AHMEDABAD Ahmed Shah, the second ruler of the Ahmedabad sultanate, founded Ahmedabad on the banks of the Sabarmati River in the western state of Gujarat in 1411 as his capital, but in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the city came under the control of Jain and Vaishnava Bania merchants. The present city is believed to be on the site of a much older Hindu trading center, Asaval (Karnavati), replacing the historic capital of Hindu Gujarat at Anhilwada Patan, 70 miles (113 km) to the northeast. G. W. Forrest, the director of records for the government of India, in his Cities of India (1903), described Ahmedabad as "a citadel of much strength and beauty . . . and laid out . . . in broad, fair streets. Bringing marble and other rich building materials from a long distance [the sultan] raised magnificent mosques, palaces and tombs, and by encouraging merchants, weavers and skilled craftsmen he made Ahmedabad a centre of trade and manufacture." Ahmedabad continued as Gujarat's center of trade and manufacture, its skilled workers in time raising the city to rival Manchester, U.K., in textile production. Trading and manufacturing activities created a hereditary bourgeois elite early in the history of Ahmedabad, the city developing a corporate culture and a class of indigenous bankers and financiers who helped it survive England's laissez-faire practices. Still, Ahmedabad has remained socially, culturally, and politically conservative, even though it had one of the earliest municipal organizations in India. Essentially, the merchant community of Ahmedabad remained fiscally too conservative to embrace industry: it considered industry riskier than trading and banking, to which it was long accustomed. It should be added that Ahmedabad remained architecturally stagnant as well, its many old Hindu and Muslim monuments notwithstanding.

The British occupied Ahmedabad after crushing Maratha power in 1818. Until then, the city's fate had alternated between benign neglect at the hands of Mughals and economic exploitation at the hands of the Marathas. John Andrew Dunlop, the first British collector of Ahmedabad, found the city in a shambles and its economy in ruins. Nevertheless, Ahmedabad's mercantilist spirit experienced economic renaissance under the British as a result of a series of measures introduced by the East India Company: reduced tariff and taxes, infusion of capital in the hand-loom and handicraft industries, introduction of the railways (1864), the establishment of Western institutions and education, and better law and order—arguably making Gujaratis more conscious of Indian culture in this transformation to Westernization, which would help stoke the fires of nationalism and groom Mahatma M. K. Gandhi as a nationalist leader. Ahmedabad also generated income through the opium trade (which picked up after 1819 with increasing British exports of the commodity to China), gambling, and speculation. By the end of the nineteenth century, the city's population had rebounded to 150,000 from a paltry 80,000 in 1818. With the improved business climate, the city also acquired a more cosmopolitan character, attracting Parsis, Jews, and Christians, although correspondingly the size of the Muslim population declined.

The combination of improved business climate and Gujarati entrepreneurship resulted in the transformation of the merchant capital into the industrial capital, which made its debut with the establishing of the Ahmedabad Spinning and Weaving Mill in 1858. The timing proved fortuitous as the U.S. Civil War broke out in 1861, increasing demand for Indian cotton, and the Indian textile industry was well established by the end of the nineteenth century. The newly rich merchants, financiers, and mill owners invested their wealth in English-style bungalows with wide glass windows, and even adopted Western dress—the visible, if superficial, emblems of modernization that follow economic success. But the acceptance of Western higher education was slow in Ahmedabad, slower than in Bombay (Mumbai), which explains the different paths of development taken by the two cities and why Bombay became, and remained, the beacon of higher education for middle-class Gujaratis well after independence.

All these changes notwithstanding, when Gandhi elected to settle in Ahmedabad upon his return from South Africa and established his Satyagraha Ashram (later renamed the Sabarmati Ashram) there in 1915, the city looked and felt very much like a medieval Indian city—predominantly bucolic in appearance, rather than urban and industrial in shape, despite mill chimneys belching smoke into the sky. Gandhi had elected to live in Ahmedabad precisely because Ahmedabad was representative of India and its culture. Moreover, Gandhi was drawn to Ahmedabad's utilitarian and materialistic qualities; its multireligious population, particularly the presence of a large Muslim population; its large working class and legions of peasants in surrounding villages, from which he could recruit his satyagrahi soldiers; its wealthy Jain and Bania merchant communities, which would bankroll his satyagraha (nonviolent resistance) campaigns in return for the profits promised by his doctrine of swadeshi (indigenous goods); and the coarse homespun cloth that was popular with its residents, which Gandhi would use to generate national pride.

In the decades immediately following independence, Ahmedabad witnessed a flurry of building projects by European and Indian architects, including Le Corbusier, who built four buildings in the city: the Millowners Association Building, the Ahmedabad Museum, and the Sarabhai and Shodhan houses (the Shodhan house plan was originally drawn for Surottam Hutheesingh, but later sold to mill owner Shyamubhai Shodhan)—all Ahmedabad patrons of Le Corbusier eager to transform their city into a modern metropolis. In fact, Mayor Chinubhai Chimanbhai, a nephew of the respected industrialist Kasturbhai Lalabhai, had invited Le Corbusier to Ahmedabad. In the 1960s, U.S. architect Louis Kahn built the Indian Institute of Management after Harvard University's School of Management model. The respected Indian architect Charles Correa, who completed his studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, built the Gandhi Smarak Sanghralaya, and Balakrishna Doshi, who had worked with both Le Corbusier and Kahn, built the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology. Gautam and Gira Sarabhai, from the distinguished industrial family of Ambalal Sarabhai, built the Calico Museum in the city.

Ahmedabad's urban renaissance in the second half of the twentieth century was fueled by industrial capital. The arrival of Le Corbusier, Kahn, and other messengers of the international modern movement to Ahmedabad held out the promise of transforming the decaying urban structure of the city into a modern metropolis, and possibly the capital of Gujarat. In the end, however, the overcrowded character of Ahmedabad would force the Gujarat government to locate the capital at Gandhinagar.

Ravi Kalia

See alsoGandhi, Mahatma M. K. ; Gandhinagar


Forrest, G. W. Cities of India: Past and Present. 1903. Reprint, New Delhi: Metropolitan Books, 1977.

Gillion, Kenneth L. Ahmedabad: A Study in Indian UrbanHistory. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.

Kalia, Ravi. Gandhinagar: Building National Identity in Post-colonial India. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press; New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004.