The rejuvenating morning sun rays invades through a magnificent ‘chowk’ embellished with wooden facades and carvings and a cluster of people assembled on ‘otla’ outside the house. The bells in small alluring temple with ornate pillars have begun to ring and, the close-knitted clusters of houses invoke an experience of stepping back into a six century old Ahmedabad, rich in tradition with indigenous architecture. The Pols of Ahmedabad have survived since centuries and they still stand alive bright and zesty, brimming with the Gujarati culture.
Pols, this word is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Pratoli’, meaning entrance to enclosed gates. The old city of Ahmedabad is characterized by conglomeration of houses that was once created for the purpose of shielding the inhabitants when the communal riots necessitated greater security and protection. These closed communities are usually inhabited by people or families that are connected by caste, relation, profession. In the past, this dense fabric of houses shielded against external invasions and also the congenital architecture protected the inhabitants from the extreme hot climates.
Dhal ni Pol, is one such Pol and the 2nd biggest housing cluster of Ahmedabad. The built pattern here reflects the living style of the inhabitants and elucidate about the social and climatic conditions of Ahmedabad. There is an accretive, informal nature associated with this pattern.
‘Together is a wonderful place to be’, Pols are a living manifestation of this.
The essence of a Pol lies in accumulation of closely packed houses, narrow meandering streets that open into a large chowk (courtyards) having intricate carved wooden facades and frescoes and colorful exteriors, which is a beautiful characteristic settlement that has existed since centuries in Ahmedabad. These Pols are etched with accretive and informal patterns with narrow streets allowing the residents the ability to interact with others and overlook the street activity.
The narrow streets allow houses to overlook and be involved with inhabitants around. The network of linked and meandering streets creates close- knit community. Urban compact fabric having shared walls creates shaded spaces standing erect as a human habitat that is responsive to the climate and as a result of need of social bonding and protection.. It is almost like an infinite fabric where the proportions of mass is almost same as the open spaces and therefore has a wonderfully defined urban sense unlike the gated plots of the modern suburbs.
The houses built in the 18th, 19th and early 20th century are marked with distinct character. They have shared walls and linear layout with a magnificent courtyard (chowk) in center, connecting each entity and soul at common place. The entire indigenous architecture reflects a sense of kinship, and there lies no scope for isolation and melancholy. The chowk in addition to having a sentimental value is more a necessity for having natural light and ventilation in addition to be a space for visual beauty and trot out. The houses are compact and inner spaces dark as mostly houses are linked and so rooms have openings only towards the street or wherever it can open into the central court. The houses have otlas in the front along the street for interacting with other people in the community. This sounds synonymous to modern social network for communication. The wooden windows, the overhanging standing balconies, the rustic facades are all idiosyncrasies that denominates the Pol. The scale of facade vary and so does its detailing, depending upon the economical status of the family.
The settlement also has a place for birds and animals symbolic of inclusive nature and to be in harmony with all beings.. There are multiple Chabutra (Bird feeder), beautifully designed with different shades of colors in every courtyard. Most of these ancient abodes incorporate steps that also became shelter area for the cattle to rest on during the rains or scorching heat. The sense of personal space and privacy here in pols was of trivial importance and inhabitants rather preferred interaction and connections.
A walk down the meandering street almost reveals a chaotic sense unlike the planned settlements, but an element of surprise prevails in the narrow meandering streets that one knows not where it will lead to. This emancipates a deep truth ‘Roads were made for wonderful journeys and not destination’.
While wandering through these mystified lanes, Rajiv Patel, a real estate developer by profession conceived the idea of preservation of this heritage under the banner of Ahmedabad Heritage Foundation.Mangaldas ni Haveli is yet another carefully conserved haveli which is a reflection of Ahmedabad’s fortified past, and Abhay Mangaldas who has conserved this haveli and many more, needs a special mention while traversing through the culturally rich history of Pols.
One wonders what could be the lessons for architects from these Pols. The Pols in Ahmedabad are certainly unique and hold immense architectural insight. Architects cannot simulate such close-knit community design as new era people have different social needs, sensibility but clues can be taken from here, to humanize settlements. This is about interpreting compact organizations, shared walls, courtyards, and spaces for interaction so as to create settlements that are humanized and sustainable. With changing times, though the dwellings have been drifted apart and aloof to create personal spaces, but social media platforms are the materialistic evidence of the immortal need of mankind to socialize for survival, which was once, well fulfilled by the intrinsic architecture of Pols.
photos by Radhika Pandit