Manek Chowk in the morning is already a rush of colours and activity. The spice and mukhwas shops are open. A man is selling CDs of old Bollywood films out of a tempo minivan. I weave past him and into the narrow lane lined with textile shops. The Badshah no Hajiro tomb complex is a simple but elegant stone structure dating to the 15th century. It houses the tomb of Ahmed Shah, founder of Ahmedabad as well as his two sons and numerous grandsons. The square building is surrounded by shops and houses, a little mohalla cut off from the chaos and noise of Manek Chowk. Even here preparations are underway for some kind of function. Old bearded men are sitting on plastic chairs outside and people are running about busily, carrying things and shouting out instructions. I find out later that a local business family has organised a daawat.
“Apparently it’s to celebrate the fact that his business is doing well. But more likely, he resorted to dishonest means to earn his wealth, and this daawat is an act of charity to absolve himself of sin!” says one of the bearded men with lines on his face and a perpetual smile. I am surprised at his frankness. I quickly find out he is the mujawar that I’m here to meet. Following a short discussion, he leads me inside the complex and settles down beside one of the tombs, which has been covered in a green sheet known as the chadar. “This is the tomb of Qutbuddin Shah, Ahmed Shah’s grandson,” he tells me solemnly. There are a few other people, offering prayers. “So, you want to know about Ahmed Shah Sarkar?” the mujawar asks, looking at me with a curious smile.
“Well, first of all, you may not know that he is a saint. Yes, he was a king, but we consider him to be a saint because of the simple, moral life that he led. He shunned riches and material pleasures, and was known for his devotion to the Divine. That is why he was the saint-king. One often hears stories of Ahmed Shah as a despot of some kind, but nothing can be further from the truth. The Shah was a religiously tolerant man, and a servant of God. Such men are sworn against violence towards fellow men, something that nowadays people forget.”
History has always been a touchy subject in Ahmedabad, where for too long, totalising and generalising narratives have prevailed and coloured its political dialogue and education. So it isn’t surprising that textbooks have often portrayed Ahmed Shah as an ambitious opportunist who destroyed temples, suppressed the local tribes and established a tyrannical rule.
“But everyone forgets that he married a Hindu tribal princess, and it is he who invited the baniyas and merchants of all classes to come and set up shop here, thus turning it into a prosperous trading town. Ahmed Shah was a wise man, and knew better than to pit one community against another. We address him with the title ‘Sarkar’, which is only given to Sufi saints of great esteem.”
The mujawar’s old mind is swirling with numerous stories, some mundane, others fascinating. After a while, he comes to the story of how Ahmedabad was founded. “Have you heard the story of the dog and the hare?” he asks me. I tell him that I have – it is one of the better-known tales regarding the founding of the city. “The story goes that Ahmed Shah had gone hunting along the banks of the river. He sat beside the Sabarmati, and as he waited for his prey, he saw a strange sight. A small rabbit was chasing a dog, rather than the other way around. He realised that the spot was blessed. Here, even a hare had the courage to chase away its powerful adversaries. So he decided to build his new capital here. That is how Ahmedabad was founded, so they say.”
In the book Ahmedabad: From Royal City to Megacity, Achyut Yagnik builds on the mythic history of the city, and narrates this story along with a number of other foundational myths. The hare and dog story, Yagnik claims, is very similar to the founding myths of many other cities – such as Vijayanagara in South India and Malacca in Malaysia. He speculates that the stories might have spread through cultural diffusion and trade.
The mujawar doesn’t seem to think much of the story. “It seems unlikely, but one never knows. I will tell you a story that I know is true though – and that is because you can still see the evidence of it in the city. It’s the story of Manek Baba, a powerful yogi who lived in the forests by the banks of the river. He was angry that this land had been chosen for the building of the city. While Ahmed Shah began building the walls of Ahmedabad, he was faced with a strange problem. Every day his workers would raise the city walls, only to find that they had collapsed in the night, and next day, they would have to start again from scratch. This happened for a while, and the Badshah was determined to find out why. It turns out that it was old Manek Baba, using his impressive yogic power. During the day, he would knit a blanket. At night, he would then unravel the blanket, causing the city walls to collapse! In order to pacify the yogi, the Badshah decided to dedicate the main square of the city in his honour. That’s how Manek Chowk got its name. Then there is Manek Burj, a part of the old wall that you can see near Ellis Bridge. They say that as long as Manek Burj stands, Ahmedabad can never be destroyed.”
The mujawar’s stories do sound like fantastic tales, but their real purpose is to serve as allegories of reality. I find that the Manek Baba story aptly summarises Ahmedabad’s conflicts and insecurities. The history of this city of textiles is one of constant unravelling and stitching together. Manek Baba’s curse still hangs over a city that is uneasy about its history and unsure about its identity.
Excerpted with permission from People Called Ahmedabad, curated by Nisha Nair-Gupta, The People Place Project.