In April 1915, Scottish polymath Patrick Geddes visited Ahmedabad to provide the municipality with town planning advice. There were voices at the time calling for the demolition of the five-century-old City Walls and he was asked to weigh in.
For three days, Geddes circumambulated the city, inspecting the walls and the areas around them. His observations and recommendations, compiled in Note on Ahmedabad, were definite: the walls should be preserved. “The more this patient study of the walls and their neighbourhoods is continued,” he wrote, “the less does the proposed demolition maintain itself in any way, whether as a business proposition, an aesthetic or a sanitary one.”
In Ahmedabad Walls, a tactile exhibition at the Kasturbhai Lalbhai Museum in Ahmedabad, Geddes’s report was juxtaposed with contemporary aerial photographs that follow his footsteps around the City Walls, portion by portion, gate by gate. Although separated by around 100 years, these urban portraits from the sky provide a macro visual context for the details and ideals which Geddes elucidated in his report.
An invitation by Baron Pentland, the Governor of Madras, was the start of Geddes’s decade-long engagement in India, during which time he produced approximately 44 town planning reports, one of which was his seven-page Note on Ahmedabad.
During his time in the subcontinent, Geddes met Rabindranath Tagore, who described the polymath in poetic language: “He has the precision of the scientist and the vision of the prophet; and at the same time, the power of the artist to make his ideas visible through the language of symbols.”
The first draft of Geddes’s seven-page report was written during his month-long return journey from Bombay to Scotland in mid-1915. Subsequent drafts were mailed to and from the Secretariat in Bombay and the Outlook Tower in Edinburgh (Geddes’s urban planning and sociological laboratory) – an early 20th century cross-continent urban-planning collaboration.
PM 2.5: 183 (average for year)
Let us begin with the West Wall along the river, the more since along this line there has been no question of demolition, and for various reasons; primarily defence against the floods, but not exclusively, since this would not preclude some breaking down and lowering. The noble architectural effect is here surely some defence.— Patrick Geddes, 'Note on Ahmedabad', 1915
PM 2.5: 183 (average for year)
The long triangular space outside the walls is of great beauty and interest; a range of informal and varied landscape, of ghats, tombs and temples – natural river front and wild-wood mingled with half-ordered river-park-way, which makes this, towards sunset especially, the most striking excursion from the city, the shortest and easiest also.— Patrick Geddes, 'Note on Ahmedabad', 1915.
At and near the Astodia Gate are the finest opportunities of city improvement along the whole wall-circle....Why spend more than all that would be needed for the proposed improvement of this whole neighbourhood on the destruction of what is the most perfect possible foil and contrast to the [Rani Sipri] mosque?— Patrick Geddes, 'Note on Ahmedabad', 1915.
AQI: 290 (Very Poor)
It is not too much to say that here [Kankaria Lake], awaiting but simple and inexpensive completion and slightly improved approach, is one of the very finest Water-Parks in the world.— Patrick Geddes, 'Note on Ahmedabad', 1915.
At present the south of the city is discredited and depreciated...The interest and beauty of this fine suburban region may be more than renewed, towards the river and tank alike, and the planning and development of suburban housing schemes may also be proceeded with, all to the great advantage of the city.— Patrick Geddes, 'Note on Ahmedabad', 1915.
AQI: 290 (Very poor)
Let us follow the road which runs on the walls inner side from the Raipur to the Astodia Gate. Here open building and planting spaces are available; and internal improvements are again far more satisfactory than destruction.— Patrick Geddes, 'Note on Ahmedabad', 1915.
Even if the prevailing wind were to be stopped by the West and South walls (which are in reality far too low to effect this), malign agency could not be ascribed to the East and North walls, to which we come next in order....
From the Raipur Gate the wall sweeps round in a circular curve to the Sarangpur Gate. Along this range of south-east outlook and defence the bastions are more numerous.— Patrick Geddes, 'Note on Ahmedabad', 1915.
Some clearance and replanning should here [around Panch-kawa Gate] be carried through; but if these are to go on as well as the demolition of the wall, how (and when, after this war) are all these changes to be budgeted for? Far better spend any available funds upon direct sanitary and housing improvement.— Patrick Geddes, 'Note on Ahmedabad', 1915.
Though the impression one receives on arriving from the railway station, and on viewing the walls from the outside alone, may be of their limiting the town, this is corrected by observation....The town, here especially, stands upon its mound, which the wall largely conceals from the outside...So low is the wall, from within, that it may be broadly affirmed, that these houses are in better, not worse, conditions than they would be in any ordinary street.— Patrick Geddes, 'Note on Ahmedabad', 1915.
PM 2.5: 183 (average for year)
From the Dariapur Gate eastward to the Delhi Gate, the long Wall Street seems unbroken, though Pol entrances may be found.....I see no vandalism, but only the commonsence renewal of what was a frequent medieval practice in peace-time, in piercing the walls wherever desired, defending the opening by an iron grill and gate only. Picturesquesness may thus be notably increased, and the main architectural effects left quite uninjured.— Patrick Geddes, 'Note on Ahmedabad', 1915.
AQI: 290 (Very Poor)
The more this patient study of the walls and their neighbourhoods is continued, the less does the proposed demolition maintain itself in any way, whether as a business proposition, an aesthetic or a sanitary one. In no respect is the game worth the candle; whereas, with that considerable amount of candle, what an amount of improvement, economic, sanitary and aesthetic to boot, might be accomplished?— Patrick Geddes, 'Note on Ahmedabad', 1915.
Attempted colonial collaboration
Although Geddes attempted to engage with the colonial town-planner Arthur Edward Mirams (Consulting Surveyor to the Government of Bombay) responsible for the development of Ahmedabad, all efforts ultimately failed. For months, Mirams avoided responding directly to Geddes’s requests for comment.
Within a year Mirams published his own town plans in the form of the City Wall Improvement Scheme which, ironically, proposed the demolition of a large segment of the City Walls.
Seven years after Geddes completed his Note on Ahmedabad, the battle for the City Walls continued. Manilal Bhatt, a former student of Geddes, helped lead the attempted (and ultimately unsuccessful) resistance against Arthur Edward Mirams’s plans for the city.
Geddes would continue to correspond with Bhatt for more than a year, but he never returned to Ahmedabad to join the resistance.
Ahmedabad Walls is a synoptic overview, a literary-visual survey of the City Walls from 1411 to 2018.
Descriptive archival texts recount six centuries of first-hand impressions of the urban fortifications, reflecting shifting values, priorities, and administrative leadership. Graphically scaled historical timelines function as bookends to the exhibition, providing a macro context for Geddes’s three-day circumambulation in April 1915.
Visual representations of the City Walls range from an 18th century romantic engraving to an early 20th century large-scale technical survey, to mid-20th century small-scale tourist guide maps – all of which illustrate the foundational role of the City Walls in shaping Ahmedabad’s urban and social form.
The state of the walls
Supplementing the historical survey is a stop-motion film by Mumbai-based photographer, Tina Nandi. The projected installation documents the various states of Ahmedabad’s City Walls as of August 2018.
As a format, the exhibition was a survey of Ahmedabad’s City Walls, an expression of a concept that Geddes spent much of his life championing – survey before diagnosis. Ahmedabad Walls was an academic and artistic contribution to India’s first UNESCO World Heritage City, which lacks a comprehensive management plan for the Sultanate-era fortifications.
Ahmedabad Walls, in association with ARTISANS’ & Architecture Foundation, was on display at Kasturbhai Lalbhai Museum, Shahibaug, Ahmedabad, till November 20.
Robert Stephens is an architect, aerial photographer, and rare book collector based in Mumbai.