In Focus

‘World Heritage City’ Ahmedabad Pulls Off Coup Over Mumbai, Delhi

On July 8th 2017, Ahmedabad made history. UNESCO declared it India’s first World Heritage City. Beating Mumbai and Delhi in its hurtle to the top, Ahmedabad scored and so well that the other two didn’t even make it through the qualifying round. But, that was not how it all began.

Back in 2013, after months of speculation, the World Heritage Expert Committee established by the Culture Ministry gave a clean chit to the final dossiers of Delhi and Mumbai for UNESCO’s World Heritage Status. The dossiers were sent to UNESCO headquarters for a completion check. Once they got the clearance, the ministry would decide which should be India’s official nomination in cultural category to be submitted by January 2014.

Both cities launched extensive campaigns to push for the coveted status. Mumbai's nomination — the Victorian and Art Deco ensemble along with the Oval Maidan precinct — comprises buildings belonging to two centuries and  architectural styles — the 19th century Victorian Neo Gothic architecture and 20th century’s Art Deco. Delhi’s nomination — Shahjanabad and Lutyens Building zone — on the other hand, brought to fore the sharply contrasting lifestyles of the two distinct regimes.

Apparently, the expert committee recommended few changes to Delhi’s dossier through a detailed appraisal note given to INTACH for revisions. The proposed precinct, according to Mumbai’s dossier, extended from the Bombay gothic buildings lining one side of the ground to the other side that stretched till Marine Drive, in between which lay “the largest conglomeration of Art Deco buildings in the world after Miami”.

Delhi’s ‘imperial cities’ dossier revealed stark differences in architecture, lifestyle and nature of two contradictory time periods; while one was under the Mughal empire, the second was under British colonial rule.

A nondescript-seeming Ahmedabad, also in the ‘race’ so to speak, had hit a roadblock. The expert committee simply did not consider Ahmedabad’s dossier, as it was incomplete in some sections though the documentation work was termed excellent, said sources. The expert committee said Ahmedabad’s proposal “could be submitted to UNESCO after finishing the incomplete sections as a third priority, if a third dossier is accepted.” The ministry would take a final call by January 31, 2014 based on recommendations by the expert committee.

And then, in 2016, in a surprise move, the government decided to nominate Ahmedabad for the UNESCO world heritage city tag. January 30 was the last date for countries to send their nominations to UNESCO for the title, of which results were to be announced in June 2017, and the government confirmed that Ahmedabad, and not Delhi or Mumbai as was felt earlier, was its pick.

“While Delhi’s proposal has been stuck with the Urban Development Ministry since last year, Mumbai’s proposal was not very strong. So we have decided to nominate Ahmedabad, which has a clear-cut proposal,” said Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma.

Incidentally, the Delhi government had written to the Culture Ministry to “resend Delhi’s nomination,” which was abruptly “put on hold” in 2015. And, although Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis and actor Amitabh Bachchan wrote to Sharma and PM Narendra Modi, respectively, to push for Mumbai, the proposal fell through at the Culture Ministry because, reportedly, the Brihanmumbai Mahanagar Corporation (BMC) asked them to exclude Victoria Terminus from the dossier.

The move, felt Culture Ministry officials, would have spoilt Mumbai’s chances as the said building is an iconic landmark in Mumbai’s consciousness. It was roundly argued among Mumbai quarters there was anyway no reason to exclude Victoria Terminus as the dossier hadn’t included it in the first place.

Fact remains that once the heritage tag is granted, it puts certain restrictions on redevelopment and Mumbai simply can’t risk having any hurdles in the area of redevelopment which singularly holds the key to the city’s burgeoning housing issues. So, while there are over 250 world heritage cities across the globe, India — despite her rich history and heritage — didn’t have a single UNESCO-recognised world heritage city.

That is, till July 8th 2017 when history changed for India and, in particular, the historic city Ahmedabad, which was declared a World Heritage City at the 41st session of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee meet in Krakow, in Poland. For the first time, an Indian city was declared a world heritage property.

Close to 20 countries that included Turkey, Lebanon, Tunisia, Portugal, Peru, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Finland, Azerbaijan, Jamaica, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, South Korea, Croatia, Angola, Cuba and, the host country of the UNESCO session, Poland supported Ahmedabad’s nomination.

One of the ancient centres of trade, bearing architectural testimonies to the Hindu-Muslim cultural fusion, the walled city of Ahmedabad has held a prominent position in the pages of history.

The criteria for bagging the slot being: “bearing testimony to a cultural tradition or civilisation which is living or has disappeared...” and “representing a masterpiece of human creative genius.” India’s permanent representative at UNESCO, Ruchire Kamboj said the city has stood for ‘peace’ and ‘unity’ for over 600 years while being one of the ‘finest examples of Indo-Islamic architecture and Hindu-Muslim art’.

Ahmedabad is a breathing example of the blend of Hindu and Islamic heritage. The city bears testimony to the prowess of Hindu, Muslim and Jain craftsmen. It houses the 15th century Bhadra Fort, the Jhulta Minar or swaying minaret and The Sidi Saiyyed Mosque, one of the finest specimens of Indo-Saracenic style.

Possessing a landscape where the present blends seamlessly with history while boldly paving the way for the future, Ahmedabad’s mien stands unique owing poor little to European domination. Established in the year 1411 AD by Sultan Ahmad Shah of Gujarat, Ahmedabad was a product of the Sultan’s ambitions to form a trading rival to the Hindu trade centre of Asaval. Later, Ahmedabad was taken over by the Mughals, the Marathas and the British.

While historians see most Indian cities against the backdrop of and compared to Western prototypes, Ahmedabad is, to a huge extent, an exception: And a proud one at that. From being one of the oldest trading points in India to becoming the focal point of the Indian Freedom Struggle under Mahatma Gandhi and then becoming a model for sustainable development in modern India, Ahmedabad has several firsts to its name. The world heritage entity just had to earn the tag.

A DRAFTCRAFT INITIATIVE: DraftCraft's series of works through its Ahmedabad Studio came to a boil finally with the city making its mark and how. Amdavad, established in 1411, with 36 ASI protected sites and a sharp focus on community living through its 'pols', is now India's first World Heritage City. The achievement was a culmination of overwhelming efforts by DraftCraft, Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation and India's Culture Ministry. Keep an eye for DraftCraft Films capturing Amdavad in all its glory all set to be released in public domain. And now, DraftCraft throws open offers of collaborations with State, Civil Society and Private entities in the areas of media, law, culture, tourism, education and development.