Aging and Permanence

Working on the Smarter City Challenge in Ahmedabad has given the team an opportunity to look at some historic sites in and around the city – probably more in the last week than I would see in a year normally, and it has set me thinking. We visited the Adalaj ni Vav– a stepped well with beautiful carving and an interesting tale about some local beauty – it was built in 1499 as a key water source in an arid region.

A view of the Adalaj stepwell

Thanks to tubewells and irrigation projects, the people there now have the convenience of piped water. Wandering caravans of camels that stopped at Adalaj for water have long since been replaced with vehicles zooming along on the nearby highway, so the well is now mostly a tourist destination. It still has water in it – we descended to the lowest level, but fences prevent us from touching the water.

On a heritage walk through the walled city, we saw the elaborately carved Jama Masjid– built in 1424 and still in use as a place of worship.

Carving on wall of Jama Masjid

It lost its minarets in the severe earthquake of 1819, but otherwise has withstood the tests of time very well. The sultans apparently built it for their private use, and it looks like they did a good job. It was fairly hot in the sun outside, but quite cool within the masjid as we walked around and took photographs of the interior full of carved pillars.

During the same walk we also saw the unique traditional housing clusters called “Pols“. The neighborhoods sadly seemed mixed, with many old houses and doorways in varying states of disrepair. The houses there are now a mix too – heritage dwellings several hundred years old looked charming from outside, but I have no idea what they are like to live in, and they are often juxtaposed with new cement and brick structures.

Jain Temple in the heart of the walled city

They even have underground covered drainage several hundred years old, still in use many lifetimes after the farsighted planners and builders passed on. The Pols have endured, but clearly not as gracefully as the Vav or the Masjid. They now seem very congested areas to my tourist eye.

Another outing took us to the banks of the river to the Sabarmati Ashram and we relived the challenges and sacrifices of Gandhiji and many others over sixty years ago that gave us the free nation we live in today.

The heritage walk tour guide said the city was “living history” – which I think is a pretty good description, but not everything we visited was a part of history. On a field trip to the riverfront, we saw the new embankments created in the last few years, walked through the space cleared by moving slums out, and learned about the new developments planned there. Ahmedabad also has new layouts being added on the periphery as the city grows and transforms.

Which brings me to the questions I’ve been thinking about for the last few days. Can our cities like Ahmedabad, with 500 year legacies, last another 500 years? What does it take to build cities that last over 500 years? Institutions? And then nations – is our nation capable of lasting 500 years? What smarts do we need to build into the fabric to ensure that permanence?

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