Ahmedabad pulls off coup over Mumbai, Delhi
In the race to get the prestigious tag of India's first World Heritage City from the UN, dark horse Ahmedabad nudged more illustrious competitors
Gajanan Khergamker Mumbai
On July 8, Ahmedabad made history. UNESCO declared it India’s first World Heritage City. Beating Mumbai and Delhi in its hurdle 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 Ministry of Culture 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 complete check. Once they got the clearance, the ministry would decide which would be India’s official nomination in the cultural category – to be submitted by January 2014.
Both the 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 the 20th century’s Art Deco. Delhi’s nomination included Shahjahanabad and the Lutyens zone. The capital city’s ‘imperial cities’ dossier revealed stark differences in architecture, lifestyle and the nature of two contradictory time periods—while one was under the Mughal empire, the second was under British colonial rule.
Apparently, the expert committee recommended a few changes to Delhi’s dossier through a detailed appraisal note given to the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). 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 lay “the largest conglomeration of Art Deco buildings in the world after Miami”.
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 on January 31, 2014, based on the recommendations of the expert committee.
And then, in 2016, in a surprise move, the government decided to nominate Ahmedabad; January 30 was the last date for countries to send their nominations to UNESCO. Results were to be announced in June 2017.
“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 Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and actor Amitabh Bachchan wrote to Sharma and Prime Minister 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.
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, until July 8, when history changed for India and, in particular, for the historic city of Ahmedabad, which was declared a World Heritage City at the 41st session of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee meet in Krakow, Poland.
Close to 20 countries, including 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 were: “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 the Indo-Saracenic style.
Possessing a landscape where the present blends seamlessly with history while boldly paving the way for the future, Ahmedabad’s mien is unique, owing little to European domination. Established in 1411 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 then 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. This world heritage entity simply had to earn the tag.