Hurtling Through Centuries of Heritage

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 13, 2008

AHMEDABAD, India Auto rickshaw driver Mohammed Ghulam Nabi, 46, usually laughs and shrugs cheerfully as he weaves through the bustle of this walled city, maneuvering around open-air food stalls, straight-razor shave stands and slow-moving elephants.

But he's not in his usual patient mood. That's because it's 2 p.m., the start of Nabi's "rickshaw heritage tour," and he's all business. At the moment, he's stuck in a particularly nasty and distinctly Indian traffic jam: luxury cars, donkey carts, cows, towering buses, bicycles and tea salesmen all trying to squeeze onto one narrow road.

Nabi throws his hands up, then jumps out of his rickshaw to push a stalled rickshaw out of the way.

"It's the heritage tour!" he booms, back in his rickshaw and proudly gunning the engine from the wide handlebars. "I'm teaching about the ancient cultures of Ahmedabad. Let's go."

As a guide through some of the country's unsung history, Nabi is part of a larger movement in ancient Ahmedabad to draw attention to all that is to be found here: a fading but still glorious mix of delicately carved stone mosques, fairy tale-like Hindu temples, 15th-century forts and twisting alleyways.

Many of India's walled cities have been abandoned over the years by the middle and upper classes, who run off to high-rise apartment complexes in the suburbs. But the walled cities are still cultural treasures. In an effort to attract visitors to this one in western India, the Ahmedabad Municipal Corp. has trained historians, students and others -- including Nabi -- to conduct tours.

"There is so much hustle and bustle and life happening in the city," Nabi shouts. "I learned everything you need to know from my training with the city. But I also don't need the schooling. I know this city. Go, get in the rickshaw."

It's now 2:20 p.m. and the first stop is the Kalupur Swaminarayan temple. Green and yellow sculptures of Hindu gods and goddesses, their bodies fitted in opulent dress, cover the structure.

"So fantastic," gushes Nabi. "I'm Muslim and I love this place."

He pats his well-oiled mustache and smiles as hundreds of pigeons soar across a smoggy sky.

Ahmedabad dates to the 10th century. This temple dates to the 19th century.

Because Nabi can't read, he's fuzzy on exact dates. But he was picked to run the tours because of his interest, his charisma and his ability to make educated guesses. (He's usually off by 100 years, but a visitor can read the plaques and consult the guidebooks later.)

"History comes from the heart," he says, touching his chest. "Not books."

By 2:45 p.m. he's back in the rickshaw and rattling through neighborhoods dotted by Jain temples. They have archways carved with dancers, symbolizing the music and joy of one of India's oldest religions.

From his rickshaw, Nabi points out heavy wooden doors with flower petals in finely carved patterns. He weaves around freshly laundered saris billowing from clotheslines and barrels through a neighborhood cricket match and a schoolyard where chairs are being set up for a math lesson. He waves everyone out of the way, yelling out, "I need to get through for my heritage tour."

He stops in one quiet quarter of the city and greets the local personalities.

One of them is Manjual L. Datwal, 57, who is ironing pile after pile of clothing with a charcoal-powered iron. "She's the most famous laundry woman in Ahmedabad because she does the clothes the better, old-fashioned way," Nabi says, making sure that she hears him.

She giggles and tells him to show her visitors some historic sites. Nabi flirts, swooning that she is a "historic treasure." She blushes.

He jumps back in the rickshaw and at 3:10 p.m. races past crowded markets selling yams, coconut oil, freshly churned balls of milk-based sweets and silver necklaces. By 3:30 p.m. he pulls up to Rani no Hajiro, a mausoleum situated in the courtyard of an ordinary neighborhood.

It's closed. But a neighborhood woman drops Nabi the key from her third-story window. Inside, the queens of several sultans reaching back to the 15th century are buried. Despite the hubbub outside, the tomb is serene.

By 4 p.m. Nabi's rickshaw pulls up to the historic residence of the Mehta family. Without ringing the doorbell, he saunters right through their kitchen and courtyard.

A family elder is in his underwear. Children are playing marbles. Others are napping. Some awake and peer out curiously as the rickshaw driver points out the fading but beautiful Italian tiles and rainwater harvesting system.

Waving a calendar that promotes the tour, Nabi looks serious. "It's the heritage tour," he says, as members of the family smile and wave him in. "I'm on official business."

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