Sunday, May 27, 2012

Gujari Bazaar – the 600 yr old market

I reached Ellis bridge in Ahmedabad on a really hot afternoon in March this year. I was seeing for the first time the Gujari Bazaar. I had heard about it many times before. I had read about it before I came here. This self-managed bazaar was locally called the ‘Ravivari’ or Sunday market. It had more than 1200 registered traders, most of them selling used items and a few selling new goods.The livelihoods of nearly 20,000 households were linked directly and indirectly with this market.

One would think that anything 600 years old would look old. It didn’t. With the way people went about in the bazaar, this did not look like a part of a period film. It just looked like a crowded bazaar that belonged to the present. However, it was a present that was part urban and part rural. As I entered the bazaar from one end of the Ellis bridge, there was a line of street vendors selling fruit on what seemed like high wooden platforms until I realised that they were camel carts (without the camels).

Ahmedabad was a city that had continued to be both urban and rural with nomadic tribes living in some neighbourhoods, with artisan communities settling here from other parts of Gujarat, with the city bearing ways of living that reflected traditional customs alongside contemporary needs that it was never quite urban in the way western societies define ‘urban’. It reminded me of the “urban-rural continuum” that Kerala had been known to have (in discussions about vernacular architectural traditions) with no discernible boundaries between the paddy fields and urban infrastructure.

The question that came to my mind was: How does a bazaar sustain for 600 years? For anything to sustain, it must be resilient enough. We do know that. How was this resilience built into our traditional bazaars? Was it in the nature of the people who sold their wares? Was it in the relationships and networks on which the buying and selling rested, that the resilience was embedded? Was it in the indigenous credit systems? How much of these still survived? Why had this bazaar not gradually faded away or been buried into the history of the city of Ahmedabad?

As I think about it now, knowing that it was a 600 year old bazaar had been so much in my mind before I reached there and after I got there, that I could think of nothing else for some time. As John Berger says in his book, The Ways of Seeing – “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled” What I also knew from before was that this vibrant bazaar was in the centre of controversy – the Sabarmati Riverfront development project threatened to displace the bazaar that had been a source of livelihood for several vendors. The Gujari bazaar had a long, long history, but a short-lived future.

The historical background of the bazaar tells us that it was started in 1414 by Sultan Ahmed Shah, the Founder of Ahmedabad. At that time, it operated on Fridays and spread from Teen Darwaza to Bhadra Taar office. The 1941 communal riots had forced the closure of the bazaar for some time. It reopened a few months later, first near the Siddhi Sayyed mosque and later near the old Civil court. It was in 1954 that it was finally shifted to the Sabarmati riverfront at its present location.

Today, the Gujari bazaar is seen as a marketplace that belongs to the ‘Intangible Cultural heritage’ of the city of Ahmedabad. It has been included by the Centre for Environment Education (CEE) in its ‘Project Parampara’ which is a documentation initiative supported by the Ministry of Culture. There are three films on the Gujari bazaar which can be accessed at which highlight the role of the Gujari bazaar association and the linkages between artisans and traders who have participated in the bazaar for many generations.

The short-lived future of the Gujari bazaar has been discussed in public meetings and efforts continue to be made by not-for-profit organisations and educational institutions in the City to propose alternatives to the displacement of tradition and livelihoods. In December 2009, a Public hearing was held in Ahmedabad to discuss displacements experienced by the poor and included the case of the Gujari bazaar. This is a link to the Report of Public hearing on Habitat and Livelihood displacements.

The verdict of the jury had said that the Gujari bazaar was a heritage activity of the city and its shifting needed to be re-examined by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation with the participation of the traders. A forum of concerned citizens of Ahmedabad called ‘Our Inclusive Ahmedabad’ had organised this Public hearing and continues to battle with the government for the rights of the vendors.

If an informal, temporal marketplace has been a part of a city for six hundred years, why would we want to let it go? It's time perhaps to reflect on sustainable development as Indians understood it in the past. What cultural processes and planning processes did they deploy that we can learn from? What can we remember from what we know from our past that will help us design a better future for our cities?

Here is a link to: which discusses the Livelihood and Community-related aspects of the bazaar and the efforts of management and design professionals from IIMA and NID towards working with the Ahmedabad Gujari Association in the recent past.

Related Posts:
The Riddle of Russell market
Gandhi Bazaar: Street vendor eviction
The Informal Economy and Urban space
The Politics of the Marketplace


Anuradha Shankar said...

very interesting.... had heard of this bazaar, but no idea about how old it was..

radha said...

It is heartening to note that the authorities have tried to retain the character of a heritage activity. I have noticed that once anything like this gets the attention of those in power, it gets commercialized. And then it no longer has the appeal. Our cities can have a better future only if we preserve some of the past. Here, we only look to tear it down and put up ugly structures. Oops have I digressed?

Meena Venkataraman said...

I find this fascinating. That a bazaar as old as this one is still around after 600 years says that something about it has made it a confluence between the old and the new.. and through this is has remained standing through the many years. Brilliant piece Kiran!
Enjoyed it. Thanks for sharing

Anil P said...

I hope the Ellis bridge, the old one will survive as well. I had asked a rickshaw driver if we can traverse the old portion of Ellis bridge, learning it's been barricaded and traffic routed through the new portion.

Happened to hear they're planning to do away with the old structure. I'm not sure if it's true.

Interesting to learn of the bazaar's antiquity. The market around Bhadra seems to be a continuation of this one on the banks of the Sabarmati. Tried to imagine what the sight must've been when the banks of the Sabarmati were not hemmed in by walls and how the bazaar might've flowed all the way to the river edge.

I wish the retaining walls hadn't come up on the banks. But I suppose it protects from flooding.

Indian Bazaars said...

Anuradha Shankar: Thanks for leaving a comment.

Radha: The government has not been as supportive of the Gujari bazaar as is needed. There has been quite some effort in the recent past by NGOs to convince them that this bazaar has a heritage value and is linked to livelihoods of hundreds of people. In some cities, the government has started to study how Urban Heritage can be an asset in Inner City development. Maybe, we'll see some good things happen.

Meena Venkataraman: One of the reasons for it's continuance seems to be the presence of the Gujari Bazaar Vendors' Association that has been a support in terms of offering credit, making linkages between vendor groups and the customer base and resolving issues between government and vendors.

Anil P: I so completely agree with you about the concrete retaining walls. That has changed the riverfront so much. I think in many waterfront development projects, this is often the difficult part - the revenue generation comes from introducing a built environment - sometimes, its a promenade with landscaping, sometimes it has to be more than that. This severes the linkages of the city with the water, as much as it's original objective is to bring them closer.

The report on the Public hearing that I link to in the blogpost also contains a map showing the other bazaars in the city. I haven't been to many of them but perhaps the next time.

indian yarn said...

Your blog is a treasure trove.

In these markets lives stories of relationships - both professional and personal. Therein lies the story of generations.