A Date with History at Sarkhej Roza Complex, Ahmedabad

If buildings were human, the colonnades of Connaught Place would be a proud Delhite boasting of his wealth and popularity. Tughlakabad would be remembering his past in forlorn. Stepwell of Adalaj and Pol houses of Ahmedabad would be feuding like the Montagues and the Capulets over who is more influential. Sabarmati Riverfront, a celebrity, would be smirking as he enjoys the fight and grabs all the spotlights. Sarkhej Roza, however, would be in deep contemplation. This inherent quality is what draws me to a vast, but largely deserted Roza complex on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. Its rise to fame and subsequent erasure from memory makes a story worth telling. So let’s start the (hi)story of Sarkhej Roza at its very beginning.

Humble Beginnings

Sarkhej began as an Indigo dyeing and weaving village occupied by the Hindu population. Its prominence grew after a venerated Sufi Saint, Sheikh Ahmed Khattu Ganj Baksh established his hospice in the nearby village. It is believed that here in the village, Sultan Ahmed Shah consulted the saint, which eventually led to the foundation of Ahmedabad.

In 1445, Sultan Ahmad Shah commissioned the construction of a mosque and a tomb commemorating the saint. With its completion in 1451, Sarkhej Roza became a prominent Sufi centre, revered by Hindu and Muslim communities alike, which makes it the earliest example of religious syncretism in India.

Summer Retreat

Sultan Mahmud Begada (1458-1511) was drawn to the serene and sacred atmosphere of Sarkhej. He saw Sarkhej as a place to escape from the bustling walled city on the eastern banks of Sabarmati, a view which hardly persists today. It is to Begada, that we attribute much of Sarkhej Roza’s architectural splendour.

Conceived as a khanqah (a spiritual retreat), the Roza complex eventually became a place to escape and rejuvenate for the royal household. Sultan Begada, in the second half of the 15th century, excavated a water pond (Ahmed Sar Lake) and constructed two royal palaces around the water body, thereby combining the spiritual realm with the royal and social. He also commissioned the construction of an elaborate rainwater harvesting system to collect and filter excessive water from the adjacent Makarba Lake into the pond. Water was fed into the pond from adjacent Makarba Lake through elaborate sluice gates, which can still be found behind the Mosque.

There is a small island in the middle of the pond, where Sultan and Begum would spend summer evenings in privacy. If water provided respite from Ahmedabad’s dry weather, palaces and the island made for a perfect royal retreat. 

Imperial Necropolis

As its popularity grew, Sarkhej began drawing more people to its neighbourhood. Going by the trend of the era, Sultan Begada built mausoleums for himself and his family members in the Roza complex itself. Over time several graves were added to the complex, thus turning the summer retreat into an Imperial necropolis.

Today, as you stroll around the complex, you can find mausoleums of different sizes, and in various stages of decay. Some of them are unknown, whilst others belong to important officials. The pitiful state of the graves adds to the mystique of the complex. It also carries onlookers into the past when the complex exhibited a wide array of uses and meanings.

A Trophy for the Winner

The story of Sarkhej Roza took a massive turn in 1573 when Ahmedabad came under Mughal rule. The battle of Fatehwadi fought between Mirza Khan-e-Khana and Emperor Muzaffar Shah II of Gujarat Sultanate near Sarkhej, turned the peaceful neighbourhood into a battleground. It is a key milestone in the socio-political history of Ahmedabad, which also transformed the fate of the city and its beloved heritage complex. 

The Mughal conquest of Ahmedabad brought an end to the architectural patronage at the Roza complex. Akbar, to commemorate his victory over Gujarat Sultans, added a country house and a fruit orchard, expanding the complex to 72 acres at its zenith. While no traces of Akbar’s addition to the Roza complex remain, what it essentially became was a victor’s trophy.

Gone from the Memory

Things did change for Sarkhej Roza. The peace under the Mughal rule did not endure. In the early 17th and 18th centuries, Ahmedabad was drawn into a power struggle between the Mughals, the Marathas, and the East India Company. As bloodshed and violence became common, the once-thriving city of Ahmedabad became desolate. During this period, Sarkhej Roza slipped away from public attention and remained so for many more years.

Acropolis of Ahmedabad

The interest in the Roza complex was revived in the 1950s when French architect Le Corbusier compared it to the Acropolis of Athens. While this comparison with the emblem of classical architecture brought curious history buffs and architects to the complex, the monument failed to garner the attention that it enjoyed in its erstwhile days.

Life in a Modern City

Today, the complex sits like a stranger in its own neighbourhood. Paradoxical as it is, the skyscrapers rising around the complex puts all eyes on it, yet fail to lure people to it. Except for the Saint’s tomb, the royal tombs and the mosque, the complex remains deserted. The local community has converted the queen’s tomb into a makeshift library, and when the pond dries, it is turned into a playground. The forecourt doubles up as a place for a picnic. But the palaces, the watergate and other lesser-known structures are in a pitiable state. So are the gardens and the steps along the pond, which are overgrown with wild plants.

The complex is now marketed as ‘The Acropolis of Ahmedabad,’ a nod to the French architect, who once exclaimed, “Why do you need to visit the Acropolis in Athens when you have this here?” Since then, various (half-hearted) attempts have been made to revive the lost glory of the complex, but the results haven’t been promising. Once a year, the coveted Sufi festival brings the audience to the monument, only to push it back into oblivion for the remaining days.

What remains to be seen is how this heritage complex, which had adapted itself to the changing socio-political climate of the land over its 550 years of existence, adjusts to its new realities. Will it ever regain the importance that it once enjoyed? As for curious explorers like you and me, the Roza complex is still one of the best lesser-known places to visit in Ahmedabad. Standing where the royals once stood and reliving the nostalgic past is how you experience the pensive melancholy of Sarkhej Roza.

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