For those of you who have stayed with my Heritage Walk series, welcome again to this space and I hope this post interests you just as much as the earlier ones. This post is definitely the closest to my heart. I enjoyed this bit the most during the walk and now that I get to relieve the experience, nothing like it! Let us talk about Pol and life within it.
Post 3 – Life in Pols
I had heard so much about a Pol. I wanted to go inside and explore what it is like. But I could have never done it by myself because I would have been lost. So I was extremely glad that as a part of the walk, they covered a few Pols as well. The finest example of community living, a Pol is a fascinating place and I am glad I can introduce you to this.
What is a Pol?
A Pol is a gated, enclosed housing cluster. Within the gates of a Pol are houses built very close to one another and families united by caste or religion or profession occupy these houses. Ahmedabad has about 360 Pols, each a fortified campus with several families living within.
Fun fact (thanks, Girish): The word Pol is derived from the Sanskrit word Pratoli which, according to a Sanskrit-English dictionary, means principal road through a town/village.
Why build a Pol?
The first Pol built in the city of Ahmedabad is called the Mahurat Pol (‘mahurat’ meaning an auspicious moment to start off a deed). After deadly communal riots in the city in 1714, communities started building dense clusters of houses (Pols) to safeguard themselves. Each Pol was designed to be a self-sufficient unit so that in emergencies, people could afford to stay safe and locked up for a few days. Such community living practices also fostered unity among people and gave families additional support in other neighbours in times of dire need.
The Pol has a huge wooden gate at the entrance with a picket house on top, which defines its boundaries and also acts as a protection for the entire community (each Pol has only one entry point). This gate is kept shut at nights to prevent the entry of unwanted people and of thieves. One of the first things that will strike you as you enter a Pol is how narrow the lanes are how they are fit only for walking around. Mr. Girish explained to us that Pols were constructed keeping in mind the natural terrain. Observations were made about the flow of water and only land around these natural water winding paths was used to construct houses.
Fun fact (thanks, Girish): When the entire city of Ahmedabad came to a standstill because of heavy rains and floods in the year 2000, there was no water logging in the Pols because of the smart construction.
As we walked further into the heart of the Pol, I noticed how the houses were extremely vertical in appearance. They had extremely narrow openings and towered on either sides of each narrow lane (supposedly built so to provide as much shade as possible in the residential area). These houses are apparently very wide on the inside (gomukhi principle of design according to Vaastu Shastra – the science of architecture). Although the lanes were narrow and the houses were closely built so that there were no gaps between them, there was always cool air blowing and soothing my sweat covered body. Mr. Girish explained that this was because the northern and southern directions of the Pol were left unblocked (makes a lot of sense considering the geography of the Indian subcontinent).
The sewage tubes run underground (as opposed to the open sewage systems seen in even the most developed cities in India) and there are tall towers at regular intervals with pores to allow gaseous exchange. The sewage from all nearby Pols flows out and is collected in a space allocated for this close to the river where it is finally dispensed. Gravity is used efficiently for the flow of wastes out of the Pol and for the flow of fresh water into it. The wash areas are common and are provided at every street edge. There are distinct openings on the outer walls of houses to allow nesting areas for birds thereby inviting them to be a part of our community. There are bird feeders as well that are placed near the center of the Pol.
Every Pol had one big temple/derasar/mosque depending on the faith of the people residing in it. People gather in the place of worship even today to offer their prayers and spend time there chit-chatting about domestic issues. I noticed how each house in the Pol had an ‘otla’ – a small platform, a few feet wide, in front of the house – where people can sit and engage in discussions with neighbours. I believe a lot of exchange (of news, knowledge and culture) happens on these very otlas. The otlas also provide a resting space for tired people.
Soon we were close to a metal door and Mr. Girish explained that it was a secret passage that connected the Pol we were in to the adjacent Pol. He also pointed out how all the doors near that secret passage looked alike, making it difficult for an outsider to point out the right path to the next Pol. These passages were built to facilitate an escape route for the people, should there be an emergency of any sort.
The Social Order
The houses within a Pol are usually built with brick and mortar but also incorporate a lot of beautifully carved wood. The houses have secret cellars that might be used for storing away valuables and/or to provide a safe haven to people in hiding. The administration of the entire Pol is governed by 5 elderly men called the Panch, elected by the community members, and they are responsible for sorting out petty issues within families and also for managing big events like marriages or other celebrations, which are community affairs. Important announcements and invitations for events are written on public black boards regularly. People are morally bound to participate in all festivities and sorrows to build relationships with other members within the Pol.
As I walked with the others, looking at these houses and trying to make sense of minor details, I was carried a few centuries back in time when these structures were built. Today, we Indians are trying to incorporate modern ideas in our lives but we fail to see how superior our own value systems are. Because of the forceful adherence to social norms, people in Pols are warm and extremely sociable even today. They practice oneness in every sense of the word. The look out for each other, support each other and encourage each other.
We were a group of 45, walking with Mr. Girish, and the residents did not hesitate to invite us in for a cup of coffee/tea. They welcomed us, met us with grace and pride. If we had walked into a modern township and wandered about their private property, the owners would have had a watchman throw us out calling it an intrusion. But here, life was simpler than that. Social status, money, position, fame – nothing mattered. We were with a community that had fostered unity and conviviality over generations and it wasn’t going to fade away so easily.
Speak to me. Do you have examples of such community living in your city/country? What are they like? Do come back here in another two days for another post in this series!