Ahmedabad was founded in 1411 by Ahmed Shah, ruler of the state of Gujarat. The city prospered, and before long a formidable merchant class had developed, comprising traders and skilled artisans. By the late 19th century the city was famous for its textiles, a manufacturing boom which lasted until the 1970s. The city also became known as the home to Mahatma Gandhi's famous Sabarmati Ashram, or spiritual retreat, which became synonymous with the Indian Freedom Movement.
Today the largest city and commercial centre of Gujarat, Ahmedabad, or Amdavad as it is colloquially known, is more business hub than tourist destination. This active, bustling metropolis is located along the banks of the Sabarmati River and is home to more than 6.5 million people. In 2010 Forbes magazine rated it the fastest growing city in India, and ranked it third in the world after two Chinese cities: Chengdu and Chongqing.
Ahmedabad is not on India’s tourist trail but nevertheless has many attractions to keep a visitor entertained, including a number of intricately carved historic monuments such as the Stepwell at Adalaj and the Rani Sipri and Rupmati Mosques. Other sights of interest consist of the ornate Swaminarayan Temple, the carved white marble Hathisingh Jain Temple by Delhi Gate and the replica Vaishnodevi Temple.
Ahmedabad also has many beautiful mosques, the most famous of which is the Juma Masjid. This yellow sandstone creation stands on 260 pillars which support 15 domes and was built by Ahmed Shah in 1423. Tourists can also visit the Sidi Sayed Mosque (with its exquisite filigree screens) and the Sidi Bashir Mosque, famed for its shaking minarets (jhulta minar) which were reputedly designed to withstand earthquakes. When one minaret is shaken, the other mysteriously rocks in sympathy.
However, the city’s most famous sight – and the one most visitors head straight to – is the location of Mahatma Gandhi’s Ashram. Located near Vadaj, the Sabarmati Ashram was founded in 1915 and lies on a tranquil stretch of the Sabarmati River. It was from here that Gandhi began his famous 'Dandi March' in 1930 to protest against the British-imposed Salt Tax. Today the ashram continues Gandhi’s work and houses a handicrafts centre, handmade paper and spinning wheel factory.
Traditional Gujarati food is vegetarian, and has a distinct and slightly sweet flavour. For the best introduction to the region’s cuisine, try a Thali – a platter of a number of seasonal vegetarian dishes. These usually involves okra, potato, aubergine and cauliflower cooked in a variety of ways, and are served with side dishes of rice, dhal, pickles, atchar and chutney, all mopped up with plenty of papads, chapatti and naan bread. Wash down an unlimited helping with a glass of ice cold buttermilk or piping hot cardamom-spiced masala chai (tea), all for under a dollar. Head to Sarkhej-Gandhinagar Road in the western part of the city where more than 100 restaurants line a relatively short strip of road.
International cuisines (including Mexican and Italian) are available and non-vegetarian Indian dishes can be found around the old city in areas such as Bhatiyar Gali, Kalupur and Jamalpur. American fast food chains are also popular, and the city contains the world’s first entirely-vegetarian Pizza Hut.
The state of Gujarat prohibits the sale of alcohol to Indians (visitors may purchase alcohol with proof of non-residence but it can only be consumed in private) and therefore the city’s nightlife revolves around dining out and visiting the cinema or theatre.
Six hours drive from Ahmedabad is the Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary. Its 1,500 square kilometres of forest, scrub and grasslands are fed by rivers and streams, and the park’s Kamleshwar Dam is renowned for its large crocodile population.
The main draw card for visitors is the opportunity to see the extremely rare Asiatic lion – the only place lions can be seen in their natural habitat outside of Africa. A recent census counted 400 lions and 300 leopards, making the park one of the biggest big cat concentrations in India. Other animals that thrive in the reserve include Sambar and spotted deer (chital), blue bull (nilgai), chousingha (the world's only four-horned antelope), chinkara (Indian gazelle), wild boar, jackal, striped hyena, langur and porcupine.