The thought of Surat conjures up a mental image of textile mills, and diamond polishing factories, but a deeper dive through the busy streets unveil the city’s rich history, culture, and architecture. Having been in existence since 300BC, Surat is situated on the banks of river Tapi and is one of the fastest-growing cities in the region. From being the ‘gateway to Mecca’ to being the ‘ Diamond Capital’ of the world, the city has changed many hands. From Hindu rulers to Ahmedabadi Sultans, and from Tughlaq and Mughal rulers to the rule of the British and Portuguese, the one thing that remained constant was the importance of Surat as a Port city and as an interaction point for International Trade. We can observe the indelible influence of these economic and cultural events that happened over time in the socio-cultural practices and the architectural language of the city.
Being a thriving economic center, the city saw the settlement of merchants, traders, and skilled workers and laborers belonging to different social and ethnic backgrounds. The conglomeration of diverse communities living alongside each other contributed to an urban fabric that was interspersed with hybrid and diverse architectural spaces, which is evident even in the present context. As Ashlesha Khurana argues,
‘Surat was a city, before Bombay, New Delhi, Madras, Calcutta or Bangalore existed. It wasn’t designed by outsiders but had an urban culture developed by its citizens, much of which it retains today.’
The port city’s morphological transformations and urban development can be attributed to the mercantile communities and the economic ties between them. While traversing the city, one could swiftly move from a Parsi community to a Muslim street. The names of the area like Turkwad, Nanavat, Parsiwad, Shahpore, Rustompoora are suggestive of a specific religious community. Despite this pluralism of its population, no single community lived in isolation. As one enters one area after the other, the environment, architecture, and street pattern change and influence how the houses respond to each other. These ephemeral transformations throw light on the culture, beliefs, social norms, status, and role of women, and trading practices of the community.
Influences of the world architecture can be prominently seen in the structures here. The architectural vocabulary imbibed different styles—starting from Indian decorative architecture to colonial, from Indo-Saracenic to art deco, from neoclassical to art nouveau. The facade architecture was used as an expression to showcase the economic prosperity and individual identity of the owner. Even as the buildings changed ownerships and modifications were made to the internal layout, the facades and the motifs on it have been retained through the generations with little or no changes, and of which today only fading stories remain.
Besides a large number of small-scale buildings with significant heritage value that are spread within the walled city area and the adjoining village of Rander, other notable architectural structures include the Surat Fort, Mughal Sarai, the cemeteries of the English, the Dutch and the Armenian, Andrews Library and the Sir J J Training College. The city also houses important sacral spaces of different religious groups: the Fire Temple of Parsis, the Chintamani temple of the Jains, important mosques of different Muslim sects, and a host of other religious and cultural buildings.
The construction technology used in the city has always been advanced, at par with the global standards to cope with the various climatic and man-made hazards that have befallen the city. Situated at the mouth of the river Tapi, floods have been a recurring event for the city. The coping mechanism can be seen in the building morphology. The buildings have otla (extended plinths), raised shelves, and small attics or lofts to save the household possessions from the floodwater. A massive fire that broke out in the 18th century devastated the entire region. As a result, the oldest buildings that are seen today are not more than 125-130 years old. The fire marked a new beginning in the Residential architecture.
Surat, as a city, has seen it all- floods, fires, cyclones, plagues, and has prospered through it all. Being a growing and prosperous city, it attracted visitors from all over the world. It is said that flags of 84 countries used to flutter at the Surat port. Some of whom looted her, while the others led to her growth and development. Despite it all, the city with its adaptive character revived and renewed itself with new vigor. As the book ‘At the Core’ describes it, the city of Surat is a true survivor!
- Binita Pandya, 2018. City and Plasticity. [Online]
Available at: https://www.sahapedia.org/city-and-plasticity
- Binita Tamboli, N. S. S., 2018. Globalised Since 1510: Transitional Morphology of Surat. [Online]
Available at: www.sahapedia.org/globalised-1510-transitional-morphology-of-surat
- Jani, N., 2018. Surat Revisited. [Online]
Available at: https://www.sahapedia.org/surat-revisited
- Manvita Baradi, M. M., 2011. At the Core- Understanding the built heritage of Surat and Rander. Ahmedabad(Gujarat): Urban Management Centre.