Mariamman Mata & Murugan temples are key places of worship in the Tamil neighbourhood. (Dinesh Khukla/EPS)
The scent of jasmine and filter coffee pervades the air. Women in bright kancheevaram saris haggle over fruit prices as lungi-clad vendors push hand carts hawking idlis. The rhythmic chant of Govinda Govinda can be traced to the multi-hued gopuram of a nearby temple. In this part of Ahmedabad, you will be forgiven for thinking you have woken up in Chennai. Welcome to East Maninagar.
Gujarat CM and BJP’s PM-hopeful, Narendra Modi, may have brought this region national fame with his “we have a mini-Tamil Nadu in Maninagar” reference in his recent Tiruchy speech, but for the people of Ahmedabad, the East Maninagar-Khokhra area has been for decades Tamil Nadu in microcosm.
This is where they go to purchase Bharatnatyam costumes, find Tamilian cooks, relish South Indian cuisine, or buy coconut products. The Tamil Higher Secondary School and the library called Sri Krishna Tamil Vidyalayam, are historic landmarks in this Tamil neighbourhood.
“Most Tamil families came to Ahmedabad in the early 20th century when the city’s textile industry was booming with more than 50 mills commissioned by 1910,” explains P Shri Raman, managing trustee of the Sri Krishna Tamil Vidyalayam. “They found jobs as weavers, industrial workers, white-collar employees or professionals. My parents also came to Ahmedabad around this time and I grew up in the city,” he says.
Most Tamilians settled down near the Maninagar Railway Station because of its proximity to industrial areas like Rakhial, Khokhra, Vatwa, Bapunagar, and Odhav where the textile mills and ancillary units were located. In the 1930s, a few Tamilians like S Subbaih, R Vythilingam, S G Ekambaram and R Krishnamurthy started a Tamil library called Krishna Reading Room or Krishna Tamil Vasaka Salai, which was renamed the Sri Krishna Tamil Vidyalayam.
“Krishnamachari Pandit, the president of the Sri Krishna Tamil Vidyalayam and a freedom fighter was responsible for educating the community in Ahmedabad,” says Shri Raman. The 1940s was a period of hardship for the community as many manufacturing units were closed during the freedom movement. “Panditji spearheaded the campaign to start the South India Consumers’ Cooperative Society. The proceeds from ration shops started by this society were used for community development. In 1949, we were able to purchase land that became the campus of the library and the Tamil school near the Maninagar Railway Station,” says Shri Raman. The library today has 6,000 to 7,000 Tamil books, besides major newspapers and magazines. The Ahmedabad Tamil Higher Secondary School was opened in 1971 and is unique in being one of the first Tamil medium high schools in northern India. “This is a grant-in-aid school. In 1974-75, the first batch of students completed their final year of high school and a year later when the 10+2 system was introduced, students completed their SSC here. In 1977-78, students completed their HSC,’’ says M Asokan, the principal. “Children study in Tamil medium till their SSC and then many opt for English medium in the same school with Tamil as an optional language,” he explains. “More than 150 students attend the higher classes in this school,’’ he adds. The road from Maninagar Station to Khokra is now called Krishnamachari Road after Krishnamachari Pandit.
“Maninagar East-Khokhra is a self-sustaining area which provides food ingredients, ritual objects, clothing, education, places of worship and services required by the 25,000 or more Tamil families that inhabit this part of Ahmedabad,’’ says Shri Raman. Most of the Tamilians here work in the industrial sector or are small entrepreneurs with garment stitching units, tailoring shops, eateries and retail stores. The crossroad near the Maninagar Station is called Idli Char Rasta because of the number of idli and vada vendors on the street corner. Now many enterprising street-food vendors have now started full-fledged eateries. The upwardly mobile Tamil families have shifted to the new western neighbourhoods of Ahmedabad such as Silaj, Thaltej, Bodakdev, Vejalpur, areas that boast of corporate offices, BPOs, infotech companies, colleges and universities.
Some of them comprise a floating population that works in the west, but returns to spend the weekend with family in East Maninagar. Even the Tamil people living in western Ahmedabad visit East Maninagar to pray at the Mariamman and Murugan temples, buy traditional Tamil products and get dresses for traditional day and festivals such as Pongal.