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The Dynamic Nature of Ornamentation in Mandvi ni Pol

A study on Structure-Ornamentation Relationship |  S. Fiona Evangeline

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When we walk from Astordia Gate along Swami Vivekananda road, we come across many Pol gates. One of these lanes opens into the largest pol of the walled city of Ahmedabad, Mandvi Ni Pol. A blue board marks the entry into the pol. We would notice a clear shift in character in the two regions, unlike the urban-rural contrast, this journey takes us through time. It almost feels like stepping into back in the day when all of these developments didn’t exist. The wide roads are narrowed; compact row houses start to emerge on both sides of the damp road. The element that stands out of the first look into the street is the heavily ornamented facades on either side. As you take a few steps into the pol near the AMC board that marks vichini pol, you would notice the Haveli Mandir on the right. The blue and pink building stands out in all visual glory. The smell of oil from the oil press opposite to the Haveli temple takes over all the other senses. Its solid relief-carved brackets on either side extend majestically supporting the band of elephant heads. The sight naturally draws you closer to feel the texture of the wood that has been persisting through all the changes around it. The rich brown brackets feel tough and solid. That would easily be the first enthralling ornamentation in Mandivi Ni Pol. Going on the course of the spine, the visual frames of ornamentation take several turns and variations just like the street itself.
Keywords: Ornamentation, Otla, Mandvi ni Pol, Value, structure, materials, elements, time periods.


Mandvi ni pol is the largest pol in the walled city of Ahmedabad, it constitutes about 30 Pols and a few kadikis and kanchos. The pol neighbourhood emanated when the communal riots happened. People started living together as communities within gated cul de sacs to ensure safety and security. The houses that belong to these pols have ornamented facades. Otla is an element found commonly in the pol houses of Ahmedabad, Gujarat. An Otla resembles a veranda in its structure and function. It is a transition space between the street and a house. A typical Otla is a raised plinth from the street that forms the front of the house. From the street, a small flight of stairs leads to the platform that approaches the entrance of the house. This progressive movement from the street to the entrance of the house is dramatic with the presence of otla, the speed of movement gradually reduces from the street to the house and sets the mental state of entering into a living space. Also, Otla is part of the façade of the structure and is on the side that faces the street. Hence, it creates the first impression of the house.
The Otla gains its importance due to the significance of entrances associated with the Indian beliefs in space making. Otla is an experience than merely just a functional element of the structure. It is a progressive succession through space, hence it is justified as a threshold space. This progressive movement is commemorated in the pol houses of Gujarat through the creative language of Ornamentation.

This paper is an empirical study on the transformations ornamentation has undergone over the years in Mandvi ni pol and thereby placing them in various time frames. The relations made for analysis for establishing time frames is independent of the stylistic influences and symbolism, which have already been analysed to a great extent in existing literature on ornamentation. Rather this paper focuses on the structure of the elements and the sites of ornamentation on these elements that adapt with change in materials used.

Generic Theories on Ornamentation

Across the globe since the ancient times' ornamentation has been a part of built form. In the caves people represented their everyday activities with painting. When the Sumerians built forts they made paintings of battle scenes. Egyptians then built and reflected their ideas and beliefs on their buildings using various visual art methods. Then Romans took building and ornamentation to a whole new level and invented Doric, Ionic and Corinthian orders, etcetera. Therefore, it can be stated that ornamentation and the built form had always been together. The separation of ornamentation and built form came in later with a shift in ideology and change in values associated with the art form. Hence it had been a transforming subject.

Ornamentation has always been a part of Indian buildings since ancient times. For example, a plain door was considered inauspicious hence, one would come across simple/plain temple structures that have decorated entrances to accentuate the portal. Texts on Vastusastra 1 not only suggested the proportions of the door but also gives guidelines for its decorations. The tradition of decorations continued through concepts but changed in form.

“The material and spiritual aspects of culture are represented in the artistic and religious manifestations. The regional geography, flora and fauna, ways of life, aspirations of people, Socio-economic setup have their impact on the culture of different areas” -(Sharma, 1990).

People ornament their Otla for reasons considering their socio-economic condition, negative energy barriers and the beliefs associated with it. Some of the generic theories associated with ornamenting the otla are; One, it marks a celebration, ornamentation symbolises welcome and commemorates the entrance. The aspect of passage through an entrance holds an important place in customs across cultures. Two, the ornamentation level signifies social status; in a marriage ceremony, families exhibit their social status by adorning the bride with jewellery and by ceremonial decoration to attribute the space. All of these are means by which the family status is made evident. Hence, it supports the reason that ornamenting their otla should have been a means to earmark their position in the society. Finally, ornamentation plays an important role in a house receiving its place of importance as a dwelling. The word dwelling in this context simply explained through Janine Meesters words as: 

“A dwelling is defined as the system of settings, being a subsystem of the environment that affords certain systems of functions which make it for the inhabitants the primary anchor in the environment”. (Meesters, 2011)


The process of documenting the otla followed a visual survey. All the otlas along the spine of Mandvi Ni Pol and across the pols branching from the spine were considered. Mandvi Ni pol contains around thirty pols and a few kanchos and khadikis within its territory. From oral sources, it was established that the pols near Manek Chowk housed some of the rich in the past. These claims could be true as some of the well ornamented Havelis belong to these pols such as Nagji Budhar ni pol, Lalabhai ni pol and Kansara pol which are located on the northern part of Mandvi ni pol. Based on visual observations the ornamentation of the Otlas can be broadly compared on the bases of four major categories; Elements, Motifs, Materials and Complexity.

The otla is comprised of horizontal and vertical Elements that can be classified into structural elements, non-structural elements and fenestrations. Structural elements are the beams, columns and brackets that play a vital role in supporting the structure from collapsing, non-structural elements are the lintel plate, wall surface and the fenestrations. Visually some of the otlas appeared to be rich in ornamentation than the others, with a further visual tour the similarities and differences between the otlas became more evident with the level of complexity. On comparing the number of existing elements of a specific otla to the elements of the otla that were carved, four grades of complexity were drawn as discussed in the map. The most elaborate otlas had all the elements ornamented and the least ornamented otla would be the ones that were renovated several times. Another important aspect to be considered would be the materials used for ornamentation. Widely used material is wood, apart from that iron, plaster stucco and ceramic tiles could be seen in works of ornamentation over the years. These materials are vital in placing these otlas in specific time frames since these materials came into use at different points in time.

Though every otla in the pol is unique in its appearance and ornamentation, they had some common characteristics in terms of Size, Age and the Extent of Details. Based on these criteria and without ignoring the subtle changes, a hand full of otlas could be drawn out as representatives of the documented 250 otlas. These representative otlas when further analysed based on the structural characteristics of the otla and the accompanying ornamentation indicated the renovations and transformations the otla as a structure sustained.

The above process gave an insight into the Structure-Ornament Relationship of the otla as an entity. This evoked the necessity of looking at the dynamics of ornamentation from a structural point of view rather than the semiotics, which has already been exhaustively documented in the past.

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One of the visible aspects of ornamentation would be its materiality. Architectural history documentation is largely dependent on what survives for which materials used becomes an essential aspect. Also the material answers the question of what is there. Taking the question forward, analysis can be carried out on the lines of what was there? what changed because of the change in material? And how the change happened?

“The linked notions of hierarchies of material value and patterns of survival foster an understanding of why what is there remains there and, just as important, an awareness of what is no longer there, and why”- (Lambourn, 2007).

One of the points that can be extracted out of this study is, that the Pols of the walled city acquired the heritage status because of the presence of ornamentation. The ornamented facades of these houses are the identity that a house belongs to the pols of Ahmedabad. These houses without any ornamentation could be placed under any context of old settlements, the feature that it is ornamented extensively makes it standout. Also the fact that the materials used are rare and the wood used for carving is of high quality adds to the advantage. The effort of transporting these non-native materials to the city for building domestic structures is also an interesting aspect and it talks about the network and extent of trade relationships in the city. When effort is exhibited and special materials are used, it adds value to the existence of the place. “Structures employing expensive or rare materials may be better preserved and maintained than those built in materials perceived as having low value”- (Lambourn, 2007).

Looking at the materiality of ornamentation can direct the views of the study on the lines of economic and social history and geography of the place.

When spoken of placing ornamentation in time the aspect of symbols and stylistic influences are widely considered. These kinds of connections would hold good for monuments and other well-known buildings that marks the rule of a certain king. But pols are domestic neighbourhoods that comprise several individual units built and expanded over several years. Hence, talking about influences would not do justice in placing them in specific time frames. This predicament directs the vision towards materials and methods of construction, structural changes, advancement in technology and evolution towards efficiency etc. as a way of establishing time frames.

To establish definite time frames and to reinforce the idea, some Havelis and buildings that are dated in time and carry classic ornamentations were considered. Though it is difficult to place them in several close time frames some broad ones can be drawn. Pre 19th century, that is clearly pre British and late 19th to early 20th century that is during the British rule when the country prospered in various aspects and late 20th-century contemporary architecture with the advancement in construction technology. A way to bring ornamentation into the picture would be to study the sites of ornamentation in


The construction that happened during this time majorly used timber for structural and non-structural material. The construction of otla was typically built in stone. The structure was raised from the ground level by about 1’6” to 2’. The staircase on the otla directly connects to the entrance of the house without a platform extending to the surface of the otla. The houses that were built around this time seemingly have wide façades and the depth of the otla is narrow. Also, all of these houses have carving on the lintel plate and hence the height of the otla is extended to about 3’ above it. The façade is intricately carved in wood; the entire structure is thoroughly embellished. These structures instantly catch a passer-by’s attention and evoke invitation, one would want to walk up and have a closer look at the details. The wood used for construction is of visibly sound quality, reason would be the accessibility of the material and the flexibility to work with it.

The example considered for pre 19th century, the first time frame is Pratima; the haveli that belongs to Kinnani Panikar. The haveli has been dated 350 years old as mentioned in the Architecture and Design magazine. The haveli accommodates some of the oldest ornamentations of pol houses. The structure has a wide façade and a typical old otla. It is a heavily ornamented pol house façade. The round wooden column in this haveli has a large ornamented stone base. The shaft and column capital have intricately carved details and the knob like structure that extends from the capital. The beams have 4 bands and all of them are detailed with the second band being the most ornamented with a series of elephant head motifs. The house also has brackets on the top floors. Therefore, from the observations of structure, ornamentation and its relationship, all the otlas that have similar characteristics are placed in this period. (Ahwalia, 2016)


The otlas that belong to this period have some unique features. Twin columns and the knob-like extensions on the column capital clearly belong to this time period. Columns of these otlas clearly have larger bases than the others. They are either made in stone or timber; it is established from oral sources that the columns that have timber bases of this type are older than the ones that have been made with stone. It is highly common to find ornamentation on the surface of these base elements on all four sides. The structure of the column is more or less round and have box structure leading to the capital on which mosque lamp motifs and flat-screen carvings are done. Column capitals have elephant heads (gaja) or a combination of bird and elephant head. The columns that are of rectangular profile have brackets extending from its shaft, in which case the column is not detailed but the bracket is highly detailed with complex carvings and composite motifs. The round shaft has simple grooves and in a few cases, they are left unornamented. The beams of these otlas have not less than three bands and distinctively all the bands are ornamented. The motifs used on the beams are usually in front profile whether they are floral, foliage, animals or figures. The level of the floor above starts from the second band of the beam, usually, the second band is the most ornamented of all the bands. The base of the second beam continues inwards to form the ceiling towards the otla which are equally spaced timber rafters. Wall surface was initially finished with lime plaster and most of the houses have later been finished with cement. In the past, there have been three instances of earthquakes due to which the lime plaster developed cracks on the surface. Cement plaster was then used to fill up the cracks during renovation. Doors and windows are larger in the otla than that of the floors above. These houses have long windows and doors which is most cases are the only source of light and ventilation to the house. The door frames are thick and have carvings on them. On the top corners of the door frames plugin motifs are installed and these motifs are usually believed to be threshold markers and negative energy barriers. A wooden highly carved plate called the ganesh patti is planted on the wall above the door frame, this is usually the most detailed element of the façade.

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Figure 2: Composite visual showing the elements of pre-19th century ornamentation.

Figure 2: Composite visual showing the elements of pre-19th century ornamentation.


With the involvement of the British came the rapid expansion in construction technology. A treaty was made between Gwaikwads and the east India company, that the city would gradually be transferred to the British. The city was handed over to the British in the year 1817 and this marked a new era. The municipal corporation was prevailing and sewer services were laid in the old city in 1890. They built administrative buildings in the city such as the Ahmedabad stock exchange building. The ornamentation reflected their style and interest. Ahmedabad Stock Exchange was established in 1894 and is the oldest stock exchange after the Bombay Stock Exchange in India. ASE functioned here till 1996 and it is a 93-year-old heritage building and an example of British architecture. The structure in all its glory stands with stucco work on its façade and the columns and pseudo-columns depict the colonial-style very firmly.

From observation and further connections, it is established the houses that were built around this time used the materials that were more structurally promising such as iron. The otlas belonging to this period are evidently higher than the others and have pipelines going form the base of the otla connecting to the toilet inside. The staircase that leads to the house does not directly connect to the threshold but a platform before it. The façade of these houses are not carved or ornamented to a great extent like the pre-19th-century otla but appear more solid and stable in structure. Some of the houses have otla overhangs that resemble art deco ornamentation. Amishi Shah in her thesis on “The evolution of the facades of the traditional houses in the walled city of Ahmedabad” aptly describes the transformations in ornamentation from the previous to the current time frame.

” The third phase depicts the death of the traditional style and the decline of the craft of woodwork. On entering this phase, the traditional motifs were corrupted and the work became weak and coarse...The influence of the British is seen in this phase. They brought with them the images of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian orders of the columns of the Victorian era. People were dazzled by the images and in an attempt to become modern, imitations of these orders were done and the traditional motifs disappeared the onset of the 20th century, the use of wood in construction and the decorative traditional woodwork gave way to modern materials like steel and concrete in construction and stucco work in decoration of the buildings” - (Shah, 1998).


The structure-ornamentation of this time period is distinctive. The columns of these otlas are of three shapes, round, polygonal and rectangular. These columns appear less ornamented compared to the intricately carved wooden facades. The bases of these columns are geometrical, has a square base of 3 to 4 inches and a concave or convex edged slab of similar thickness. It more or less resembles Doric and ionic orders in structure. Like twin columns in the previous section, here half columns are made. The shaft usually contains grooves that are spaced both close and wide. Closely grooved columns appear more ornamented. The otlas that were built closer to the 20th century have reduced ornamentation and taper longitudinally. Eclectic styles emerge around this period. The column capitals have floral and foliage motifs. The carvings are done on the structural members along with its shape and no special importance seems to be given for the ornamentation itself such as the mosque lamp motif in the previous time frame. Wooden brackets had become non-existent and some of these columns that have brackets were made of iron. The beam detail during this period is greatly reduced. The ones that have beam detailing, comprise of two bands of which only the second layer is carved with flowers or bow like decoration. It is clearly done as a decorative element and not to hide the deformity of the wood. The elements of the otla do not have exposed wood anymore, they are painted in pastels. Some of these structures have eliminated beams and have built structural arches. The houses that have arched otla are bigger in size and have a minimum of three wide arches. The wall surface above these arches is ornamented with plaster stucco or timber stucco which is again a purely decorative element. The openings on the otla remain large due to its functional aspect of bringing in light and ventilation. But the structure of the door frame has changed by now, the frames of the openings are thinner and the lintel plate is disappearing slowly. Towards the beginning of 20th century, with the addition of transom windows (openings above the doors and windows) the lintel plate is no longer present. Some of the buildings have adopted arched profile for their openings as well.

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Figure 3: Composite visual showing the elements of late-19th -20th century ornamentation.


Post-independence like all other parts of the country, Ahmedabad also went through a lot of changes and developments. There was growth in infrastructure and media. Educational institutions started to arise. The city expanded and bridges were built. The city has been prospering in all aspects ever since and recently in 2017 it was announced as a world heritage site by UNESCO. The buildings that fall under this category may not be essentially built during this time, though, some of them are. These houses have been renovated several times and have incorporated newer building materials in the process. The most renovated elements would easily be the wall surface where plastering and painting are changed more than once in some cases. Another major reason for the change in the spatial structure of otla is the inclusion of toilets. Several of these pol houses have added toilets to a portion on the otla simply for the convenience of connecting to the underground sewer lines on the street. For utility and a better lifestyle, the importance given to the ornamented elements has been compromised. Specifically, in the houses that have added toilets in the otla, only the traces of ornamented columns are present. Also, by this time RCC construction has become predominant around the developments surrounding the walled city. Gatrad ni pol and Devni sheri have some of the recently constructed houses belonging to contemporary architecture style. Materials used on the walls and the floors of these otlas are ceramic and vitrified tiles. These materials have patterns and textures already incorporated in them. The change in the last two decades has been rapid.

“Contemporary architects don’t stick to this modernist dogma of revealing the inner structure of the building, but the facades show experiments with the means, materials and technologies related to or reflecting architecture”- (Munch, 2015).


The structure of the otla became more simple. The columns of these otla are of two types; wooden and concrete. The wooden column that came about this period almost entirely lacks ornamentation. There are pieces of evidence of machine-cut box columns that have simple grooves on the edges or nothing at all. The round timber columns are also plain and have no detailing. These columns are painted and the wood used is of lower quality compared to the ones that were used in the old exposed timber structures. The beams are now just a plain horizontal structural member. People carved their names or the year in which the structure was built on the beams. A few houses that have wooden beams have simple detailing on the second band of the beam. Structures that have concrete beams do not have any ornamentation or marking to emphasize its presence. The bracket as an element has become non-existent. The wall surface is plastered with cement and in renovated houses, it has been cladding with tiles. The doors and windows of the renovated old structures remain in its original form but the recently built houses have standard size windows. As discussed earlier these materials that are used come with visually appealing patterns.

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Figure 4: Composite visual showing the elements of late-20th century ornamentation.


A visual checklist to place the ornamentation in time would be based on structural characteristics of the elements on the otla. Changes in any structure occur when there is an introduction of a new material. Therefore, the otlas of Mandvi ni pol have been structurally changing with instigation of materials. Hence, to establish time frames for ornamentation it is essential to investigate the structural transformations with respect to materials.

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Figure 5: Axonometric view showing the transformation in structure and sites of ornamentation in various elements.

When the checklist was used to place the ornamentation of otlas in Mandvi ni pol, the observations state the following; The oldest ornamentation in otlas could be seen on the north and the south. The newer and most renovated structures are concentrated more in the central region while, the otlas that fall into the late 19th century – early 20th century time frame is spread evenly across the fabric of Mandvi ni pol.

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Transformation in the use of Materials across time

The earliest materials used in ornamentation and construction of the pol houses were stone and timber. They were used extensively for both structural and ornamentation purposes. The structural qualities and the availability of the materials made it an easy option at that time. With the involvement of the British, the other materials such as plaster and stone stucco became available to the city. The construction that happened during the period were monumental and would have been widely spoken of. The trending fashion in architecture led the home owners of Mandvi ni pol to adopt the material and style of that period while building their homes. Thereby, we come across buildings that moved from the rich and old wooden facades to a more subtly ornamented, structurally stable otla. Further down the timeline not very long after independence came the introduction of contemporary materials. The developments around the old city had widely adopted RCC construction and the buildings were no longer ornamented. Therefore, for the renovations and new construction in the pol the new materials were available easily and were cheaper. With instances of earthquakes and addition of infrastructural services, usage of latest materials such as ceramic tiles and cement became a logical option.

The round columns with broad bases of the olden days metamorphosed into geometry. There was a phase when iron was introduced, the columns changed in structure with a polygonal shaft that had no carved details. In this case though the column had the function of supporting the structure above it, the job was shared with the reinforcements. The beams gradually lost its layers of ornamentation form four bands of heavy embellishments to now a concealed RCC structure. The change in materials shows that the transformations are directed towards utility.

Transformation in Sites of Ornamentation in the Elements

Similar to the transformations in ornamentation around the world, the ornamentation of Mandvi ni pol has also been through many shifts. Some of the key inferences that have been derived out this research are listed in this section. The extent of ornamentation is reduced through the ages. Clearly across these three broad time frames, it is apparent from the reduction in the ornamentation of the elements. The quality of wood used has been diminishing in time with change in technology. One reason could be that the need for using timber as a structural material reduced, and more options for making a structure stable was mass-produced and hence was available cheaper. Beam details completely disappeared. Originally, the beam was one of the most ornamented and evident element to be found on the façade. In terms of ornamentation, the beam was part of the façade surface, hence it grabbed the attention of the onlooker. Yet this was one of the first elements to lose ornamentation. Some sources state that structurally the ornamentation forgave the mistakes and deformities of the wood and the human errors of the craftsmen. When that aspect of cutting wood was solved and replaced, the reasons for ornamentation shifted to mere decoration. Like in any case, when the functional aspect evolved and sentimental associations faded, the importance of ornamentation lessened.

Over the years the evolution of the construction and technology ruled out carvings on built form in the pols. Though there was scope for ornamentation, it was not done because the elements functioned fine without it. The beliefs and associations with the threshold seemed to have faded. A few customs that were followed as negative energy barriers continue with only the added elements such as the leaf band or nimbu mirchi and the horse shoe.


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