Heritage revived, brick by brick
By Anil Mulchandani | Published: 30th June 2013 12:00 AM |
It’s like going back in time to another era. Driving around the quaint historical town of Sidhpur in north Gujarat, one cannot help but stop by a cluster of colourful havelis. The havelis form a Bohravad, a colony or neighbourhood of Dawoodi Bohras, a Muslim trading community. The havelis draw influences from Baroque, Gothic, British colonial and art deco architectural styles and are a treat for the eyes.
During the early-20th century, affluent members of the Dawoodi Bohra community started building palatial homes around Gujarat. Resplendent with European architectural styles like Renaissance elements and ornate pediments, the houses also embody Gujarat’s fine wood and stone craftsmanship. The architecture reflects the community’s tradition and practices that calls for privacy for women. Most of the houses have stone plinths, wooden structures, wooden beams, carved wooden doors and windows with wooden shutters and stained glass. One of the largest concentrations of these ornate Bohra houses can be seen in Sidhpur. The neighbourhood is complete with European-style lampposts and other colonial trappings.
However, as many Dawoodi Bohras have moved out of Sidhpur in search of better prospects, most of these houses are now derelict. A group of concerned individuals that include tourism entrepreneur and yoga instructor Bhuvneshwari Makharia, architect Zoyab A Kadi, and a few Bohra house owners have now taken upon themselves to conserve and promote the heritage of Sidhpur’s Bohravads.
Speaking on the initiative Makharia says, “When I visited Sidhpur a few years ago, I was amazed to see the stunningly beautiful facades of Dawoodi Bohra houses. During my visit I spoke to Asger Shahpurwala, who is involved with philanthropic work in Sidhpur, about the importance of forming an organisation to conserve their ancestral homes. Thus, the Sidhpur Smruti Trust was formed with a focus on preserving the rich but neglected architectural and cultural heritage of Sidhpur, making it viable through a heritage tourism plan that includes heritage homestays, heritage walks, spiritual tours and promoting Bohra cuisine and culture.’’
There are about 1,200-1,250 houses in the neighbourhood of which around 35-40 per cent are occupied or at least seasonally inhabited. Majority of Bohras have moved out. Shahpurwala attended school in Sidhpur and then moved to Aden in Yemen before settling in Mumbai. “For Sidhpur Smruti, I involved Bohras from Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, Kolkata and other places to become trustees,” says Shahpurwala.
Architect Zoyab A Kadi, who brought Bohra houses into international limelight through his books, is working to get recognition for Sidhpur as a heritage town.
Makharia, however, says that restoration efforts haven’t been easy. “When I approached the families with the idea of opening their houses to tourists, many were initially not convinced, now a few have restored and renovated their homes, and taken interest in the heritage tourism plan. Secondly, much needs to be done on the infrastructure front like improving roads and ensuring cleanliness. Since many owners do not permanently live in Sidhpur, I am also working out on how the housekeeping can be done and standards maintained,’’ says Makharia.
Other than the Bohravads, there is much to attract tourists. Other attractions include the 12th century Solanki Rajput temple called Rudramalaya, old Hindu quarters called pols, Shiva temples, Bindu Sarovar, Sun Temple of Modhera, stepwell of Patan, Jain temples of Taranga and Kumbharia, and the monuments at Vadnagar. “Sidhpur also offers value shopping,” says Yusufbhai Vadnagarwala, who is working with the trust.
Amir Abbas Vagh, working with Shidpur Smruti Trust believes that homestay tourism in Sidhpur can be successful when taken in conjunction with the many architectural, cultural and religious attractions of northern Gujarat. “Hearing from my uncle and aunts in UK and US I was always interested in Sidhpur, which my family left decades ago. During a visit to Mumbai, I met the Shahpurwalas and came to know about the initiatives here. The big challenge is promotion as many people don’t know about the attractions here. While restoring and renovating my home, I gained insight into many aspects of the heritage and culture of this region. The Marwari and Kathiawadi horses of Gujarat, for instance, could be an attraction for those who love riding, horse safaris and animals. Such cohesive tourism development can truly ensure the preservation of our ancestral homes for the future generations of Dawoodi Bohras from Sidhpur,” says Vagh.