I first heard of Sidhpur about 6 months back when I shamelessly eavesdropped on a conversation while commuting to work by bus. In my defence, the conversation, which was between two women from the Dawoodi Bohra community (as was evident from the colourful ridas they wore) in Gujarati and English, was really loud.
It was an animated conversation in which they spoke about their ancestral homes in Sidhpur and the holidays spent there. They spoke of chandeliers, Belgian glass windows, wooden antique furniture, fine linen, tableware, feasts, parties, and antiques among other things. There was gossip, as well as an element of ‘my-ancestral-house-is-grander-than-your-ancestral-house”, but it seemed to be in good fun.
The “conversation” on ancestral homes in Sidhpur intrigued me to look for more information on the Internet. Thanks to my good friend Google, I found in Sidhpur mansions with distinctive European style architecture, each one grander than the other. This information was enough for me to include a visit to Sidhpur when I toured North Gujarat in December 2014.
It was a little after 4 pm when I arrived at Sidhpur. While asking for directions from a local tea stall, I learnt that the Bohra houses were called Vohrawads and also that I needed to go to the Najampura area, which had the best and maximum number of such houses. A short rickshaw ride later, I was standing in front of the house that you see in the photograph below.
The Dawoodi Bohras are a Shia Muslim trading community from Gujarat with a very distinct history and identity. A close knit community, they have a significant presence in Indian cities like Mumbai and Ahmedabad, and East African countries like Madagascar. Like other trading communities in India (for example, the Chettiars of Chettinad in Tamil Nadu, and the merchants of Shekhawati in Rajasthan), the Bohras or Vohras, as they are known locally, invested in and built distinctive and grand residences in their ‘native’ towns/villages after they migrated.
Since the community tended to stay together, entire neighbourhoods came to be called Vohrawads or Bohrawads, housing Bohra families. Built in a distinctive architectural style, the Vohrawads are rows of narrow, deep houses, about three to four storeys high, and either along the main street or in a grid like formation. Most of the houses shared a wall with the houses on either side giving a feeling of connectedness.
The houses in Sidhpur have a strong European character with gabled roofs, ornate balconies, pilasters, columns and decorated doors and windows. Standing before a row of such houses, painted in a range of colours, a casual visitor could be forgiven for thinking that this was somewhere in Europe and not in a hot, dusty town in Gujarat, India. Like I felt that evening in Sidhpur.
Walking through the Vohrawad lanes was a surreal experience. Not just for the architecture, which seemed out of place, but because all the houses were locked and empty.
I didn’t see a single resident looking out of a window or opening a door or passing me by. If there were caretakers or anyone living in any of the houses, I didn’t see them. The lanes and byIanes were so empty of people and so quiet that I was keenly aware of the sound of my shoes scuffling on the loose sand and grit on the roads. It took me a while to get used to the emptiness of it all and start noticing the finer details of the Vohrawads.
Like this beautiful staircase…
Or this entrance with a little prayer above the door…
And the monogram / coat of arms outside every house. I was fascinated enough to put together a collage and share them with you here.
Much as I delighted in the architecture and other details of the Vohrawads, it was difficult to ignore the fact that they were in a state of neglect. Cobwebs, rusty locks, unswept entrances, rubble piled outside some houses, bags of rubbish outside others… all pointed to the fact that the houses had not been opened or lived in for a long time. I was not just seeing grand mansions, but also the ruins of a different era and time. And I could take a guess as to what must have happened to the Vohrawads for them to have reached this stage. It is a story that can be seen in many parts of our country.
The first generation of migrants to the cities would have been the men who left behind their wives and children. Perhaps it was them or their sons who built these grand residences. Family ties would have been strong for them to keep visiting their native towns or investing in them.
By the 3rd or 4th generation, the wives and children would have joined the men in whichever cities they were in and that is when the ties would have begun to weaken. As the years and generations passed by, the visits would have grown fewer and gradually the Vohrawads would have reached the stage it has today and then some more.
Some of the Vohrawads have been demolished to make way for newer, modern buildings. I saw two such buildings at Najampura and a couple of ‘Sold’ signs as well. Somehow, I was not surprised or even distressed as I know that this change was inevitable. Grand mansions these may be, ancestral homes these may be, a community and national heritage these may be… but at the end of it all they are a valuable piece of real estate, especially since they are privately owned.
The sun had almost set when I left the Vohrawad and entered the market surrounding it. The change was dramatic — suddenly people, sounds, colour, vehicles are back … indeed life was back. Even the Vohrawads that faced the market looked livelier.
As I clicked the final pictures of the Vohrawads in the dying light, an old man — a Bohri — who was walking past, stopped to ask, “What are you doing?”
“I am taking photographs of the Vohrawad buildings.”
“Why are you taking photographs of dead things? You should be taking photos of living things instead, of people, of life.” Saying this, he shuffled away.
Why indeed ! Even after 2 months, I’m still thinking about this conversation.
- Though I was based in Mehsana and combined the visit to Sidhpur with a trip to Patan, you can easily do it from Ahmedabad as well.
- There are two excellent articles by Himanshu Burte on the Vohrawads in Gujarat. I strongly recommend that you read them here and here.
- If you require any further information or assistance in planning a trip to this region, please feel free to write to me as a comment or through the Contact page of the blog.