History & Influences
The Dawoodi Bohras (or Vohras) are a Gujarati trading community which fanned out across India (and to East Africa) in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They are most visible in cities like Mumbai, as traders in hardware, glass and textiles.
Like several Indian trading communities who moved to other lands, they invested significantly in residential architecture in their native towns, building neighbourhoods that have come to be known as “Bohrawads”—a legacy now largely threatened by neglect.
A powerful composite character is not surprising in the towns they inhabited. After all, the Bohras are a community with a complex cultural identity. And Gujarat’s architectural history is marked by rich traffic between the Hindu and Islamic architectural traditions. The Bohrawads confirm that a unique identity is not necessarily “pure”. Like our grandfathers who Indianized European coats by wearing them over ‘dhotis’, the Bohrawads reveal we are always inventing our identity by negotiating with every influence around us.
The minaret of the mosque where the two Bohrawads in Kapadvanj meet. Himanshu Burte.
The Bohrawad in Kapadvanj near Ahmedabad shows how this architecture sustains community life. Essentially, a Bohrawad is a neighbourhood built around a street and its branches. For defensive reasons, the street developed a gated entrance, not unlike the pol of Ahmedabad. In Kapadvanj, the nani (new) and moti (old) Bohrawads are entered through twin gates. In each Bohrawad, rows of narrow, deep houses—three to four storeys—are packed along the main street, interrupted by cross-lanes at regular intervals.
Interestingly, two other Bohrawads in Sidhpur in north Gujarat are organized in a regular grid—an obvious influence of the British, with whom they had good relations.
Zoyab Kadi, an architect originally from Sidhpur, suggests in his book Sidhpur and its Dawoodi Bohra Houses that there is an influence of vaastu shastra discernible in their architectural plans. Yet, walking the 19th and early 20th century Dawoodi Bohra neighbourhoods, or Bohrawads, of Sidhpur and Kapadvanj, you are struck by a delicious sense of unreality. You cannot quite get a fix on their architectural identity. There is a strong European character to it, particularly dominant in parts of Sidhpur built early in the 20th century by the Shia Muslim trading community. But the spirit is not really European. It is somewhere between the formality and bombast of European neoclassicism and the intimacy of the traditional Indian residential architecture of densely built towns. In addition, the spirit of this architecture is uniquely inflected by Islamic traditions of building in India.
The three-part division of the facades, often with a tall door or window in each part, is very European—especially when decorated with pilasters (protruding half-columns) and other European elements. The interior of the house, though, is organized around the cultural values of community, with a central room (the one with the “courtyard”) the everyday family living space.
Najampura, Sidhpur, where grand mansions stand empty. Himanshu Burte
Windows off the raised ground floor, with or without window seats, are decorated richly—they are the main architectural elements on the façade. The decoration frames a person at the window. This architecture, then, makes people look good.
From the community perspective, the Bohrawads enable people to stay in close touch with each other without compromising privacy. That balance comes from two different strategies: the window seat by the street and the internal “courtyard” in each house.
The main living floor is 4-5ft above street level, built over a basement. Small but comfortable windows or window seats open into the street. This slight height allows the seated person to keep a distance from the street while almost being part of the action. Yet he or she can easily lean out to talk to a passer-by, child, neighbour or vendor.
The internal “courtyard” in the typical Bohrawad house shows how far a traditional concept can be stretched. We normally understand a courtyard to be an open space at the centre of the house. We often imagine them as open rooms. However, the Bohrawad “courtyard” is generally no more than a series of cutouts in every floor, lined up one above the other. The opening is small, about 4 sq. ft , and covered with a metal grille or mesh for safety. In extreme summers and winters, these modest openings provide natural light and ventilation without letting too much of the weather in.
This vertical shaft also lets families on different floors of the house stay in touch. The upper floors were often occupied by married sons. Each family achieved a level of privacy, as in an apartment, while connection across families was maintained by the architecture.
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