The Dawoodi Bohras are a very close-knit community, and thus, the entire community settled down in one part of the town between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When I first heard of Sidhpur, I only learned of its importance of being Matru Gaya– a pious place where Hindus conduct the last rites and rituals for their mothers who have departed. A quaint town located on the left bank of the river Saraswati, it is also a sacred place for devotees of Lord Shiva, as it bears a magnificent temple called the Rudra Mahalaya.
However, I’ve recently discovered that amidst this dozy town lies a broad avenue that houses the most ethereal and exquisite mansions that stand out from the architectural styles, typical to India. These ‘Havelis‘ belong to the Dawoodi Bohras, a Shia Muslim trading community from Gujarat. These ‘Havelis’ hence, came to be known as “Bohravads.” The Bohra women sport colored burqas, as compared to other Muslim communities, where women are primarily clothed in black; this difference is seemingly reflected in the demeanor of the Bohra houses as well.
Upon first glance, one may have to blink twice to fade away any doubts of illusion- as these houses have been adorned with intricate neoclassical style details. One might feel as if they have been transported to a little European town or have even time-traveled to the Victorian era!
While the overall style of the house is very unorthodox and extraordinary, certain elements have been derived from the local architecture. High plinths or otlas, provides a transition base to the entrance of the house, a feature that has long been used in dwellings not only in Gujarat but all over India. Otlas are used as social spaces, where families of Dawoodi Bohra would get together after dusk- a key aspect of a close-knit community. These houses are narrow but deep, encompassing a small courtyard in the center- another element that can be found in most ‘Havelis’ which are native to a hot and dry climatic region. Keeping up with traditional structures, each house shares walls with the next and is constructed mainly with wood.
The façade of each house is painted with Caribbean pastel tones- baby pink, peach, sky blue, lime green, and even mint- distinguishing the Bohravads from the other buildings of the town which have a very neutral color palette. The neighborhood almost exudes a feel of walking through a rainbow!
Right from the nameplate outside the houses, to the railing on the staircase, every component is delicately and intricately detailed. Individually, each pied-à-Terre features its elegant monogram indicating the family name, almost like a coat of arms. Along with a monogram, there was often a prayer carved above the main door. The floors are covered with ravishing geometric patterns and at many a time, veiled with beautiful Persian rugs; the ceilings embellished with graceful plaster moldings. No surface stands spared- the walls are also sheathed with geometric tiles and detailed friezes. Any bare space on the walls is bedecked with canvases and photos inserted in highly ornate wooden frames.
A strong influence of Victorian architecture is evident in the hooded fenestrations, bay windows, and elaborate pilasters. Trefoil arches have been widely used and illuminated with stained glass. Beautifully carved faux doors and balconies with classical balusters line the upper-stories of the residences. ‘Jaalis’ and meticulously sculpted moldings on the façade effortlessly add to the allure of the edifice.
A noteworthy dwelling built in this exclusive style is the “House of 365 Windows.” Although an unkempt structure, this monumental mansion, originally called Jhaveri Mansion, is ornamented with large pilasters and grand carvings. Geometric patterns throughout the façade of the structure are a nod to Islamic architecture. Refurbishment of this heritage mansion, in particular, would most definitely add Sidhpur to the architectural map of the world.
The Dawoodi Bohras were traders and often traveled abroad. Immensely inspired by their travels led them to construct these houses that are a magnificent melange of Victorian, European, Islamic and Indian architecture. Undeniably, they are a very wealthy community and have currently settled down outside this town- in thriving cities such as Mumbai and Ahmedabad, or even abroad like Europe and Eastern Africa. It is due to this reason that all of these glorious ‘Havelis’ stand empty today, and may seem practically abandoned to a visitor. While some families visit these ancestral homes once a year, some have appointed caretakers who maintain and check up on the houses frequently. Though the Bohravads were built about 200 years ago and stand uninhabited today, they are far from being dilapidated.
You could say that these 200-year-old avenues of Sidhpur ornate with pastel-colored bungalows were quite futuristic because, in today’s times, their aesthetic quality perfectly fits the definition of what we refer to as “Instragrammable”. The Bohravads are unlike anything you’ve seen before in the Indian context and I hope that the right measures will be taken to preserve them for generations to come, as they are a unique blend of various styles of global architecture. Time travel isn’t possible yet, but a visit to Sidhpur will surely take you to a European country back a century or two!