Thursday 3 October 2019

Sidhpur's Bohra Havelis - A Gujarat Secret

Sidhpur in Gujarat is home to about 60,000 people. It has a long history. The Rudra Mahalaya temple dates from the tenth century, whilst in 1140, Jayasimha Siddharaja, declared the town capital of his kingdom. He also changed its name from the original Sristhai to Sidhpur, meaning Siddharaja's town. Today it is a bustling place with a busy bazaar, a famous sweet shop and as I recently discovered, a fantastic collection of mansions known as havelis built by and for the Bohra Muslim community between 100 and 150 years ago.

The Bohra are an affluent merchant community. Adherents to the Shia form of Islam, they can be found in significant numbers in India, Pakistan, the Middle East and East Africa. Women members of the community are easily distinguishable through their wearing of a brightly coloured burkha, sometimes decorated with patterns and lace. Well educated, Bohra women today include many successful business owners, doctors, lawyers and teachers, particularly in the United States. About 250 Bohra families remain in Sidhpur but many now live in other, larger Indian cities, particularly Mumbai, as well as overseas.

The havelis are clustered in a number of streets in the centre of the town. I have visited havelis before, notably in Churu, Rajasthan, but Sidhpur's buildings are something very different and perhaps unique in India. Numerous commentators describe the architectural style as British and although that influence is obvious, the approach to design is more complicated than this suggests. The facades display several late 19th and early 20th century influences including elements of the Art Deco, Art Nouveau and Gothic styles. The brightly coloured facades are more redolent of mainland Europe than of London where the yellows, greens, pinks and oranges of Sidhpur are rarely seen. However, the steep steps rising from the street to the main entrance are a classic London townhouse feature. These elements are combined with more local features including, extensive use of wood, Islamic geometric patterns and those wonderful raised platforms on the front of the buildings. In years gone by, residents would have used these platforms in the early morning or evening to take the air, read the newspaper and watch the activity in the street.

Today, these streets are very quiet, almost deserted and most of the buildings stand empty other than for a few weeks of the year when family members return to check on their property and other interests. Almost inevitably this unique heritage is being placed at risk as developers purchase some of the homes, demolish them and replace them with, for the most part, ugly unappealing yet expensive "modern" structures.

A short step from the haveli neighbourhood, there is another magnificent, empty building. The House of 365 Windows built in 1938 with strong Art Deco features. It dominates its corner site and is ripe for bringing back into use, perhaps for cultural activity, as the city begins to attract more visitors. Sidhpur barely rates a mention in most of the mainstream English language travel guides but numerous bloggers have written about the town particularly about the havelis and I doubt this  little treasure will remain secret much longer.

The House of 365 Windows
Chanasmawala monogram on haveli facade
Art Deco motif on haveli facade
Monogram on haveli facade
I spent a couple of hours in Sidhpur en route from Bajana to Ahmedabad but could easily have spent a couple of days there. The bazaar warrants a good couple of hours and there are numerous temples and mosques worth visiting. At the beginning of this post I mentioned a famous sweet shop. Regular followers of this blog will not be surprised to know that 20 minutes or so of my visit were spent in  Nafees Farsan and Sweet Mart where I was generously invited to sample several of the delicious sweets and baked items on offer. They will also not be surprised to learn that I left the shop with a box of peda - my favourite Indian sweet. A town with a bazaar, unique architecture and a fabulous sweet shop - how could I not want to return?

More information

Sebastian Cortes  photographed the havelis for National Geographic magazine.

Nafees Farsan and Sweet Mart, Zamplipole Bazaar, Sidhpur, Tel 384151

You might also like Churu - A Rajasthani Secret

See more pictures from India here

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