Sidhpur: Waking the Sleeping Beauty of Gujarat

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In Sidhpur, avenues resemble a colourful, tiered cake. The homes of the Dawoodi Bohra community are neoclassical buildings awash in warm salmons, lilacs, peaches and mint greens.

12 January 2018,

Sidhpur has a unique place in the history of the Dawoodi Bohras with India's first al-dai al-mutlaq, Syedna Yusuf NajmuddinRA having been born and lived here before he was called to duty in Yemen. After becoming dai he returned to Sidhpur where he stayed for five years then again going to Yemen where he passed away. Many of India's Bohras originate from here although they have since settled elsewhere in the country and overseas. It nevertheless retains its special place in Dawoodi Bohra heritage - its historical homes still intact and revisited by their emigrant owners. Sidhpur is about 112 km from Ahmedabad.

The National Geographic magazine, who have featured Sidhpur's Bohra homes in a previous edition, takes a walk through this sleepy, heritage-rich town, once more.

Sidhpur: Waking the Sleeping Beauty of Gujarat

Gustasp and Jeroo Irani have seen it all after 30 years on the road—from banging away their stories on typewriters to blogging (albeit erratically) about their experiences. Life has been a joy ride but they can never have enough of it. World, we aren’t done with you yet!

The dusty north Gujarat town looks like a movie set that was never dismantled. In Sidhpur, avenues resemble a colourful, tiered cake. The homes of the Dawoodi Bohra community are neoclassical buildings awash in warm salmons, lilacs, peaches and mint greens.

It looked like a movie set that was never dismantled, gathering dust and a life of its own in its neglect. The magnificent mansions in the hot, dusty town of Sidhpur in north Gujarat were largely shuttered and locked, as though to keep the present at bay.

Occasionally, a door would open and the silhouette of a woman dressed in a traditional Bohra ridah would appear, like a wraith from another era, as though uncertain about which century she inhabited. A man with a beard like soft, white candyfloss sat perusing a newspaper at a barred window, sun-rays bouncing off his white-and-golden embroidered cap typical to male Bohra attire. We asked his permission to take his picture, and he smiled his assent with a slight inclination of his head.

In Sidhpur, the Gujarati Dawoodi Bohra community, largely traders, flourished between 1820 and 1930. They built monumental mansions with stuccoed facades, ornate pilasters, trellised balconies and gabled roofs—perhaps to state, in no uncertain terms, that they had arrived. However, post-Independence the community settled in different parts of the country and overseas in search of greener pastures, and their houses became repositories of a discarded past.

Instagrammable frames popped up every now and then in the community’s neighbourhoods (vohrawads), awash in Mediterranean colours—ochre, green, blue, salmon pink, and beige. A little boy, for instance, with a school bag strapped to his back emerged from a dark doorway; a stray sunbeam highlighted his innocent, upturned face staring into a bright future. These nearly forgotten mansions indeed appeared at times to turn away from the present, and at other times, new life bubbled in the most unexpected corners.

The streets of the vohrawads are organised into a grid, and the line-up of narrow, linear homes made us feel like we had been transported to a European city. “The architecture has a variety of influences,” noted Sebastian Cortes in response to our email questions. The American photographer’s multi-city exhibition, ‘Sidhpur: Time Present Time Past,’ shone a spotlight on the nondescript town. “I would feel safe to say that it incorporates elements that span from neoclassical European, including art nouveau, and touching Indian Gothic. But if you begin to look closely, you can find other influences; this variety makes Sidhpur a marvel for the eye,” Cortes added. Organised by the Tasveer Gallery, the exhibition was launched in 2014 in Bengaluru and was the first in-depth photographic exploration of Sidhpur’s Dawoodi Bohra community.

We stayed for two days in a friend’s beautifully maintained home, the Saifuddin Vagh House, in Mota Islampura, one of the better preserved vohrawads. There, the wraiths of the past demanded to be acknowledged, tapping us on the shoulder, luring us to caress the rosewood panelling; gaze at the lovely light fixtures that glowed from ceilings; admire the display units showcasing the family silver and crystal; explore marble recesses meant for earthy matkas; and linger over art deco writing desks, and painted Belgian mirrors that reflected our awed expressions.

Our feet sank into soft Persian carpets, on which we sat sipping morning tea, leaning against plump cushions lining the walls. Gilded portraits of the late and current Syedna, the spiritual leader of the community, looked down at us benignly.

Light streamed in through numerous windows and the skylight in the central courtyard. The main door was often left open for glimpses of street life—a stray dog strutting past; a father-and-son duo hawking Sidhpur’s famous street dish of chana bateta; and the occasional sweet cadence of Bohra Gujarati wafting in. But the streets of the vohrawads were mostly bereft of life, the decades lying dank and musty in long-forgotten homes.

God and beauty lie in the details in Sidhpur, and we gazed for hours at the ornamentation on the facades, sharpening the focus of our zoomed-out lenses on grandiose coats of arms, and the intricate designs below balconies and windows. In the Najampura neighbourhood, we were transfixed by the 365-windowed Jhaveri Mansion mantled in an aura of neglected grandeur. We stopped by another street where a row of houses stood like silent sentinels to a jettisoned past.

As we left Sidhpur, we came across a cavernous space, which, we learnt later, had been a beautiful home up until it was flattened by a wrecking ball. We couldn’t help but wonder—is there a Prince Charming somewhere who could awaken this ‘Sleeping Beauty’ back to life?