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Book abstract

Traditional architecture: House form of Bohras in Gujarat


The history of architecture in India reflects a rich and diversified legacy, not only through the classical examples but also in the display of a rich heritage of vernacular traditions of building. These are spread in several regional environments in the form of a variety of settlement patterns, institutions and dwelling types.

They express the totality of a relationship between man and society. These settlements are characterized by consistency over a long period of time and a strong integration of the built environment with the patterns of life. The traditional habitats of the Islamic community of the Bohras (generally referred to Daudi Bohras) in Gujarat, found in cities and towns such as Surat, Siddhpur, Dahod, Godhra, Kapadvanj, Khambhat, Ahmedabad, Palanpur, Bhavnagar, Dholka, Surendranagar, Morbi and Jamnagar, etc. are excellent examples of traditional architecture rooted in the regional landscape. This study attempts to understand the interrelationship between the living traditions of Bohra house form and its culture.

This book attempts to understand the Bohra house form and domestic environment as architectural manifestations of culture. It aims to identify and analyze some of the social and cultural factors that have a critical influence on the structuring of the dwelling unit, incorporating a brief look at the process of transformation as the traditional dwelling began to be replaced by the then popular bungalow typology from 1920s onwards. The specific objectives include relating architectural articulation and stylization with the worldview and the socio-cultural/religious patterns of the users, studying the house form in relation to the street and cluster as well as identifying the principles underlying the spatial organization. It refers to certain significant aspects such as space usage, response to climate, building materials and construction, illustrating special architectural elements and features which have evolved from social attitudes, climatic forces and aesthetic preoccupations. The book is laid out in four chapters.


A traditional window of a Bohra house.

This introductory part as Chapter I aims to place the topic in broader context of vernacular architecture in India, gives the theoretical background and explains the research design, methods and biases. Chapter II covers the basic features of the historical, religious, and cultural background of the Bohra community, as the aim of the book is to interpret the physical environment as a cultural artifact. Chapter III takes an in-depth look at all the aspects that form a backdrop to the built environment of the Bohra dwellings and settlements. Chapter IV concentrates on the empirical analysis and interpretations of the focus of the study - the architectural delineation of the typical dwelling unit of the Bohrwad. The book terminates in the concluding notes focusing on the eclectic expression of the house form.

There are two broad categories of Bohrwads: one has an organic layout while the other is strictly geometrically laid out. The structure of a typical organic Bohrwad is inwardly oriented, where the houses are arranged in an introverted neighborhood form. Most Bohrwads have a formal entrance where gates used to be closed at night in the past. The houses in a Bohrwad are typically grouped around a street and these form a mohalla; several mohallas form a Bohrwad. Each mohalla is an exogamous unit and may have fifty to a hundred houses.

These neighborhoods have a structural unity and give a general impression of relative orderliness and homogeneity. It has a well-knit and dense urban character. Besides the houses, a large Bohrwad generally contains a mosque, a Madressa, a Jamat Khana, and other buildings for collective functions. In the Bohrwads, the neighborhood mosque is the most important institution as the central public space for religious rituals. The Bohrwad streets stand apart because of a sense of order, extreme cleanliness, well-designed drainage system and the element of visual surprise. The closely packed houses, site constraints and absence of standardized building controls result in an organic growth and a relatively irregular street pattern. The meandering passageway with a pedestrian sense of scale creates a series of vistas as one walks down the street.


Facade of a house in Kapadvanj.

A traditional Bohra house, seen in its cultural and spatial context, creates a sense of place in a distinct domestic setting. The house can almost be considered a metaphor for the social system. Male dominance is strong and women are commonly segregated from men not belonging to their immediate families. Gender is important as an organizing theme in dwelling layouts and use of spaces. For the Bohras, religion is a way of life that also provides a civic code, influencing social behavior and interactions. The Bohra house is usually always oriented according to the cardinal directions as per the practice in the region. The urban house has at its core a set of spaces, which in their sequence and proportions are identical to those of the rural dwelling. It is basically a deep house-plan with three (or four) sequential rooms one behind the other.

The regional model was not only adapted by the Bohra community but also taken to its maximum potential with necessary adjustments due to the religious tenets of Islam. Certain concepts like clear separation between the public and private, the necessity for an in-between zone at the entrance level, the male/female divide, seclusion of women, the intense need for privacy, etc. have brought about specific devices and spatial configurations that reflect the tenets of the religion. Generally a joint family system is followed. The kitchen is common to all and it becomes central to the family. The spatial hierarchy in the typical Bohra house has a sequence of otla (entrance platform), deli (arrival space), avas (courtyard), parsalli and the ordo (room). The upper floors mainly house the bedrooms and the agashi (terrace). The Bohrwad is made up of three to four storeyed-high houses arranged in a high-density layout. The individual courtyard becomes an air and a light shaft where the cooler air sinks below and the hotter air escapes out of the roof.


Facade of an elevated storied house.

The Bohras have adopted the regional tradition of Gujarat of making facades with intricate details in wood. They accommodated a whole range of styles, building materials and decorative treatments resulting in attractive facades (and streets) that have become the hallmark of their vernacular architecture. In contrast to Islamic philosophy, there is exterior display and frontal exposure as the facades are rich in variety and aesthetic expression. They create a sense of enclosure and a play of light and shadows by using of solids and voids. Through the display of several textures and patterns, they express balance and harmony within a predominantly symmetrical composition. The surface of the facade is visually broken by ornamented columns, brackets and mouldings, at times bringing multicolored cohesion to the streets.

The facades enhance the totality of the physical ambience of the built environment. Built by craftsmen, they reveal their comprehensive understanding of the elements of design, the nature of the building materials and versatility of craftsmanship. The unity of facades has been achieved by similarity of building types, materials of construction and commonality of a design vocabulary. There is a lot of aesthetic attention paid to the making of the windows, entrance doors, columns, brackets, grills and other elements. In the embellishments they use only non-figural and abstract geometrical patterns as per the Islamic tradition, which rejects animate objects (gods, people, birds and animals) in carving.


A typical entrance to a house in Kapadvanj.

In every vernacular tradition, certain elements/objects get developed in the house that are expressive of the users’ cultural attitudes and also communicate symbolic meanings to the onlookers. A lot of variation was perceived in the types of zarookhas (floor projections) that were incorporated as a part of the design of facades in various Bohra housing in Gujarat. The Bohras developed this element to its full potential. The impact of cultural attitudes is seen in the full enclosure of the balcony in many of the Bohra houses. One hardly sees any person standing in the external zarookha or the balcony and interacting because the Bohra life-style emphasizes privacy, formality and internalization. The enclosed balcony takes the form of a luxurious window-seat referred to earlier in the case of the typical house in Siddhpur. The seat is approached from the deli and a space for it is created next to the entrance steps. This bay window has iron screens on the outside. Spacious and well-lit, the seat with mattresses and pillows is used for a group of women to relax and converse, or for a lone woman to pass her time looking out on the street while doing embroidery.

Since both the Hindu and Bohra house types are based on a common regional house form, there are more similarities than differences, where the differences generally occur through subtle interventions due to the required change in the cultural use of domestic space. It is noteworthy that in spite of the limitations of the shared-parallel-walls typology, a considerable degree of flexibility has been achieved in the spatial layout in response to sub-cultural or climatic variations.


A typical street in a Bohra neighborhood in Sidhpur.

The Bohra habitations represent a living tradition of Gujarat. However, some of the elaborately carved and richly decorated houses are deteriorating at a fast rate and are, at times, being sold to antique dealers who dismantle them completely for selling their decorative elements and teak wood. This situation is getting desperate and urgent steps are required for conservation of this valuable heritage. Conservation of individual monuments or precincts of an urban fabric poses a complex challenge. Unless the people of the community can be motivated to get directly involved and have an urgent desire, substantial and large-scale conservation efforts become impossible. The crucial fact to remember is that the Bohras are conservationists and promoters of art may be unconsciously. If they are further encouraged by a strategy for conserving entire Bohrwads, it will help continue the momentum of cultural preservation in order that some of the best historic examples of regional domestic architecture in Gujarat are not lost.

The book "Traditional architecture: House form of Bohras in Gujarat" by Madhavi Desai is on a CD and is ready for publication. It contains 15 colour photographs, 76 black and white photographs and 34 line drawings.

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Contact: National Institute of Advanced Studies in Architecture
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Price of the book: Rs 1750
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