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, sunrays 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.
Sidhpur is a delightful time warp: the clock tower (left) presides over the local marketplace, archways soar over ruins of the 12th-century Rudra Mahalaya Mandir (right).
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.
The staircase at the Saifuddin Vagh House, a Bohra-owned mansion, leads to a secret, cloistered world.
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?
Sidhpur is about 112 km from Ahmedabad, and is easily accessible by train, bus and taxi. Since it is an off-the-trail destination, choice of accommodation is limited. No-frills hotels like Hotel Crossroads, Hotel Luxura, and Hotel Siddharth are strung along the highway, barely 10 min from the main town. Doubles start at Rs1,300. For a guided tour, including a Bohra lunch in a traditional home, contact Sidhpur’s only guide, Insiya Calcuttawala (96240 86310).
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!
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