SIDHPUR A piece of Europe on the banks of Saraswati

Gujarat’s pious town, Sidhpur, is known for its havelis in hacienda architecture mostly belonging to the Dawoodi Bohra community

It is rare for today’s city neighbourhoods to be this quiet. The silence is almost unnerving and there is nobody to be seen. Even the mountains have more sounds – rustling breeze, tinkling of bells as cows graze, a gushing stream and you can even see the occasional herder. Here, you are standing awestruck in a seemingly urban canyon with tall rows of mansions on both sides of the surprisingly wide street. This is Sidhpur town in Gujarat where the partially unpaved dusty lanes are flanked by rows of multicoloured havelis that reach out into the horizon.

BAZAARS AND MOHALLAHS

Driving into the main bazaar of Sidhpur, you are greeted with towering buildings on both sides leading to the clock tower in the distance. The bazaar is teeming with shoppers and vehicles. You have a feeling there is more to this place. Walking randomly among the lanes away from the city centre you find yourself alone in this almost eerie street.

These Sidhpur neighbourhoods or mohallas (there are 18 in total) containing the havelis are called Bohrawads that were built by the wealthy Dawoodi Bohras, a Shia Muslim trading community. The Bohras migrated from Yemen to settle in Sidhpur, an ancient city believed to be located at the junction of the rivers Ganga and Saraswati. During the British times, money trading was taking place in India and places like Zanzibar, Ethiopia and Aden. A lot of this money was put in the construction of these havelis; a construction boom that started in the 18th century.

EUROPEAN HAVELIS

The Shekhawati region of Rajasthan shares a similar story wherein the wealthy Marwari merchants, after making their money in Calcutta and Bombay, built the incredible frescoed havelis across three districts turning the area into an open art gallery. So while the Shekhawati havelis are distinctly Rajputana in architecture and come in all shapes and sizes, the Bohrawad havelis here are strikingly ordered and disciplined. They don’t look like anything you have seen across India. The architecture and the influence is clearly European.

On both sides of the lane tall havelis rise, blending into each other as they stretch to the far side. You could peek from one corner and see straight up to fifty houses down the lane. While Shekhawati havelis are individualistic with different plans and elevations, the Bohrawad havelis are an example of homogeneity and symmetry. The proportions are perfect and precise. The houses are narrow and high with ornamented facades.

The European influence is for all to see – the facades, the decoration on stone and wood, the outlines of havelis have lots of Gothic, art deco and colonial elements. The European elements incorporated help distinguish the houses that are seemingly pasted together – full range of rainbow colours have been used and all kinds of geometric patterns adorn the facades, the doors and the windows.

FEW LANES AWAY

Sidhpur main street looks like any other street of a small town, chaotic and crowded. Few lanes away, it seems you have walked into a beautiful abandoned town. There is nobody on the streets. You notice most houses are locked. There are no open windows or children playing. There are no sounds coming from the houses. If you hang on, you will see women attired in a colourful rida walking past you without even acknowledging your presence. A milkman knocks at a door and finally an elderly person emerges out!

WHERE IS EVERYBODY?

The older generation might have passed away while the descendants have moved to live in big cities, maybe visiting only during the holidays. Some houses have peeling paint while others are getting a new coat of paint. The porches look untended. Houses have titles written over the main gates, while family’s logo or ‘coat of arms’ provide gravitas to the mansions just like the palaces in Rajasthan.

INCREDIBLE SIMILARITY

Like in Shekhawati, havelis in Sidhpur too are being demolished to make way for modern structures. As you walk around the lanes, you can see vacant plots where the havelis have been pulled down while at some other places, contemporary constructions stare at you. You walk in a trance from one lane of the neatly designed grid-like layout to another lane but the story stays the same – rows and rows of seemingly empty houses in the canyon like streets look like a rainbow in the mountains. Seeing you perplexed, a local resident cries out, “This is France.” He is right. This is not India. This does not look remotely Indian. You have just walked into Europe – is this Paris on Saraswati or Sidhpur on Seine?

Text & Photos: Nirdesh Singh

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