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Miki Desai publications | Madhavi Desai publications

Traditional Bohra Dwellings of Gujarat:
Architectural Response to Cultural Ethos

This book explores the Bohra house form and domestic environment as architectural manifestations of culture. The traditional habitats of the Islamic community of the Bohras (generally referred to Daudi Bohras) in Gujarat are excellent examples of traditional architecture rooted in the regional landscape. 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, with 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, 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 houses in a Bohrwad are typically grouped around a street and these form a mohalla ; several mohallas form a Bohrwad. 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. These neighborhoods have a structural unity and give a general impression of relative orderliness and homogeneity. It is a well knit and densely urban.

A traditional Bohra house can almost be considered a metaphor for the social system. Gender is important as an organizing theme in dwelling layouts and use of spaces, as is religion that provides a civic code, influencing social behavior and interactions. 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. The houses have a deep plan-having 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 Bohras have adopted the regional tradition of Gujarat of making facades with intricate details in wood. Built by craftsmen, they reveal their comprehensive understanding of the elements of design, the nature of the building materials and versatility of craftsmanship. 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 in carving. Another element developed to its full potential is the zarookha, with much variation found in its types. The impact of cultural attitudes is seen in the full enclosure of the balcony in many of the Bohra houses. These habitations represent a living tradition of Gujarat. If the Bohras are 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.
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