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Fascinating Chabutras of Gujarat

The gentle and peace loving people of Gujarat are well known for their concern about the welfare of all life forms. Perhaps putting bird feeding tables—commonly known as chabutras—in their homes and gardens is a reflection of their benign attitude.

Some years ago when we came to live in Ahmedabad the chabutras was among the first things to arrest our attention. The type to be seen most commonly is the ek-dandia chabutras which is essentially a platform covered with a dome or hood and mounted on a 5-6 feet high pole. On the platform a dish of water and some food is put for the birds.

Gujarati chabutras can be of various shapes and sizes, as we learnt later, while discussing the folk art forms of Gujarat with Esther David—an eminent art critic, columnist and author of a book on Ahmedabad. Some can be as large as a room. Built from stone and bricks these are elevated platforms which provide refuge to a variety of birds, ranging from the small sized sparrows, mynas and pigeons to large ones such as peacocks.

Chabutra is a popular colloquial terms derived from the world ‘Kabutar’, for pigeon. Interestingly enough, in some illustrations on Gujarati arts and crafts done by artists during the British period chabutras have been referred to as ‘pigeon houses’, as Lalit Kumar, Curator of the Lalbhai Dalpatbhai Museum of Indology in Ahmedabad informed us. The word chabutras itself may have been kabutra for some time before it finally became what it is today.

Although chabutras are commonly seen all over Gujarat, similar bird feeding tables are also to be seen in Rajasthan and Maharashtra. Indeed, the hood of the chabutras is believed to have been influenced by the ‘chatri’, so commonly seen in Rajasthani architectural design. According to Lalit Kumar, there has been a significant amount of fusion between the design forms of Rajasthan and Gujarat over the centuries and the chabutras is a manifestation of this rich ‘Maru Gujarat’ cultural tradition.

According to Kirti Patel, a well known artist who has also documented local art forms in considerable detail, the chabutras has a deep sociological and religious significance in Gujarat. Although the form of the chabutras incorporates the influences of Hindu, Muslim and Jain architectural designs, the practice of putting up these bird feeding tables is undoubtedly linked to the Jain faith which preaches non-violence and humanity. Like the ancient Egyptians, many communities in Gujarat also believe that after death a persons soul assumes the form of birds and animals. So by caring for birds by putting food and water and providing shelter in chabutras they are also caring for the souls of their departed ancestors.

To known more about chabutras we interviewed a variety of people and came across some interesting explanations. According to one view, originally chabutras were meant to be the destination of message carrying pigeons in the royal households. It is well known that long before the day when wireless and telephone existed, messages were carried by trained pigeons. In India too pigeons were widely used for carrying messages from one point to another. It is believed that, at least in Gujarat, chabutras or similar structures were the logical destination point of all birds, including the message bearing pigeons.

Even though chabutras may have been of some use for message carrying pigeons in earlier times, there is bound to be much more than this, as far as their significance and evolution is concerned. Yatin Pandya, an architect in Ahmedabad and the Director of Sangath—an organization working for the preservation of the cultural heritage, interpreted chabutras to us from the perspective of town planning and architecture. He opined that in earlier times chabutras were an important element of urban design and served to enhance the utilization of space judiciously and aesthetically in pols i.e. traditional urban settlements in Gujarat. Even now, old chabutras in villages and pols are located very prominently in the centre—the place where most community interactions and the celebration of festivals take place.

One can imagine that in the days when community life in the pols was much more vibrant than it is now, chabutras would have had great relevance. But now, as human population size is increasing more and more, people are living in box shaped housing colonies in the newer parts of the town. Naturally, everything which was in vogue traditionally is now also going out of favour including chabutras. During our rambles in the countryside and in the city of Ahmedabad we noticed chabutras everywhere—in villages, in housing colonies and in the midst of the busy bazaars of the city. Although many chabutras in the old parts of the city looked in bad shape—having being encroached upon or plastered with bill boards and loudspeakers—those in the new colonies appeared different. So the questions is then do chabutras have any relevance today?

Judging from the fact that they are to be seen all over Gujarat, the chabutras does seem to have some contemporary relevance. Many houses in the localities where the well-to-do people live, chabutras can be seen in gardens and terraces. Obtained from antique furniture shops or from the local Gurjari shop these chabutras are often gaily decorated with Rajasthani style designs and wood carvings. In a certain sense these are ‘brand’ chabutras—more of decorative items adorning the gardens and terraces in fashion conscious homes. However, in the rural areas—in village squares and in the lower and middle income group housing colonies of Ahmedabad—we get to see chabutras which appear more functional than ornamental. These are fabricated from steel, bricks and stone. The tall ones have a small ladder which can enable a man to climb up and put food and water for the birds.

About a year ago a local newspaper carried a photograph of a traditional chabutras in the Karanj area of Ahmedabad. The photograph had an interesting caption which said. “A dilapidated chabutras meant for feeding birds in Karanj has became the centre of a controversy. The corporation wants to remove its parts for repairs while the locals want it repaired on the spot”. Intrigued by this report we decided to visit Karanj and find out for ourselves what the controversy was all about. After taking to some locals we discovered that the area was rife with rumors that the corporation had planned to remove that chabutras and transfer it to an upcoming museum on the crafts and history of Gujarat, in Ahmedabad. But what had angered the locals was that all this was in the guise of taking the chabutras away for repairs. The attempt had been strongly resisted by the local residents who could not bear to see their beloved chabutras being taken away.

The above incident clearly indicates that people can offer resistance when it comes to removing such nondescript objects as the chabutras from their localities. But sadly, popular support alone may not be enough to save beautiful and traditional chabutras. The growth of population and the resulting congestion in the city is obliterating all traditional artifacts. During our walks we discovered many beautiful chabutras dying due to neglect and with strange and discordant structures having grown around them. Some had even become fused with modern buildings—a sad testimony to the horrific changes taking place in the urban environment, in total disregard to traditional relics. The chabutras were once symbolic of man’s concern for weak and helpless life forms but, in today context, many of the traditional chabutras in the city are victims of urban decadence. But still, in the midst of the hustle and hustle of congested city life or in the middle of villages, they stand tall and majestically silently in their stoic grace and elegance—beautiful to look at and a refuge for the little winged creatures.