Every place has a distinct memory associated with it, and it’s the users who construct the narrative based on their unique experiences. One might either feel lost or experience that moment of feeling it. This is one such recollection I’d like to share that occurred lately during my visit to Ahmedabad. The city known for its rich history and cultural values, is also a World Heritage site ranked by UNESCO. It is probable that…Ahmed Shah once stated that when he discovered Ahmedabad, his vivid memory of a hare chasing a dog compelled him to stay. Similarly, it struck me when I first saw the Chabutro near the Ganesh Vasudev Mavalankar Chowk on the Drive-In road. All of a sudden, flocks of pigeons flew from the bird tower dramatically, catching all the attention they needed from us. It was situated at a busy intersection and had a dark green hue to complement the neighbourhood’s colour palette. Having lived in Ahmedabad for nearly a year piqued my interest every time, I saw a Chabutro on the move.
The truth of coexisting with regard to these structures created exclusively for them astounded me. I admire these individuals initiatives to feed these birds regularly. The place where I grew up, birds were fed on terraces, road pavings and empty fields. My grandmother has a particular spot reserved for the birds to feed on the raised platform beside the stairway. This daily ritual served as a reminder of the ancestors who paid their regular visits. Through my research and interviews, I found out that Chabutra has been an integral part of their lives. It is the epitome of craftsmanship that unites the neighbourhood and serves as a home for countless birds that come to feed and the nest is situated in the middle of the pol homes. It serves as a pivotal point where people gather, celebrate festivals, engage with the community and much more.
The word “Chabutro” comes from the Gujarati word “Kabutar” which means “pigeon”. The Chabutro’s origin is traced back to 137 years ago when a saint travelling from Dakor to Dwaraka halted at Karanj to quench his thirst. He wanted to build a ‘Chabutro’ for birds to feed and stay in. Bapalal Modi, a grocery store owner, planned to construct the chabutro before the saint returned from his pilgrimage. To raise money for the bird tower, the shopkeeper went so far as to sell the jewellery and merchandise from his wife’s store. However, the community assisted him in successfully constructing the first Chabutro in Karanj with their funds (Chabutaro a Bird Feeding Tower, 2012). With its intricate carvings and vividly coloured paintings, Chabutro evolved into an architecture marvel. The old city had the concept of pol dwellings which were often small and cramped, with low rise ceilings. The open chowks were important components for these housing systems because they allow people from different user groups to interact and enjoy leisure (Devyani Nighoskar, 2017). Thus, Chabutro located at nodes served as landmarks for these chowks. It also denotes as an element that resembles a ‘tree’ in chowks; as trees became scarce due to increase in built-up area.
Chabutros are typically found throughout Gujarat, and Ahmedabad is home to almost 300 of these towers for housing birds. There are around 120 of them in the old city. Because of the importance of wood in the construction of structures, Chabutro was originally built of wood. According to Trambadia, because lumber was commonly employed in temple construction, the unused wood was used for bird dwelling.(Rahman, 2020b). Timber was frequently used in Ahmedabad due to its low thermal conductivity in difficult weather conditions. Hindu, Islamic, and Jain architectural styles all influenced their design. The act of feeding birds has a direct connection to Jain practises, where doing so was an integral aspect of the philosophy of non-violence. There was also a notion, similar to many religious beliefs, that “life after death” might be observed in the form of birds that visited their loved ones (Chabutaro a Bird Feeding Tower, 2012). The Chabutro included a similar notion.
The Rajasthani architectural element “Chatri” served as inspiration for the Chabutro, which consists of raised platforms to deter dogs from attacking birds, a columnar central spine, and projecting brackets. According to Ahmedabad-based novelist and artist Esther David, “the chabutro’s height was planned in such a way that all kinds of birds would easily access the housing.” She linked this architectural design to the Jainism principle “Jeev Daya” which translates as “every life is sacred and must be nurtured.” (Rahman, 2020b). Numerous deities were carved into the brackets, signifying the divinity of the ancestors who visit the Chabutro when one looks closely. According to Lalit Kumar, the notion of “Maru Gujarat” can be found in these carved embellishments, indicating a confluence of Rajasthani and Gujarati art forms. In the Karanj Chabutro, you can witness angelic figures playing musical instruments and worshipping the Divine God above if you look at the projections there.
“Architecture is not only a matter of shape, but also a carrier of urban culture. Architects are not merely designing forms, but creating social public spaces.” Bernard Tschumi’s comment is relevant to our instance of Chabutro. These structures served as markers and played an important part in placemaking. Each Chabutro was planned as a key intersection (Char rasta) of a chowk where people met for conversations and to feed birds. Notice boards were also placed near them to give announcements. One such instance that occurred in Karanj Chabutro demonstrates the importance of coexistence and the people’s loyalty to it. Recently, the corporation attempted to repair the Chabutro by transferring it somewhere; however, citizens battled the officials and forced them to undertake the repairs at the original spot. Being situated in a busy market at the time, it was packed in the morning when the businesses were first set up. People from the community, both Hindus and Muslims, gather together to care for the chabutro, collect funds, feed the birds, and hand down the legacy to future generations.
Chabutra are being neglected and are not being cared for by the government as urban sprawl increases. For many years, this modest structure has been a key component of the local landscape. According to David, several chabutro have been hidden from public view and covered with advertisements. He further claimed that the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation has renovated fifteen of these structures. Trambadia further stated that communities in newly developed areas are stepping up to build Chabutros in their societies and gardens (Chabutaro a Bird Feeding Tower, 2012). In the Indian context, entomologist Bertrand Horne of the Corbett Foundation claims that, while bird feeders do not always help promote diversity, they do help boost bird populations “particularly of sparrows, muniyas and pigeons.” However, given the exponential growth rate of pigeons, their faecal matter may have an impact on heritage sites. I believe that as time progresses, Chabutro’s historical significance will not be lost. Instead, new construction techniques and community-led conservation initiatives will help ensure that Chabutro retains its significance and serves as a new wayfinding tool for Ahmedabad in the future. These lingering memories from that of the past, will be in the present, and become a part of the future experiences. It’s the togetherness these elements offer to open new thresholds keeping us rooted.
Note: All the images are shared by the author.
1.Chabutaro A Bird Feeding Tower. (2012, April 21). Issuu. https://issuu.com/jenil87/docs/acc_paper
2. Rahman, A. P. (2020b, January 18). The chabutros of Ahmedabad are architectural marvels. The Hindu. https://www.thehindu.com/society/where-the-pigeons-home-the-chabutros-of-ahmedabad/article30584871.ece
3. Devyani Nighoskar, & Devyani Nighoskar. (2017). Inside ‘The Pols’ – Ahmedabad’s forgotten housing cluster. Homegrown. https://homegrown.co.in/homegrown-explore/inside-the-pols-ahmedabads-world-heritage-housing-clusters