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  • Writer's pictureAzera Rahman

Where the pigeons home: The chabutros of Ahmedabad

Updated: Jul 17, 2021

For The Hindu.

How Gujarat is not just restoring heritage bird-feeders, but building more to make its urban jungles nature-friendly

If you ever drive through Gujarat, you will not miss the tall tower-like structures buzzing with birds — largely pigeons, but also sparrows and parakeets. You find them at the entrance to almost every cluster of homes, or pol; and they are adorned with intricate jaali work. These are bird feeders or bird shelters — chabutros as they are called here — and are an intrinsic part of Gujarat’s culture and architectural heritage, something that reflects a generous tradition of co-existence between man and nature.

The saint and the grocer

One of the earliest examples of bird-shelters on buildings and cave walls is at the rock-cut stepwell at Uparkot, the Junagadh fort. “It is believed to date back to the 2nd century B.C. caves there,” says Ashish Trambadia, director of the World Heritage City Trust, Ahmedabad. The walled city of Ahmedebad has at least 120 chabutros, many of which have now been restored. Some of the most striking ones, with the most exquisite designs, are carved in wood.

The Karanj chabutro — one of the oldest in Ahmedabad— is one such. The story goes that about 140 years ago, a saint was travelling from Dakor to Dwarka, when he felt very thirsty. He stopped at Karanj (near Ahmedabad), near the Bhadra Fort gate. The saint noticed that there were very few trees around, and wished there was a chabutro where birds would come, feed, and rest. A local grocer, Bapalal Modi, heard the saint and decided to build a chabutro before the saint returned. The Karanj Chabutro is a wooden structure with copper cladding at the top, and it was restored not too long ago. The whole structure is intricately designed, making it an exquisite piece of heritage.

A chabutro in the old walled city of Ahmedabad. | Photo Credit: Vijay Soneji

Unused wood

But why wood? According to Trambadia, this was a time when towns in central Gujarat were the centre for wood imports. “Ahmedabad was known for its expertise in timber roofing joinery. It had the tradition of building many timber temples,” says Trambadia. “The timber work left behind several logs of unused wood that could be used for smaller structures. These became apt for bird shelters.” Timber also did not heat up fast — an important factor, considering the harsh summers in this area.

Shared responsibility

The design is simple — a central post and projecting brackets to support a platform. Several things were factored in while planning the chabutro. “It had to be a wide canopied platform that was high enough for the birds to be safe from predators like cats and dogs, but accessible enough for people to fill it with grain,” says Trambadia.

Ahmedabad-based author and artist Esther David says that the chabutro’s height was planned such that birds of every size could access it with ease. “So even a peacock’s long train of feathers can hang out easily,” she says.

A number of old chabutros were also made of stone. These single-column, top-heavy structures with intricate work are architecturally impressive — and challenging to restore. David connects these structures with the Jain concept of jeev daya, the belief that every life is sacred and should be nurtured.

Recalling the chabutro in her own ‘haveli-style’ home in the old city, the septuagenarian author says that it was built on the terrace of the house and surfaced with mosaic tiles. The old city, she adds, had many such chabutros. Over time, they moved from the backyards or terraces of mansions to the centre of a neighbourhood. This also signified a shared responsibility.

Special place

“Chabutros were hardly meant to be just an iconic element of a building,” says Trambadia. “It was always a binding factor for a neighbourhood.” As a concept, bird-feeders are extremely relevant today, as many species become endangered in the face of urbanisation. In the U.K., research by the British Trust for Ornithology has found how garden feeders have helped the numbers of many bird species to be revived. In the Indian context, entomologist Bertrand Horne of the Corbett Foundation says that although bird-feeders do not necessarily help increase diversity, they do help increase the populations of birds — “particularly of sparrows and muniyas.”

In today’s growing concrete jungles, chabutros have a special place. Happily, in Ahmedabad, the municipal corporation has restored more than 20 old chabutros even as newer ones continue to be built — near roads, at junctions, in neighbourhoods — a sign that the belief in the coexistence of man and fauna still holds strong here.

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