One for the Birds

, Breathe

The older areas of Ahmedabad are home to charming chabutras that are a haven for birds

Words: Brinda Gill

Exploring pols, tightly-knit neighbourhoods; visiting monuments embellished in fine carving and jalis, and museums displaying fantastic art and craft; soaking in the serenity of Sabarmati Ashram make up the typical itinerary of a visitor to Ahmedabad. While on these sojourns in the city, especially the Old City area that received the UNESCO World Heritage City status in 2017, one may spot a single pillared structure of wood, stone, brick or metal topped by a chattri-like platform. Standing at a residential quarter in the heart of pedestrian and vehicular traffic, these unusual structures are typically abuzz with birds – pigeons and sparrows – pecking at grain, drinking water, cooing and chirping among themselves.

The structure offers sustenance and refuge to the birds and infuses the space with energy and cheer from the presence of the birds. Upon asking, one is told these are chabutras or bird feeders that are an inherent part of the physical and social fabric of the city and are also seen in other parts of Gujarat. Food and water may be placed on the plinth, platform or on the ground near the chabutra in places where the structure is fenced off.

An Unusual Tower

The chabutras typically feature a plinth and a long pillar that ends in a burst of brackets or panels holding up an open-sided, pillared, covered platform. Yet each chabutra is slightly different in scale, materials and detail that seem to have been so designed in response to the space around it and the resources of its patron(s). Some are large, tall and dressed in elaborate, carved wooden elements, while others are compact, simple structures of metal.

Some chabutras have a plinth that is low enough for people to sit on, others have a plinth too high, only within reach to place a bird feeder and water. The post holding up the platform may be of long or of medium height reflective of the space around the chabutra. The platform, supported by a pillar, is also seen to take different forms and expressions. It may be circular, square, pentagonal or octagonal. Further, most have open sides that allow the birds to freely fly in and out and roost, while a few are a closed pyramidal structure with several rows with small niches so designed to offer cosy and safe spaces for roosting/breeding. And then the canopy may bear a round or pointed roof that may be topped with a finial.

A few chabutras have an opening at the plinth or at the base of the post (just above the plinth). In addition, some chabutras have a ladder to one side to offer access to the platform, for placing food, water and cleaning it. In more recent times, a chabutra may be fitted with a string pulley to lower a dish for water secured near the platform. And while most retain their patina that has elements that tell they have weathered, some are brightly painted.

The Design

It is said that during the medieval centuries, the Sultans of Gujarat had ordered to provide grains for birds and these were offered at the parabadi (a plinth or a structure where grains and a small water container were kept for birds adjoining the chabutra (a public square near the police station). As the parabadi and chabutra were contiguous in many sites, over time, they became synonymous.

The design of the chabutra seems to have emerged after thought for its primary function of providing a safe space for birds; if possible, space for people to sit below it and access its upper platform thus, taking into account the requirements of birds and people. By designing a structure with a pillar supporting a  platform, it ensures that little space is required on ground level for its construction while providing for ample space for birds along with safety in the platform above.

As artisans carved wood with beautiful motifs and figures, the chabutra turned into a small masterpiece of the woodcarver’s skills as they hand carved the different elements of the structure and integrated them to construct a well-proportioned and balanced structure. In this way, the unique form of the bird feeder organically meshed concern for birds, comes in a functional design, ornamentation and is a craft in its unique form. It also offers a glimpse of the traditional benevolence of the locals for birds, their philosophy of jeevadaya or compassion for all living beings and the skill of local artisans.

A Spectrum

While there are said to have been about 300 chabutras in Ahmedabad in earlier times, their number has shrunk in the present. Yet, as it stands today, the Karanj chabutra speaks of a wonderful legacy of the city and the concerted efforts at giving it a new lease of life. In 2007, it was restored to its former glory by a meticulous process that involved documentation, dismantling the structure and its restoration.

Artisans worked at restoring the carved wooden elements, crafting missing elements from recycled, seasoned teakwood true to the character of the original at the artist’s workshop, fitting them correctly as per the original design and then reassembling and installing the chabutaro to bring back the glory of the original structure and of the original ambience of the locality. The dismantling of the original structure, restoring the parts and re-assembly was carried out by Prabhudas Mistry and his team under the guidance and supervision of architect and historian Prof. Rabindra Vasavada. Well-known artist Amit Ambalal generously contributed funds to undertake this work from his family trusts and allowed for the work to be carried out in the compound of his bungalow where he had a carpentry workshop.

Today the Karanj chabutra stands tall, its columns holding up exquisitely carved, angled brackets that hold up an octagonal platform with a delicately latticed edge, marked by animal heads at each corner on the exterior, there are also a few delicate posts holding up the domed canopy, with a small dish attached to a pulley that allows fresh water to be filled regularly. Located next to the Karanj police chowky in the Teen Darwaza area in the Old City and surrounded by shops and sellers, Karanj chabutra adds charm to the historic precinct.

More recently, in February 2019, an old chabutra in Padshah ni Pol on Relief Road, Ahmedabad, was given a new lease of life: graced with jali work in a parapet wall of its plinth, small niches in the structure above for roosting and a row of bowls for water. Its restoration and presence speaks of the renewed interest in restoring the city’s unique living heritage of chabutras that offer an insight into Ahmedabad’s physical and social fabric.

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