A few years ago, while exploring Bhuj, a small town in Gujarat, India’s westernmost state, I came across a beautiful and initially enigmatic structure: a pillar supporting a fence decorated with hundreds of holes. It seemed to me that it was a geometric abstraction of a giant tree – until a pigeon peeked out of one of the openings.
Soon hundreds of birds were flying in and out of the big birdhouse. The locals informed me that the building is called “chabutra”.
During my first four-month stay, and after that, during subsequent visits throughout Kutch, a district that includes Bhuj, I began documenting beautifully crafted birdhouses – photographing, collecting local stories, and capturing people’s memories associated with structures.
The old bird towers I met were made of wood and stone. Newer specimens are mostly made of concrete and are much more colorful and vivid. Every design is different.
In much of India, housing and feeding birds is a common practice. But in different cities, the collective affinity for birds is expressed in different ways. Some communities are involved in pigeon breeding, known as kabootar-baazi, which includes taming birds, caring for their health, training to fly in a particular direction based on verbal commands, and preparing for flying competitions. Others focus on conservation efforts. Others build chabutre.
In the Kutch district of Gujarat, elegant birdhouses can be found in most villages and hamlets. Paid by residents, buildings are often designed and built by masons who, although not trained as designers, are nevertheless able to express the ethos of their community.
Houses are not just places for birds to live. They also act as common spaces. Older men and women sit in their shade. Children play nearby. Festivals are sometimes held around them.
I prefer to classify birdhouses as bird shelters because, as is the case with humans, birds use several types of apartment buildings. Some of the buildings are like barns or motels, places where animals stop briefly before moving on. Others are multi-storey buildings with as many as 40 floors.
If we analyze chabutras from an architectural perspective, we could describe some as Indo-Saracen, brutalist, postmodern, contemporary.
Chabutra can also be associated with the religious and cultural identities of its community. Many people build buildings as monuments to deceased friends and family members and believe that the supply of food is like feeding the souls of the deceased. Some Hindus believe that offering food in an object is similar to feeding a god.
It is therefore not surprising that large donations of bird semen are often given at important social events: funerals, weddings, births. In some cities, giving grain for common chabutras can even serve as a kind of punishment or compulsory labor for the common good.
While working on discovering and documenting chabutri in Kutch, I visited dozens of villages across the county and talked to countless people who help store and maintain buildings. And while historic wooden birdhouses in some places – Ahmedabad, for example, the most populous city of Gujarat – are well documented, similar attention has not been paid to those in Kutch.
My goal with this project, which I’ve been working on for the last seven years, was to help make up for the lack of attention paid to Kutch’s chabutras – especially after devastating earthquake 2001 which destroyed many famous stone specimens.
Although the earthquake turned many historic chabutras into ruins, it also paved the way for the new structures we see today.
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