Some years ago, while exploring Bhuj, a small city in Gujarat, India’s westernmost state, I stumbled upon a fantastic and initially enigmatic structure: a column that supported an enclosure adorned with a whole bunch of holes. It appeared to me to be a geometrical abstraction of a large tree — until a pigeon peeped out from considered one of the openings.
Soon there have been a whole bunch of birds flying out and in of the grand birdhouse. Locals informed me that the structure was called a “chabutra.”
Over the course of my initial four-month stay, and afterward, during follow-up visits throughout Kutch, the district that features Bhuj, I started documenting the beautifully crafted birdhouses — taking photographs, collecting local narratives and recording people’s memories related to the structures.
The old bird towers I encountered were fabricated from wood and stone. Newer specimens are mostly fabricated from concrete and are way more colourful and vibrant. Each design is different.
In much of India, housing and feeding birds is a standard practice. But in numerous cities, the collective affinity for birds expresses itself in other ways. Some communities take part in pigeon-rearing, often called kabootar-baazi, which involves taming the birds, caring for his or her health, training them to fly in a specific direction based on verbal commands and preparing them for flying competitions. Others concentrate on conservation efforts. Still others construct chabutras.
Within the Kutch district of Gujarat, elegant birdhouses may be present in many of the villages and hamlets. Paid for by residents, the structures are sometimes designed and built by masons who, though not trained as designers, nevertheless are in a position to express the ethos of their communities.
The homes aren’t simply places for the birds to remain. In addition they act as communal spaces. Elder men and girls sit under their shade. Children play nearby. Festivals are sometimes held around them.
I prefer to categorise the birdhouses as bird housing, since, as is true with humans, the birds make use of several sorts of residential buildings. A number of the structures are like sarais, or motels, a spot for the animals to make temporary stops before traveling onward. Others are multistory apartment buildings with as many as 40 floors.
If we analyze the chabutras from an architectural perspective, we’d describe some as Indo-Saracenic, Brutalist, postmodern, contemporary.
A chabutra may also be related to the religious and cultural identities of its community. Many individuals construct the structures as memorials to deceased friends and relations and consider that supplying them with food is like feeding the souls of the departed. Some Hindus consider that offering food on the structure is akin to feeding god.
It’s no surprise, then, that giant donations of birdseed are sometimes made at vital social events: funerals, weddings, births. In some towns, contributing grain to communal chabutras may even function a type of punishment, or mandated community service.
While working to find and document the chabutras in Kutch, I’ve visited several dozen villages across the district and spoken with countless individuals who help stock and maintain the structures. And while the historical picket birdhouses in some places — Ahmedabad, for instance, Gujarat’s most populous city — have been well documented, similar attention hasn’t been paid to those in Kutch.
My aim with this project, which I’ve worked on for the last seven years, has been to assist compensate for the dearth of attention paid to Kutch’s chabutras — particularly within the wake of a devastating earthquake in 2001 that destroyed most of the celebrated stone specimens.
While the earthquake turned many historic chabutras to rubble, it also paved the best way for the brand new structures we see today.