The Bohras are Gujarati Shia muslims, largely involved in business. My gateway to their food was the Bohra biryani and the many sweets, but then I discovered so much more. As the Bohra new year approached, the beginning of the month of Muharram, our thoughts turned to this cuisine. The Family dug into her contacts list and talked to a few Bohra caterers and decided to get the typical food with which you break the fast of Muharram; we broke tradition and had it for lunch. You see in the photo a box of khichda, a meal by itself, to be accompanied by a kadhi (in the bowl), kolu (pumpkin) and chauli (amaranth leaves). The meal ends with a halwa. I realized later that we got the food on the 10th of the month, the specially holy day of Ashura for Muslims.
The khichda is one of my favourite foods from the Bohra kitchen: a mixture of rice, broken wheat, four dals (chana, masoor, tuvar, and moong) soaked and pounded to a paste before cooking with mutton, served with a sprinkling of deep fried onion ribbons, ginger and garlic, and fresh mint leaves. The kadhi was mildly sour, the kolu was sweet and the garlicky chauli bitter. Its a great combination of tastes.
On a little walk through the old town of Jamnagar, I passed through a triple gate on an arterial road and then suddenly saw some wonderful old doors. Where was I? What was I seeing? The maps on my phone were of no help, and later I found that the famed world wide web was also of no help. All these doors belonged to a grand and ornate but delapidated structure. It was not marked on the map at all, although shops which were set inside some of these doors were mentioned.
The facade was perhaps less than half a kilometer long, but not too much less. I walked along it, bemused. A ceremonial gateway, fit for a four-horse coach was barred by a flimsy mild steel collapsible gate. Children passed through it, and there were scooters parked inside (and outside, of course). Mysterious. I was enchanted by the grand arches, the painted columns, and wished that the shops had harmonized better with the building. The building looked like it came from the last decade of the 19th century CE, or perhaps the first couple of decades of the 20th.
Some of the doors were shuttered, instead of being covered up for a shop. Expansive stairs led down from the level of the floor to the street. These regal stairs were no places for people to sit. I took a photo, trying to avoid the scooters. I lost the stairs (photo above) but not the scooters; a mirror jutting up from the handlebars reached up into the frame. A few more paces I came to the geometrical middle of the facade, and I had a name: Saifee Institution (see the featured photo). Now I could place it; it was a Dawoodi Bohra institution
I seemed to have come to the shop where The Family had told me she was going to spend quality time looking for the local tie-and-dye fabric. I was happy to leave the warm and humid winter atmosphere of the street and walk into a frigidly air conditioned shop. Surprise! The shop belonged to a Bohra. As The Family engaged an assistant in helping her to choose, I asked the owner what the Saifee Institution was. He told me that it used to be a big school, and even now it remains a school, although the number of pupils is much smaller. That explained the children walking in through the gateway.
I left my backpack with The Family and walked back out on the road to admire the building again. Those classrooms then! The corridors would have been wonderful places to run down. And the rooms! So many windows to look out of when you were bored. I could have liked studying in this building. The stucco work on the pediments was so wonderfully decorative. Unfortunately I could not find anything on the net about this building or its provenance.
I could really dive into the details here: admiring the repeating decagonal tiling on the jalis, or the execution of plaster flowers. This was one of my most pleasant discoveries in this town, and fortunately I had a long time to admire it. It’ll take me much longer to dig out its true and compleat history.
When should a new year start? It’s just a conventional date. But all of us have our own delightful customs built around that date. The Bohras of India have a wonderful way of celebrating the last evening of the year; it’s called the “birthday of the plate”. This Gujarati speaking Shia community traditionally has communal meals seated around the big plate you see in the photos here.
On its birthday the plate is loaded with food: half of the dishes are savoury and half are sweet. The dinner starts with salt, and then alternates between sweet and savory, ending with a biriyani. Apart from this the order is open. If someone has a special favourite, he or she can ask for it, and it becomes the next thing to be eaten. The nicest of plates I’ve eaten at had 51 dishes. A tiny taste of each is enough to fill you.
When you play the slideshow, you’ll see a gap between the end of the loading phase and the first shot of the eating phase. I’m afraid that’s the part where I forgot about the camera because I was too involved in the eating.