Several communities make up for the beautiful collage that we call Kolkata. Sadly, many of these communities are dwindling in number and may even disappear. This series is a tribute to these fellow citizens and their contribution through their unique, extraordinary culture. In this part, we look at the “Dawoodi Bohras”.
They have been a part of Kolkata for decades. As the years have gone they have blend into the fabric of the city making it stronger, cosmopolitan and vibrant in their inimitable silent and effective means. And now as they slowly get ready to migrate, it may not be long before they are completely gone. Meet the Bohra Muslims of Kolkata.
The word Bohra comes from the Gujrati word “vohrwu” or “vyahwar”, which means to transact or trade. Many of these families from Gujarat travelled to Calcutta from around 1910, many on hand carts.
Eminent financial analyst and Bohra, Mudar Patherya recalls that his maternal family were one of the first migrants and took the surname Bengali when they settled here. This name still survives in some families.
In 1921, the first masjid (place of worship) was established in Calcutta on Pollock Street. Today, the Bohras are mostly found in Kolkata areas like Chandni Chowk, Zakaria Street, Ripon Street, Park Circus and some Howrah localities.
They are still basically a trading community with a majority of them maintaining businesses. When they migrated here, they concentrated on hardware and machinery. Later they diversified into other trades like textile or computer and IT sector.
There are about 4000 Bohras in Calcutta today and 750 shops belonging to the Bohras with a strong influence in the hardware and textile sectors.
What sets the Dawoodi Bohras apart from the other Ismaili Shias is their close rapport and dependence on the Syedna, their honoured leader. The present Syedna is the 52nd Dai Dr. Syedna Md. Burhanuddin and he resides in Mumbai.
Obedience to the Syedna is initiated with the ‘misaq’ ceremony at maturity for both boys and girls and continues throughout life.
As Saifuddin Braochwala, trader in hardware says, Bohras believe totally in the Syedna and consult him on all matters however trivial. His raza is conveyed through the local Amil.
The Bohras are very easily distinguishable from the special dress that they wear compulsorily when they attend the masjid and by choice at other times. For men this consists of a white pajama kurta and a high collar cloak-like dress, saya on top, complete with the topi, crocheted with golden thread at the edges.
Women wear a tucked in T-shirt and petticoat with a two-piece dress, all of the same colour, one covering the whole body and the other covering the head with a flap hanging behind the head and strings for tying under the chin. Their faces are not covered. This is the rida which is mostly of a light pastel shade.
Though they are Shias, Dawoodis never wear black, not even during Muharram. The rida has embroidery work or lace at the edges. The young girls before misaq wear zabla which is a salwar kameez with embroidery or lace work and a scarf or a dupatta or a topi decorated with bead work or zari work.
The Bohras are spread all over the world yet they maintain their identity through rules under a unique system. A calendar has been prepared from Mumbai with different times for namaz (prayer) according to local time and this is followed. Important occasions like Eid and Muharram are celebrated a day or two before other Islamic sects and are on the Bohra calendar.
Unlike the other Muslim sects even women attend the services at the masjid. They may own property and receive an inheritance. They are encouraged to pursue education and business and most of them are educated at Kolkata’s premier educational institutions.
Following commensality rules, the Bohras eat together at the Thaal – eight people eat from the same plate using only fingertips. They start with a pinch of salt which is said to fight all diseases, then the dessert, followed by the savoury which is the meat and then the main dish which is rice-based and then end the meal with salt again.
Some of their specialities are the thuli, which is wheat ‘dalia’ with jaggery; sweet and salty samosas; kebaab or fried meat balls; and khajla barfi. The Bohras generally avoid beef and fish. At all times when the Bohras sit and especially during eating, they sit with their legs folded under their body so that the feet never face the ‘thaal’. This ensures that no disrespect is shown to the food.
A unique feature of Bohras is their community consciousness whether it is in business or in personal life. To help all, including the financially weak, a network of registered charitable localised lending trusts spread all over the country and co-ordinated under the aegis of the Mumbai’s Burhani Qardan Hasana Trust (BQHT) which lends money without interest.
Another unique arrangement allows individuals to place their idle money as interest-free short term deposits or amanat. The community feeling is strengthened through establishment of schools like Saifee Hall and hospital like Rahmat Bai Vadnagarwala hospital on Ganesh Chandra Avenue.
Though most Bohras are educated, have professional degrees and the majority are well to do, they see no need for either ostentatious living or rejection of the dictums regarding simple dressing or strict religious obligations.
Bazat Bengali a young IT professional says that being a part of the community is much more important than being brand conscious in clothes or dancing at discos.
A Judge at the Calcutta High Court, Nadira Patherya, believes that compared to her generation, the younger generation are much more religious minded and finds no contradiction between being successful in business or profession and following the rules prescribed by the Syedna regarding dress, hairstyle etc.
Mudar Patherya, also a communication consultant and cricket collector, points out the security that the community provides in life and death besides belief in the Syedna motive and inspire them all.
The Bohra society does not have any barriers of caste or territoriality in the case of marriage – only being a Bohra is of importance. Roqaiya Bengali, a Pakistani by birth, found herself adjusting easily in Kolkata society after her marriage.
Today, most Bohras admit, with some regret, that the dwindling commercial opportunities in Kolkata are making many Bohra youngsters migrate to greener pastures within the country and even outside.
Aquil Basrai an international businessman recalls the past when the Bohras were a strong presence in the city and even possessed a tent in the Maidan where they held cricket matches.
This does not distress Mudar Patherya. He believes that this trans-territorial movement of the Bohras is their strong point in this age of globalisation. But as their flock slowly dwindles, it’s for sure that the city they loved and made their own will miss them.