One of the most beautiful traditions of India which has now almost disappeared in every part of India except at the entrance or center of villages in Gujarat and a few places in Rajasthan and Maharashtra is the Chabutra, a tower-like structure with octagonal or pentagonal shaped enclosure at the top. On the roof are several holes, wherein birds can make their nests. The structure is supported by a pillar with a sitting platform at the base where villagers can sit and talk. The distance between species becomes happily blurred. People learn to live with and encourage birds.
Feeding birds has always been considered auspicious by farming and trading communities since birds eat the pests of the fields and spread the seeds of plants and trees. Even now you can see early risers coming with small bags of grain for the Chabutra. According to the people of Rajasthan, messages were carried across India through pigeons. The royal families put these Chabutras so that messengers could rest and eat. Many communities believe that souls of our ancestors go into animals and birds and by feeding them they are simply feeding their own families. The Chabutras in many villages were designed to be the center of community life where the celebrations of festivals take place.
The Chabutra stands for the tradition of gentleness that denoted, India -Our concern about all life forms, our willingness to live and let live. But now most of these Chabutras are seen in antique shops being bought as beautiful, carved folk arts investments that embellish fashionable gardens rather than for the vital work they represent. Once bought they become an ornament and no grain is put in them, lest the piece is spoilt by pigeon feces. Chabutras still exist in public places but their tall majesty is now gone – they are old rotting empty umbrellas, plastered with paint or supporting billboards and loudspeakers. They are ignored by the birds, there are electricity wires all around them and huge buildings making it impossible for birds to even reach there.
Such designing interventions are never meant to die. With modern times, we cannot forget our values. It is our responsibility to preserve them and keep practicing them. Modern times means modern solutions, it does not mean ignoring the past.
Yet all is not lost, new Chabutras are seen being constructed at some places. They do not have the grace and beauty like the old ones, but they exist. The symbolism of an average Indian’s concern for dependent creatures still exists. We are the only country in the world where an entire tradition of living with birds has been maintained over so many generations. And we can’t let this tradition die out.