137 years back…a saint was travelling from Dakor to Dwaraka. Once he was thirsty. To quench his thrust he stopped at Karnej, before the mighty gate of Bhadra. Upon seeing that there were very few trees inthe area, he expressed his wish to have a chabutra where birds could come, feed and rest. There lived a grocery seller called Bapalal Modi. He heard the saint's wish and decided to build the chabutra by the time the saint returned from his pilgrim.
Modi had a deep devotion for the cause. He even threatened to go on indefinite fast when his wife refused to sell her gold ornaments to help Modi raise money for the structure. Modi was on the verge of selling his shop and his wife's ornaments when the town had come to his rescue and urged the community to share the financial burden. Later on, the structure was named after Bapalal Modi to honour his efforts.
Today the restored chabutra of Karnej (one of the oldest in the city) stands as a rich testimony of Gujarati folk art heritage.
Chabutra is a unique cultural institution of Gujarat reflecting the benign attitude of Gujarties as peace lovers and their concern about the welfare of all life forms. Chabutra is essentially a platform covered with a dome or hood and mounted on a 5-6 feet high pole. On the platform a dish of water and some grains are kept for birds. Chabutras are of various sizes and shapes. Some can be as large as rooms. They are built of various material including stone, metal, wood and bricks. However the common function of chabutras is providing refuge to birds that are commonly found in human settlements. Historians have different interpretations regarding chabutra's etymology. Some claim that chabutras were earlier known as kabutar, which means pigeon house. It is also believed that the word chabutra has been derived from the word chatri, a popular Rajasthani architectural design. There has been a significant amount of fusion between the design forms of Rajasthan and Gujarat over the centuries and the chabutra is a manifestation of this rich synthesis of culture of two regions. Chabutras also reflect a rich synthesis of Hindu, Jain and Islamic architecture. However, the idea is undoubtedly linked tothe Jain faith which preaches non-violence and humanity. In the local lore there is wide belief that after death a person's soul assumes the form of birds and animals. So by caring for birds they also care for the souls of their departed ancestors.
Some historians believe that originally chabutras were meant to be the destination of message carrying pigeons in the royal households. Yet another group of experts find chabutras as an important element of urban design. They served to enhance the utilization of space judiciously and aesthetically in pols i.e. traditional urban settlements in Gujarat. Even now, old chabutras in villages and pols are located very prominently in the centre — the place where most community interactions and the celebration of festivals take place.
Today many of the chabutras of the old city are decaying. Having being encroached upon or plastered with bill boards and loudspeakers, manyof these beautiful chabutras are dying - a sad testimony to the horrific changes that are taking place in the urban environment, in total disregard to traditional relics. The chabutras were once symbols of man's concern for weak and helpless life forms but, in today there is no Bapalal Modi left to show such concerns. But still, in the midstof the hustle and hustle of old Ahmedabad, they stand tall and majestically silently in their stoic grace and elegance.