Express News Service
Express India,
January 18, 2004

Bridging divide, the pavilion way

Ahmedabad, January 18: Three pavilions highlighting religious minorities of Gujarat are attracting curious visitors at the university grounds here, giving them an opportunity to understand the communities.

Through this initiative, the state government hopes to foster an atmosphere of cosmopolitanism in communally sensitive Gujarat.

Set up as part of the Vishwa Gujarati Parivar Mahotsav, the pavilions were opened to the public on Friday and will remain so till January 25. The three pavilions are on the Shia Ismaili Muslims (also known as Khojas), the Dawoodi Bohras, and Parsis. The exhibits are of typical houses of the three communities, their worship, their rituals, their homes, dress, and lifestyle. Volunteers answer visitors' questions, providing details and dispelling stereotypes.

The Khoja pavilion has been organised by the Aga Khan Development Network, and disseminated information through digital poster exhibitions and CD-ROM presentations on development work carried out by nine organisations under the AKDN umbrella.

In keeping with the spirit of the exhibition, it does not show photographs of the Aga Khan, to whom the Khojas owe allegiance.

About a dozen volunteers explain the organisations' work in rural support, health service, education, planning, building, achitecture, banking, and so forth. Many visitors were surprised to learn that the organisations do not confine themselves to working only for the Khojas.

The Dawoodi Bohra pavilion highlights social customs like birth, marriage, prayers, bridal wear, showing the strong family bonds within the community. An exhibit of utensils shows the dining style of Bohra families: members sit together on the floor to have meals. Shabbirbhai, a volunteer, said visitors were curious to know about top leaders of the Bohra community.

The Parsi pavilion presented a replica of their fire temple or Agiyari, in which even Paris are not allowed to cross the threshold of the sanctum sanctorum where Dastoors (priests) tend the holy fire. Even in the replica, visitors are allowed to see everything but not enter.

Brothers Erach and Noshir Kasad, along with other volunteers, explain initiation, marriage, and death rituals with the help of large photographs.

The Parsi pagdi, topi, swagat thal, gara dress with Chinese embroidery, and tanchhoi clothing attact many visitors.

''Thanks to the government, we have been able to come public with our heritage and customs,'' says Noshir, who designed the pavilion. Narendrasinh Chavda, a hospital administrator, who brought along his two sons, was greatly impressed. ''My sons would have never come to know of these aspects of these communities and continued believing in hearsay, the mother of misgivings, had this not been organised. Whether this will help in forgiving and forgetting, only time will tell,'' he said. Vadnagar native Dineshbhai B. Chandra, a childhood friend of Chief Minister Narendra Modi, sees no connection between the kite festival and these pavilions but thinks there is some scope for reducing mutual misunderstanding between different communities if such initiatives continue.

Manohar Kuhikar, an engineer, said he left the pavilions with a better understanding of communities. ''This has also changed my view of the government as one trying to bridge communal gap,'' he said. ''But still, I do not approve of what they do for the sake of electoral politics and vote banks.''