You’ve seen them before. Veiled, covered, yet full of effervescence and colour. You catch a glimpse of these women in the street in their two-piece ensemble called rida that is covered in bright hues and quilt-like patches; or spot their intricately laced skirts with elegant embroidery and appliques when you’re strolling through the market. You hear them chatter and laugh away, often mistaking them to be Parsis.
These are the Dawoodi Bohra Muslims, the iconic Gujarati-speaking business community whose men are often spotted in white and gold-embroidered topis (skullcaps) and flowing white Kurtas. Let’s take a peek into this heterogeneous culture that seamlessly blends Middle Eastern elements with Indian traditions.
So what is this Gujarati that the Bohris speak?
The Dawoodi Bohras (aka bohris) speak a dialect of Gujarati peppered with Arabic and Urdu, officially known as Lisan ul-Dawat. This is popularly called the “Bohri Gujarati” and internally referred to as Dawat-ni-zabaan within this peace-loving community.
Interestingly, it is written with a Perso-Arabic script and borrows significantly from Arabic and Persian vocabulary.
The origin of the word ‘bohra’ (which means trader) comes from Gujarati, which also reflects the primary profession of most bohris by choice.
Tracing back history
While there are an estimated 2 million bohris spread across the world, mainly across the western cities of India and across Pakistan, UAE, Kuwait, Oman, Yemen, USA, Canada and East Africa, all speaking variations of the same language, their ancestral roots can be traced back to Yemen, a Middle Eastern country.
Other cultural trivia
The cultural crossover is not just limited to the language, clothes or lifestyle. Like other Indian communities, food forms an essential part of the bohri culture! The Mughal-influenced and Gujarati-centric recipes remain nearly consistent in every household, throughout the world. Their chicken and meat specialities are numerous, exquisite and varied.
Families conventionally sit around a large steel thaal that typically accommodates eight people and they eat from it together.
Around the globe
Young children around the world attend a certain ‘Arabic school’ or class, where they are taught how to speak Lisan ul-Dawat and read the Quran, which is in Arabic, along with learning other social etiquettes. Moreover, the chief spiritual leader delivers his lectures, lessons and advice in this very dialect, which makes all the Bohris across the world want to learn it.
Mumbai is considered to be the cultural capital of the bohris today, with the Dawat administrative headquarters and most of the high-ranking priests based here. On a cultural level, bohri households share a surprisingly significant number of traits with Egypt, Yemen, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan.