RUBRIC History & Culture

Home is where the haveli is

The 150-year-old French Haveli that is now a homestay   | Photo Credit: Vijay Soneji

It took Chandrakant Dodhia, a 70-year-old Nairobi-based businessman, exactly seven minutes to seal the deal. Dodhia, an art connoisseur with a vast collection from around the world, was bowled over by the dilapidated haveli in the old city of Ahmedabad, and as luck would have it, its owner was desperately looking to sell it. Had the businessman not stepped in, the Dodhia Haveli—as it has been christened after restoration—would have likely made way for matchbox apartments. “My haveli is my most cherished possession; it’s a piece of art that will be passed down the family tree as an heirloom,” Dodhia said with affection, from a continent away.

Real estate has always been attractive to NRIs. But for a growing tribe of NRIs like Dodhia, investing in the cultural heritage of the place they belong to has an added allure. It’s not just an investment with material benefits, it is about ‘giving something back’. And so, crumbling havelis in the old city of Ahmedabad are regaining their splendour as their new owners begin to pump in resources to restore them.

Ahmedabad-based builder, Rajiv Patel, who owns French Haveli in the walled city, is the man who started the cultural heritage restoration mission a decade ago.

Patel’s interest was piqued when his architect asked if he had been on the heritage walk in the old city. “I said no. Then he asked me in chaste Gujarati, ‘Are you from Ahmedabad?’ I was embarrassed at my lack of knowledge about my own city, and decided to rediscover it. I was impressed by the rich heritage of the walled city, and when he asked me if I would invest in a haveli, I thought, ‘why not?’”

The quest begins

Thus began Patel’s journey to discover historical relics dating back 100 years or more in the narrow lanes of the walled city. On a heritage walk for builders, Debashish Nayak, director of Centre for Heritage Management in Ahmedabad University, met Patel and later told him about the Deewanji ni Haveli, a run-down structure that Nayak was looking for funds to restore. Patel felt an instant connect with the place.

He took three business partners to visit it. “On the given day when we went to see the haveli its main door was locked, so we had to push open a window that had jaali work. I showed them the carving around the building. By the end of the visit we were all on the same page—we wanted to buy the haveli and restore it,” he said. Deewanji ni Haveli thus became the office of the City Heritage Centre (CHC), a community-resource centre, where Patel and his friends work on cultural heritage preservation.

The Majitha family is restoring Baghban Haveli in the old city.

The Majitha family is restoring Baghban Haveli in the old city.   | Photo Credit: Azera Parveen Rahman

A big part of heritage restoration is about evoking an emotional connect. In cities across the country, age-old structures—mostly private homes—are being pulled down to make way for bigger residential complexes. Yet, heritage homes are a big draw for tourists. Keeping these dynamics in mind, Patel said he works towards making restoration a sustainable model.

“Restoration of heritage properties is an expensive affair. A high-end property restoration may cost around ₹4,000 per square foot,” he said. The restoration work on Diwaniji ni Haveli cost eight times its purchase price, and a total investment of ₹2.5 crore. So even as he tries to create awareness about the heritage value of these properties, Patel is wooing the NRI segment in particular—and other wealthy families of the city—to turn investors.

Ahmedabad-based Kaushik Majitha and his brothers, Rajendra and Tejas, are one such family that has bought a haveli and are waiting for restorations to be completed.

“For us, owning the Baghban Haveli does not just give the family, and future generations, a unique heritage; it also helps us be a part of heritage tourism and revitalise the old city,” said Kaushik Majitha, who is in the packaged food business. The old city is of special significance to the Majitha brothers since they spent their childhood in the area in the 60s and 70s.

The Baghban Haveli is being restored by Patel through his organisation, Three Foundation, and will have five rooms.

Show us the money

Emotions aside, the natural question for any investor is about returns. For this, Patel has his own example to show—the 150-year-old French Haveli that he bought, restored, and which now functions as a homestay. As in the Deewanji ni Haveli, here too carpenters and masons were brought in to give an “old look” to new material.

French architects helped restore this haveli as part of the Indo-French project, hence the name. “The haveli is a very interesting space, with a large open central courtyard. It has a Jain temple, a Vaishnav temple, and a chabutro (tower-like structure with a bird feeder).” The tariff at this boutique heritage home ranges from ₹2,500 to ₹4,900 per night.

The restored Deewanji ni Haveli

The restored Deewanji ni Haveli   | Photo Credit: Vijay Soneji

The Dodhia Haveli, which is a wooden heritage house, also functions as a bed-and-breakfast. “Considering India’s climate and other things, this is a good way to maintain the restored structure,” said Dodhia. The haveli has two heritage suites and the tariff ranges between ₹4,000 and ₹4,500 per night. With a cook to rustle up local delicacies and the buzzing local market close by, a stay here promises a traditional Gujarati experience. “But we are very exclusive,” Dodhia added.

He plans to look for “another small haveli” on his next visit to Ahmedabad. “In fact, there are many NRIs who would be interested in investing in a piece of art, which these old heritage buildings and havelis are,” he said.

Similarly, city-based Abhimangal Das, owner of the urban heritage hotel The House of MG, bought a 150-year-old structure in the old city that CHC helped restore into a boutique hotel with the feel of “19th century Ahmedabad”.

Patel said that over the last decade, they have restored five havelis, and there are more projects in the pipeline.

Highlighting the ‘boutique value’ of havelis may be one approach, but really, “it is about the pride of owning a piece of history,” said Patel.

The writer is an independent journalist based in Gujarat. When not researching her stories, she is busy spinning tales for her toddler.

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2022 10:32:40 AM |

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