Chachara couple and their work on their Thathai Bhatia community
Chachara couple and their work on their Thathai Bhatia community

The Thathai Bhatia community numbers less than 15,000 worldwide, with about 6,000 of them in the UAE alone. The community, nowadays known loosely as a sub-sect of the Sindhis, may not have an official state to identify with but have their own distinct cuisine, customs and even music. And Dubai-based couple Bharat and Deepa Chachara have made it their mission to preserve this unique heritage and culture through a cookbook, a music album and even a global Facebook group to ensure their dwindling community remains close-knit.

“The word ‘Thathai’ basically comes from the town of Thatha in Pakistan right now. We are actually the Bhatti community based in Rajasthan in the 14th century and because of the Muslim invasions that took place over there, the community fled to a place called Thatha in Sindh. So that’s how we became Thathai Bhatias,” says Bharat Chachara, who is the general manager at the India Club in Dubai.

So how are they connected to the Sindhis?

“You can say we’re a sub-sect of the Sindhi community now. We speak the Sindhi language but with a different dialect we call the ‘Bhatia boli’," Chachara told The Indian Diaspora in an interview.

At the same time, there are stark differences in religious traditions and, most importantly, cuisine.

“We don’t worship Jhulelal, we follow Pushtimarg. We are worshippers of Krishna and our holy place is Nathdwara in Rajasthan. Also, we are staunch vegetarians and refrain from having onion and garlic as well, while Sindhis are staunch non-vegetarians,” he laughs.

The community’s early links to the Gulf and their migration to Mumbai is a larger story.

“Traditionally, the Bhatias were traders and our links to Dubai go back to the 1890s. They used to come in ships from India, export spices from undivided India and import pearls from here. When India’s partition happened in 1947, the Thathai Bhatias were dislocated and a lot of them shifted to Bombay (now Mumbai). Whoever lost land in Thatha were compensated by the government and were given plots in Kandivali, a far-flung suburb then. The community had to start from scratch and that’s when many migrated to Dubai, Bahrain and Muscat looking for better opportunities,” narrates Chachara, a third generation Gulf-based expat himself.

Coming back to Chachara and his wife Deepa’s efforts, their first venture was the popular cookbook ‘Paanja Khada’, which means ‘Our Food’, in 2002. How that idea came about can be traced to Chachara’s hotel management degree at IHM Bombay.

“We were supposed to do a research thesis and when you’re 17, you want the easiest way out,” laughs Chachara. “No one had written about Bhatia food and I thought mom could just dictate a few recipes.”

But it wasn’t that easy. “I took help from many relatives but standardising the recipes was a challenge.”

So how does their cuisine differ from other north Indian fare? “It’s a very simple cuisine. Many are shocked that we don’t use onion and garlic. But we flavor our food with asafoetida, which aids in digestion, and a lot of cumin, which has cooling properties. We don’t use much paneer but it’s still a heavy cuisine because we add lots of butter and ghee,” he explains.

Some typical Thathai Bhatia delicacies include Koki (a crispy thick pancake), Teedali Poath (three lentil curry), Vari Vanghar Jo Saag (Fried dumplings with Aubergine), Bhey Ja Pakora (Lotus Root Fritters) and Tari (sweet rice with saffron and dry fruits).

Chachara’s thesis gained popularity when youngsters in the community started going abroad for higher studies. “There was so much demand that I got 1,000 copies published from one of those roadside vendors and sold it for Rs. 30.”

Years later, Chachara revisited his thesis with wife Deepa on popular demand -- this time more professionally. The book, which comprised 152 recipes, was released in 2002 at the Indian Consulate in Dubai and became a hit with the community.

Over the years, people kept suggesting missing recipes and there was demand from places like New Zealand, Australia and even Russia. And that’s how the idea of their culinary  website www.panjakhada.com originated.

“The book wasn’t made with the intention of making money and the idea was to sustain our cuisine,” he says. “Now we keep updating the website with recipes from community members.”

“Now I have a Facebook group called ‘I Love Panja Khada’ and it’s got over a million hits,” he exclaims.

But the couple realised they had more to preserve than just their recipes -- their age-old customs and traditions needed to be recorded as well.

“While we stay as a joint family in Dubai, many are nuclear families. And when you don’t have your elders with you, you feel lost about the customs to be followed during festivals and even life events like birth and death. You don’t even know the history and logic behind rituals.”

This culminated in their 2011 book ‘Panja Reeti Rivaj’, which can be described as a complete handbook for future generations of Thathai Bhatias.

The book has a map of what the Thatha region was like in 1947, including the house clusters, temples, mosques and schools. It lists the various ‘gotras’, or clans, to trace one’s lineage, tells us the major festivals and how they are celebrated, apart from rituals followed during birth, marriage and death. The book even has photos of their traditional attire and jewellery painstakingly curated over years.

“This took us six-seven years. It’s got everything from where we are -- Jaisalmer in Rajasthan to Thatha. Our local proverbs and idioms called paka, the traditional games we played, photos of jewellery worn for weddings.”

Most importantly, Chachara has included a checklist for weddings and a whole chapter on what each relative is addressed as, especially in an age where everyone is just uncle and aunty for kids.

‘Panja Reeti Rivaj’ has sold over 2,000 copies and is available in Dubai, Bahrain and Mumbai.

“I feel very proud of this book actually. It’s important to keep a record before the traditions are forgotten with the passing of each generation,” says Chachara.

Their third project was a music CD to revive the folk songs of the Thathai Bhatias. “This idea came up at a family wedding where we realised that nobody knew beyond a line of traditional wedding songs and before you know it, the Bollywood songs would take over,” he says.

It took them two years to finalise 10 songs, rope in senior citizens who knew the lyrics, introduce changes to the musical composition and finally record the tracks with the correct pronunciation in Mumbai.

The album, titled ‘Halo Dhol Vajayoun’, which literally translates as ‘Let’s beat the drums’, was launched by Indian Consul General Anurag Bhushan in May 2014. Traditional instruments like the dhol and shehnai were used and the themes included a bride being teased about her in-laws, a girl dreaming about the gifts her brother will give her, and one about the life back in the village.

The Chacharas also turned to Facebook to facilitate greater bonding among the tiny community across the world.

“We run this community group called Bhatia Buzz. We realised that often we got to know about the death of a community member several days later. We wanted to fill that communication gap so members across the world know of marriages, deaths, graduations or people relocating. We now have over 4,000 members,” says Chachara.

The couple’s work was best summed by Consul General Bhushan at their album launch: “With community members like Deepa and Bharat, we don’t have to worry about preserving traditions… they are already in good hands.”

 

(Malavika Vettah is Dubai-based representative of The Indian Diaspora. She can be contacted at malavika12@gmail.com)

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