Textiles and garments can play a critical role in the formation of a community, religion or culture's identity. Very often in India, we identify cultures and traditions through their clothing and food styles. It is fascinating to see how many different costumes exist because of cultural diversity, and it's our costumes that frequently become a larger aspect of our religion and community.
I reside in Bombay and for the longest time, I would travel to South Bombay for my studies, usually taking a local train. After a while, I came across a new garment known as a rida, which was worn by ladies primarily dwelling in Bhendi Bazaar, in South Bombay. I was intrigued by its vibrant colours and one-of-a-kind patterns, which I had never seen before. My curiosity piqued, I decided to investigate.
I was astonished to find such a huge number of this group dwelling in Bombay, primarily in the south of the city, and still remaining untouched. I had questions, so I started looking for answers. Throughout my journey, I met a friend from the Bohra community who guided me, as well as a few other individuals that I met in the field while conducting my research.
I realised their stories were not well documented, and written sources were scant, so meeting them and living their stories became my primary source of information. Their stories were not mere facts but were filled with emotions, love and loyalty towards their culture and traditions.
The history of the Bohra community begins with the rupture of the various Islamic sects, of which Bohra Muslims are just one. They separated themselves from mainstream Islam due to ideological differences. The Prophet Mohammad is to this day regarded as the greatest in Islam, revered as a holy figure by Muslims. Perhaps most famously, there was a clash between the Prophet Mohammed's son law Ali Ibn Talib and his cousin that resulted in the division of Islam that led to the formation of Shias and Sunnis.
Around the 11th century, followers of Ali Ibn Talib, a Shia, created a new sect known as the Bohras. It happened due to differences in thought and practices. Bohras believed in Imams, and it was Imam Hasan, son of Ali Ibn Talib, who founded the first community of Bohras in Yemen, and they belonged to Mustali Ismail's branch.
After diverging from mainstream Islam the Bohras, largely residing in Yemen, Iraq, and Iran, started expanding and travelling to other nations as missionaries or for commerce . The missionaries were drawn to, and impressed by, the scholastic ability of the Gujaratis. The first steps were taken when two famous Da'is, Ahmad and Abdallah, were dispatched via Yemen to India for missionary work, accompanied by a large number of Muslims. They were peace-keeping people who began settling in Sindh, Rajasthan, and Gujarat soon after their arrival. But these Bohras were descended from Shias, and at the time in India, Sunnis were the rulers, and one of the most significant was Aurangzeb, a devout Sunni who was eager to convert all non-Muslims, including the Shia-descended Bohras.
This resulted in numerous massacres, and a large number of Bohras from Ahmedabad fled to, and settled in, Mumbai and Udaipur. The establishment of Ismaili communities in Gujarat is a singular moment in Indian history. Nowhere else in India have these groups grown to such size, and nowhere else has Islam's expansion been as peaceful as that of the Bohras.
This community endured a great deal at the hands of an iconoclastic Sunni ruler. And, despite their adversity, they were able to establish a firm footing and build a commercial viewpoint that was unique in Muslim communities. The Gujarati Community of Memos was their lone competitor in this regard. Gujarat became their capital, which is why Gujarati became their primary language. It is also said that the term "Bohra" is derived from the Gujarati word vyavahar, which means "trader."
In fact, in terms of economic activity, the Bohras appear to be more identical to Gujarati populations than to other Indian Shia groups. Moving to the booming metropolis in the early nineteenth century, the Bohras swiftly took up work in professions like selling hardware, paint, stationery, and so on. The history of the Bohras in Mumbai is one of a non-confrontational mercantile society. The corporate approach and mercantile orientation may be one of the primary reasons for the Bohras' comfort with modern technology and ideology. They are adaptive to new conditions, open to new ideas and unique manufacturing processes, and versatile and forward-thinking enough to keep one step ahead of the competition.
As these people settled families bloomed in these pockets of Mumbai, especially in the south. Of course, as the families grew, so too did the rida proliferate. So what exactly is the rida and why is it worn? In short, it is a religious garment - worn by Dawoodi Bohra women. The outfit consists of two pieces, with the top referred to as the pardi, which resembles a poncho. It is a flowing garment that reaches the navel with a flap attached. There is a kind of headpiece or scarf, though it does not conceal the face like the conventional burkha. At the bottom, there is a flowing skirt with a “panel” border. The upper portion covers practically the entire upper part of the body, while the lower portion extends from the waist to the feet. This is an identity for a reformist group that wishes to distinguish itself from the Sunni community of Islam.
The word rida has several meanings and origins, it is said that the wife of Syedna (Leader of the Bohra Community) came up with the design for rida because they wanted to look different from the rest of the community and they preferred to choose something close to the look of the royal families who always preferred elaborate decorative sarees, subsequently reflected in the rida design.
The meaning of the word rida is “The Chador of Bibi Fatima'', which means the garment of Bibi Fatima (the daughter of Prophet Mohammad, a Chador being a large cloth worn as a combination head covering, veil and shawl - usually by Muslim women). This means that rida was a garment worn by holy figures. Hence why it holds such high importance.
People in the community also believed that wearing a rida implies achieving the preacher's happiness, “Maula's Khushi” (Lord’s Happiness) . Unlike other Islamic groups, women in the Bohra community have maintained their uniqueness while adhering to religious conventions over the years. It also helps women to express themselves as it leaves unlimited room for individual taste.
According to Jonah Blank's book Mullahs on the Mainframe: Islam and Modernity among the Daudi Bohras, during one of her meetings with a Bohra woman known as Diya, she referred to Bohra women as “butterflies.” She also claims that their more creative style of dress allows them to enjoy greater independence than any other Islamic organisation.
THE EVOLUTION OF RIDA
Rida has evolved with time; after the separation from mainstream Islam, women from the Bohra group wore the burkha like other Muslims. However, ladies from royal families were permitted to wear sarees, lengha, and dupattas to cover their heads. With sarees, they would wear a cotton or silk scarf with a tight silk body, a silk jacket or a silk petticoat, and a dark silk burkha outside their residences. Women from middle-class families used to wear a long skirt with a blouse and dupatta concealing their heads.
Even though the community was formed around the 11th century, the women of the community continued to wear the long skirts and pardi for a long time. With the passage of time, a robe, a simple two-piece garment similar to a lengha but this time a ghagra with a pardi, appeared followed by the more brilliant and colourful rida. It was more about feeling and individual expression, which was reflected in their ridas and made them feel more liberated.
This transition from lengha to rida took place in the late 1970s when a Firman (“Word from the Royal directive for Bohras' ) was passed. This was the time when the community was creating a strong identity and was bringing changes to the group’s principles.
That is how a plain coloured robe became the colourful rida with all its hues and plentiful embroideries, panels, and other types of work that gives it life. This transition from robe to rida occurred in the 1970s.
The modern ridas are all about new trends, colors, fabrics designs, types of embellishments, and so on. It was even designed differently for different age groups; young girls wore pastel coloured with trendy prints, married women and older women chose colours that were in trend with various kinds of flower prints and designs.
They also have different types of rida such as Ohbat rida, worn during the mourning period for one of their successors Imam Hussain. During those ten days, Bohra Muslim women wear plain simple ridas which have no decorative panels. It is known as ashara as well as Ohbat rida.
There are special ridas for weddings that are heavily designed with a lot of embellishments (for example, Zardozi work). This is known as joris. The women mostly prefer red coloured ridas during Nikah.
Apart from rida designed for special occasions,there are also regular ones that are worn on casual days: going to work, college, shopping, etc.
From the ghagra blouse they came to the robe which is a long skirt with an abaya on top. (The abaya - "cloak" - sometimes also called an aba, is a simple, loose overgarment, essentially a robe-like dress, worn by some women).
Credit: Neha Vishwakarma (top left), Unknown (top right), Hussain Essaji via Plano Star Courier (bottom left), You Bohra (bottom right)
THE ELEMENTS OF RIDA
FABRIC, PANELS, COLORS, MOTIFS AND DESIGNS
Silk was initially the fabric of choice, but eventually people began to prefer cotton for comfort. They still do to this day, but the variety has increased, and they now have linen, lustre, satin and Chanderi silk, among others - though they avoid any sheer material such as georgette. Denim has recently become trendy among the younger generation. However, trends have shifted drastically over time, and a variety of panels, including Benarasi panels, Karachi panels, Block printed panels, Katchi printed panels, Jute panels, Check printed panels, and so on, are now available. If they do not want to use panels, they can use decorations like patchwork Zardozi work, cross-stitch work, crochet work, lacework, and hand-painted rally work (Tukdi work). Along with these, even the colours have evolved from simple grey monochrome tones to more brilliant colours such as green, yellow, light blue, pink, etc. Because of their vivid clothing, Bohra ladies are often known as butterflies. They never select black rida because the main objective of the aesthetic is to distinguish themselves from other Muslims. With all these elements, what completes a rida are the motifs on it that provide us with a lot of information due to their significance. We find flower designs, plants, and geometric shapes - but no animal prints because the Prophet Mohammad once declared, "The angels do not enter any dwelling in which there is an animal picture. 'Saya Nahi Padega farishton ka.’" Hence why this is strictly observed.
Credit: Neha Vishwakarma. Source: Husaina Fabrics (middle), diyridaz.com (left, right)
Credit: Neha Vishwakarma
MOTIFS AND DESIGN DETAILS
Credit: Neha Vishwakarma
Credit: Neha Vishwakarma
Credit: Unkown (left), Neha Vishwakarma (right)
So far we have examined the arrival of rida in the community and then its evolution. But a girl starts wearing a rida only after a special ceremonoes along with the garment, known as the “Misak ceremony”. It is a rida ritual where a young Bohra girl is introduced to it as a customary garment for the rest of her life. This event brings the entire family together for a celebration. This ceremony is held for every Bohra girl after she reaches puberty and begins to menstruate, and rida becomes a part of her life from then on. Her mother sews the first rida for her daughter during the ceremony.
Ultimately, this is not just about a community and its history. It is more about a piece of cloth that has become a cornerstone of the community’s identity and has stayed with them until today. There have been many variations in the designs, cut, patterns, and colour of rida over the years, which has helped them to continue to stand apart. But the essence and purpose of it have not changed, and it has become a powerful symbol of who they are. Women from the community feel a sense of empowerment as now rida is not merely a costume but also a source of livelihood, with many women building businesses focusing on its production and design. And so the rida provides a chance at expressing not just aesthetic, but also material individuality and freedom.
Engineer, Asgharali. 1993. The Bohras. Vikas Publishing House, Indiana University.
Blank, Jonah. 2001. Mullahs on the Mainframe: Islam and Modernity among the Daudi Bohras. University of Chicago Press.
Special thanks to the manufacturers I visited during my research: Husaina Fabrics (Yusuf, Lokhandwala), Niqab Creation (Farida, Khilawala), Al Jawhara Creations (Rashida).
Neha Vishwakarma is the founder of Learn and Earn from Past Consultancy and Researcher at Past Perfect Heritage Management. She has completed her Master in History from Mumbai University and her Post-Graduation Diploma in Museology and Conservation from the C.S.M.V.S.