As one breaks away from the din of the heavy traffic on NH-8, slithering from Ahmedabad to Mumbai, at a fork just short of the industrial town of Vapi, the silence hits hard. Eight kilometres down the verdant countryside, the sprawl of Udvada begins to show, the overgrown village displaying its pretensions to township. The seashore, one senses, isn’t far. It’s another eight kilometres before one reaches Udvada village proper, where in a whisper-quiet, spotlessly clean precinct of whitewashed, old-fashioned cottages stands the Iran Shah Atash Behram agiary, or fire temple, the most sacred shrine of the Parsi community and its Zoroastrian faith.
History has it that a group of Zoroastrians who fled Iran after the Arab invasion in the mid-seventh century encountered a storm near the Gujarat coast. Praying for deliverance, they vowed to consecrate an Atash Behram (victorious fire) if they safely made it ashore. They did, and decided to settle down in India. Within five years of their arrival, the first Atash Behram in India, which has come to be known as Iran Shah, was consecrated in Sanjan, 30 km away from Udvada. For various reasons, the sacred fire had to be moved, and ultimately, on October 28, 1742, it was consecrated in Udvada, a small fishing village the king of Mandvi had gifted to the dasturs or priests at the fire temple. It remains in Udvada to this day, one of nine Atash Behrams in the world. Parsis believe that fire is a living, breathing embodiment of the supreme divinity. Agiaries are places of quietude, where only those who are born into the faith are admitted; cellphones and cameras are not allowed. In fact, in the very area around the temple, the slightest rise in speaking volume invites frowns.