Gujarat: Udvada, the heart of Parsi Culture

Gujarat: Udvada, the heart of Parsi Culture

This pretty Parsi hamlet in southern Gujarat has a fiery story to tell

Bachi Karkaria
January 28 , 2017
22 Min Read

When you think of us Parsis, you think dhansak and wedding feasts. Swan-necked Shireens swathed in chiffon and Chopin. Sciatic Solis in sola-topis and solitude. You think statues and the soaring enterprise and institutions that put these legendary figures on the pedestals of the Bombay they built. Yes, you also think dying community and the vultures vanishing with them. But you seldom think religion. Perhaps because religion is now seen as belligerent and intolerant, and the Parsis are seen as neither.

Yet, at the heart of the community, is faith; indeed it is its raison d’etre. For this Indian minority sprang from the do-or-die bid to preserve an ancient religion, Zoroastrianism. The term ‘Parsi’ is not a religious, but an ethnic group. It refers to the descendants of the original band of Persian refugees who fled from the Arab conquest of their homeland, and arrived on the shores of Gujarat in the 8th century CE.

The burning core of the Parsis’ faith lies not in some monumental Zoroastrian fire temple in power-steeped Mumbai. Their holiest site lies in the nondescript Gujarati seaside town of Udvada. It might begin to register on the consciousness of the country, or even its neighbouring towns, should lobbyists succeed in putting it on the World Heritage map. At present, it is under threat from national indifference and natural erosion. In 2003, Unesco decreed a global celebration of 3,000 years of Zoroastrian culture. So, surely a better deal is in order for the central pilgrim spot of the community that is Zoroastrianism’s dominant face.

Things to See & Do

Udvada is the ‘throne’ of the Iranshah fire. This temple, ensconced in a crumbling Parsi enclave, is a mere 261 years old, but history and belief assure us that the fire in its inner sanctum has been burning continuously for some 1,290 years. Flashback to a priest of mythic status standing before a votive urn, on Sanjan’s alien shore, and invoking his god Ahura Mazda to help fulfil the vow of his beleaguered-but-now-blessed people. Dastur Nairyosang was the spiritual mentor who guided the storm-tossed band of refugees who had landed in Gujarat, around 720 CE. They had lost their political, social and economic clout after the fall of Persia’s second and last Zoroastrian dynasty, and they faced religious oppression under a rising Islam.

ARRIVAL AT SANJAN

Setting out in boats, terror-struck by the raging waves, they had promised to establish a fire temple of the highest order, should they finally make it to land. It would be the ‘palace’ for their fallen Sassanian ruler, the ‘emperor in exile’ – the holy fire they would call Iranshah. They survived, tumbling ashore, dazed and disbelieving, on a beachhead between Diu and Sanjan, then under the Chalukya King of Badami, Vinayaditya.

They did not forget their vow. As soon as they could, they put together the other 15 kinds of fire needed to create the supreme fire of an Atash Behram, but lacked the 16th, the cosmic flame. Dastur Nairyosang prayed continuously for eight days, and on the ninth, Ahura Mazda unleashed his heavenly bolt in the form of a blinding flash of lightning. The priest captured it, and the Iranshah leapt to life.

JOURNEY OF THE FIRE

But the Parsis were only a handful of aliens living in a fractured land. Paranoid about preserving the faith they had braved death to save, they kept moving their bonding fire to safer locations. For years, it was kept hidden in the caves of the Barhot Hills. Then it was shifted to tiny Vansda and, finally, as the Kisseh-i-Sanjan (an 864-line poem in Persian believed to have been written in 1599 by a Navsari-based priest, Bahman Kaikobad Sanjana. It may be only quasi-history, but it is the only documentation of the early years of the Parsis in India) puts it, “the Iranshah came home to Navsari”.

Deeply venerated, it remained here for some 250 years, bestowing its blessing on the people and the town. Thanks to its divine presence, Navsari flourished as the seat of a learned and powerful priesthood, and of entrepreneurship, trade, and no less, gentlemen farmers who husbanded vast fields and orchards, and plumped their coffers on forest produce, especially timber and toddy. Indeed, the Parsis were predominantly an agrarian community till the East India Company drew them to the trading post of Surat in the 1600s, and later to Bombay.

But we’re still at Navsari. All religion is nothing if it is not political, and divides its own almost as often as intercommunal strife. Bitter rivalry cleaved the priests over the lucrative tending of the Iranshah, and one group spirited away the holy fire in 1740. It was harboured in Surat for three years while the dispute sizzled. It was returned to Navsari, but the fractiousness remained. Once again the mighty Iranshah had to seek refuge, this time in Bulsar. Then, with great ceremony, it was re-throned in Udvada on October 28, 1742, as recorded in The Imperial Gazetteer.

ATASH BEHRAM QUARTER

Udvada never attained the secular status of Navsari, so it doesn’t have any traces of the once-robust Parsi mohallas of Iranshah’s earlier residence. The Parsis’ most sacred fire temple is tucked away like a wizened crone’s store of mothballed sari-borders, among a flaking squat of traditional houses. The air is spiked by sandalwood, and the gong of the bell trembles through the street, prompting the devout to say a fervent prayer. But imagination is a more reliable tool than the eye to conjure what Udvada has meant for nearly three centuries, and what the Iranshah has forged for almost 13.

The hamlet is not just trapped in a time warp, it’s a frozen frame. In a pincer move, two forces plot its defeat. The first is the dwindling number of Parsis in India, and 21st century pressures that do not permit even those in nearby Mumbai to come once a month as they used to.

The second predator is far more belligerent, the pilgrim. Udvada is being sacrificed on the altar of profane urbanisation. New concrete colonies have suffocated the old fire temple quarter. The houses are squeezed in, but there’s no one left in them to complain of the asphyxiation. The young have gone away. The handful that remain are those who run the few hotels that live off faith. People like Percy who continues a three-generation tradition at the renovated Globe Hotel. For the food-and fun-loving Parsis, the Udvada visit was never an exclusively Atash Behram affair. Religious propitiation over, it was time to picnic. Legendary breakfasts were heaved out at the hostelries, but custom has been transferred to their less distinctive but more scenic counterparts on the nearby Devka Beach.

Non-Parsis are not allowed to enter the holy shrine.

Attempts were made to put the traditional cottage industry of pappad making on a commercial footing, but there were few takers, and bickering demolished the rest. Decrepit old women still spin and weave the sacred thread, kusti, on primitive looms like generations before them; but their daughters left long ago to become secretaries and surgeons in Mumbai, or further away.

THE LIVING QUARTERS

But there’s been a recent awakening to the danger that threatens this heart of Parsidom. Ecologists are fighting what still looks like a losing battle against the gormandising waves gobbling up the shoreline. And eight conservation architects from the consultancy cell of Mumbai’s Rizvi College have worked out a conservation and management plan for what they describe as a “relatively complete pre-industrial vernacular settlement”.

Tradition in every pore in this heritage house at Jamshed Sidhwa

Translated, this means quaint, raftered houses, with typical wooden katera or railings around the social space of an otla or porch, patterned with auspicious traceries in powdered chalk, festooned with a spider-lily and hibiscus garland, plonked with a snow-bearded patriarch sitting with his pale, pyjamaed legs stretched out on the retractable arms of an easy chair. Inside the sepiaphotograph-lined front room, with loose-covered armchairs and a bed with a thick Sholapur counterpane, bustles his plump, arthritic wife. In her gawan (a corruption of gown, too grandiose a description of her faded and cooking-stained house-dress), Ratamai berates Rambhaben, the part-time maid, for not scouring hard enough, sweeping deep enough, grinding fine enough.

THE FAITHFUL

‘Pre-industrial’ the settlement may be, but the Parsi women of Udvada were always industrious. With heads covered in a mathabandhna, they devoutly laboured over the mounds of the ceremonial food that accompany the daily special prayers offered by the faithful to thank Ahura Mazda for blessings received to commemorate the different days dedicated to omnibus angels and specific guardian spirits of fire, water and animals; to ease the soul’s passage to heaven; or, to honour those revered departed who had already attained their niche in immortality. They pitched in to stir the cauldrons for the ghambars, the year’s six community feasts. They cooked for more secular needs, for their family or for small-scale sale: dried Bombay duck patio, papat, pickles, chapat (pancakes spiked with coconut milk) and the crisp popatji (turnovers leavened with toddy).

The sacred fire sustained the whole mohalla. And divinely anointed were the nine families who had the privilege of tending the Iranshah a month each in rotation. They still do. They may have other jobs in other places – they have to – but they go through the exacting, 10-day purification ritual of the barashnum before they can do the boi, feeding the flame with special logs and sandalwood sticks. The mobeds in any fire temple are impressive, figures in their flowing white muslin jamas, their paghris, and the embroidered padan of fine mull covering their nose and mouth so as not to pollute the sacred flame. The dastur (head priest) entrusted with the Atash Behram is more iconic. But no one exudes the sense of awe and history as the keepers of the holiest of holies in Udvada.

The families trace their lineage to the nine sons of the three descendants of the legendary Nairyosang, whose proxy hand had sparked the divine fire to life on a nondescript beach, nearly 1,300 years ago. For their designated month, each of 30 males, heirs to the greatest religious honour in Indian Zoroastrianism, exorcise their mind and body of the mundane concerns and base desires, and propitiate their privilege in a nine-month-long religious relay.

Shopping

If you are an addictive shopper, you’ll suffer withdrawal symptoms in Udvada. Unlike other pilgrim centres, it isn’t awash in pseudo-religious souvenirs. At the most you might find home-made bhakras or hand-rolled pappads speckled with coriander, garlic, chilli or pepper. If you must take back something more lasting, try a votive divo, the prayer lamp. Its small glass is encased in filigreed German silver with the Prophet’s gentle face embossed on it. Be sure to buy the floaters and wicks as well. You don’t have to be Zoroastrian to light it, as long as you respect its sanctity.

If you do decide to buy a divo, please remember that this is a votive object, and should be treated with respect. It should be lit with a clean body (and mind). The glass should be filled 3/4th with oil and water in a proportion of 3:1. Put the wick into the cork floater, and light with a match. Place the glass in the German silver casing. The flame should last for about 8-10 hrs. For the next use, clean the glass and replace the oil, water and wick. The same floater can be used for a month of regular use, or longer.

Where to Stay

While Parsi pilgrims can choose from a number of inexpensive hostelries like Sodawaterwala Dharamshala and JJ Dharamshala, non-Parsi visitors to Udvada have the option of staying in hotels situated near the Atash Behram. Globe Hotel (Tel: 0260-2345243; Tariff: ₹1,300-1,600) situated near Pandol Agiary, run by the helpful brothers Peshotan and Percy, offers clean AC and non-AC rooms with hearty Parsi meals thrown in. Opposite the temple is Iranshah Apartment (Tel: 2345295/ 679; Tariff: ₹2,080 for 4 pax) with 12 fully furnished apartments. Nearby is the Ashishvang Hotel (Tel: 2345700, 2345520; Tariff: ₹900-1,300, with meals), with 22 rooms, travel desk, restaurant, a garden and cable TV.

For those keen on sea-facing and laid back accommodation, there is Devka Beach, about 8 km away (barely a 10-min drive). The only Parsi establishment here is Dossabhai Oliaji’s Duke Hotel (Tel: 2254251; Tariff: ₹800, inclusive of meals), started in 1936 by Oliaji’s father. Run more like a homestay, with 16 rooms, Oliaji is particularly famous for his breakfast spread among Parsi travellers. Other hotels here include the more upscale Miramar (Tel: 2254471; Tariff: ₹3,000-10,000), which has 77 rooms, a swimming pool, sea-facing restaurant and bar with live orchestra on Saturday and Sunday evenings. Other high-end hotels are Princess Park (Tel: 2254323; Tariff: ₹1,800-5,000) with 38 AC rooms, a gym, sauna and jacuzzi and a sea-facing restaurant and bar, and Sandy Resort (Tel: 2254844; Tariff: ₹2,500-3,700), which has 46 AC rooms, a swimming pool and four restaurants (poolside, garden, air-conditioned and 24-hr coffee shop).

Where to Eat

There are no stand-alone Parsi restaurants in Udvada. But all the four Parsi-run hotels mentioned above offer authentic Parsi meals with a few Goan favourites like vindaloo and fish curry thrown in. Since the menu is not set, it is possible to request the dishes one would like to try, preferably a day in advance. On offer through the year are fingerlicious dhansak, sali margi or ghosht, chicken chops, chicken farja, aleti-paleti, mutton keema, tarkaris, katorma ghosht, fish cutlets and patrani fish to name a few. But the most sought after dish on the menu is the sweetwater boi (mullet) served fried. Alas, the food is served without toddy, the favourite tipple of the Parsis because of prohibition in Gujarat. If, however, you are keen to taste some – head for Patalia (also known as Vankad) on the road to Daman, barely 21/2 km from Udvada where toddy tappers set up impromptu stalls.

If you arrive in Udvada by train, stop by Bharat Bakery at the station for a taste of nankhatai – the melt-in-the mouth sweet biscuit. The bakery also puts up a stall in front of the Fire Temple between morning and noon. Seasonal specials not to be missed include doodh puff, sold by locals between October and March. A sweet milk delicacy, it is prepared by fermenting milk in earthen pots overnight and whipped the next day to form light foam. This puff is then added to chilled milk seasoned with almonds, cardamom and nutmeg!

AROUND UDVADA

NAVSARI (80 km)

Udvada may be the centre of Parsi pilgrimage, but Navsari stakes an earlier claim. It was the home of the Iranshah for 250 years. This Gujarat town, north of Udvada on NH8 past Pardi and Chikhli, or five stops after Udvada on the Flying Ranee from Mumbai Central Station, is still home to the Vadi Darb-e-Mehr, believed to have been consecrated in 1151. It is the oldest extant fire temple outside Iran, as well as the oldest, and for some most venerable, initiation centre for martab, the qualification needed by priests to perform the higher liturgy. Navsari comes a very close second to Udvada in spiritual status. So, we must offer a machi prayer here, as well. (In the machi, sticks of sandalwood are stacked together like a throne before being offered to the fire in the shrine. This can only be done by the priest.)

Taxi fare for a return trip should be about ₹1,700-1,800

THE FIRE TEMPLE

The Fire Temple at Navsari, at the core of Parsi faith

Navsari’s present Atash Behram was consecrated in 1756, 16 years after the Iranshah left, and the original building was virtually replaced in the year 1925. In fact, in one form or the other, this town has had an Atash Behram for the longest period of time – over 500 years. A well in the precincts stands in the sanctified place where the Iranshah had been ‘enthroned’.

Great powers are attributed to this fire temple. The visitor is told the legend of the learned and many-powered first Dastur Meherjirana, who was elected chief priest in 1579. The imprint of his face suddenly appeared one day some years ago, in the grain of a marble slab opposite the sanctum sanctorum. The high priest had been summoned by Akbar in 1578 to Delhi to explain the tenets of Zoroastrianism for the emperor’s eclectic faith, Din-i-Ilahi. Akbar was so impressed that he reportedly ordered fire to be kept burning in his court day and night, as was done by the Iranian kings, and from 1581 he openly venerated the sun and fire with ritual prostrations.

After Dastur Meherjirana, the high priesthood of the Navsari Atash Behram became hereditary. His sons (many of them adopted in the absence of natural male heirs) continue to have sole rights to conduct the higher liturgy.

RELIGIOUS SCHOOLS

Apart from the 12th-century Vadi Darbe-Mehr, which imparts the higher martab degree, Navsari also set up religious schools along the lines of the guru-shishya system. The pupil brought a thali of sugar and one rupee as dakshina, and the dastur bestowed on him the knowledge of the scriptures over a period of years. The Zend Madressa at Motafalia now performs this sacred duty.

PARSI VADS

Today, the Parsi heritage is as dilapidated as the otla, a porch on which sits the Alzheimer-ed remnants of a once-bustling community. The Parsi vads (colonies), which bore the name of the sprawling family that lived there – Kutar Vad, Desai Vad, yes even Karkaria Vad – have disintegrated. Now there are no joys to be shared, only sorrow, as one bearded patriarch after another dies, and his sons come to squabble over his puny wealth and to sell his house to the heera-ghusoos, the diamond cutters who are the new face of Navsari. Huddled in cramped rooms, this gigantic army of diamond cutters has put this emerging Gujarat town on par with the likes of Antwerp, Tel Aviv and Cape Town.

That story began in 1142, by which time the aboriginal Koli and Dubra tribals had been displaced. The Parsis flourished with the town. But the fight for survival seems to be the leitmotif of the community. Hadn’t they fled their homeland in a bid to preserve its identity, and almost perished in the attempt? Survival became an issue again during the 14th-15th centuries. Navsari’s Parsi population had become so decimated that their Diwan, Changa Asha, lured Zoroastrian farmers from neighbouring villages to settle in the adjoining district of Malekshala – a name which was later corrupted to Malesar. The original inhabitants of Navsari – mainly priests – continued to live in their earlier area of Motafalia. Snobbery still exists among their descendants towards the ‘Malesarias’, as the Jamsie-come-lately is disparagingly referred to.

Navsari boomed. Athornan (priestly) families fattened on the faith of their Behdin parishioners who were not entitled to perform rituals. The fields ripened, the orchards staggered; ready money, which later became the proper noun of a Parsi surname, could bid highest at the auctioning of toddy-tapping rights. How strongly the Parsis monopolised the whole liquor trade is evident in the barrel-load of surnames related to the business: ‘Pithwawalla’, ‘Toddywalla’, ‘Daruwalla’. But not ‘Ginwalla’, which comes from the cotton industry, which also they dominated. And not ‘Batliboi’; he was the humble raddiwalla buying up empties for resale.

But progressiveness is notorious for its wanderlust. The middle class took advantage of British education and gave up their traditional occupations to pursue a dubious career as clerks with John Company. Or sailing on trade winds, they ventured to Mombassa, Aden and Shanghai. Soon, the push-pull factor exerted itself on the farmer as well. Good for them. Bad for Navsari. The Parsis’ most-glorious pre-colonial settlement began falling apart like an old prayer book. Prohibition struck the last lethal blow and the community never recovered from that hangover. Ready money became Parsimony.

The heyday is gone and a ghostly hush has descended on the last Parsi vad. “Three hundred years ago, you could count 1,100 paghris,” (the priest’s white turban), says the frail dastur with onionskin-paper face gazing with unseeing eyes at the leaping flames in the sacred Atash Behram. “Today there are barely a score.”

Buying sandalwood offerings for the sacred fire

With them have gone the old festivities, which set the old vads and young hearts aflame. Most boisterous were the six seasonal festivals or ghambars, whose celebrations continued for days and nights – garba dances and songs, prayers and feasting. Each mohalla held its own ghambars, sometimes with separate feasts for men and women. On the 5th Gatha, on the eve of the Parsi New Year, midnight resounded with khayals and nataks, music and oratory mingling with the fragrance wafting from the town’s spiritual font, the Atash Behram.

In the Adar mahino (month of May), which is dedicated to fire, no baker lit his oven. And no non-Parsi ever dared enter a vad with a bidi. Today, the resident heera-ghusoos litter the homes themselves with stubs. In Behman mahino (mid-June to mid-July), no butcher slaughtered as a mark of respect to Behman, the saint of animals after whom the month is named. During this time, Parsi boys collected money and grain, made a khichri and fed it to the dogs of the mohalla.

Today, the white-robed priests have been replaced by secular shirting and raucous trucks proclaiming ‘God Bless’, ‘No Horn, ‘Stop Please’ and ‘Good-bye, Ta-Ta’. For the record, Jamshedji Tata was born in Navsari. His modest house in Tata Vad is lovingly preserved.

Mall and multiplex, so beloved of the novelty-seeking Gujarati, have buried the Parsi Vad. The houses have been sold, cannibalised and torn down. The name-engraved German silver ceremonial platters have found their way to Mumbai’s Chor Bazaar or even the Chowpatty bhelpuri wallah. The cram of photographs that once held up the walls have taken their stories with them to powdery death. Doll-fragile Daulat Masi, who died in childbirth after labouring for 12 days. Raging Rustom Kaka, under whose wrath the rafters trembled. Foppish Framroze Mama, who set off on a clipper to Shanghai, made a fortune and lost it, several times over. “Khuda jaane what became of his no-good sons.”

FIRST DASTUR MEHERJIRANA LIBRARY

Now, the old men drag out the crawling hours. They pray at the Atash Behram, read a newspaper in the 100-year-old First Dastur Meherjirana Library. They drop by at the 100-year-old Kolhaji’s for a “double lemon” or soda in the old-fashioned thick-glass bottles.

Among the rare manuscripts and books housed at the library is the document given by Emperor Akbar to the first Dastur Meherjirana besides ancient scripts in Avesta, Pazend, Pahlavi, Persian, Arabic and Gujarati. Currently, the London-based Zoroastrian Trust Funds for Europe is involved in preserving and restoring its collection.

But there is still hope. Not in the old quarter, but in the colonies that have come up with Hongkong Parsi munificence on the other side of town. The World Zoroastrian Organisation also runs an old age facility here for the middle-class elderly whose families form the growing Zoroastrian Diaspora in North America, Australia and New Zealand.

WHERE TO SHOP AND EAT

Navsari is home to the legendary Kolahs, brewers of cane vinegar and makers of pickle. Try the wedding feast achar made of julienned carrots and dry fruit; it is stewed in vinegar, with no oil. Also recommended are the grated mango murabba/ chutney, the spicier methia nu achar, also of mango, and the sweetish gor keri. You might chance upon the gourmet gharab nu achar, made from fish roe, and more often the dried Bombay duck patio, with a strong affinity to the Goan Balchao. With the family having split its business, there are now two Kolah ‘cafés’, one near the Atash Behram and one in the bazaar, where you can have the fabled ice-cream and lemonade.


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