Udvada: The Heart Of Parsi Culture

Udvada: The Heart Of Parsi Culture

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

OT Staff
March 21 , 2023
08 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.

The Holy Fire

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.

The Origins

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.

The Journey

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.

Things To Do In Udvada

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.

The 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 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.

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

The Beach

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.

The Old Houses

You will be bowled over by the old architecture of the town. 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.


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.

The Food Trail

There are no stand-alone Parsi restaurants in Udvada. While several tiny eateries have cropped up, most visitors to Udvada eat the enormous meals served up by Globe Hotel. Breakfasts feature eggs and at least one meat dish keema or cutlets. Lunch often features bhoi fish, a local speciality, and dhansak – ambrosial mutton gravy with dal.

Try dhansak, Russian patties and pulaodal at the hotels here. These are supplemented by a procession of hawkers who supply hand-churned ice-creams, neera (unfermented toddy) and other treats. Little wonder, then, that many Parsis make their way to Udvada for a foodie weekend as well. 

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.

The Information

Getting there: The nearest airport is in Surat, roughly two hour drive from Udvada. The nearest railhead is Udvada railway station, located at a distance of 11 km from the centre of Udvada.

Distance: 207 km N of Mumbai
When to go: July to September, and November to February

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