Sanjan, the port-city of ancient Gujarat, where the Zoroastrian community first sought shelter in the 8th century and Udvada, the town where the holy fire Iranshah is enshrined, draw a lot of visitors who are keen to learn about the community. But Navsari, the city which sheltered the Iranshah holy fire for over two centuries and is the birthplace of several Indian stalwarts, has somehow remained off the beaten track.
Less than 40km by road from Surat, Gujarat’s famous city for textiles, Navsari is worth exploring for its link to a rich past.
The Holy Fire
This Gujarat town, north of Udvada on NH8 past Pardi and Chikhli, it 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. 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.
Located in the predominantly Parsi enclave of Tarota Bazar, the fire temple does not allow the entry of non-Parsi people but you can always admire the beautiful architecture from outside.
An Ancient Library
Also in Tarota Bazar, the First Dustur Meherjirana Library, housed in the Maneckbai Maneckji Dustur Meherjirana Buildings, is a must see. The quietness inside is a sharp contrast to the din outside. The library, which was founded in 1874, shifted to its present address in 1906, and has been expanded and restored since.
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.
The library has been named after a learned priest, Meherji Rana, who visited the court of Akbar in 1778-79 as a request from the Mughal governor of Gujarat, to explain about the Zoroastrian religion to the emperor. The emperor was so impressed by Meherji Rana’s discourses that he not only ordered to keep a fire burning day and night at the court during the priest’s stay but also donated a parcel of land to him. The ‘firman’ stating the grant and signed by Abul Fazal is kept in this library. The library has a significant collection of old manuscripts in Avestan, Pahlavi, Farsi and other languages. The oldest manuscript, an Avestan manuscript written in Iran of the Vistasp Yast (G-18), dates to 1323 AD.
Read a newspaper here and then drop by at the more than 100-year-old Kolhaji’s for a “double lemon” or soda in the old-fashioned thick-glass bottles.
A walk through the older part of the city will take you past some of the homes, sprawling bungalows with gardens, when Navsari was a flourishing Parsi settlement. In between, you may take a break at some of the old eateries.
Did you know Navsari was the birthplace of industrialists such as Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy and Sir Jamshedjee Tata and stalwart politician Dadabhai Naoroji? The houses where they were born, now converted into museums, also offer a glimpse at the architecture of the day. Among other noted buildings is the 1849-built Parsi dharamsala, Jamshed Baug.
The Dandi Beach
Lying on the outskirts of Navsari is the Dandi beach (13km by road). It was to this beach that Mahatma Gandhi marched to in 1930 to start the non-violent civil disobedience movement later called the Salt Satyagraha. During the long march from Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad to Dandi beach, Gandhi and his followers walked around 380km and covered 23 villages—the walk later became famous as the Dandi March. Enjoy the beauty of the lonely beach or settle for a picnic here with your family.
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 cafes, one near the Atash Behram and one in the bazaar, where you can have the fabled ice-cream and lemonade.
Getting There: The nearest domestic and international airport is at Surat, 48km away by road. Navsari also lies on the Mumbai-Delhi railway link. It is well connected by NH 228 (Sabarmati-Dandi Highway) while NH 48 passes through the city.
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