The Maha Kumbh of the Parsees
The anniversary of the Atash Behram, the most sacred fire, at the sleepy town of Udvada, is when the community opens up to all comers, and with free delicious food for everyone.
Parsees have always been a gated community, not because of arrogance but a promise their leader, Nairyosang Dhawal made for peaceful asylum. According to Qessa ye Sanjan, a book that chronicles their journey to Gujarat, Dhawal assured the king that they would never rage a war, and never convert residents to their religion. A promise that still makes the Parsees a close-knit community, in spite their numbers dwindling to a tribal 60,000. But there is one day when this community opens up in parts to the outsider: The anniversary of the Atash Behram (the highest grade of fire that can be lit in a Zoroastrian fire temple), falls on the ninth month in the Parsee Holy Calendar. It happened at Udvada, on April 23rd 2014.
The great fire is made of fire taken from different places – that of a funeral pyre, a shepherd’s hearth, a goldsmith’s hearth, a potter’s kiln and from a fire caused by lightning – which then is invoked in the traditional Khorasan style. Considered the earthly representative of Yazdegerd III, the last Zoroastrian king of Iran, there are eight Atash Behrmans in India – four in Mumbai, two in Surat and one each in Udvada and Navsari.
Called the Maha Kumbh of Parsees, Atash Behram’s birthday is the day when this sleepy town, 200km from Mumbai, sees over 3,000 people come to pray, get connected and thank their ancestors. The town is a 30-minute drive from Sanjan, the point on the Gujarat coast where the first boatload of Parsees landed from Iran some 1,500 years ago.
Karl Karanjia visits Udvada regularly. “It’s a place that helps renew my faith in my community and appreciate the life given here. It is also my way of connecting to my roots.” Rohinton Irani, owner of an Irani Bakery the oldest functional bakery in the hamlet agrees, “Like every other place, Udvada, too, has its flaws, but the sense of community here is unparalleled. People still don’t lock their houses and trust each other to watch their back.”
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