Sir J J Agiary – Pune
What it takes for Sir J J Agiary in Pune’s Camp to keep the flame alive
For the thousands of Parsis in Pune, the 179-year-old Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy Agiary serves as a custodian of their faith, a fire temple that binds the community together.
Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy Agiary is one of Pune’s greatest heritage sites and a custodian of the faith and history of the Parsi community in the city. A low gate leads to this 179-year-old fire temple through the bustle of hawkers on Dastur Meher Road. Inside, birds call through the day, giant trees fight back intruding noises and a serene way of life holds its place against heavy odds.
Pune. The hall of the agiary can seat 70 people but is visited by less than 30 every day, except on special occasions when the crowd is bigger. “The fire temple plays a part in keeping the community together. I have been staying here since 1983 and even at that time, the population of Parsis was less. But, the number of people visiting the fire temple was higher. The Parsi population is scattered now because of distance and the traffic,” says Raimalwala, who is from Gujarat and studied and worked in Pune where his father-in-law was the priest at this fire temple.There are fewer than 60,000 Parsis in India, of whom around 6,000 are in
‘A fire that doesn’t go out’
Continuity and community are at the heart of the temple, much like the fire that has been burning since it was installed in 1844 after many days of ceremonies. “That fire doesn’t go out. The priest is responsible for keeping it alive and I have helpers. We use smoking wood for which the temple was built scientifically, with chimneys,” says Raimalwala.
Jasmine Sarah, a Pune student who is now in Australia, says, “We have been visiting the agiary since I was a child. I vividly recall the smell of burning sandalwood encompassing the air. The room is dimly lit and your attention is almost immediately drawn towards the Atash or the holy fire. In general, the inside of a fire temple is very quiet. The atmosphere is very peaceful. I like to watch the flame flicker while I am praying, I find it is a great way to focus the mind. Fire has the ability to cleanse the aura, so, every time I leave the temple I feel relaxed and rejuvenated.”
Apart from the hall where the fire is kept, there is a main hall and a third one where the 10-day prayers are held before the new year. An image of the prophet Zarathustra faces east. During the day, the faithful offer their prayers while facing different directions— east in the morning, south in the afternoon and west until sunset. After sunset, the worshipper faces a source of light. “We generally avoid the north. The reason is historic, going back to the time when Iran used to be assailed by invaders as well as diseases carried by the air from the north,” says Raimalwala.
The main materials used to construct the agiary were wood and stone. The basic structure has been maintained through numerous renovations and plastering. Among the changes is the floor which was once of stone and is now marble. “It is compulsory for a fire temple to have at least one pomegranate tree. The pomegranate fruit has seeds that symbolise fertility. It is also significant that the pomegranate tree rarely dries up and dies in any season. According to us, the pomegranate tree is very deep. This is the reason we use pomegranate leaves daily in our prayers,” says Raimalwala.
The agiary has four pomegranate trees. Among the original structures are also two wells, whose waters are essential for rituals. “At many fire temples, we have to be careful now that well water is contaminated,” says Raimalwala.
Across the world, many people, especially the youth, are struggling to fit in with age-old organised religions. How does the fire temple tackle this problem? Raimalwala says that regular classes are held for children between five and 12 to help them understand the story of the Parsi community and their faith, among others. During the pandemic, the classes were held online. People from other faiths can go as far as the steps of the agiary but it is only Parsis who can step inside.
The compound on which the temple stands has been re-developed over the last 20 years to include a children’s play area and a folly in the garden. There are separate spaces for celebrations, such as the Navjote ceremony and weddings, and attached kitchens for catering.
The legendary philanthropist
Like the ambience of the agiary, the legend of Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy lives on quietly in the work that he did, chiefly the institutions that he founded, from the Sir J J School of Art to the Sir J J Hospital in Mumbai. According to the Memorandum of the Life and Public Charities of Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy published in 1855, Jejeebhoy spent £4,500 on the agiary.
In the British Library, an archival photograph of the Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy Poona Bund and Waterworks in Pune can be found. “Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy was approached by the residents of Pune to build a ‘bund’ or tank to contain the raging waters of Mulla and Mutha rivers of which this photograph, taken in the 1860s, is a general view,” reads a part of the caption. The Memorandum also states that Jeejeebhoy spent £1,8027 on the project.
“Those who have not experienced the climate or seen the cities of the East can hardly conceive the value of such works…. Where intense heat prevails, where engineering is in its rudest state, and where antiquated forms of social organisation do not foster mutual cooperation for local purpose, it is hardly to be believed how great is the difficulty of obtaining water at all…,” The Memorandum says.
Jeejeebhoy was born in 1783 and rose from poverty by, first, collecting and selling empty bottles to finally, running a fleet of ships that traded with China and other countries in commodities ranging from cotton to opium. According to the Sir JJ School of Art, “By 1836 his firm was large enough…and he had amassed what at that period of Indian mercantile history was regarded as fabulous wealth.”
A spiritual man, Jeejeebhoy gave lavishly to the country and community, disregarding lines of caste and class. In Pune, he founded hospitals, schools, charity shelters and pension funds as well as helped with the building of wells, reservoirs, bridges and causeways in western India. In 1857, the 74-year-old Jeejeebhoy became the first Indian to be knighted — the first Baronet of India—by Queen Victoria. When he passed away in 1859, Jeejeebhoy was remembered in an obituary by a Mumbai-based newspaper as, “Simple in his tastes and manners, and dignified in his address, the personal appearance of Sir Jamsetjee, in later years, was a picture of’ greatness in repose. He had done his work, and entered upon the sabbath of his life.…”