On the joyous occasion of the salgireh of Paak Banaji Atash Behram Saheb, am pleased to share the below article.
The sanctified land, divine edifice and sacred Kash of Paak Atash Behram Padshah Saheb
Disclaimers: 1. The article is a feeble attempt to encapsulate the essence of the key messages as explained in the Purso Pasokh series by the late doyen of Ilm-e-Khshnoom Seth Jehangirji Sohrabji Chiniwala. The Gujarati articles of Seth Jehangirji appeared in Parsi Avaz weekly of 27th February and 6th March 1955 (Vol. 8, Issue 35 & 36). Readers are strongly encouraged to read these beautiful Gujarati articles from the Parsi Avaz weekly in order to gain a fuller and richer understanding of the aforesaid subject.
This article provides glimpses about the mystical knowledge pertaining to Atash Behram Padshah Saheb purely from a Khshnoom point of view and it is hoped that no misunderstanding gets created on account of the same. Certain technical terms in Gujarati have been translated into the most approximate equivalent term in English and readers are requested to bear in mind such limitations of the English vocabulary as also those of the translator.
This article is recommended for reading by true seekers of truths of our religion who have an open, objective and unbiased bent of mind. This article is not for those who are allergic to the divine knowledge of Khshnoom and also not for those who do not have implicit faith in the time-tested tenets and traditions of our pristine religion.
Homyar Nasirabadwala has been in Hong Kong since 2009. Photo: Bhavya Dore
In a small, air-conditioned room in Hong Kong’s busy Causeway Bay area, behind a framed, larger-than-life portrait of Parsi merchant Jamsetji Jeejeebhoy, there is talk of dhansak.
Homyar Nasirabadwala is speaking of the fortnightly dinners organized on the middle floors of the Zoroastrian Building for the city’s 200-odd-strong Parsi community.
Resident priest Nasirabadwala, 62, explains that there are two chefs from India—one of them Parsi—who live and work in this building. They organize the lavish multi-course dinners dished out. Around 40 or 50 Parsis show up on each occasion.
There are no Parsi restaurants in the city, but here, lagan nu custard, patra ni machchi, and sali boti are all on the menu. “We love to eat and drink,” he says.
Do the chefs make a mean dhansak? “Of course,” he says. “They wouldn’t be here if they didn’t.”
Nasirabadwala is that delightful man of god with a devilish sense of humour. A slim gent in a black topi and a collared T-shirt, he is sitting behind a desk that has a copy of the weekly community newspaper, the Jam-e-Jamshed, and a Zoroastrian calendar.
Homyar Nasirabadwala is that delightful man of god with a devilish sense of humour. Photo: Bhavya Dore
Nasirabadwala is a transplant from Mumbai and one of a handful of full-time Parsi priests working outside India—there is one in London and perhaps one or two in Pakistan. The diaspora in other countries, such as the US and Canada, usually has other professionals who help out with priestly duties on a part-time basis.
On the fourth floor hall of this building, bearing a prominent image of the Faravahar, the religion’s symbol, he looks after a fire temple—more a prayer hall really—and attends to other tasks of the Association. He administers to the spiritual needs of the community, oversees religious functions and works on creating a broad awareness about the community in the city.
Nasirabadwala has been here since 2009, when the previous priest left to return to India, taking on the duties of a full-time priest for the first time. He had earlier been ordained as a 12-year-old, working part-time before leaving his corporate job and moving to Hong Kong.
There was an advertisement in the Parsi papers from the Incorporated Trustees of the Zoroastrian Charity Funds of Hong Kong, Canton and Macao, seeking a priest for the city. He wrote in and got the job.
Since he arrived, he has officiated at two weddings, four navjotes (a ceremony of induction into the community), two purification ceremonies for new mothers and 10 funeral services.
“This is a big responsibility,” he says. “It requires all my attention and I am on the job 24/7.”
The Parsi community in Hong Kong has always been slight in numbers but massive in impact. Businessman and philanthropist Hormusjee Nowrojee Mody helped found the Kowloon Cricket Club and made an important donation to get the Hong Kong University up and running.
In 1888, Dorabjee Naorjee Mithaiwala founded the major ferry service, the Star Ferry, connecting two of the islands. Two Parsis were part of the original group that helped set up the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank.
By some accounts, exchange between the Chinese and Zoroastrians from Persia go back to the sixth century, when Zoroastrian merchants traded with the Chinese empire. There is even some evidence of fire temples having been set up in parts of China.
But modern-day connections came with the advent of the British Empire, and Parsi merchants began arriving in east Asia from India in the 18th century, moving through Canton, Macau and Shanghai and flourishing in the spices, silk, opium and tea trades.
Though there were some that continued to stay in China, almost nothing of the community remains now on the mainland.
In Hong Kong, on the other hand, the dwindling community has managed to keep the spirit of the faith alive. “It all depends on the community and the people,” says Nasirabadwala. “They wanted someone and had the resources.”
In Hong Kong, the Parsis have had their own cemetery since 1852—rather than the traditional method of disposal via the towers of silence—where 194 people have been buried and the first grave goes back to 1858.
Nasirabadwala explains that the rituals he performs are virtually unchanged; the same prayers are uttered, and the body washed. The dog of the cemetery caretaker is pressed into action for “sagdid”, or the ritual of relying on a dog to reconfirm that the body is indeed dead. The only difference is that, here, other Parsis volunteer as pall-bearers in the absence of professional ones.
At navjotes, the tradition of sipping nirang, or consecrated bull’s urine, is not in practice here. Instead, pomegranate juice is given to the children.
The prayer hall has a fire burning all hours of day and night; a slight flame stoked by sandalwood in a room surrounded by portraits of the prophet. It is what is described as an “Atash Dadgah”, since it hosts a “grade three” fire, or one that has not been consecrated (most of the ones outside Iran and the Subcontinent are Atash Dadgahs).
Non-Parsis are allowed in this space. “It is a bit more liberal,” he says.
Like everyone else in the community, Nasirabadwala is also concerned about the declining numbers of Parsis worldwide. “We know it is a worrying factor,” he says. “We are encouraging young people to get married early. There might be a change in later years.”
But whatever happens before that, there will be dhansak. Last month, there were celebrations for the 100th birthday of a Parsi resident of Hong Kong. The twice-monthly dinners will continue.
The bar is stocked and the kitchen staff is busy preparing. “We joke that in the Parsi community there is no fasting, only feasting,” he says. “We go all out.”
When asked about the highlights of his time in Hong Kong and what he will remember when he returns to India, he pauses to think for a minute. “The vibrancy and tolerance of the city,” he says.
Oh, and one other thing: the “dim sums”.
Bhavya Dore is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist.
The structure of the New Bombay Agiary along with quarters for two Mobeds and 2 community Halls are ready and part occupancy has been obtained from the Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation.
The two community Halls are planned similar to the Sethna ni Agiary Halls ( where the Main function takes place on the First Floor and the Ground floor Hall is used as a Dining Hall ), keeping in view that the A.C. Hall on the 2nd floor will serve for the purpose of having Navjotes, Lagans and other Community functions. The 1st floor Hall would be the Dining Hall. On the 1st floor there are also 2 A.C. rooms with self contained bathrooms for purpose of Nahaan and as Dressing rooms for the Bride and Groom. This floor also has common toilets for Ladies and Gentlemen separately. Below the First floor Hall there is an Open Stilt where the Caterer can use the space for cooking purpose.
The Second Floor Hall has been sponsored by Mr. Dara Hansotia of Cusrow Baug, in memory of his dear departed beloved wife Dr. Mehroo Hansotia at a cost of Rs. 85 lakhs. This Hall is called “MEHROO HANSOTIA MEMORIAL HALL”
We are now looking for a Sponsor for our First Floor Hall at a similar cost. We have used part of our Corpus Fund towards building this 1st floor Dining Hall. The question that will come to the minds of all of you is “Why did you build two Halls when you had a Sponsor for one Hall only”. We had to do so as Mr. Hansotia was only keen to Sponsor The Second Floor Hall and had insisted that he will release funds in parts only when we complete the Stilt Area and cast the slab for the First Floor Hall and as per the progress of construction of the First Floor Hall and the columns for the Second Floor Hall, he would release future payments. In view of that we had no option but to construct both the Halls, which are now complete in all respects.
WE NOW APPEAL TO ALL OF YOU TO CONSIDER SPONSORING THE FIRST FLOOR HALL. NEEDLESS TO SAY THAT THIS HALL CAN BE NAMED AS PER THE WISHES OF THE SPONSOR.
The worst part of this whole situation is that we cannot start our Completely Ready Agiary for want of funds, as starting an Agiary without a proper and sufficient Corpus Fund would be suicidal.
We urge all of you to visit our Agiary Site in New Bombay and see for yourself the work that we have done.
If one single individual is not available as a sponsor, we request each one of you to make some contribution towards our most deserving cause. Hundreds of Parsee Zarthostis are waiting for the Agiary to start at New Bombay.
Contributions are to be made by cheque in favour of “NEW BOMBAY ZOROASTRIAN ASSOCIATION CHARITABLE TRUST”, WHICH WILL BE EXEMPT UNDER SECTION 80G OF THE INCOME TAX ACT and sent to C/o. Sharukh M. Doctor, Plot-179, Lane-F, Sector-8, Vashi, Navi Mumbai 400703.
Thanks and regards
Sharukh Mahiar Doctor, President/Managing Trustee
P. S. : For site visit you may contact any one of the following:
Noshir D. Parlewalla 98205 06732; Nozer J. Mirza 98201 26411, Pervin M. Umrigar 98338 28347
Come August 17 and the Parsi community in the city will gather at the 170-year-old Fire Temple in Secunderabad to celebrate New Year. The majestic structure standing tall on MG Road was built in 1847 and is spread over 11,000 square yards.
Recognised as a heritage structure by the erstwhile Hyderabad Urban Development Authority (Huda), the Fire Temple has a unique architecture resembling the Indo-European style with huge columns in the facade.
A mega winged symbol, Faravahar, welcomes the devout at the entrance of the temple. This symbol of Zoroastrianism is more than 4,000 years old and is also found in Egypt and what was ancient Mesopotamia. The symbol is commonly associated with the sun and the deities connected with it.
There is a sacred well on the premises of the temple, where a priest offers prayers. The 70-feet well brims with water all round the year. The devout also place burning candles at the mouth of the well.
“Fire occupies a prominent place in Zoroastrian eschatology. Zoroastrian priests take precautions to keep the fire alive throughout the year. Earlier, our community used sandalwood to keep the fire burning. But now we are using dry logs of babool as sandalwood has become expensive. Moreover, there is also restriction on the movement of sandalwood,” Capt KF Pestonji, president of Old Parsi Fire Temple Trust, told TOI.
They also take great pains to keep the consecrated holy fire immune from contamination. When tending to the fire, a cloth known as Padan is worn over the mouth and nose so that breath and saliva do not pollute the fire.
The community also takes good care of the temple structure, which was built was the brothers Pestonji Meherji and ViccajiMeherji. They were bankers and cotton traders who had been invited to Hyderabad by the Nizam and the temple is named after them.
The brothers, who made huge profits in their business, also built their residence beside the British Residency on Bank Street and their office at King Koti in the vicinity of the Nizam’s palace. Their residence today serves as the Government ENT Hospital.
Incidentally, Hyderabad has the second largest Parsi population in India after Mumbai and has two more fire temples apart from the one in Secunderabad. But on August 17, as many as 1,100 members of the community will gather at the Secunderabad temple at 7am to offer prayers. They will end the day with festivities at the Zoroastrian Club on SP Road.
Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, a Parsi, was in more ways than one a parallel to another settler in Pune and Mumbai, the maverick Baghdadi Jewish businessman David Sassoon. Both of them were honoured by the British for their association and their crucial commercial and financial ties.
Sassoon and Jejeebhoy were contemporaries, who made their name and wealth by flooding imperial China with opium and cotton, using the East India Company as a conduit. Sassoon escaped the persecution of the Ottomans who controlled Baghdad by fleeing to India and establishing his trade. Jejeebhoy, on one of his trading voyages, was taken prisoner by the French, but went on future trading missions anyway.
Towards the end of their lives, both Sassoon and Jejeebhoy engaged in the welfare of their communities. Hospitals, libraries, reading rooms, and one of the largest synagogues in India — the Ohel David Synagogue — were all commissioned by Sassoon, and he was buried at the Ohel David itself.
Jejeebhoy was the patron- and lent his name- to various art schools and a hospital in Mumbai. He also lent his legacy to Pune where he is recorded to have made a considerable amount of money, fame, and followers, especially among the then-burgeoning Parsi community in the city.
The erstwhile Company facilitated the settling of a fairly large number of Parsis, mostly from the business community, in the Pune Cantonment — in and around Dastur Meher Road-Synagogue Street area.
In an unprecedented move to help Amdavadis better understand the culture and religion that is Zoroastrianism, the Parsi Panchayat in the city opened the doors of the Vakil Adariyan Agiyari to observe and quench the curiosity of those who will never set foot inside the religious halls of the Parsis. Non-Parsis are not allowed inside an Agiyari. However, since renovations are underway at the 90-year-old structure, and since it will have to be consecrated again with a new fire at the end of repairs, the officials though it would be a good time to open the doors of the religious hall to give us a peek inside.
As one enters the holy place of worship, the words Humata Hukhta Hvarshta are noticeable. Explaining the same, Brigadier (retd) Jehangir Anklesaria, the president of the Parsi Panchayat says that these words contain the core beliefs of Zoroastrianism in the Avesta language. He said, “The words mean Good thoughts, Good words and Good deeds.” Anklesaria, explaining the character of this particular Agiyari and its importance, even showed the ‘Afringanyu’, the vessel which holds the holy fire in the ‘Keblo’ Sanctum Sanctorum of the Agiyari.
This is probably the first time in the 90 years of the Agiyari’s existence that even Parsis have entered this room, much less people from other religions. Only ‘Dastoors’ Parsi priests are allowed inside to keep the holy fire burning. The Agiyari, has not been renovated since 1986, and had developed cracks in one wall and had to be repaired. The wall was dug to its foundation and cement poured in to stop it from collapsing. The repairs cost Rs50 lakh.
The Afringanyu is kept in a small room and also has a cover that is attached to the roof of the room with the help of the pulley. The holy fire that burns in an Agiyari is made up of four types of fire taken from the houses of a king, a pauper, a farmer and a blacksmith. A prayer is carried out on all of them individually before mixing them one by one and there is prayer after mixing each one into the main fire. Five times aday, the bell is rung thrice and there is prayer on the holy fire by the priests.
‘Lhotse’, Air lndia’s Boeing 707 began taxiing on the tarmac and as the big aeroplane lost touch with the ground and became airborne, chants of Yatha Ahu Vairyo rent the aircraft. For, this was a very special journey, on a very special mission. Flying on board the chartered plane was a very, very special and important entity – Atash-e-Adaran.
This, then, is the story of a very important and almost miraculous chapter in the history of the Zarathustris. An event which took place in the life time of most of us. Join us as we ‘fly’ down to the Red Sea port of Aden, situated on the Arabian peninsula. Welcome aboard the ‘Lhotse’:
Parsees have always been adventurous and enterprising and many have gone to distant shores to seek their fortunes and, wealth and in a number of cases, settled abroad. In a few places they even build Fire Temples to cater to the religious and spiritual needs of the Parsee community settled on these foreign shores. One such Agiary was built at Zanzibar which, unfortunately, had to be closed down when Parsees left that place and the Atash Padsha there just ‘died out’. Shanghai in China, too, had a fire temple, which also unfortunately had to be closed down when the communists took over China. Another Agiary in a foreign land was the one at Aden in the country of Yemen.
Aden, in those days, was a thriving trading post, a free port like Singapore. Located at a strategic point on the Arabian peninsula, it was the port ships passed through on their East to West – West to East journeys, via the Suez Canal. Aden had a large number of Parsees – around 1300 – and in the year 1883 they built an aglary there where the consecrated Atash was of Adaren grade. This aglary was built by the Cowasji Dinshaw family who were In the business of shipping. This family also built a mosque for the local Mohamedan population which is known as the Cowasji Masjid and is still in use in Aden. There also used to be a Dokhma in Aden for the use of the Parsees.
In 1967, the British left Yemen and South Yemen turned into a communist country. Aden soon lost its prime position as an important trading post on both sides of the Suez. Business declined and a number of foreigners working there and contributing to its economy started leaving, too. So did the Parsees, many of them who had almost settled there moved back to India or to other places like UK, Canada, etc. Only a few Parsee families were left by the mid-seventies and they, too, were all set to leave.
With the advent of communism, the agiary, dokhma and their funds, etc. all became state property. With all the Parsees set to leave Aden, who would take care of the Atash? That’s when Cowasjee Dinshaw, the great grandson of Cowaajee Dinshaw who had built the aglary and dokhma in Aden In the last century, decided that he would not let the Holy Atash, which had sustained and nurtured the community in this land away from home, just die away as the one at Zanzibar had. Most of the Parsees in Aden had prospered and done very well for themselves, and they strongly believed it was due to the blessings of the Atash Padsha. The Atash had provided them with spiritual sustenance and was an important focal point of keeping the community united, alive and energetic.
Cowasjee Dinshaw firmly believed that this Atash had miraculous powers. During the fight for ousting the British from Yemen, inspite of all the bombings and destruction all around, the Agiary was never touched even by a splinter, leave alone the various bombs that were exploding all around it. Ultimately, in 1967, the British left Yemen and the communists came to power. Soon, changes began even in the business community and one by one the foreigners started moving out of Aden. Now with the impending withdrawal of the Parsees from this ancient Islamic and new communist state, wnat was to happen to our Holy Fire?
The first decision was that the Atash had to be moved out of Aden. Alternate places where it could be enthroned were considered. The first was in a Daremeher in Iran. When Cowasjee Dinshaw approached the head of tne Zarthusti Anjumans in Iran, they expressed their willingness to receive the Atash. But they had two conditions. One, they would follow the Fasli calendar for all religious ceremonies and, secondly, they would not be able to keep the Varsiaji in the Daremeher. Both these conditions were unacceptable to Mr. Dinshaw. So the next alternative was explored. This was a House of Worship in London. But the London-based Parsees were concerned that since some smoke would emanate from the Fire, it would be difficult for them to enthrone the Holy Fire in London!
That’s when Cowasjee felt that the best place for the Holy Fire to be would be in India where it would be safe, glowing and ‘alive’. The next step was to obtain permission from the government of South Yemen to move the Atash out of that country. Being a newly formed communist regime, they were not exactly very understanding of religious sentiments. Cowasjee Dinshaw appealed to the government for permission to move the Holy Atash to India. This was refused. He then appealed to Queen Elizabeth as the head of the Commonwealth, the World Bank as well as the Government of India.
There were no encouraging or helpful responses from Elizabeth or the World Bank. It was the Indian government that really worked hard in this matter. India, in those days was ruled by the late Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi and the foreign Minister was Mr. Y.B. Chavan, the strongman from Maharashtra. A petition was sent to the Prime Minister and not surprisingly was favourably received by her. The Prime Minister asked Y. B. Chavan to take all measures possible to persuade the South Yemeni government to release the ‘Holy Atash’. This was not as easy as it sounded. The South Yemeni government was not very keen to let the Atash be moved out of Aden, being communists and thus having little sympathy towards religious spiritual sentiments.
It took a lot of persuasion from the Indian Foreign Ministry, Y.B. Chavan and even Mrs. Gandhi personally, to make the South Yemeni government finally agree to let the Parsees move the Holy Atash to India, In a meeting of the Non Aligned Nations held in Colombo, Y.B. Chavan personally met the Head of the South Yemeni government who was also present there and once again pressed the case for the release of the Holy Atash to India. At last, the South Yemeni Government agreed and, indeed, it was a moment of joy and relief for the Parsees of Aden, The condition was that it would have to be moved out at midnight. This was agreed to by Mr. Dinshaw. But much more of trials and tribulations had to be passed through almost like a test through fire itself. Further permission had to be taken that the Holy Atash would not be viewed by any non-Zarthustis which, too, was granted very reluctantly by the then South Yemeni government, after a lot of persuasion on the part of our Foreign Ministry.
No sooner was this news known, then a fresh controversy broke out in the community, back home in India. There was a lot of debate on how the Holy Atash could be transported. Cowasjee Dinshaw approached Field Marshall Sam Manecksha to chalk out the best land route to transport the Holy Fire. Manecksha drew up a route, but that meant passing through Mecca and Medina, holiest cities of Islam. Now, this would not have been possible since no non-Muslims are allowed to even enter these two cities.
Also, from the Zarthusti theological and religious point of view, transport through land routes was ruled out as there is an injunction in the Denkard on carrying the Holy Fire over wide expanse of waters, and since one would have to cross a number of rivers, this would create a major difficulty. Also, from the practical point of view, even on a different route drawn up by Manecksha, this was not a very good idea. One, it would have involved taking permission from a number of different countries (all Islamic states) to move the Atash through their land. Even the best route would have taken at least two thousand kilometers be covered. How was the Atash to be tended to five imes a day, every day on a journey that would have taken months to complete by road? Also, how safe would our Holy Atash be from the prying eyes of curious, suspicious and even hostile locals? Plus, the logistics of the whole exercise would have been too cumbersome to carry out. One would need a set of very hardy Parsi-Zarthusti drivers and mechanics to drive and maintain the vehicle. Again, the route would be over very rough and dry terrain, most of it desert. All this seemed like a very improbable venture to carry out. Thus, moving over a land route had to be ruled out.
For the same reason (injunction in the Denkard), the sea route was discounted. Moving by sea would have involved carrying the Holy Fire on a ship and travelling from Aden to Bombay. But on this point the eiders, scholars and those learned in our scriptural matters expressed their strong disapproval. From the Zarathusti point of view, according to them the Holy Fire is not to be carried over the waters. This is because the sea unfortunately contains within its waters a lot of pollutants, like discharge from the ships and freighters. Transporting the Holy Fire over such impurities would be nothing short of sacrilege, amounting to defiling the Atash Padsha.
So, what other avenue was left but to fly the Holy Fire over to India. Have you heard Of carrying fire in an aircraft? From the point of security that was a highly dangerous thing to do. It could result in the loss of not only the aircraft but also the people escorting the fire. Yet as the concerned people thought about and debated on these issues, the more it became clear that this was the only way to transport the Atash. Thus the decision was taken to fly it to Bombay.
Thus Air India was contacted. Air India agreed to provide an aircraft on a charter basis. This was a Boeing 707. Air India by then had begun inducting 747s, the giant Jumbos into its fleet.
Now even an airline started by a Parsee does not routinely fly Fire – that, too, consecrated and of the Adaran grade. To transport this very special ‘passenger’ it was essential that purity and some religious injunctions be observed. One of the first one amongst these was that only Parsee Zarthustis be on board the aircraft. Thus Air India began the exercise of identifying only Parsi crew who would escort the Holy Fire. Capt. Sam Pedder was contacted and nominated for this religious adventure. For this, he was required to fly a few 707s of Indian Airlines to clock-in some more hours for flying a Boeing 707 as he had by now graduated onto the 747 Jumbo Jets, giants of the skies.
The Engineering department of Air India, under the supervision of their then Deputy Director of Engineering, Mr. N.S. Mistry, prepared a special urn to carry the Holy Fire in. They also made a big box which would hold the urn. These were made of aluminium and other metals.
The configuration of the First Class section in the special Aircraft – Lhotse – had to be changed to accommodate the box containing the urn which would be carrying the fire.
Soon it was time for the Holy Fire to leave the shores of Aden where it had provided its light and protection, its blessings and goodwill to the faithful.
Just on the eve of the departure an unexpected problem arose. The police commissioner of Aden, who was a Muslim-turned communist, informed the remaining few Parsees who were looking after the Fire that he would be coming over the next day to personally inspect the Fire and the urn and the box that would be carrying it. No amount of entreaties that the Holy Fire could not be subjected to the gaze of a non-Zarthusti seemed to have any effect on him. The fact that permission was obtained that the Fire would not be viewed by any non-Zarthusti did not cut much ice with this person, who insisted on his demand on the grounds that the big box could be used for purposes of smuggling!
He announced that he would be there when the Fire was being moved out and the Fire be kept ready for his inspection or else he would not give any permission to move it out of the agiary premises. Imagine the state of mind of the four-five Parsees left behind. Here they were trying their best to protect the Fire to ensure its survival and journey to India and here was a thunderbolt from a man who seemed unsympathetic and stubborn. Would the sanctity of the Atash be preserved after it was ‘inspected’ by a non-Zarthusti? After all, there are esoteric reasons why this is forbidden.
The Parsees prayed to Ahura Mazda, to the Prophet Zarathustra. They prayed to the Holy Fire itself and asked to be delivered from this impending catastrophe. At midnight there was a knock on the door of the agiary. The Parsees looked at each other with dismay and anguish. So the commissioner had come to defile our cherished Atash Padsha, they cried.
The door was opened with a heavy heart. Out on the steps stood a person and he had brought some news. The commissioner had just died, most unexpectedly! The Holy Atash was now safe from the eyes of those who need not gaze at it.
Soon afterwards, in a convoy the Atash was taken to the airport. The aircraft had just arrived from Bombay and the engines were not even switched off. No non-Zarthusti touched the aircraft. The aircraft had been sanctified with well-water and taro. Cowasjee Dinshaw was aboard the same with the Head Priest of Udwada, Dastoorjee Kekobad Phirozjee, who had provided a lot of religious advice on the whole exercise and, of course, his moral support. There were five other priests on board, too. As soon as ‘Lhotse’ landed, two mobeds holding British citizenship rushed to the Agiary. By then Dasturjee Minocher Manecksha who had tended the Fire for many years at the Aden Agiary had offered Boi to the Fire in the Ushahin Geh, for the last time in Aden. From there the Atash was brought in its new container in a convoy to the airport. A pavi was built to ensure the sanctity of the Atash Padsha. The Yemeni government had provided motorcycle escort to the entourage. The Holy Fire was carried onto the aircraft. In a few minutes the aircraft, the engines of which were never switched off even after its long journey from Bombay, was taxiing and was soon airborne. History was made as live fire was carried in an aircraft which otherwise was a very dangerous thing to do. As the aircraft took off, the Yemeni officials gave it a 21-gun salute, the sounds of which were heard all over Aden. This truly signified an end of an era for Aden, The all-Parsee crew as well as the other Parsee escorts kept on chanting our prayers.
The mobeds who were accompanying the Holy Fire did the Padyab Kushti, Atash Niyaesh and other prayers. They often opened the box to offer sandalwood to ensure that the fire was still glowing and had not died out. They did this with regard to all due ceremonies and by reciting the necessary prayers. Opening the container and feeding sandalwood to the fire at the height of 30,000 feet was, indeed, a very dangerous thing to do, as any flames escaping out could lead to a major explosion in mid-air due to the highly pressurized cabin conditions. Yet, every time, they opened the box to look at the Fire, they found it resting quietly, just glowing softly and serenely, the flames dancing gently, almost as if enjoying the unique journey.
After flying for almost four hours, the aircraft landed at the Santa Cruz airport, Bombay, at around 7.00 a.m. The airport was chock-a block with Parsees who had come to receive their Holy Atash from across the seas. With due respects, the box was slowly taken down the steps. A pavi was built around the container and Yatha Ahu Vairyo was chanted, ceremoniously. Dasturjee touched the ground of Mother Earth in thanksgiving for a safe journey and with a prayer on his lips opened the box. Lo and behold, the Fire that was resting silently by just glowing softly while in midair, now leaped a few feet, as if in sheer ecstasy. The Flames of Faith danced and swirled as they came in touch with the atmosphere of Mother India – the land that has been home to its devotees (the Zarathustris and the Hindus) since centuries. Here, in the land that has been home to the largest number of the world’s great religions, the Holy Atash Padsha from Aden at last felt at home – secure and safe.
The Atash Padsha was now taken to the Soonawalla Agiary at Mahim in a special luxury bus for being ‘rested’ for the new hours. This was taken under police escort. The Atash was offered Machi and Boi for the Havan Geh, and later in the Rapithwan geh, too. The Mahim agiary was packed with hundreds of ordinary Parsee-Zarthustis who had come to pay their respects to the Atash Padsha. Around 01.30 at noon, once again the Holy Fire was taken on board the special bus and this time the second Phase of this historical Journey commenced… to the Adenwala Aglary at Lonavala in the hills of the Western ghats. This is where the Atash would be enthroned.
A pavi had been created around the bus and a chain attached to it to maintain contact always with the earth. In an absolutely unprecedented move, the Bombay to Pune highway, one of the busiest land routes in the country on which Lonavala is situated, was closed to all traffic upto Lonavala from Bombay. A motorcycle escort was once again provided by the government of Maharashtra to the convoy. A number of Parsees followed the same in eight buses plus many went along in their own cars and vehicles (around 60-70 automobiles) and the route was lined with cheering Parsees, praying and expressing their gratitude to the Lord for the safe passage of the Holy Fire.
On 14th November, 1976, Roj Behram, Mah Khordad, YZ 1346, the Atash Padsha which was first consecrated in Aden in the year 1883 in the Adenwalla Agiary at Aden in Yemen, arrived at its new home, the Adenwalla Agiary at Lonawala, India.
With due ceremonies and prayers (Machi and Boi ceremonies in the Ujiren Geh) the Atash Padsha was installed in the specially created sanctum sanctorum next to that of the original Atash Padsha of the Lonavala agiary (which is of the Dadgah grade). A jashan for thanksgiving was later conducted in the evening. Once again, the agiary was full Of devotees and the atmosphere was one of great joy and devotion.
The costs and expenses which ran into lakhs of rupees for the complete operation were borne by Mr. Cowasjee Dinshaw and his wife, personally. When this writer enquired with him what was the sum spent he very modestly declined to mention the figure. Such humility and modesty is so rare and thus praiseworthy especially in the times we live in today.
Today, both the Atash Padshas blaze forth in joyous glory. The Atash from Aden stands testimony to those brave souls who consecrated the Fire in a foreign land and had the foresight and courage to bring it to safety when times became difficult. The radiant flames of this Atash bear testimony to the miracles that the Lord keeps creating, strengthening the faith of the faithful and reinforcing the message of hope, courage, devotion, faith and perseverance.
There are some more messages in this story and one of these is that after the flight of the Zarthustis from Iran to India, India has been the only place where we, the Parsi-Zarathustis have been able to build and sustain our holy Fire Temples without any fear of these being destroyed, desecrated or defiled. Even in the much touted democracies of the West, we may not be able to build fire temples where only zarathustis are permitted entry. No matter whatever disadvantages and inconveniences one may face here in terms of systems, infrastructure, etc. (and these are felt by people of all races and religions here) we have lived here freely and prospered, too. Our places of worship are not in danger of being destroyed or closed down. Indeed, we need to think as to why our ancestors were guided (divine guidance, I firmly believe) to come to India when they were seeking refuge and not go elsewhere.
Indeed, if there is talk of closing agiaries today, it is unfortunately within the community itself and stems from tragic issues like not having sufficient number of priests to tend to the holy fires in remote places like small villages and towns. But hold it just a moment here. The Adenwalla Agiary at Lonavala where the Atash of this story resides today is tended by just one priest, day in and day out. Dasturjee Marzban Gonda has to be heard reciting our prayers at this Fire temple to understand the devotion and love that Atash can inspire.
Also, it we use our minds and resources, the Lord will provide support and guidance. If a few determined individuals could fly down the Holy Atash under very trying circumstances, facing various odds, surely we, too, can look at the possibility of keeping the fires glowing in all our aglaries and daremehers.
The story of bringing over the Holy Atash from Aden to Lonavala is a true story, little known and heard but it has many lessons for us all. It all happened just twenty-two years ago! It is part of our history. The Iranians of old were not known for recording their history. This is, therefore, just a small and humble attempt to do so, so that this story of devotion and courage is not forgotten and also so that we keep learning from history and not become victims of being ignorant of our past.
May the various Atash Padshas in various Fire temples continue to blaze and glow with love and joy, power and radiance, showering their blessings not only on our numerically tiny community, but also on this land of Bharat which has protected and sustained us, socially, materially and spiritually.
An aura of antiquity envelopes the coastal town of Udvada in Gujarat, which houses the holiest fire of the Parsis
Faith accompli: A Parsi woman comes out of the fire temple Udvada is a pretty small heritage town with lanes and bylanes lined with traditional Parsi row houses, made of teakwood and bricks. The laidback coastal town in Gujarat houses the holiest fire of the Parsis that is supposed to be burning for almost 1,296 years now. The ethnic group from Persia (Iran) first landed in Sanjan nearly 1,300 years ago. They were granted asylum by the noble King Jadi Rana. Within a few years, they consecrated the Holy Fire and built a fire temple. However, their fight for survival and protecting their religion is a constant saga of their history. Intermittent threats from Islamic invaders made them move from one place to another till with the help of the rulers Durjansinghji, the Gaekwads and the Peshwas, the Holy Fire found its destination at Udvada.
The streets of Udvada wear a desolate look
The once-thriving town now appears to be desolate since most of the Parsis have migrated to Mumbai or abroad. The otla (porches) of the century-old houses have become a place to laze around by the aging owners. The crumbling houses and locked doors might disappoint but an aura of antiquity envelopes them. If you care to pause and ponder, each house appears to tell a tale of its glorious past and a way of life interwoven with the faith of its residents. Each house has a symbol or pictures of Zoroastrianism. The Holy Fire, the picture of Prophet Zarathushtra, who propagated the teachings of one supreme God, Ahura Mazda, and the symbol of Iranshah with two wings are on the walls and inside the Parsi homes. Water holds sanctity and each house has a well since all religious ceremonies require fresh water.As you walk down the paved roads admiring the architecture, the intricate designs on wrought-iron railings and creaking gates on every porch of a Parsi home, you might just discover the fire temple bathed in white emerging from a street full of residential houses. It appears to be camouflaged. Perhaps it is to protect it from an attack way back in the 18th century. The Iranshah Atash Behram (fire temple) houses the Holy Fire that was enthroned here in 1742. Zoroastrians from all over the worldcome here to pay homage to fire. “Homage unto Thee Oh Fire of Ahura Mazda” written on the gate of the temple extol the virtue of fire or light, which is so integral to Zoroastrianism.The month of May, Adar Mahino, is dedicated to fire. The pilgrims buy small logs of wood and sticks of sandalwood to pay homage to the burning fire. The men wear typical Parsi caps called sola topis and the women cover their heads with scarves.Non-Parsis are not allowed inside the temple but the state Government Zoroastrian Information Centre, which is housed in a restored bungalow set in sylvan surroundings, is a great place to acquaint yourself with this ancient religion.Various rooms are assigned to the aspect of history of Parsis, culture, religion, renowned Indian Parsi personalities and detail about typical customs like navjote ceremony (initiation of young Parsi into religion), wedding and disposal of the dead in dakhma (Tower of Silence) where it is naturally decomposed by vultures. You are also enlightened by the teachings of Zoroastrianism. The three principal codes of conduct followed by Parsis are humata, hukhta and huvarshta that is good thought, good word and good deed. The religion could be a revelation for many. One is saddened to know that this minuscule community is sadly dwindling. However, after loading yourself with all the knowledge, don’t forget to load yourself with bottles of Sunta raspberry soda from the cafeteria, a speciality drink unique to Udvada. Udvada is also a haven for Parsi cuisine lovers.
A local Parsi vendor Photos by the writerEven the Atash Behram premises have much activities among local vendors. Local women hang around selling sarias (sago wafers) spiked with herbs and spices. Some lay their stuff on roadsides like lemon grass and fresh mint leaves. Parsi love their lili chai (green tea) infused with these flavours. The Bharat bakery handcart lured visitors with its nankhatais, khari, butter biscuits, and even dried fried bits of fish packed in tiny plastic pouches. According to third generation owner Nilesh, Parsis love fish, and if Udvada is a holy place for prayers, it is also a perfect place for feasting on Parsi cuisines.With many Parsi dharamshalas, restaurants and dhabas offering delicacies like egg bhurji (scrambles eggs), dhansak, sali par eedu (fried eggs over potato slices), fried boi (white mullet fish), surmai fish curry, chicken pakora, homemade ice-creams and custard among other scrumptious dishes; even non-Parsis would have a good time. Strolling in the streets in the morning you could have doodh na puff (a glass of milk froth) from local women moving with glasses on tray, then head for the rocky beach to relax sitting on a rocky perch and amble around large weathered bungalows to build an appetite to go for a big hearty Parsi meal.
getting there: Nearest airport: Surat.
One can also drive from Mumbai and Vadodara (both have airports).
Nearest railway station: Udvada Railway station.
moving around: Udvada is a small town so you can walk around or hire a rickshaw.
where to eat: Ahura (it is on Mumbai Surat NH8 at Amboli), Globe Hotel serves generous portions of Parsi food, Ashishvangh Hotel, Dastoor Baug Dharamshala are known for their homemade ice-creams and meals, Parsi da dhaba (at NH8). There is Irani bakery and Bharat bakery hand cart for nankhatais and biscuits.
You could purchase dhansak masala, chutneys and pickles from veranda shops near Atash Behram. Methiya nu achaar (spicy raw mango pickle), Libu nu achaar (tangy, fresh lime pickle) and keri ni chutney (sweet-spicy mango pickle) are Parsi specialities.
Shop for sandalwood sticks that range from Rs 50-Rs 1000 and all are pure.
Some dos and don’ts: Non-Parsis are not allowed to enter the fire temple, so respect their religious custom. Dress modestly and maintain the sanctity of the holy town.
Thus goes the folklore The Parsis had braved a terrible storm and had promised to build Atash Behram (fire temple) if they landed safely. They sought asylum from King Jadi Rana. The king sent a bowl full of milk to the brim signifying there’s no place for immigrants in his kingdom. The wise Dustur added sugar to the milk with a promise of never being disruptive and indicating they would blend in just as sugar adds sweetness to milk. Parsis never went back on their promise. http://www.tribuneindia.com/news/spectrum/travel/firmly-guarding-a-tradition/420344.html