Far from the madding crowd, set cosily by the Arabian Sea is an Indian town that completely belongs to the Parsis. Udvada, historically one of their first homes on Indian soil, would be a ghost town today if not for the Iran Shah Atash Bahram – the oldest fire temple of the Parsis in India and the world – which ensures that every Parsi come at least once, to what is their holiest pilgrimage.
Named after Untha Wad, or the grazing grounds for the Mandvi king’s camels, the town, 350 km from Ahmedabad, bears a regal but lonely look. Once a thriving place, work and progress took the Parsis everywhere around the world, leaving 100-year-old houses lying vacant.
One out of five such houses is, however, inhabited by a septuagenarian or two, who seem at peace in their childhood home.
Piroj Chinoy, 72, sits on a huge swing in a sprawling house, with his friends, Perviz and Dadi Goliwalla, on the auspicious day of Behram Roz. While the Mumbai based Goliwallas come to their Udvada flat once a month, Chinoy comes frequently to the ‘place he was born.’
When we were young, we played at the fire temple in the mornings and went to the beach in the evenings. It was much nicer back then – we played harkeliyo, daba dubi along the coastline. Today’s youngsters are lonely, even with their ipads and phones. We weren’t.
Chinoy's elder brother, incidentally, was a priest (dastur) at the famous temple.
His house, built in 1880 has magnificent architectural features – the typically Gujarati household’s indoor swing, a low lying staircase running to the floor above, a kitchen with gorgeous natural sunlight and a backyard. Probably the oldest house in the town, Chinoy’s backyard is the size of two football fields and has an ancient stepwell with a Portugese inscription on it.
Historically, Udvada came under the Portugese rule from the beginning of the 18th century after a treaty.
It was there before we came, with the year 1714 etched on it. Some say it is the stepwell where Portuguese royalty bathed. We kept it to preserve the heritage of the land.
A Unique Food Trail
While most Parsis come to visit the temple or their inherited homes, there is much a traveller can do; from visiting the museum which chronicles the Parsi heritage in India, elaborate walks around the quaint town to enjoying a food trail. Hotels like Ashishwangh and Sodawater wala offer homely delicacies like boi, the fried mullet fish fresh off the coast, fish in peanut paste, liver or khurchan in local Parsi spices, Salli chicken, keema and lagan nu bhonu among others.
I fell in love with an Udvada girl and never went back to Mumbai. We were both managers in different hotels so decided to start one of our own. My wife, Kalawati is a great cook, so we ensure our food is the best in town.Merwan Godiwalla, Owner of Ashishwangh
Godiwalla’s hotel, one of the few places where non Parsis can stay, has an interesting routine with vendors coming in at all hours of the day to sell unique items – Dudh puff, for instance, a milk shake that has a signature puff on top and is not found in any other part of the state.
Earlier, the Gujarati women used to leave the glass on the terrace overnight for the dew to collect and create the quirky puff. Now they use hand blenders. Also special is the home made mango ice cream that is churned in an indigenous machine that’s fixed to an auto and sold by the driver himself. The autos keep making rounds across the town, stopping to serve people just about anywhere.
Godiwalla, who bought land for Rs 30 per square feet 15 years back, has made a living out of building holiday homes for Parsis and revamping antique furniture, many of which have been acquired from the defunct villas.
There are around 40 Parsis who live in this town while hundreds keep visiting. So, if it wasn’t for the fire temple, none of these businesses would have worked.
Recently, non Parsis have also discovered Udvada, due to the buzz created by the Iran Shah Udvada Utsav – a global event that celebrates this 1lakh strong community’s heritage.
Jahangir Randeria (65) who has been visiting Udvada with his family for decades, shares an ancient legend about how the king had sent a bowl of milk to the ship of the religious immigrants, his ancestors, indicating that there was no space for newcomers. In reply, their leader had added sugar to the bowl, signifying that they would enrich, not disrupt the land.
This is also one of the reasons why our numbers haven’t increased, because we neither converted the locals nor married out of religion. And we continue to keep our word.
The Persian poem Kisse-i-Sanjan by poet Bahman Kaikobad in 1559, does record the migration of the Zoroastrians to the island of Diu, across Saurashtra after the Sassanian Empire of ancient Persia fell in 641 AD. 19 years later, they set sail towards the Indian peninsula.
In the course of this journey, they met with a storm and promised to build an Atash Behram (highest grade of fire, built of 16 fires) for safe deliverance. When the storm abated and the migrants reached Sanjan (near Varoli river, Gujarat) on 25 August 716 AD, Jadi Rana, the sagacious king welcomed the newcomers on certain conditions – that their men would lay down arms and take up the local language among others.
The migrants accepted them all and after two years, asked the king for land to consecrate a fire temple. Yet again, conditions were levied upon them, that they never try to convert any of the Hindu subjects to Zoroastrianism and no one except their community be allowed inside the temple.
They lived mindful of their word and stayed in Sanjan for about four centuries till the Muslim ruler Sultan Mahmud, invaded and occupied Gujarat. The Parsis fought along with the Hindu king and lost. They then sought refuge in the caves of Bahrot, moved to Bansda village and finally, shifted to Navsari along with the holy fire on persistence of a devout Parsi and philanthropic, Changa Asa.
After 300 years, infighting and controversies led this fire to be moved to Valsad and finally to Udvada.
(Runa Mukherjee Parikh has written on women, culture, social issues, education and animals, with The Times of India, India Today and IBN Live. When not hounding for stories, she can be found petting dogs, watching sitcoms or travelling. A big believer in ‘animals come before humans’, she is currently struggling to make sense of her Bengali-Gujarati lifestyle in Ahmedabad.)