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.”
Neville Jamshedji, who calls Udvada the “home”, agrees that it keeps him spiritually connected and grounded. In fact, says high priest Dasturji Khurshed Dastoor “It is the day when generations connect, as people of all ages come together to celebrate.”
It is also the day that the gambhar is hosted by the village. Open to all, it is one of the biggest community tables that was instrumental in making the Parsees a part of the Indian culture. Says Dasturji,
“The idea behind this was to celebrate our existence and prosperity, and to mingle. Over a period of time of course, with donations and such, gambhar has become a sign of Parsee generosity of hosting lavish feasts, which is free for all.”
This year’s gambhar too was sponsored not by one, but five people – some through cash, some with the traditional pineapple juice and others by sending meat. Says Maneck Tadiwala, one of the seasoned gambhar caterers, “Unlike lagan na bhonu, the food in gambhar is pretty rustic, almost similar to what we had back then and is prepared on wood-fire.” So you had mutton, sadiya and the oldest appetizer, topli paneer and meethi seviyaan. Once made with animal fat, today topli paneer is an art practiced in very few places. While the main course is an indulgence, kulfi and the hand-churned mango ice cream sold in aluminium containers surrounded by ice in wooden barrels in an auto are the real winners!
Held at the backyard of the fire temple, the gambhar feeds nearly all visitors to Udvada. No food, says Maneck, is cooked at home, as even the elders get a food parcel from the gambhar, where it is cooked over wood fire and by specialists. “We cook about 50 kilos of vegetable and 90 kg of meat.”
The day begins early with a prayer at the Atash Behram followed by a Jashn. While the fire temple remains a no-non-Parsee territory, even from outside, the grandeur of this beautiful palace-like temple, which is said to have undergone many renovations and not less than four makeovers in the past 270 years, is spectacular. But if you cannot get into the home of the Holy Fire, the Dasturji house is a breathing microcosm of Parsee living and architecture. It has the oldest model of the fire temple, which is said to have been inspired by the Palace of Versailles. There is also the museum, which has a scaled model of the inside sanctorum of Atash Behram.
Besides the Atash Behram, Udvada is home to a few timeless buildings that show the progressive nature of the community. As the Bikhaji Unwala is the oldest Zoroastrian Library, it is said to have contained the early works of famous Zoroastrian writers including Bahman Kaikobad, author of Qessa-ye-Sanjan. Another is the first all-wood dharamshala sponsored by the first Baron Sir Jamshedji Jejeebhoy for poor Parsees. Today, along with Sodawaterwalla Dharamshala and Dastoor Baug, it is one of the few places to taste authentic Parsee fare. The best part is that everything – including dhanshak and patrani machchi – are made on demand.
Udvada also boasts the oldest clinic, the Maneckji Cowasji Damanwalla Dispensary. Rebuilt in 1924 with a generous donation of Rs 55,000 by Sir Ratanji Jamshedji Tata. It dispenses free basic medical treatment to everyone, and the Pandole ni Agiary, which is home to the lesser fire made of four fires from the home of a priest, soldier/ civil servant, famer/ herdsmen and artisan/ labourer—the four classes of Parsees. But the most awe-inspiring is the four-star beach facing hotel, JRM Della’s Majestic. Today a store-room for older relics – a few damaged – from the fire temples across Mumbai and Gujarat, it stands testimony to the Parsee penchant for living the beautiful life.