|Udvada Where The Fires Are Always Burning
The holy town of Udvada is where the sacred fire of the Iranshah Atashbehram is burning since Zoroastrians came to India, writes CYRUS H. MERCHANT. And outside, in small Parsi homes and a lonely bakery, a different kind of fire burns, keeping the community’s cuisine alive, says MARK MANUEL.
|The 20th day of the Zoroastrian calendar is not just another day, but a date with Victory. For, it belongs to the angel Behram Yazata who presides over triumph, success, and victory of all and any sort. Small wonder then that this day sees more bent knees and lowered heads, petitions and pleas… and more than anything, kept promises to Iranshah, as there is little else that beats the Heaven and Earth combo of Behram and Iranshah; McParadise indeed!
Passed down to a generation of us from folklore and the folds of our grannies’ sarees, Behram roj and Udvada together signal the arrival of good times, changing times, a turn in a devotee’s tide. All through the month you pray around this landmark day, a crescendo of wishes or one single wish which if Behram, favours clashes with cymbals within the keblah room as a bell is rung ten powerful times. So auspicious is this day that there are more Behrams in the community than there are, say, Cyruses.
There are regular Behram Roj-Iranshah goers, so regular in fact that legend has it that the railway tacks leading to the coastal town of Gujarat are familiar with their names. The pathway to good fortune indeed is a familiar friend to those seeking it.
For over 20, 25 years they go every single Behram Roj, not a roj is missed. I know them by face, name even, but some part of piety is pricked when the privacy of a worshipper is invaded. They have their train pass, their pudhina-chai flask, their faith. Armed with these three and little else, they board at 5.40. Mostly from Bombay Central, full of vim even at that hour, eagerly awaiting Dinshaw from Dadar Parsi Colony to join them in ten minutes at the next stop. Some doze through the ride, many pray, most eat.
There is something about Parsis and food; even on a pilgrimage. The pora (sorry, omelette is no substitute for the onomatopoeic rendition of this word), the akuri sandwich, the baffela ida (boiled eggs), the appetite! Compartments resemble Cusrow Baug, as throngs make the journey to what Nairyosangh Dhaval established as the most anointed fire in the world. One that takes within it’s golden flames all the lusts, longing and unspoken shadows of the human mind and heart. The Fire that burns, also cleanses.
More than Behram Roj, on Adar Mahino Adar Roj (which is the jashan day of Fire and the birth anniversary of the miraculous Iranshah), and on the biggest calendar day of November 24th, additional trains, a genial legacy of the late Homi Taleyarkhan, carry these faithful and their breakfasts. A quick shower and off we go into the sanctum sanctorum. From next door’s Globe Hotel and around the globe, they come for even an hour in front of the King Of Fires.
On Behram Roj there is little standing place while the Machi is being performed, chants of Behram Yashts and litanies to Ama Yazata the co-angel of Courage, tan-dorastis, a golden Fire leaping and reaching out to the angels above. It is mesmerising. The evening Aiwsiruthrem Geh even more beautiful as it allows no electricity (quite like Boyce Agiary, Tardeo, Bombay), there are only burning divos and the Iranshah.
Never mind if a prayer is answered or not, but on Behram Roj in Iranshah, a heart finds its peace, a lover, it’s beloved and a dreamer his or her dream. You are renewed. Refreshed and you trouble trouble with prayer!
Troubles, like a mistress that haunted you just because you spent some time with her, are finally discarded. All evil is eliminated, as you raise the special Udvada garland of pink roses and white (I-don’t-know-their-name) flowers.
You can’t beat the magic of this day, the memories associated with it. Of love and family and rare togetherness. Fanta bottles, mothers in garas, children running around on the red carpet in their frills and whites, the elderly bent into the blue Avesta books, good-looking young boys in jeans keeping the Parsi gene alive, pretty girls with scarves tied across their faces like Italian maidens on breezing Lambrettas, the NRI Parsis so easily distinguishable with their accents and flow of philanthropy. But above all, you see people with faith. Eyes with faith. Yes, it will be done, Behram Yazad and Iranshah will do it for us, they have done it for countless before. More than the perfume of sandalwood, you smell Faith.
Hope. Peace. For anyone who erroneously believes that the community is dying, you need to be in Udvada on Behram Roj.
Having fed the soul, you return to your Ratanshah Katila Lodge, amidst gleaming trees in the monsoon and easily the prettiest place to stay in Udvada, you call for the boi and the rickshawallah (who knows every visiting Katy and the prowess of her haggling) and you head back home, always but always by the 3 o’clock train. And turning right towards the walls of the Atash Behram in an ancient symbolic gesture of returning, with eye and heart gazing at the calendar you wait for another calling, on another Behram Roj because like Life, like Iranshah, somethings just have a date with destiny.
The more things remain the same, the more they change. Yes you are alarmed, yes you are worried, yes you feel regret and an ineffable sadness and wonder what will happen to your community, your religion. Then on this day, or any other day, you go to Iranshah and you look and you see and you feel, that all is not lost as yet, that in some recess of every mind is a loyal seed waiting to sprout under the splendour and strength of Behram. That like the Gujarat Mail that no matter how late, comes to it’s platform, the lost will return home… to a waiting Father who knows that as far as bad times go, always is not forever.
– Cyrus Merchant
I was on my way out of Udvada. But the aroma of biscuits in the oven and a faint wisp of smoke rising from the chimney over the bungalow led me to Jahanbux’s bakery. From outside, it looks like any other Parsi residence in the old township. A house that is falling apart. “Is this a bakery,” I asked him disbelievingly, looking at the ancient furniture lying about the place. Jahanbux wiped the flour off his hands onto a dirty apron around his waist and led me out into the sunshine. “Look,” he said proudly. I looked. An old signboard dangled from a pillar. ‘Hormuzd Bakery,’ it said.
The bakery was started on this premises in 1931 by his grandfather, Hormuzdji Nasserwanji. Jahanbux’s father, Marzaban, continued the business. And now he seems resigned to the fact that it will die with him. The next generation, his son Eric, is not keen on running a bakery. So Jahanbux, who learnt baking and confectionery from his father, slogs here himself from morning to night. He opens at 6 a.m. and shuts at 8 p.m. And he bakes biscuits, Khari biscuits, Bhakras fermented in toddy and mawa cakes as well. But not bread. I watched him at work. A dusty old man in a dusty old bakery, fuelling his fires with wood, waiting for his first customers that morning.
I have mixed feelings about Udvada. The previous evening, I had walked around the holy town, trying to figure out where the young Parsi boys and girls go on Saturday night. Forty-five minutes later, and that’s all the time it takes to explore this tiny coastal village, I had the answer. Firstly, there are no young people in Udvada. Secondly, there is nowhere to go. No pubs and discotheques, no restaurants even. There is nothing for entertainment in Udvada. No nightlife. Or life after sunset. And there are no people to entertain. Only ancient Parsis who sit in the verandahs and stand by the windows of their whitewashed mansions, waiting for the sun to set on the Iranshah in whose shadows they live the sunsets of their own lives.
As the Vatican City is to Catholics, so might Udvada be to the Zoroastrians, but what a sorry state it has become. Neglect has ruined its charm, a lack of money and soul has reduced it to a pilgrim centre the Parsis visit only occasionally in a year. The old houses are falling apart. Some have been sold, others pulled down and replaced by modern structures that look incongruous in the old township with their modern, indifferent architecture. Nobody wants to stay in Udvada anymore. Except the old and original residents who have nowhere else to go.
They are quaint people with an old world charm and a curiosity borne out of loneliness. Their children have left them to go to colleges in cities and jobs abroad. And now their children and their grandchildren come visiting Udvada like the rest of the Parsis do, on an annual pilgrimage. Very sad. Farzana Contractor, Meher Heroyce Moos and I walked through the Udvada village around the Iranshah that Saturday evening, our hearts making for our shoes, as we took the twists and turns of the narrow lanes and got our first real experience of old age and loneliness.
Hearing our footsteps on the quiet streets, hearing the growl of our car engine and the clanking of changing gears, the old residents in the ghostly village hobbled to their perches by the verandahs and windows to see what fresh breath of life the evening might have brought. That was all the life we encountered in Udvada at 5 o’clock on Saturday evening. No sounds came out of the mansions. No music played on old gramophones. No television sets blared in living rooms. No aromas of Parsi cooking wafted through open kitchen windows. No news from the radio. Nothing but the sounds of silence. As we drove away, we saw malnourished cows and scavenging dogs feeding out of garbage dumps.
But, next morning, what a transformation. Udvada village was bustling with the hurly-burly of activity and life. Buses and autorickshaws drew up and unloaded dozens of Parsis all headed for the hotels and a bath, and then the Iranshah. The marketplace sported a new look. Inside, fisherwomen haggled with Parsi housewives over the price of mullet. This is the Parsi fish boi. It costs Rs. 60 a kilo and in that, you get ten to 12 fish. Later, for lunch, it would be cooked in tangy curries and pan-fried after being dusted with rava. And the butcher in the meat shop saved the offal, the liver, kidneys, heart and gizzard of his produce for special customers who might use them in the Aleti-Paleti at home.
In the village, small windows opened up in homes, and little old men and women popped out to sell sandalwood and home-made sweets, biscuits and other goodies. Some enterprising couples, like Zarine and Pervez Unwala, convert the front portions on their homes into fast food joints and snack bars. Others, like Behram Maneckshaw Fitter sell pickles, sweets and biscuits made by the widows of Navsari outside the gates of the Minocher N. Pundole Adran-e-Iranshah, a fire temple which stands in the shadows of the Atashbehram itself. And in the lane outside the Iranshah, small shops selling prayer caps and holy books and a timetable on the wall announcing the trains to Bombay.
There are Parsi families from Bombay, Pune and neighbouring cities that have homes in Udvada that they come to over the weekend for a holiday. Like Jimmy and Sarosh Panthaki and Aspi and Shernaz Marker. They drive over on a Saturday, have lunch at one of the Parsi hotels in Udvada, like the Ashishvang Hotel, Mek Hotel or Globe Hotel, where the menu is always Boi and Dhansak supplemented by toddy, they spend the evening at the beach and do dinner at Daman which is 20 kilometres away. Sunday mornings, they visit the Iranshah, have lunch and then depart for home.
And what they like about their little weekends is the ice-cream man who comes around selling home-made, hand-churned, sancha ice-cream in fruit flavours. For Rs. 10, you get three large, generous scoops. Likewise, there is a lady from Udvada village who in the winter months comes with the Parsi Doodh Puff. A little sweetened milk is kept in an earthen pot covered by cloth on the terrace at night. Early morning, it is collected heavy with dew and whipped to make a light, airy, cloud-like puff. This is settled onto a glass of chilled, sweetened milk that has been garnished with cardamom, nutmeg and little almond. It is the kind of taste you will not get anywhere else in the world because few people would take the time to make this kind of delicacy.