Eeda Par Agiary


April 28, 2008

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Bombay | Heritage | History | Mumbai

Eggs and toddy jars for a fire temple? The good-life-loving Parsis are not finicky about mixing the sacred and the secular. Still, I was intrigued by the E&T detail in Nauzer Bharucha’s report on the 300th anniversary of the Banaji Limji Agiary last Thursday. Mumbai’s oldest fire temple was badly damaged in a fire in 1803. For its reconstruction, the Sethiyas gave munificent sums; the poor contributed the eggs and toddy jars which were smashed to strengthen the foundation. Would it be unforgivable sacrilege to connect this to the standard, egg-topped Parsi dish, and call it ‘eeda par agiary’?

Our agiaries are cool, quiet refuges with no sound louder than the hum of faith. They are adorned with little more than a garlanded picture of the Prophet Zarathustra, and the oil portraits of the endowing family, the uniform grimness of these grandees deepened by the decades of wood smoke. The only dramatic feature is the inner sanctum’s gleaming urn with its leap of flames tended by the white-robed priest. He strikes the bell at each of the 24-hour cycle’s five gehs, its reverberations penetrating the very soul of the vicinity’s cluster of faithful.

The Banaji Limji Agiary stands in the old quarter of the ‘Fort’. This is where Mumbai’s first Parsis were concentrated, and where they consecrated their early fire temples. Indeed, the Manekji Sett Agiary, barely five chants away, completed 275 years on the same day as the tri-centenary of its historic predecessor.

The TOI report, the Banaji-Manekji names triggered a born-again faith. Gongs flooded my brain and i was overwhelmed by the fragrance of incense and roses. I grew up in a Calcutta quarter as crumbling as Bombay’s Fort, in what was a 130-year-old house with a verandah along its length. Its twin stood next door, the home of our landlords, the Banaji family, which had changed its name to Rustomji, reportedly to avoid being mistaken for ‘Banerjis’. They were once among Bengal’s fabled merchant princes, and had built its booming docks.

The current patriarch was Maneckji, mantled in old aristocracy frayed by present impoverishment. He spoke like the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, but he had studied the classics in their original Latin. From him, I first learnt of the Sanskrit grammarian Panini, whose words he had inscribed in my autograph book in elegant copper-plate handwriting: “The Brahmin delights as much in the saving of a vowel as in the birth of a son.” Between our identical, street-fronted houses, set back in a large compound, was Calcutta’s Banaji Agiary, built originally as a place of family worship by Maneckji’s illustrious great-grandfather.

It was inseparable from our daily life. Every morning, its sandalwood fragrance mingled with our frying onions; at night, the throb of its gong segued into that of our weekly paper’s printing press. Not just I, even my father had played under its pomegranate tree, and prayed inside with motivated fervour every day of every exam. Then our Banaji Agiary died.

The Trust succumbed to squabbling bankruptcy. Not paid for months, the sole priest left. The durwans commandeered the place. They could not enter the sanctified hall, but, bit by bit, they ‘rented out’ first the compound and then the cavernous ‘basements’ where the logs were once stored. Our sacred space was taken over by scruffy hawkers. The numbing despair hit each time I passed our agiary. I had to stop my instinctive gesture of reverence, for I would be bowing to the barbarian kachoriwalla now at its gate.

Alec Smart said, “Cheerleaders are scantily clad, yes. But the complaining leaders are both naked and cheerless.”

Original article here.