24 Apr 2008, 0434 hrs IST,Nauzer Bharucha,TNN
MUMBAI: For the past few centuries, they have been one of Mumbai’s most important religious and architectural landmarks. On Thursday, the city’s oldest Zoroastrian fire temple-the Banaji Limji agiary-enters its 300th year.
Tucked away in a side lane called Banaji Lane opposite the Akbarallys showroom, the ancient fire was consecrated in 1709 by Seth Banaji Limji, a prosperous Parsi businessman. “It is the oldest surviving agiary in Mumbai,” said Parsi historian Marzban Giara.
Incidentally, the second oldest agiary-Manekji Sett agiary- is also located less than a kilometre away in Perin Nariman street near CST. It completes 275 years on Thursday (1733).
In the western suburb of Andheri (west), the Seth Pirojsha Ardeshir Patel agiary also celebrates its centenary on the same day (Roz Adar-Mah Adar), an auspicious day for Parsis.
Mumbai’s fire temples were established after the Parsis started migrating from Surat and other parts of Gujarat about five centuries ago. According to the Highlights of Parsi History written P P Balsara in 1963, there were Parsis in Mumbai in 1538.
Portuguese physician Garcia da Orta reports of a few of them as residents of Mumbai, mostly working as clerks in the Bassien jurisdiction. The English came in 1640 and shifted part of their commercial activities from Surat to Bombay and many Parsis came with them in large numbers.
In 1780, the Parsi population in Mumbai was 3,000, which subsequently rose to 10,000 in 1810. As their numbers grew in the city, so did the fire temples-there are over four dozen in Greater Mumbai today, and most of them came up in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Interestingly, the Banaji Limji fire temple came up almost three decades after the Towers of Silence at Malabar Hill-the resting place for the community’s dead-were consecrated in 1672.
The fortress-like structure of the Limji agiary may be in the midst of the city’s throbbing financial district, but the quiet lane in which it is located could give a faint glimpse of how the old Fort area may have looked like a few centuries ago.
In 1803, a fire caused considerable damage to the structure and the holy fire was then temporarily shifted to the Soonaiji agiary at Gowalia Tank. According to Giara, who is the author of the global directory of fire temples,wealthy Parsi merchants donated huge sums for the reconstruction of the damaged fire temple and the poorer sections of the community contributed eggs and hundreds of toddy mugs.
These ingredients were churned along with the construction material as an act of faith, to strengthen the foundation, according to a brief history of the agiary written by Marzban Giara and Viraf Dhalla. The fire was rethroned in 1845 and the new structure was also a place where the Parsi Punchayat used to solve the problems facing the community.
The Manekji Sett fire temple, on the other hand, is one of the best embellished fire temples and represents a period when the Parsis were flourishing and well-settled.
The Patel agiary in Andheri was opened for devotees in 1908 at a cost of Rs 52,500. The building has charactertics of classical Roman architecture with its round arches and pilasters bearing Corinthian capitals.
Earlier this month, state finance minister Jayant Patil, who is also the city’s guardian minister, asked civic chief Jairaj Phatak to quickly take a decision on publishing a list of fire temples which could be given the status of heritage structures.
Currently, only 13 of the 47 fire temples are listed as grade 3 heritage sites-a rating that still makes these ancient, mostly bungalow-like buildings, vulnerable to being pulled down and redeveloped by builders eyeing such properties.
Only four fire temples are listed in the higher grade 2, which gives them complete protection from any kind of major changes in their facade.