Fire temples burn bright


August 25, 2008

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47 Parsi fire temples have finally made it to the heritage list. Labonita Ghosh looks at the struggle that led to this and some of the more unique agiaries that will find protection from rapacious builders

The Maneckjee Navrojee Sett agiary in Fort is unlike a typical Parsi fire temple. Every inch of it is covered with ornate pillars, capitals and cornices decorated with Assyrian, Greek and Persepolitan symbols.  It now turns out the showiness may have been deliberate. Researchers compiling a compendium of agiaries in Mumbai feel the 275-year-old fire temple was trying to make an impression. “Surrounded by thriving Hindu, Bohra and European merchants, the agiary’s Parsi patrons wanted to show they were prosperous too,” says conservation architect Pankaj Joshi, who led the 2001 study.


Such a rich architectural entity might have been lost if the Sett agiary — along with 46 others in Mumbai — had not been put on the state Heritage Commission’s list of protected structures earlier this month. “The agiaries represent a layer of the city that spans architectural styles over almost 300 years [the oldest, the Banaji Limji, also in Fort, was consecrated in 1709],” says Joshi. Many of them fit more than one category of heritage classification: They have ‘biographical’ value, too, through association with some well-known Parsi family trusts.

Of the 50-odd fire temples that serve Mumbai’s 40,000-strong Parsi community, many have a deep sociological significance. The Banaji Limji agiary was constructed at a time fraught with tussles for supremacy between the Indian and European companies. “There were very few Parsi merchants then and those who lived here, needed shelter in case trouble broke out,” says Joshi. “It was a given that they would rush to the fortress-like Banaji Limji with their families in such circumstances.”  The art deco-ish Boyce Dhunapatel in Tardeo provides conservation lessons of a different kind. The 68-year-old fire temple has never seen electricity, because caretakers believed electro-magnetic waves would pollute the holy fire.

That would, however, not matter if the city’s builders had their way. In 1991, when the Heritage Commission was formed, about eight fire temples were included in the first-ever list. But this, members of the community say, was a random, almost token, selection. It was only after an assault on the Wadia agiary, located in the prime area of Parel, in 2005, that the community began to push for the rest of its holy structures to be protected. That year, builders grabbed the land near (and belonging to) the Wadia agiary, and constructed a 21-storey residential tower just a few feet away from the fire temple. “They broke the precincts and the priests’ ablutions areas in front,” says a member of the community. “All done in collusion with the trustees, of course.” What makes agiaries vulnerable is the land attached to them, which sometimes runs into several acres. “Seemingly-unused land in densely-populated neighbourhoods like Andheri, Bandra and Tardeo, is bound to attract developers,” adds the member. Like the Cama Athoran Institute Dadgah, a seminary with huge grounds situated on a hill in Andheri. At 20 times the size of an average agiary, it could become easy prey. And as the community – and patronage for agiaries – shrinks, more trustees are willing to sell out.

In 2005, members of the World Alliance of Parsi and Irani Zarthoshtis (WAPIZ), led by founder-member Mistree, approached BMC commissioner Jairaj Phatak to have the agiaries on the heritage list. The move came through only in early August. As Firoza Mistree, co-editor of A Zoroastrian Tapestry, a tome with a chapter dedicated to fire temples, says: “Parsis have a dismal record of preserving their heritage. We needed an outside authority [the Heritage Commission] to show us how it’s done.”     

Original article here.