Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Heritage enclave cracks open its door to redevelopment

At the entrance to Parsi Colony in Dadar, two new towers signal the changes creeping into this low-rise, historic neighbourhood.

Article by Nergish Sunavala | Times of India

One is Parsi builder Jimmy Mistry’s Della Tower, a Persian behemoth that replaced the three-storey Dosal Mansion several years ago. Adorned with Avestan prayers and massive reliefs of Prophet Zarathustra, this luxury residence is often mistaken for a fire temple. Every night, floodlights highlight this glittering tribute to Achaemenian design and assertion of community pride.

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Another tower is coming up across the lane, on the plot behind the marble bust of colony founder, Mancherji Edulji Joshi. The 19-storey Nirvan Tower replaced the two-storey Daruvala House which in the 1930s housed the Yezdiar Industrial Institute — it sold pastries, patties and Parsi sweets from glass “bannis”— and later Sherevar Restaurant. The new tower will boast a clubhouse, gymnasium and state-of-the-art security — builder Purshottam Patel is hoping to sell flats to Jain diamond merchants looking to live closer to the new diamond bourse in Kurla.

The rise of the two towers — and a handful of other projects in the past few years — reflects the changing attitude to redevelopment in this enclave. Efforts to notify the area as a heritage precinct have not taken off and in the meantime, some buildings are being redeveloped. “People are reconciled to the reality of redevelopment and the fact there is no real way of stopping it,” says Rohinton Mehta, who grew up in Daruvala House and will move back when the new tower is finished. “For every non-Parsi builder who buys a Parsi plot, there’s a Parsi man who sold it.”

But responses to the new buildings also mirror the community’s mixed feelings about change. Mistry’s Della Tower was initially seen as distastefully showy and raised hackles for allegedly flouting building norms. Now, some residents like Mehta see it as a landmark. The construction of Nirvan Tower, on the other hand, triggered rumors about a Jain mandir being built atop the building. (Interestingly, the redevelopment contract states that the ground and first floor won’t be used for a place of worship.)

The persistence of the rumour reflects worries about the dilution of the colony’s Parsi identity, given the community’s shrinking numbers. A recent advertisement for the Jiyo Parsi campaign, aimed at increasing the Parsi population, played on these fears of extinction by showing a young woman outside the Dadar fire temple staring at a street sign that reads, “Hindu Colony”. The fine print explained, “If you don’t get married and have kids, this area will have a new name in your lifetime.”

Preserving the covenant

The colony’s relatively untouched state is because under a British-era covenant, much of the area is reserved for Parsi residents though plots can be owned by non-Parsis (Mistry’s Della Tower falls under this law but Patel’s Nirvan Tower plot is excluded). The colony was built in the 1920s as part of the Bombay Improvement Trust’s Dadar-Matunga Scheme, a planned suburban layout designed as a response to the plague caused by overcrowding in the city. Mancherji Joshi, a civil engineer with the trust, used his influence to get 102 plots reserved for the Parsi community. Over time, fire temples, gymkhanas, schools and marriage halls sprouted in what would become “the world’s largest Zoroastrian enclave”.

Many believe the covenant is key to the community’s survival. “Without it, we will be swamped and thrown out,” fears advocate and colony resident Hoshang Lashkari. “The colony gives us a greater chance to marry within the community and preserve our culture,” explained another resident Mithoo Jesia.

Since the 1970s, the community has battled to stop builders from breaking the covenant. In that decade, extra floors were added to existing buildings and builders began trying to sell the new top-floor flats to outsiders. The difference in the price of a covenant flat and one sold on the open market is considerable — Rs 10,000-15,000 per sqft today. And the draw for those outsiders is precisely what Joshi envisioned for the area almost a century ago — shady lanes, footpaths, low-rise buildings and 14 gardens. Many new buildings don’t bother to provide health clubs and walking tracks. “We have enough gardens in Dadar,” said builder Zarir Bhathena.

The courts have not overturned the covenant so far. Parsi developers like Mistry and Bhathena have undertaken projects here without trying to break it. Bhathena’s 16-storey Hilla Garden View, which sports a large Zoroastrian angel on its glass facade, was sold mostly to NRI Parsis.

In fact, redevelopment may now be an avenue for strengthening the area’s Parsi community rather than diluting it. Dadar Parsi Colony is perhaps the only place where the community’s numbers are increasing, albeit very marginally. While Mumbai’s Parsi population reduced by about 6,000 in the last ten years, the colony’s Parsi population went up by 55 people, from 4,397 in 2003 to 4,452 in 2014, according to the area’s community directory. “Not because Parsis are having more children,” said Rustom Chothia, the current president of the Dadar-Matunga Parsi-Zoroastrian Association. “Towers are coming up so Parsis are migrating here from other parts of the city.”

Fate of a garden colony

Still, not everyone is reconciled to change. Advocate Laskari complains about the “ugly towers” that have come in and around the colony. “When I came here, 15 years back, from my flat I could see Bandra’s Land’s End and planes landing at the Santacruz airport from my terrace,” he says. Long-time colony resident, Mehernosh Fitter, sees Della Tower as “a waste of money.”

And residents continue to battle other intrusions – including proposals to rename Khodadad Circle, put up skywalks around Five Gardens, and create a garden pond for Ganpati immersions. It’s unclear whether the redevelopment will leave the colony’s original ratios of greenery and open spaces intact. Mehta points out that most building compounds have been concretised, and that setbacks in redeveloped buildings are smaller than the original norms. “Our garden colony is becoming less of a garden colony,” he says.