Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

The Secrets of Saher Agiary in Mumbai

Meher Mirza takes us on a walk around the delightful Saher Agiary.

Mumbai has lost so many of its memories under highways and malls that I am loath to share the few pockets that remain, but I shall gird my loins and do it anyway. There is a little lane that wriggles upwards from Breach Candy, a lane that is eschewed by most people. At its entrance sits a security guard who has the laborious task of directing the one or two cars that flash past. Sometimes, a dog, exhausted from its strenuous daily labours, sits beatifically at his feet. Mostly though, he sits alone.

WORDS BY MEHER MIRZA AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY SURUCHI MAIRA

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If your interest in this lane has been piqued, you may wish to climb the gentle slope upwards. There are some splendid trees that hem the road, squatting on their skirts of thick, coiling roots. There is also a well, an old, mouldy, forgotten well that pious Parsi ladies and gents press their foreheads to as a sign of respect to the angel of the waters (almost everyone else weaves past it).

Keep climbing until you reach the steps – you will know them when you see them. They will lead you to the courtyard of the Saher Agiary, a wide, spotlessly clean courtyard that is cupped by tall, shady trees. On cloudless, windless summer days, when the sun feels hot enough to melt a hole in the earth, this courtyard always stays a few degrees cooler than the rest of the city. Every evening, a dog (another one) comes by with his walker, gambolling and prancing. An elderly couple sometimes sits on the wall that girdles the compound. It is a place of peace, quiet enough to pry loose a few stubborn thoughts.

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There is another set of steps that leads to the main structure itself. Built for the vast sum of Rs. 13,000 and consecrated in 1846, the Saher Agiary is a charming low building with a deeply overhung tiled roof. Inside is a floor built of cool stone, scalloped with wear. Wide wooden benches. Slow fans stirring the warm, syrupy air. The gentle, corpulent priest ghosts away as you enter.

Clearly, the Saher Agiary is not the most popular fire temple in Mumbai, but there are two times in the year when it judders to life. One is during the Muktad*, when the fire temple is ablaze with coral-coloured flowers tucked into gleaming silver vases and the sandalwood smoke sits heavy in the air. And then the other, later in the year, when November deepens into winter and the somnolent courtyard lights up with colourful fairy lights and music. It is navjote and wedding season for the Parsis and Iranis.

If you have made it this far into my story, I will tell you another secret. Behind the agiari building, you will find a secret garden of sorts – a brambly, tangled undergrowth where nobody ever goes and you are forced to contend with your own company. All around you are tall, grand buildings, but, just for this moment, it is only you, sitting in a remnant world and learning to read the small print of life.

*Muktad: Zoroastrians believe that the souls of their dead return to earth once a year for 10 days; it is said that the souls bless those who remember and pray for them on these days. It falls just before the Parsi New Year in August.

Saher Agiary, Off Bhulabhai Desai Road, Mumbai 400 036.