Udvada and Navsari Atashbehrams: A Report by Berjis Desai

Our annual pilgrimage to the Navsari and Udvada atash behrams made us pensive. Although it was not one of the "big days” of the Parsi calendar, there was no sitting space at Iranshah. Occupancy at the hotels and the recently spruced up sanatorium is high. Sales of mawa cakes at the local Irani Bakery are brisk. Thanks to our new Prime Minister and his friend, Vada Dastur Khurshed Dastoor, the roads leading to our holy site are excellent. Udvada Village is buzzing with positive energy and looks very Parsi.

The other atash behram at Navsari (Bhagarsath Anjumanna Atash Behram), though charming and vibrant as always, had only a few worshippers. A solitary young priest is around. Ever expanding Navsari is about to have a municipal corporation heralding its official transformation from a large town to a city. Three-and-a-half thousand Parsis constitute little under two percent of its population, the Jokhi’s Ava Baug having attracted several Parsis to the town. The Atash Behram, founded in 1765, and massively restored in 1925, sports a new donor plaque, thanking the Navajbai Ratan Tata Trust for its two crore rupees donation in 2011. Next year, it will celebrate its 250th anniversary. The prayer hall surrounding the sanctum sanctorum is more impressive than the one in Udvada (we may, of course, be biased, as its founder was a direct lineal ascendant/forebear). The holy fire, divinely charming, faces a marble wall where, a few decades ago, a distinct impression of the first Dasturji Meherjirana (who attended Akbar’s court) mysteriously surfaced and can be seen even today. Over the years we have heard many first-hand stories from the boiwalas tending the fire about a powerful guardian spirit dressed all in white silently moving in its environs. Just across the Atash Behram is the Mobed Minocherhomji Daremeher (adarian). Few know that this Agiary was founded in 1687, that is, 78 years before the atash behram.

This Agiary has a rich and fascinating history. Restored in 1954, and recently renovated, things now look very quiet. An elderly priest sitting in an armchair in sudreh-lengha and reading the Gujarat Samachar, hastens to put on his jama and place the sandalwood sticks onto the fire. This 327-year-old Agiary is an inherent part of the great Zoroastrian heritage. As we bow before the holy fire, we hear some FM radio station blaring Hindi film songs. Other communities have bought over most of the houses encircling the atash behram and Agiary. As we walk down memory lane in the moholla we see the few remaining Parsi houses derelict, locked or dilapidated. Not more than just 30 years ago this moholla had a distinct Parsi character with not a single non-Parsi house.

Advocate Dara Deboo (who has done a superb job modernizing Sorab Baug’s rooms for visiting devotees) shares with us the history of each house or vacant plot. Death, migration, poverty and greed have all played their role. We ask him about the whereabouts of a solitary spinster and just then she walks down the road, adding to the collective pathos which engulfs the place. The erstwhile family home of a Bombay High Priest now has a nameplate which says "Raziya Palace,” with some Urdu inscription beneath. Defeat is writ large on the faces of the surviving neighborhood Parsis. A way of life has almost disappeared. Somebody has carpet bombed our culture.

While the area surrounding the Udvada Atash Behram is engulfed in Parsi warmth, the Navsari precinct is not. As if to resist the irresistible, Dinshaw Tamboly’s WZO House, modern and spanking, stands like a lone warrior near the Atash Behram. We enquire from Deboo the possibility of acquiring one of these houses or vacant plots to build a Zoroastrian Heritage Center, to preserve and protect the Atash Behram and Agiary from even more difficult times to come. An acre costs a crore, he says. Such a heritage center could function like a mini museum, artefacts shop and also send a constant update on the situation to Bombay. While the city center of Navsari is too large to be reconquered, it is not impossible to culturally revive the mohollas surrounding the Atash Behram and the Agiary.

Unfortunately, unlike Udvada on the sea, dusty and polluted Navsari is no vacation or weekend stop. Despite this, if 10 Parsi houses can be acquired in this small area, we would be creating a protective shield around our spiritual inheritance. Until 50 years ago, Navsari was regarded as "Dharam no tékdo (support/pillar of the religion).” Today, it is culturally annihilated. In the years to come more such bastions will fall. Shall we resignedly accept it as destiny, or shall we somehow manage to reset the clock just before midnight?

Berjis M. Desai, managing partner of J. Sagar Associates, advocates and solicitors, is a writer and community activist.