173-year-old agiary adds to Pune Camp’s pluralism

From the exterior, the Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy Agiary looks anything but 173 years old or remotely as ostentatious as the life of the person this agiary or fire temple is named after.

Article by Shiladitya Pandit | TNN

Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, a Parsi, was in more ways than one a parallel to another settler in Pune and Mumbai, the maverick Baghdadi Jewish businessman David Sassoon. Both of them were honoured by the British for their association and their crucial commercial and financial ties.

imageSassoon and Jejeebhoy were contemporaries, who made their name and wealth by flooding imperial China with opium and cotton, using the East India Company as a conduit. Sassoon escaped the persecution of the Ottomans who controlled Baghdad by fleeing to India and establishing his trade. Jejeebhoy, on one of his trading voyages, was taken prisoner by the French, but went on future trading missions anyway.

Towards the end of their lives, both Sassoon and Jejeebhoy engaged in the welfare of their communities. Hospitals, libraries, reading rooms, and one of the largest synagogues in India — the Ohel David Synagogue — were all commissioned by Sassoon, and he was buried at the Ohel David itself.

Jejeebhoy was the patron- and lent his name- to various art schools and a hospital in Mumbai. He also lent his legacy to Pune where he is recorded to have made a considerable amount of money, fame, and followers, especially among the then-burgeoning Parsi community in the city.

The erstwhile Company facilitated the settling of a fairly large number of Parsis, mostly from the business community, in the Pune Cantonment — in and around Dastur Meher Road-Synagogue Street area.

In 1842, a few of those community’s elders went to Jejeebhoy, requesting patronage for a Zoroastrian fire temple in the Cantonment- there weren’t any previously- to which Jejeebhoy agreed readily.

The agiary came up in a little more than two years at the site of what is now the intersection of Bootee Street and Dastur Meher Road and was consecrated in 1844.

Almost 173 years later, the fire temple still stands tall. Originally, the fire temple, in the middle of the compound, was surrounded in a concentric manner by residences of priests. That structure still remains. Renovations over the years — new coats of paint, repairs — have kept it as good as new, says a security guard at the temple.

Outside the clean and green compound, the world is almost a polar opposite. Arguments ensue over haphazard two-wheeler parking, a famous vada-pav stall does more-than-brisk business, visitors enter and exit a park right opposite, also named after Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy. “Oh, it’s an ocean of calm in here!” laughs Jehangir, entering the agiary compound for an evening chat.