BACHI KARKARIA relives her visit to the oldest Fire Temple, the Iranshah, in Gujarat on the eve of Jamshedi Navroz
Iam in Zoroastrianism’s holiest place, the Iranshah at Udvada in Gujarat. The marble lobby glows with hanging oil ‘divas’ cradled in engraved glass shades. Portraits of past Parsi greats look down solemnly. Bai Motlibai Wadia has pride of place. ‘Solely with her own funds ‘in memory of her husband, Ardeshir’, this devout philanthropist rebuilt this fire temple, for the fourth time in 1894, 152 years after this most sacred of our fires came to rest in Udvada.
As dusk deepens the desolation of the almost-abandoned Parsi mohalla around this Atash Behram, we enter the carpeted prayer hall. The only light inside is that of the flickering flames within the inner sanctum. We await the ‘boe’ ritual of the changing of the geh, the five watches which add up to the 24-hour cycle. This Aivisruthrem geh straddles sunset and midnight. The mobed or priest steps into the sanctum sanctorum where only the rigorously ordained priesthood may enter.
Washing the base of the gleaming German silver urn, he begins the ancient rite. In his white long robes, paghdi, the ‘padaan’ covering his nose and mouth so as not to pollute the fire, he is a near-celestial figure, his body language exuding as much pride as humility. He belongs to one of the nine priestly families who alone have had the privilege of tending to the Iranshah. They trace their lineage to Nairyosang Dhaval, who had consecrated this ‘royal’ fire in 720 CE on a desolate Gujarat beach.
This scholar-priest had led the boatload of Persian Zoroastrians fleeing their homeland to save their faith from an aggressively emerging Islam. He took the ancient trade route to Gujarat, calmed the storms with prayer, and landed with his flock in the fiefdom of Jadi Rana. He had collected 15 of the 16 sparks needed for the highest grade of fire, including those from a household hearth, a funeral pyre and a smithy’s coals. Then, after he had prayed for eight days, Ahura Mazda answered with the final, divine constituent, a bolt of lightning. The refugees fell on their knees and declared this fire to be their new king, their ‘Iranshah’. It has burned continuously since then. Now, in Udvada’s quietly imposing Atash Behram, the Parsi priest intones the Atash Niyaesh invocation, as he ritually feeds that same fire, one sandalwood stick at a time from a long-handled German silver spatula. The sacred flames leap. With one gloved hand resting the spatula on the urn, he reaches out to strike a large, burnished bell in the sanctum’s corner. Each gong reverberates for a seeming infinity.
This climatic moment of the geh-changing ritual never fails to trigger a spiritual implosion within me at even the most modest of fire temples. Imagine then its intensity at Udvada’s mythic Iranshah. The gong’s reverberations transport me across 13 centuries to that cosmic moment on Sanjan’s beachhead — and thence along the chequered journey of the venerable Iranshah.
It had to be hidden in a cave in Gujarat’s Barot Hills, then kept for varying periods in Bansda, Surat, Bulsar, and was ‘enthoned’ in Navsari, where the refugee community had grown from rural insignificance to commercial influence. After some 300 years there, a rival group of priests spirited it away to Surat at dead of night in 1742. The controversy was settled in favour of an altogether new residence, Udvada, on October 20, of the same year. The town had none of Navsari’s importance, but it was a serendipitous final home. It was originally ‘Oontvada’, town of camels, and the Prophet Zarathushtra had belonged to a camel herding clan in the cragscape of Central Asia.
As I am held captivated in this audio-visual of leaping flame, sonorous chant and resonating gong, I feel another mystic bonding — this time with my doughty, devout, distant forefathers who had arrived threadbare on the Gujarat coast, and whose descendants came to be called ‘Parsis’. Then my connect embraces the early settlers who had struggled to survive in Gujarat’s hamlets, and hold on to their unique identity without inciting resentment. And I find myself travelling with their successors through the incredible India story of my community.
In the dark prayer hall, I serendipitously meet a pilgrim from Iran. We move to the marble verandah of the Atash Behram. Cocooned in the silence of the cobbled alley, his whispered tale is a chronicle of history repeated. He speaks of how the Ayatollahs had revived the centuries’-old persecution of Zoroastrians after their brief return to ancient privilege under the last Shah of Iran; Reza Shah Pehlavi fancied himself a descendant of the Zoroastrian emperor, Cyrus the Great.
He tells of a secular burden as heavy: Iran’s Zoroastrians are as beleaguered as India’s Parsis by low fertility, intermarriage, emigration. He adds fervently, “Today we are only 10,000 left, but if things were to change, our numbers would swell to 100,000, even a million, because so many Muslim Iranians would immediately return to the religion of their forefathers. They scale walls to catch a glimpse of our religious celebrations.” He then informs me that Zoroastrians of Iran also consider Udvada’s Iranshah as their most sacred place. “We dream of praying here, and be granted the boon of practising our faith in peace.”
As I listen, rapt, to his impassioned Persian, translated by his cousin, I am blessed by yet another metaphysical connect, not just across time, but across geographies — to my original ancestors in the original Zoroastrian homeland. All of us across five millennia bound by our unwavering common faith.
Parsis first landed in Diu island and after 19 years or so they landed in Sanjan in the eighth century or so, where the Hindu king allowed them to settle and build their holy fire temple. When a Muslim army attacked Sanjan, the Parsis fought them together with their Hindu brothers, but were defeated, leading to movement of the holy fire to caves on Bahrot mountain where it was maintained for several years before moving it to several other towns including Navsari. Due to a disagreement between Navsari Bhagaria priests and Sanjana priests (who brought the fire from Sanjan), about serving the Navsari community, the fire was again moved to a few more towns before finally getting established in Udwada village, where it continues to be maintained to this day, and is the site of pilgrimage known as Iranshah for the Zarathushtis worldwide.