Sacred fire gives life to a dying heritage

Around 200 kilometres north of Mumbai, there is a small town called Udwada. Sitting calmly facing the Arabian Sea, Udwada houses one of the oldest burning fire temples in the world. Although its history is not as old as the nearby town Sanjan, where the Parsis first settled, there is something about Udwada that even the Parsi priests couldn’t resist.

By Hassan M. Kamal | The Asian Age

Legend has it, a group of Zoroastrians fled from Iran, following the Muslim conquest of Greater Iran in the 7th century, to preserve their religious customs and beliefs. They landed in Sanjan, Gujarat, where they laid the foundation of the first fire temple in India. Some centuries later, the Parsis had to flee again when troops of the Delhi Sultanate attacked

Sanjan.

They took the sacred fire with them. Although after a few years, the fire was setup in Navsari, followers wanted the fire to return to its original place. So, in the 18th century, a decision was made to return the fire to Sanjan, but on the way the priests fell in love with the pristine beaches and the greenery of Udwada. So they decided to settle down there and lay the foundation of the Atesh Behram fire temple in 1742. Since then Udwada has retained its charm attracting Parsis from all over the world. And it’s the same magic that photographer Shantanu Das has successfully captured in the show “Udwada (Home of the oldest burning fire temple)”, currently showing at the Tao Atrium Gallery in Mumbai.

The award winning photographer introduces us not only to the natural landscape of Udwada, but also to its semi-urban settings, distinctive heritage in terms of architecture, furniture, lifestyle and most importantly the people and the inner sanctum of the coastal town — the Atesh Behram fire temple.

“The fire temple is an integral part of Udwada. It’s like the heart that powers everything around it,” says Shantanu. The fire in the Atash Behram temple is considered to be one of the purest fires — some trace its origin back to Iran; they say it’s same fire that the Zoroastrians brought

with them when they fled Iran.

Being a non-Parsi, Shantanu wasn’t allowed inside the temple, and therefore, he had to rely on luck entirely. “Whatever pictures I have taken are from the gate. And luckily they all have turned out really nice,” says the photographer.

An avid traveller, Shantanu has photographed almost every nook and corner of India, sometimes travelling to the remotest areas, as far as the Nagaland-Myanmar border. And during his journeys he learnt several lessons.

“As a photographer, you are always intruding into someone’s personal space, hence it’s important that you don’t hurt anybody’s sentiments. You must respect their customs and be polite,” says the photographer.

Shantanu practiced exactly what he preached on arriving at Udwada — he spent most of his time observing the place and talking to the locals. “Wherever I go, I don’t start working instantly. I try to live with the people, talk to them and observe them. It’s a long procedure. But the end result is worth the effort,” he says.

Shantanu paid around six visits to Udwada, starting from December 2010 to March 2012, capturing the coastal town through different seasons and different occasions, a wedding, and a Parsi festival. And while each occasion presented a different side of Udwada to the photographer, it was the monsoon in Udwada that caught his attention the most. “During the monsoons you see the real beauty of Udwada,” he says, adding, “The old buildings, the washed paints, narrow roads, sharp turnings, the trees — every element finds an amazing contrast. They are all infused with new life. The rains makes it all look like a water painting. And the sound of raindrops adds to its beauty — it’s one magical experience.”

But just like every other town, Udwada too has its own share of problems. A major percentage of the younger generation is moving out in search of better jobs, education and a better life, and the unique architectural heritage left to

die.

“The population largely comprises old Parsis and Hindus,” says Shantanu. But despite its greying shade, Udwada comes across as a lively town. “It’s customs and traditions are still very much alive. I guess it has something to do with the people. They all are very happy in their daily lives,” he adds.

Shantanu says that the town represents an important time in Indian history, and whatever is left of it needs to be preserved. The pictures are a small effort to protect this fast diminishing heritage.

Udwada runs till April 7 at the Tao Atrium Gallery.

Udwada is not just about a fire temple, it depicts nostalgia, its "I chose Udwada because of its immense need for restoration and its historic importance which is being lost in this fast-paced world. No one has the time to stop and look around this place." It’s town where you find the happiest people, who despite belonging to a very closed community are very welcoming and warm towards every stranger.”

  • Noshir M. Khambatta

    It would be nice if a Zarathushtrian enterpreneur could fund Mr. Shantanu Das to have his photographs published in a book form for a larger audience to admire the work and the subject matter.

    Even better to compile a pdf file of all these photographs for world wide distribution.

  • Noshir M. Khambatta

    It would be nice if a Zarathushtrian enterpreneur could fund Mr. Shantanu Das to have his photographs published in a book form for a larger audience to admire the work and the subject matter.

    Even better to compile a pdf file of all these photographs for world wide distribution.