Proposed industrial zone near Udvada fire temple angers Parsis

A land transaction in a tiny Gujarat village has caused concern among the Parsi-Irani community in Mumbai as well as the diaspora worldwide. About 200 km from the city is located Udvada, the community’s most important pilgrim spot: enthroned here is its oldest and holiest consecrated fire, the Iranshah, which has been looked after day and night by generations of priests for over 1,250 years.

By Nauzar K. Bharucha / Times of India

Barely a short distance from the fire temple, a 200-acre agricultural land recently changed hands— insiders said for about Rs 40 crore—and the new owner plans to set up an industrial zone , raising fears of pollution and a threat to the sanctity of the fire temple. To a large extent, the economy of this village is driven by thousands of pilgrims visiting from across the globe.

The developers who have bought the land have reportedly filed a caveat in the Gujarat high court, asking to be heard in case of litigation. In Mumbai, where the largest number of Parsis reside, there has been much consternation over the past one month with community leaders and organisations, such as the Bombay Parsi Punchayat, galvanising a plan of action to stop any activity that may permanently damage the fabric of Udvada.

The few hundred community members in Delhi have sought an urgent meeting with the ministry of minority affairs to halt the destruction. “The six high priests will jointly appeal to the Gujarat government to ensure that no development is permitted in this village ,” said Dastur KND Meherjirana, the 83-year-old head priest. A delegation is expected to meet the Gujarat CM soon.

The Udvada Samast Anjuman, which represents the local Parsi residents, recently wrote to Modi.”We request your urgent intervention to address a situation emerging at Udvada that is causing concern to members of the Parsi community worldwide. We have been given to understand that the tenure of a 200-acres plot situated directly behind our most sacred Iranshah Atashbehram is in the process of being changed from agriculture to nonagriculture , after which it is proposed to be designated as an industrial estate…. If an industrial estate is allowed to be established it will completely destroy the sanctity of our sacred Iranshah Atashbehram… additionally , such a misadventure will create havoc with the environment at Udvada,” said the letter. Mumbai-based Aban Bana, who has since years been striving to improve the social infrastructure in Udvada, said industrialisation will spell a doom for the village . “The influx of people will change it forever. As it is, Udvada suffers from regular power failures,” she said.

Afew years ago, there was a move to get Udvada enlisted as a Unesco World Heritage site, but some from the community protested against it on the grounds that it would turn Udvada into a “tourist destination” and they will have little say in the affairs of the fire temple. However, conservation architect Pankaj Joshi, who has done research and documentation of Udvada, said some sort of heritage regulation in which”religious activity will dominate and given precedence” is required.

“We are not talking about a Unesco listing that will lead to outside interference . But a local heritage protection law can be implemented with community leaders and priests as members of such a committee,” he suggested. The Iranshah fire has been in Udvada since 1742. It was first consecrated in Sanjan and later moved to Vansda, Navsari, Surat and Bulsar before being enthroned in Udvada 268 years ago.