For Zoroastrian heritage, the shadows may be lengthening, but at least the flame continues to flicker.
An old Parsi house in Navsari. Photo: Dinodia Photos/Alamy Stock Photo
I draw into Surat’s railway station on a claggy sort of evening; the sky is quiet, lidded with grey clouds, and the windows of our train fling soft squares of light onto the station platform. Surat itself though is chaotic, fizzing and vibrating with the energy of industry and the future. But we are not here for that.
Why are we here? I come to people the empty map I have drawn of my dwindling community, the Parsis. My parents have come to unearth the half-remembered archaeology of their past. We are here to grapple with the protean shapes of our faith.
The barest bones of our history can be summarised thus. The Zoroastrians lived circa 1,200 BC, spawning three great Persian empires—Achaemenians, Parthians and Sassanians. Upheaval came with the Arab invasion in the 7th Century, scattering the Zoroastrians as far away as India. A small, determined bunch brought with them the holy flame from the temples of Iran, settling first in Sanjan (where a commemorative pillar still stands), then seeping across Gujarat, finally onwards to Bombay and Calcutta.
The ‘stambh’ that marks the arrival of the first Parsis in Sanjan. Photo: Dinodia Photos/Alamy
But back to Surat. Not much remains of the city of my parents’ memories. Huge glass-fronted buildings have muscled out the tiny cottages that peopled Amroli, my mother’s native village on the outskirts of Surat. An aunt’s bungalow, collapsed into rubble, has now been exchanged with an office building. And yet there is Shahpore, with its leafy capillaried lanes, home to most of the city’s Parsis. An agiari in Amroli, tiny, windowless, locked; it sputters to life only when we enter. Larger, beautifully-kept fire temples in Surat. One is painted a sprightly yellow, a cautionary notice pasted to its door ‘Please keep door closed to avoid cat entry. Thank you.’ And, of course, there is Dotivala Bakery, purveyors of my father’s favourite ginger biscuits and Sosyo. (When the Dutch arrived in Gujarat in the 16th century, they brought with them art of baking bread, a tradition that was then passed on to the Parsi bakers they hired to work under them. The English eventually ousted the Dutch, but one of the bakers, Faramji Dotivala, continued baking.)
Then onwards to Udwada. Named for being a resting area for peripatetic camels (uth-vada), it is where the holy fire was moved to Udwada’s fire temple in 1742; perhaps our last physical link to the august glories of Persia’s dynasties. Splayed around the holy temple are low bungalows, recently restored, hung about with Portuguese elements like elaborate cornices and intricately-carved grilles (one even has the face of Queen Victoria worked into it).
The Modi Atash Behram in Udwada, Gujarat is the oldest Parsi Fire Temple in India. Photo: Dinodia Photos/Alamy Stock Photo
It isn’t a place for frenetic activity. There’s a pebbly beach girdling the village, with a fruiting of palm trees. There’s a sleepy museum. Around the village are a wash of chikoo and mango orchards. And there are its fusty dharamsalas, famed for their superb cooking—the offal-rich aleti paleti and khurchan, pulao dar, fried fish.
There is plenty to buy—papads beaded with garlic from the old lady hanging about the temple gates, batasa and nankhatai biscuits from the Udwada Irani cafe, beaded torans (garlands), homemade chikoo ice-cream from the vendor down the lane from the temple.
Being here feels like a peaceful excursion into the pages of history, rich with the sense of an alternative rural history unlike, say, the grand, leisured estates of Parsi merchants in Mumbai. Except in December when it shatters to life with the Udwada Utsav, with its heritage walks, skits, religious lectures and such, designed to tug the past into the vibrant present.
In Navsari the next day, where Parsis first settled in the 12th Century, we make our way to the oldest existing fire temple and seminary outside Iran; the vadi dar-e-mehr, consecrated between 1140-60. The grand atash behram nearby used to be the gloried repository of the holy fire for 200 years; today it is empty, populated only with antique clocks, beautiful ancient furniture, paintings fogged by the passage of time.
Aatash Behram at Navsari. Photo: Dinodia Photos/Alamy Stock Photo
We walk to Tarota Bazaar to peer at the beautifully-restored Dasturji Meherjirana Library (1872), hopscotching around the pylons and electric wires cross-hatching the footpaths. Outside, there is the familiar city clatter of wayward traffic. But within, there is only numinous silence. Photographs of venerable Parsi ancestors gaze upon weary old wooden chairs and antique bookshelves. One of the library’s great treasures is a firman, issued by Emperor Akbar to the great Parsi priest Meherjirana, and signed by the Mughal chronicler himself, Abu’l Fazl.
The Dasturji Meherjirana Library. Photo: Meher Mirza
Navsari is home to further monuments to memory—the houses of two of its favourite sons, Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy and Sir Jamshedjee Tata. Born in the same neighbourhood, in very similar houses, both are now maintained as museums.
Close by is Yazdan Cold Drink House, and EF Kolah & Sons, purveyors of the cane vinegar and fish roe pickle that Navsari is famed for. But it is pooh-poohed roundly by my picky parents, who grumble about the fading away of the original Kolah store-owner, aapro Kersasp Kolah who sold, among other glories, ice-cream served in a special ice-cream glass. Instead, we make our way to Sorab Baug, where dad used to eat lunch every day, in the company of a chattering of young Parsis. Now there is only us, eating crisp-fried boi fish, curry chawal and kachumber.
We drive to Bharuch on our last day in Gujarat; now a throbbing modern city, but with faint remnants of its Parsi past. The pink and white Bai Motlabai Wadia School for girls. The bungalow of businessman Shapoorji Jambusarwala (converted to a school). Four imposing agiaris. The ancestral home of the illustrious Godrej clan.
A lane in Parsivad. Photo: Meher Mirza
Alas, its Parsivad, the once-magnificent Parsi neighbourhood has now receded into ghostly oblivion. Less than 100 Parsis now live here. We walk through its main street, a rutted cart-track that runs through dusty, unkempt mansions standing in empty silence. Thick with shadows, it is the loneliest, most poignant place I have ever seen.
But history, no matter how beguiling, is no panacea for the living. We walk on slowly, back to the thrum of modernity, back to life.