Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Bachi Karkaria on the Kolkata Agiary Turning 100

The name is bond. Sacred bond. And it is licensed to send a warm thrill up the spine of every Kolkata Parsi. Not just of only the 550 who still remain, but all of us who had grown into our Zoroastrian faith there.

By Bachi Karkaria | TNN

The city’s only fire temple, the DB Mehta Anjuman Atash Adaran has launched into its centenary celebrations. Most resplendent in that crowd of Chinese garas and pristine white daglis was ‘Hilla Aunty’ Billimoria. She was already two when the holy fire was consecrated on October 28, 1912. With her in the front row sat ‘Perin Aunty’ Dustoor, born in the same year as the century-old agiari. They warbled out the inaugural hymn, their voices soaring on fervent wings.

The pristine fire temple is tucked into an alley so anorexic that only the last remaining rickshaws brave its clutch. Their bells are periodically drowned by the agiari’s sacred gongs and the secular chimes of a grandfather clock even older than its historic venue. The inscription reads: ‘Specially made for RD Mehta Esq by J&T Foster, 12 Mayes St, Manchester, 1908, January.’

Such indulgences were routine for the merchant princes of the Raj, and the commissioning gentleman was decidedly among them. More so was his sire, Dhunjeebhoy Behramjee Mehta who had arrived here in 1846 from his native Navsari, made his first fortune in ‘trade’ with China, and then set up the Empress of India Cotton Mills in nearby Serampore. His widow Khorshedbai and son Rustomjee, he of the grandfather clock, fulfilled his dying wish of creating a second, more open-armed place of worship for the increasing number of Zoroastrians in Calcutta.

The first had been set up as a ‘dadgah’, a family fire temple, by Dhunjeebhoy’s contemporary, the fabled Rustomji Cowasji Banaji. Perfidious fate decimated his fortune and feuding descendants killed his legacy. Early in the 1970s, the long-unpaid priest abandoned his post, and the durwans parceled out its grounds to hawkers and petty traders. They spared the temple proper, but its soul died with the untended sacred fire. The community could not salvage it because it was entangled in a family trust.

This was an even more visceral loss for our family. Our equally old house shared a wall with the Banaji agiari, its gongs marked out our routine, and the fragrance of its sandalwood mingling with that of frying onions in our kitchen created the abiding scent of my growing up years. It was our private font of faith.

‘Mehta ni agiari’ was our communal one. On Jamshedi Navroz and the New Year, we joined our ‘humdin’ in festive finery to pray here and partake of the ceremonial ‘chashni’ of fruit and ghee-rich malido-papdi-daran in the large ‘German silver khumchas’ laid out on marble benches.

The ‘saal mubaraks’ and ‘kissi-koti’ prevented any concentrated prayer, but this agiari had a cosmic grandeur. Simply ascending its radiant marble stairs seemed to take us closer to Ahura Mazda. Seasonal feasts or ‘ghambars’ were held in its compound; visiting religious scholars lectured in its downstairs hall. And the Parsi Scouts and Guides mounted ladders periodically to scrape the soot off its old walls and repaint them.

Many of us have cut the moorings of our little kaumi dinghy in Cal. Some of us have come to live in the mother ship of Mumbai, with its proliferation of loftier fire temples. But none of them hold the two-pronged magnetism of my ‘Mehta ni agiari’. They lack the magic of religious innocence, and they are not the bonding agent so special for a self-exiled tribe holding on to its identity with pride but no paranoia.

The aura of my childhood agiari may seem as transient as the smoke that wafted through it, but it is as lingering as its sandalwood fragrance.