Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Udvada: The Land Controversey

It’s a change of different sort, a not-so-nice one, where one of the world’s most ancient religions finds its nook of worship threatened. Parsi-Irani Zoroastrians in India and around the world have been a worried lot after 200 acres of lush agricultural land in the backyard of Udvada’s sacred fire temple were handed over to a private developer to set up industry. Shailesh Bhatia and photographer Ashish Rane visit the coastal hamlet in Gujarat to see a 1,250 year-old fire that’s survived Muslim invasion, seastorms and political turmoil, now wrestle with industrialisation

Original article published in the Mid-Day on November 15, 2010

It’s not any old fire. It’s not even any old sacred fire. With a complex constitution that involves the blend of over 16 types of flames sourced from a potter’s kiln, a goldsmith’s furnace, a burning pyre, even lightening itself, the Pak Iranshah fire has been burning continuously, day and night, for over 1,250 years.

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With youngsters moving to towns and overseas, Udvada’s Parsi population (now estimated at under 100) is dominated by the elderly.

Escaping the Arab invasion of 7th century CE from Iran, a group of Zoroastrians fled by boat carrying little else but this legendary flame. Not in a supportive mood, nature played spoilsport, as a storm unleashed at sea. The group did the only thing they could — pray. If they braved the storm, they’d set up a fire temple, they promised. Gujarat king Jadav Rana’s offer of shelter is a well-celebrated tale. But when Sanjan was attacked by Sultan Mahmud, the group fled once again, hiding for 12 years with the flame in the Barhot hill caves. Bansda, Navsari, and finally Udvada in 1742 CE — the flame found its home in the little coastal village of Gujarat that lies 200 kms from Mumbai.

Its fight is far from over. Centuries later, the fire finds itself struggling against another demon — industralisation. Last month, a land deal in Udvada became the centre of concern and chaos after a 200-acre agricultural plot in the backyard of the Iranshah Atashbehram (fire temple), was sold to private builder Nucleus Developers Pvt. Ltd. The Udvada Samast Anjuman that represents the local Parsi residents, headed by Vada Dasturs (High Priests), wrote to Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi for help, floated an online petition, and held meetings with officials from various ministries in Gandhinagar. The Valsad district administration cancelled permission for the development of an industrial estate, following which the developer approached the Revenue Tribunal against the cancelling order. The tribunal ordered a status quo on the matter.

But the threat is far from over, say Parsi residents who now number less than a hundred. Last Wednesday, the otherwise laidback village experienced a volatile atmosphere when the Sunday MiD DAY team dropped by for a visit. In a meeting held at the Grampanchayat office attended by senior members of the civic administration and the Parsi community, residents said they had reason to believe that plans were now on for a mega row house project that could see about 400 row houses crop up on the lush green plot.

In the din of attacks and counter attacks, some agitated members alleged that they believe a financial transaction had transpired between the officials and the developer, who they claim had donated huge sums for civic amenities and was seeking unreasonable favours in return.

Caught in a lie

Facing a volley of questions over how a non-agriculture certificate was issued to a private developer, without the consent of the community and residents, Thakur Patel, Deputy. Grampanchyat, said he had received the consent of the Head Priest before the NA certificate was issued. Amid the furor, Manek Todiwala, a local hotel owner, put technology to good use and dialled High Priest Khurshed K Dastoor who was in Mumbai at the time. On speakerphone, Dastoor denied the claim for all to hear.

"Following our agitation, and the status quo on the matter, no activity is currently on. But the Grampanchayat is in collusion with the developer, which consists of over three partners, to pass a plan to construct 400 row houses. Once the commercialisation of the village begins, the next step could be to revert to the earlier plan of setting up industry," said Todiwala.

Talking later to Sunday MiD DAY, Thakur claimed that the entire village, except for the Parsi community, was in favour of the private builder setting up shop. Ironically, this wasn’t evident from the large number of non-Parsis who arrived at the meeting in support. 

Thakur said paperwork for the clearance was in order, and the same could be revoked if the local community’s protest persisted. When this reporter requested Valsad district collector Nalin Thaker’s contact, Thakur, Samsudin Sheikh and Panchayat member Nanubhai Patel claimed they didn’t have it.

History of the disputed land

Known as Tata Wadi, owing to its one-time owners, the plot was sold in the early 1980s to a gentleman who locals refer to as Lalu Jogi, a businessman from Daman. Although the exact cost of the current deal with Nucleus, whose signboard stands at the entrance of the property, is not clear, it is estimated to be in the region of Rs 40 crore. "There are over 25 fully-grown coconut and mango trees inside, yielding fruit worth lacs during season. The property is so vast, it took me over five hours to cover it on foot," said Manoj Rathod, a local who had been called on by the landlords for menial work.

Builder’s take

When contacted, Pramod Banka claimed to be Director and authorised signatory of Nucleus Developers Pvt. Ltd. "I cannot give you any details on the phone. Wahan sab galatfehmi chal rahi hai. Kya karein? Is  company ke hum hi malik hain, hamara sab barabar chal raha hi. Aap is mudde ko mat uthao (This is all a misunderstanding. I am the owner of this company and it has been functioning fine. Please don’t bring up this issue)," he said. He directed this reporter to Adil Kherani, a Vapi-based builder.

Kherani denied any intention of setting up industry in Udvada, and accused locals of spreading rumours to jeopardize the project. "We plan to construct row houses and farm houses 250 meters away from the revered fire temple. There is nothing illegal about the project. The commotion is the result of misleading propaganda" he said.

Kherani said he had no idea about the promoters of Nucleus Developers or the estimated cost of the project, and that his father, who is currently in Saudi Arabia, was in possession of the details. "I am not aware of any money that’s been transferred to UK by Hawala, and  there is no truth to the accusation."

What ails Udvada?

Mumbai resident Rohinton Irani, who had driven down to Udvada to attend the Grampanchayet meeting, said it was time the community played a more vital role in the decision making of the land, lovingly tilled by their forefathers who travelled by sea all the way from Persia. "Grampanchayat meetings are held and decisions taken without informing the local Parsi families. This is simply not fair. If the working of the Panchayat is transparent, why are we alienated and kept in the dark?"

Priests and locals are concerned that haywire and large scale commercialisation without a civic infrastructure plan will not only destroy the charm of this quaint village, it could salinate freshwater wells that the community considers sacred and are crucial in certain religious ceremonies like Yasna and Vendidad. "Ecological imbalance is already a big concern for us, with houses and commercial establishments on the beach having borne the brunt of beach erosion. Though the government is said to have spent a sizeable amount on butting barricades, a visit to the beach shows that the worst is far from over," said resident Sarosh Irani.

"Sacrifices have been made by our forefathers to keep the Zoroastrian tradition alive and it is the duty of our society to protect it. We are concerned that industrialisation will contaminate our wells that are a vital part of our rituals," said Nina Pavri, who has migrated from UK and plans to open a school for underprivileged tribal children in Udvada.

Fast facts

State: Gujarat

Distance: 206 km N of Mumbai

Journey Time: By rail — 3 hrs 15 mins. By road — 4 hrs.

Location: On the palm-fringed coast of south Gujarat.

Route: NH8 from Mumbai to Vapi via Manor, Charoti Naka, Talasari and Bhilad. Take district road to Udvada.

Why Iranshah matters

For the Zoroastrian community in India and abroad, Udvada is sacred territory thanks to the Iranshah which is is believed to be their oldest consecrated fire. It is said that this fire brought to India by Iranian refugees after religious persecution, has been burning continuously in the Iranshah Atashbehram for more than 1,250 years.

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Nucleus Limited (signboard seen in picture) has acquired 200 acres of lush green land around the Iranshah Atashbehram in the coastal village

of Udvada

A group of Zoroastrians who fled Iran after the Arab invasion of 7th century CE, travelled by ship towards Gujarat, and encountered a fierce storm. They prayed for deliverance from the storm and pledged that if they were to reach land safe, they would consecrate a fire temple. King Jadav Rana of Sanjan gave them shelter, and offered them land to build it. But Sultan Mahmud attacked Sanjan, and the Zoroastrians fled and hid in the 1,500 feet high Barhot hills, and lived in the caves there for 12 years. They then moved eastwards to Bansda. The fire was then moved to Navsari in 1741 before the priests decided to move it to Udvada in October 1742 CE.

The letter the High Priests wrote to Modi

Respected Shri Modi,

We, the undersigned, holding the ecclesiastical office of High Priests (Dasturs) of the Parsi/Iranian Zoroastrian community of India, approach your good-self for seeking your intervention in a matter that is greatly agitating the mind and religious conscience of our community residing not only in India but all over the world.

We understand that the tenure of a huge plot of land, around 200 acres, situated directly behind our most sacred Iranshah Atashbehram, is in the process of being changed from Agricultural to Non-Agricultural, with the intent to use it for industrial development, construction of factories, residential premises and such other uses which normally accompany the present day development.

We write this to invite your honour’s worthy attention that if this change of tenure and any development is permitted, it will completely destroy the sanctity and solemnity of our sacred Iranshah Atashbehram, which is the holiest place of worship in the world for the Parsi community.

Udvada has very limited civic infrastructure in place and is already facing many impediments such as diminising costaline arising out of beach erosion, sea water seepage raising salinity in fresh water wells, and unabated construction of high-rise buildings without proper sanitation facilities shall lead to contanmination of our fresh water wells rendering them unfit for religious ceremonies….

Signed,

Dastur Khurshed K Dastoor (High Priest, Udvada)

Dasturji Dr Peshotan H Mirza (High Priest, Udvada)

Dastur Dr Kaikhushroo M JamaspAsa (High Priest, Mumbai)

Dastur Dr Firoze M Kotwal (High Priest, Mumbai)

Dastur Kaikhushroo Er Navroze Dastoor Meherjirana (High Priest, Navsari)

Dastur Cyrus N Dastur (High Priest, Surat)

Environment takes the flak

Udvada has been in the news earlier for environmental concerns, including those of beach-erosion. Baman Cama, Trustee of Gujarat Nature Conservation Society and Parsi Punchayet, Vadodara, believes the coastal town is in for ecological disaster if it succumbs to irrational industrialisation.  "The Fire Temple and the town face severe erosion from the sea.

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Trees, some as old as 100 years, that line the road leading from the station to Udvada gam (village) have been hacked. Locals say it’s the first step to widening roads to pave way for industrialisation.

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The town is under threat from the advancing sea and consequent salinity.

Mumbai-based organisation Save Udvada Committee, supported by the Indian and Gujarat state governments, is engaged in combating sea-driven erosion in the area. Beach erosion was first observed here over five decades ago, with the demolition of a few fishermen huts. Over the years, the erosion has spread northwards, affecting the backyards of the coastal settlement. Shoreline oscillation is a natural hazard like seismic movement. The shoreline that represents the land-sea interface does not remain stationary over centuries. Seen here is a hotel that once stood along the beach front, and like most sea-facing properties, now lies in ruins.

 

Playing with nature is inviting trouble. Laying new commercial structures is bound to obstruct the natural flow of existing ground and surface water, which invariably leads to flooding. The tides are already reclaiming land, and I see this as a warning signal that should not be taken lightly," he says.

Mukesh Pathak, CEO of  Gujarat Nature Conservation Society asks who will bear the responsibility of waste management and other concerns that accompany the commercialisation of any area that houses a fragile eco system.

‘It’s all based on lies and deceit’

Alleges High Priest of Iranshah Atashbehram in Udvada, Dastur Khurshedji K Dastoor, while  questioning the motive of the Grampanchayat that granted the NOC for the commercialisation of the area.

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A heated debate ensued at the Grampanchayat meeting held on Wednesday which was attended by Kersasp Sidhwa, Joint Secretary of the Udvada Samasta Anjuman that represents the local Parsi residents (seated second from right)

"According to the development plans, the builder intends to build around 15 farm houses and 600 row houses. He could also revert to the original plan of setting up industry here. Once this plot is developed and occupied, the population of Udvada, which today stands at around just 7,000, will go up to over 12,000. Udvada will thus cease to be a village, and come under the Nagar Palika as a township. This will kill its very identity.

CRZ (Coastal regulation Zone) rules are being violated. How will an area that’s solely dependent on groundwater be able to sustain itself if its population shoots up? We are also concerned about flooding in the area, and the impact it will have on the holy fire that’s been burning for thousands of years.

The entire episode is based on lies and deceit. We have good reason to believe that a substantial amount of funds have changed hands, and has been illegally transferred abroad. This needs to be investigated. The reason behind our suspicion comes from the fact that a section of the Parsi community that was keen to develop this piece of land, withdrew since they didn’t wish to be part of the illegal transaction and transfer of funds."

The first-timer’s guide to figuring Udvada

–By Tinaz Nooshian

That trip that all Parsi kids make at age seven to the lazy village of Udvada, right after their Navjote (thread ceremony) to seek the blessings of Dadarji (Bawa-speak for God), might have a crucial role to play, I suspect, in the ‘joy of doing nothing other than eating and resting’ that’s not too far away from turning into an unofficial tenet of Zoroastrianism. When impressionable minds see porch-after-porch in leafy lanes seating plump aunties in sleeveless frocks gather for a gossip session, while men doze or read, their feet high up on the swing arms of Planter chairs, you are bound to ask, "why work!"

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Here’s a trouble-free itinerary: Morning tour of the heritage museum that’s a well-planned crash course in Zoroastrian culture, and the only place where your questions about ‘what exactly lies inside a fire temple?’ will get answered. Bumper lunch at Globe Hotel. Afternoon siesta under a whirring ceiling fan. Evening walk along the narrow gullis as you dodge vagrant hens. Wind it off with a stroll on the beach as the sun sets, shadows retreating from decadent sea-facing buildings.

What to buy

The sandalwood sellers who roam the streets (easy to spot by their red or black velvet skull caps) are primarily looking for Zoroastrian customers who pick up sticks of sukhad to offer as a little fragrant contribution to keep the Fire burning. But if you are looking to take some back home, they should be happy to sell it. This is probably one of the few places where you can be almost certain of not taking back plain wood dowsed in sandalwood oil masquerading as the real thing.

Parsi women here are famous for their pickles and papads. The papads are wafer-thin, and lined with oil, promising to last way longer than the clinical branded roundels we are used to eating in metros. Garlic, pepper, chilli — take your pick from a range of flavours.

Most of them make a mean Methiya nu Achaar (spicy raw mango pickle) that can jazz up the most mundane dal-chawal meal. Libu nu Achaar (tangy, fresh lime pickle) and Keri ni Chutney (sweet-spicy mango pickle; a Bawa speciality) are other options. Those of you who enjoy the whiff of freshly ground spices, must drop by to pick up dry spices from a local Parsi lady whose Dhansak masala, garam masala and sambhar powder are legendary. She doesn’t retail out of a shop. If you want her wares, you have to go find her at home where she’s most likely to be relaxing with a pet parakeet balancing on her index finger. But that’s for another travel story.

What to eat

Ashisvang Hotel and Globe are two landmarks, and your best bet if you are planning a lay-over. Non-resident guests are welcome to drop by for a meal. Must-trys include Dhansak (a speciality spiced mutton dal eaten with tempered rice), and fried Boi (local Mullet fish).  Sweet-fleshed, it’s usually served whole, head and tail intact. With meats, size matters for the Parsis. The best Boi is the one that’s plump enough to spill out of your plate. To round off your meal, look out for street hawkers selling hand-churned ice-cream. My pick — Chikoo-flavoured.

Seat of the sacred fire

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The Iranshah Atashbehram that stands at the heart of the town is one of nine fire temples across the world. It’s the most important spiritual centre for Zoroastrians the world over, one that’s visited by just-married couples, entrepreneurs starting a new business, and even proud owners of brand new cars.