Part and Parsi of Madras


September 1, 2019

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This Madras Day, members from one of the oldest communities in the city speak through their traditions, roots, cuisines and culture.

Amid the clamour of a bustling Royapuram lies the Parsi fire temple, offering a moment of tranquillity from the chaos outside. The porch is dotted with simple chalk images of fish and flowers. The doorway is adorned with intricately woven and beaded torans.

Article by Vaishali Vijaykumar | Express News Service

As we enter the building, which shelters an undying fire, we are told that the priest alone can tend to the fire. He is the only person permitted inside the sanctum sanctorum. Entry into the prayer hall is restricted to Zoroastrians who offer sandal sticks to the priest, who throws it into the fire on their behalf.

On a warm Sunday morning, some senior members from the Parsi community hosted an engaging talk on their cultural practices inside the 110-year-old Jal Phiroj Clubwala Dar-e-meher, and a breakfast comprising heirloom delicacies, as part of Madras Week celebrations on Sunday.


Generations of style

Dressed in their fineries, the women are draped in their gara (saris) in the native Parsi style. They tells us that earlier, Parsi women would cover their head with one end of their sari during rituals. Hence, only one earring was made, usually with gold or silver.

“The community’s elaborate embroidery work has its influence from China. Blouses either match the sari or are left plain. The garments are difficult to maintain and are expensive. We send them to Mumbai for dry cleaning. These are passed on to us by our mothers and grandmothers,” says Tehnaz Bahadurji.

The men are dressed in their traditional dagli made of thin cotton cloth paired with white trousers and a white cap. “Sapat is our traditional footwear made of velvet or leather. The demand has gone down because of dwindling numbers in the artisan community. People continue to order it from Mumbai,” says Tehnaz.

Quaint customs

The men and women also wear sadra, a white muslin vest that stands for innocence and purity, and kasti, a holy thread wrapped around the waist thrice. It consists of 72 threads, for each chapter in the holy prayers, and is mandatory to wear after Navjote, a holy communion performed for children between seven and 13.

“We are hardly a 250-member community in the city. We seldom have marriages. Two priests pray primarily over the bride and groom in an archaic language called Avestan. That apart, we celebrate new year’s day, which is after the spring equinox on March 21, in the memory of King Jamshedji Nowruz who started the festival,” shares Tehnaz.

She explains that it’s not the fire they worship but their prophet Zarathustra, who brought the message of the creator Ahura Mazda. As fire is said to be the most powerful and incorruptible of the five elements, it is symbolic of their creator on Earth.

Early years

We move to our next location — Parsi Anjuman Baug Dharamshala — a few buildings before the fire temple. Zarine Mistry, the community’s historian, was ready with her facts to take us through their early settlement in Madras and stories of prominent contributors.

“The first Parsi came to Madras in 1795 from Coorg. A Parsi man, Heerjibhai Maneckji Kharas, bought the first plot and kept adding to it. By 1822, we had 32 grounds taken on lease. When the Crown assumed sovereignty in 1858, all the property became our own,” she says.

The Madras Parsi Zarthosti Anjuman was formed in 1900. When the son of the philanthropist Phiroj M Clubwala died, he donated the fire temple in his son’s memory, which was consecrated in 1910. The Parsi club was formed in 1930, where the community meets once a month.

Community outreach

Despite dwindling numbers around the globe, the community has maintained a stable count in the city, making their presence felt through their philanthropy. “Hormusji Nowroji was a civil engineer who was said to have built the Kilapuk waterworks and introduced piped waterlines to the city. Philanthropist-trader Phiroj M Clubwala built the Anjuman Bagh for guests from other cities to stay,” says Zarine.

Minoo K Belgamwala was a well-known figure in motorsports and horse racing. Adi Merwan Irani was a popular cinematographer and Dinshaw Tehrani, a reputed sound engineer started Newtone Studios in Kilpauk.

“Mary Clubwala Jadhav was the daughter-in-law of PM Clubwala. After her husband’s death, she joined the Guild of Service in 1935 and went on to introduce social service to well-to-do ladies. In 1940, she set up the Indian Hospitality Committee to help soldiers in the world war. She started the first school of social service in 1952, Madras School of Social Work, and was the first lady sheriff of Madras,” says Zarine.

For the love of food

As the talk concludes, Mahiar Shroff and his wife Zavera Shroff set the table with elegant crockery and a sumptuous spread of copiously buttered buns, scrambled eggs and paneer, minced meat, roasted potatoes and a dessert made of semolina.

“We try to include meat in some way in our food. For instance, broad beans are used in kebabs, cluster bean is cooked with shrimp and all vegetables have egg added to them. We have a month dedicated to the angel of animals when we avoid meat,” says Tehnaz as we down cups of piping hot Parsi chai.
The walk was curated by Rajith Nair from Travelling Gecko.