Fire holds a central position in the Zoroastrian religion. Fire is seen as a living, breathing embodiment of the supreme divinity and hence not only a worthy representative of God but also a powerful link between the material and spiritual worlds. In the Zoroastrian religion, the word fire denotes much more than physical burning fires. It denotes all forms of energies.
Fire temples in India are of three grades, based mainly on the sanctity of the sacred fire. The highest is the Atash Behram fire collected from 16 different sources with about 15,000 hours of consecration rituals. The second grade of fire is the Atash Adaran with fire collected from four different sources and consecration rituals lasting about 50 hours. The third grade of fire is Atash Dadgah, which is made from simple household fire, with consecration rituals lasting about five to 10 hours.
Zoroastrians came from Iran to India in the eight century AC after the downfall of the Sasanian empire. While coming from Div to Sanjan they encountered a terrible storm and promised the divine beings to consecrate an Atash Behram fire on safely reaching the shores.
They reached the shores of Sanjan, on the west coast of Gujarat in 721 AC, and within five years of settling there, after taking permission of the then Hindu king Jadav Rana, the first Atash Behram in India was consecrated. It later came to be known as Iranshah. The sacred ever-burning fires are considered as the temporal and spiritual rulers of the people, in the absence of their king.
The leaders of the Zoroastrians asked for two assurances from king Rana. First, a space of 10 farsangs of land, and second that no non-Zoroastrian should come in the vicinity of that land. The king magnanimously granted the assurances. The sacred fire was consecrated under the guidance and spiritual supervision of priest Nairyosang Dhawal, the Zoroastrian leader at that time. The ritual implements for consecrating the fire were brought by priests from Khorasan (Eastern Iran) by land route. The fire was specially invoked by Dhawal by reciting Avestan incantations.
In the course of its 1200 years of existence, this fire had to be shifted several times when a danger was perceived to its existence. It stayed in Sanjan for 670 years till about the end of 14th century when the army of Sultan Mahmad defeated the Hindu king. Then it was shifted to Bahrot mountain for 12 years (1392-1405). From there it was taken to Bansda where it stayed for 14 years.
Then at the instance of Changa Asa a wealthy Parsi, it was taken to Navsari in 1419 AC, where there was a greater Parsi settlement. It was taken under the leadership of Nagan Ram, Khurshed Kamdin and Janyan Sayer. It stayed in Navsari from around 1419 to 1740 AC. In between this period it was taken to Surat for three years, from 1733 to 1736, on account of the attack of the Pindharas (nomadic robbers).
In Navsari, there was an understanding that only the original priests from Sanjan would tend the holy fire. On this account quarrels arose with local priests and it was decided to shift the fire within the Sanjan jurisdiction. In 1740 a "royal permit" was issued by the government of Damaji Gaekwad, and the holy fire was taken to Valsad. From Valsad, it was taken to Udvada on October 28, 1742, where it is burning to date. Udvada was a village which was given as a gift to the priests tending the sacred fire by the king of Mandvi.
For nearly a thousand years after coming from Iran, the Zoroastrians had only one Atash Behram in India, the sacred Iranshah. Today the guardians of this sacred fire is the Udvada Athornan Anjuman under the leadership and guidance of two high priests – Dasturji Khurshed Dastur Kekobad Dastur and Dasturji Peshotan Dastur Hormazdyar Mirza.
The writer is an activist working to save Parsi heritage.