The ritual fire in the Atash Behram of Udvada, a sleepy little coastal town in Gujarat, has been burning for over a millennium. “The idea is to keep it burning for centuries to come,” says Khurshed Dastur, 51, high priest of the Udvada fire temple, the Iranshah Atash Behram, the oldest-burning fire temple in the world. Several centuries’ accumulation of history has to be poignant for a community wrestling with the possibility of near extinction in the coming decades. Last month, when about 3,000 Parsis from across the world gathered in the little hamlet for the first ever ‘Iranshah Udvada Festival’, the revelry and merry-making centred around a rather serious concern — of seizing a heritage symbolised by Udvada and using it to forge another few centuries of unadulterated Parsi culture, food, philanthropy, industry, art and bawa jokes.
Udvada, believed to have got its name from “Unthwada” or a grazing ground for camels, is where the earliest Parsi emigrants fleeing Arab rulers in Iran about 1,300 years ago had settled. According to legend, the Iranshah or the holy fire of the Parsis was brought to Gujarat — to Sanjan, then to Navsari, before being brought to Udvada in 1742.
That Udvada drew attention last fortnight from the lakh-strong Parsi community the world over was the first leg of a mission, accomplished. “The idea is to put Udvada on the world map with the aim of making the younger generation aware of their roots,” Dastur says.
There couldn’t have been a better location for the initiative, for the most striking thing about Udvada is its cloak of loneliness, its silent lanes telling a million tales of Parsi history. Along the meandering lanes are many vacant bungalows interspersed with some occupied ones. Wells, dug a few hundred years ago, stand ready. The architecture is unique, with ornamental entablatures, cantilevered balconies, carved columns with additional floors resting atop supporting beams. And they all tell the same story, of a community waiting for its young to reclaim a rich past.
The privileged Dastur street, home to the priestly class and eventually leading to the Atash Behram, the most sacred of the nine Parsi fire temples in the world, begins at the “Dastur Cottage”. Its owner Dhunjishaw Dastur, 70, estimates his ancestral home to be at least 200 years old. Neatly polished four-poster beds, old recliners, double-mirrored cupboards of teakwood, relics and photo frames adorning the walls are all marks of reverence for his ancestors.
He reminisces of a time when his mother plastered the floors with cow dung to keep the house cool in the summers. Elaborately carved window grilles swivel on pivoted joints; the doors have only recently been replaced with hinges. As a mark of another era, the toilets are still in the backyard dotted with mango and pomegranate trees. Dhunjishaw, a former employee with an airline, lives in Mumbai, but spends his weekends in his native Udvada.
His father Eruchshaw Dastur had inherited the bungalow from his maternal grandmother. The well — a key feature of a Parsi household — is right at the centre of his backyard. An inscription reading “1914” reveals its age. “The well is now over 100 years old. The houses were built first and the well much later. So this house should be somewhere between 150 and 200 years old,” he says. The water from the well is used in several Parsi rituals.
He remembers the Udvada of his childhood when it was a thriving Parsi town. “The evenings were great fun. We would go to the beach and come back and see the elderly sitting in the porch discussing religion and the usual stuff,” he says. Migration to Mumbai and beyond saw the bungalows turn slowly into weekend homes, and then into abandoned properties. “Now only 70-75 permanent residents live here,” says Dhunjishaw, who followed rituals to become a priest. Seated in the porch, his wrinkled face is illuminated by light refracted from the glass of a wooden partition right outside his bungalow’s main door. Belonging to a family of priests meant he was always close to religion. Not seeing his 23-year-old son, a college student, follow in his footsteps remains a nagging regret.
The Atash Behram is nearby, its classic woodwork almost entirely concealed by buildings around the fire temple. Lamenting the depleting population of Udvada, and the Parsi community in general, Dastur says, “Traditions have some meaning, some value.” But he is hopeful of a turnaround. “It is the law of nature. The highs and lows are always there. We have survived earlier and we will survive again,” he asserts.
Discussions on their declining population always evoke a sense of urgency and despair among Parsis. And, symbolically enough, Udvada, now being pushed by no less than Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the community’s crucible in India, grapples with the same problem. Udvada has, over the years, witnessed a plunge in its population. The Parsi population is estimated to be hovering around 60,000 in India. But it lacks clarity as the last census on Parsis was held way back in 2001. Demographers point to a steady rise in the percentage of inter-marriages in Mumbai, from 20.5 per cent in 1992 to 38.9 per cent in 2011. “There could less than a 100,000 Parsis living worldwide,” says Dr Shernaz Cama of Mumbai, who is involved in a government-supported scheme to encourage the community to increase their population.
That dwindling number of Parsis worldwide explains why an Udvada hotel with beach-facing rooms and flamboyant Parsi architecture now lies dilapidated and abandoned. “Hotel Majestic” once boasted of huge tourist footfalls in Udvada. Now, it is in ruins. The strong wooden columns have withstood the test of time, remaining intact. Back in the 1950s and the 1960s, the hotel was a hub of Parsi merry-making, but began to struggle as Parsis began to relocate in the next few decades, leading to its closure in the 1990s.
Kankuben Patel worked in the hotel as a cook in the 1960s. “It was very famous back then. The most posh of all the hotels, I would say. Six of its rooms have been destroyed by the sea now,” says Patel, 68, who lives with his family right opposite.
Vast open spaces on the front and rear of the hotel and its spacious rooms are signs of the grandeur that the hotel once commanded. “The portion of the hotel’s land on the seashore has been acquired by the government,” says a watchman who guards the decrepit structure.
Ajay Vasani, 59, is a fourth generation grocery store owner, who lives on the fringes of Udvada village. He too recalls the hotel’s glorious past. “The station wagons in the town had labels of ‘Hotel Majestic’ on them. They just had to park outside the station and customers would throng the hotel in large numbers,” he says.
Seated on a swing hung from the ceiling of his porch, Framroz Sidhwa is difficult to spot. Confined to the comforts of his house, Sidhwa, 82, labels industrial growth around Udvada as one reason for the migration away from the town. “Better job opportunities meant a dearth in servants’ population,” says Sidhwa, who has been living in Udvada alone for the past 25 years. He remembers the 1950s when the Parsi population in Udvada stood at a sizeable 1,500. “A Parsi family of 12 members in 1970s shrunk to a few members and eventually, the house was gifted to somebody else as they all left Udvada,” he says.
It’s getting dark, but the octogenarian shows no signs of fatigue. “There was also King Hotel. That shut because its owner, Khurshedji Patel, failed to keep a hold of his staff,” he recalls. A few metres away from Hotel Majestic, the remnants of King Hotel are now concealed by tall shrubbery.
Evenings in Udvada now bring an uneasy calm. Deserted streets are paving way for break-ins into empty houses. “You will not find any money or jewelry in an empty Parsi home. So the burglars damage antique furniture,” complains Sidhwa.
In 2014, to help grow the Parsi population, the ministry of minority affairs launched a Jiyo Parsi scheme. Besides providing medical assistance to young couples, the scheme encouraged the community’s youth to have babies. With the birth rate less than 1 per married couple, and 60 per cent of the population either unmarried or childless, making the scheme a success remains an uphill task.
Dr Cama, who heads the PARZOR Project that is implementing the scheme, says the community has benefitted in two ways. “Firstly, there have been 37 births and 21 Parsis are expecting since the scheme’s inception. Secondly, it has started to change the mindset of the people,” says Dr Cama.
The fact that there are 800 deaths for every 100 births, she says, is an alarming one but the scheme shows that advocacy-related births now comprise two-thirds of the total births in the community. “More people are voluntarily coming forward to have a second child. It is the beginning of a change in attitude,” she says.
In Udvada, the mood last fortnight was decidedly upbeat during the Iranshah Udvada Utsav. It meant mouths to feed every day, and good business opportunities for entrepreneurs such as Perviz Rabadi, 63, who runs a catering business in the town. With the help of some support staff, she catered food for 100 people for three days.
Known for her expertise in the kitchen and generosity, when we visit, Rabadi is preparing vasanu, or a traditional Parsi specialty of 32 herbs, cooked mainly during winter. She adds an extra pinch of saunth or dried ginger powder to make the sweet delicacy a little spicier. As the mix of water and sugar comes to a boil on an adjacent stove top, she says, “I do not like Mumbai. I have worked in Dubai for many years. Udvada is where I find tranquility and solace.”
For Rabadi, cooking runs in her veins. “My great grandfather Shapoorji Bangali was a great cook and ran his catering business. My son, daughters and grandchildren — all cook really well,” she says proudly. Her son and daughter-in-law help her run the restaurant during the weekends and vacations. Otherwise, she lives alone in the quiet town. Her creamy dhansak with a fragrant red pulao and chicken salli boti is a hit among food lovers. Fortunately for Rabadi, it is a full house during the Udvada Utsav and celebrations are expected to continue till early next year. “Parsis love to eat and I love to feed them,” says Rabadi.
Enjoying themselves the most during the Udvada Utsav were Parsis who had never been to Udvada before. It was an acknowledgement of the initiative’s success in keeping the focus on the youth of the community.
“This is the time to balance between tradition and the changes that are happening around us. Ultimately, it’s all part of an inevitable evolution we are going through. And to see so many prominent personalities at a single congregation is overwhelming,” says 25-year-old Kaivan Mogrelia, who has come from Kolkata to attend the festival.
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