Fire of faith

Udwada, a small sleepy town on the southern coast of Gujarat, is the Mecca of Parsis.
It houses a sacred fire burning for the past 1,200 years, writes Homai Sagar

FOR the minuscule Parsi community (around 1.5 lakh worldwide and around 65,000 in India), the town of Udwada in Gujarat is their Mecca. This small town houses a sacred fire (the symbol of Parsi religion) that has been reportedly kept alive for 1,200 years by the high priests of the religion.

non-Zoroastrians are not allowed to enter the temple
Non-Zoroastrians are not allowed to enter the temple

The Udwada Atash Behram is the most sacred of the Zoroastrian fire temples in India
The Udwada Atash Behram is the most sacred of the Zoroastrian fire temples in India

Some Zoroastrian Persians migrated to India in the eighth century A.D. after rise of Islam in Persia. They were the forefathers of the Indian Parsi community. According to a 17th century chronicle, Kissa-e-Sanjan, they landed in Diu, and were later given refuge in Sanjan (Gujarat) by the local king, Jadi Rana. Five years after their arrival, they built the first fire temple, Atash Behram, at Sanjan to shelter the holy fire they had brought from Iran.

But in 1400 A.D, after the Muslims invaded North Gujarat, the sacred fire was carried away by the Zoroastrians priests to the nearby hills. It was finally brought to Udwada in 1742, where it still "resides" in a splendid fire temple.

The Udwada Atash Behram is the most sacred of the Zoroastrian fire temples in India. The temple is supposed to contain the oldest, continuously burning, sacred fire in the world. It is one of the nine Atash Behrams worldwide, eight of which are in western India, (four in Mumbai, two in Surat, one in Navsari, and the one in Udwada). The ninth one is in Yezd, in central Iran.

There is a Dastoor (high priest) at each of the eight principal fire temples. Only the temple at Udvada has two high priests, because of its importance. According to tradition, nine priestly families of Parsis of Udwada and their heirs are the sole lawful guardians of the fire and its temple. They alone have the right to enjoy its income. The position of high priest passes, in turn, from the head of one family to the head of another family on a rotational basis.

Udwada got its name from unt wada. Oont or unt means camel in Gujarati. This was the place where the king used to keep his camels. It has preserved the heritage and culture of Parsis in a remarkable way that is a living history in itself. Today only 70 Parsis live in Udvada.

It is a tiny town (barely 2 sq km or 500 acres), having old Parsi houses. Most of the houses are double-storied, with high ceilings and sloped roofs with ornamental skirting. The verandas are large with simple teak wood furniture adorning the spaces. Most houses still have their own wells, as well water plays an integral role in the purification rituals that the Parsi priests have to undergo. Most of the houses have double otlas or porches.

Although the Udwada Atash Behram is a monumental structure, it is virtually hidden by whitewashed walls and a protective ring of houses. While the fire temple itself is out of bounds for non-Zoroastrians, the little streets, the sandalwood-sellers and the hustle surrounding the temple is fascinating.

Hordes of Parsi worshippers from Mumbai, Pune, Valsad, Surat, Lucknow and even Canada, Pakistan and Australia, visit the temple on auspicious occasions like marrige, child birth, at the start of a business etc. The Parsi New Year, which falls in August, sees a large number of Parsis in Udwada every year.

The Fire Temple and the town face severe erosion from the sea. The waves, which rise as high as 12 metres in the monsoon, have already damaged some houses and hotels on the beach. The distance between the damaged houses and the Atash Behram is barely 200 metres. Bio-scientist and environmentalist Minoo Parabia says, "We have to think of a permanent solution like shifting the holy fire to a safer place somewhere else. In the past, whenever there was a threat to it, the fire was shifted."

Regrettably Udwada is fast losing its fame as a medieval town, as, of the 250 old Parsi dwellings, 18 have been demolished, while almost 50 have been redeveloped "in a disharmonious fashion," in the past one decade.

There are hardly any young people left in Udwada and the old find it difficult to maintain the houses. A few small blocks of modern flats have also sprung up, completely out of keeping with the rest of the architecture of the town. Udwada has a few small shops and hotels, catering to the weekend visitors. It is a dead end, geographically as well metaphorically.

However, the scenario is changing slowly as many newcomers are choosing its tranquillity over the bustle of nearby industrial towns of Vapi and Daman.In order to protect Udwada from unwitting destruction by new residents, a conservation cell has been proposed. Efforts are also being made to have the town listed as Unesco World Heritage Site.

The Central Government and the Government of Gujarat started a Rs 1.5-crore development plan in 2007 to convert Udwada into a heritage and tourist centre. This includes plans to establish a museum and cultural centre, a tourist lodge-cum-reception centre and heritage walks in Udwada.

According to heritage experts, Udwada, with around 450 of its structures having distinct Indian and European influences of the eighteenth century, should only be made a heritage precinct and not a tourist centre. This will go a long way in the protection and preservation of the most holy pilgrimage centre of the Parsis and to safeguard and perpetuate the Parsi ethos and way of life there. MF