KWID GOES COUNTRYSIDE
Tracing the roots of the small but eccentric Zoroastrian community with our resident bawa
Our resident Bawa traces his community’s roots
THERE IS SOMETHING SPECIAL ABOUT watching a species in its natural habitat. Like the lions of Gir or the rhinos of Kaziranga. Or the bawa uncle next to his lovely car that needs to be cleaned thoroughly, just because a drop of tree sap fell on the bonnet. Yup, you can call us Parsis eccentric. We’ll roam the streets of Mumbai in this scorching summer heat in blazers while airing things out in our shorts and sadras in the winter. We speak English fluently but our Hindi is out of this world. Especially when one ends up cursing others gadhero and gando, you know it is out of love for the person. Our food has a unique identity and yet has been derived from various Indian as well as Persian cuisines. Like you, we love our lady love, but our mummas even more and our gaaris always come first. Our contribution to India is invaluable. Right from Sam Maneckshaw to Dadabhai Naoroji to Homi Bhabha to JRD Tata, Parsis have had a hand in shaping India. We are not from the sub-continent but have made it our humble abode since the eighth century. So how did we land up here? Let us retrace the origins of the community with our Renault Kwid in this month’s edition of Kwid goes Countryside.
The Aryans were believed to have originated in Central Asia and spread across Europe and Asia with one faction landing up in Persia. The group later adopted Zoroastrianism, one of the oldest religions of the world. It was the state religion of the Persian Empire but with the Islamic conquest of Persia, Zoroastrians were forced to convert or find themselves a new land. They spent many years out on the sea, only to land up on the west coast of India. It was at Sanjan (now in Gujarat, quite near the state border with Maharashtra) that these refugees hoped to resettle. And that’s where we were headed, to begin our journey with the Kwid. From our HQ in Pune to the now remote town is hardly a five-hour drive, a distance of 300-odd kilometres and the Kwid dispenses it with ease.
The town of Sanjan itself got its name from the city that these refugees had originated from – Sanjan near Merv, currently in Turkmenistan but once a part of the massive Persian empire. The fire worshippers were taken to the local king at that time. He wanted to know the intentions of the foreigners, as he was unsure whether these Persians were friendly or hostile. Like any great clan, the Parsis sought the intelligence of their elders. One elder stepped forth and asked the king for a bowl of milk. Then he requested his highness to provide him with a little bit of sugar. Curious as he was, he acquiesced. The elderly man went on to add the sugar to the milk and at the end offered the king a sip. Still befuddled, the king enquired what it was all about? The bawa replied that just like adding sugar to milk made the milk sweeter without being seen, the Parsis too would enrich the kingdom without ever being a burden. The king was happy, and convinced of this great analogy, gave the Parsis liberties to practice the religion freely as long as they took to the language of the land and did not convert any locals over to the new faith. The refugees happily obliged. So, now you know where we get our strong twang from.
While the above took place in the 700s, little was known about the community until the early 1700s. The Atash Behram (the ‘Fire of Victory’ flame brought from Persia) was preserved and was taken to Navsari after the Hindus lost to Muslim ruler Sultan Mahmud in 1297. While the flame dodged around between Navsari, Surat and Valsad, it was not until 1742 that
THE FIRE WORSHIPPERS WERE TAKEN TO THE LOCAL KING. HE WANTED TO KNOW THE INTENTIONS OF THE
it found its final resting place in Udvada. And thus, was built the first of the seven (still functioning) Atash Behrams of India – the Iran Shah Atash Behram. The following one was built in Navsari and years later in Mumbai and Surat.
The road to Sanjan is not unfamiliar to me. With nearly 75 per cent of my parentage from Navsari as well as my maternal relatives residing in the same town, my family used to undertake this journey every summer holiday. This would however be my first road trip to Sanjan and Udvada without them. I had company though, our visual aids team of Rohit, Sachin and Steve tagging along for my spiritual reconnection.
Given that we needed to photograph Udvada at the crack of dawn, there was no point driving through the night and exhausting ourselves in the process. Rather, we took it easy and explored the beaches of Sanjan, stopping over in Daman for the night, keeping the distance to Udvada in single digits. The drive did begin a bit later than planned. The boys will say that I overslept but I beg to disagree, I only rested a while longer so as to be better equipped to drive the entire way. It worked out for the better as we were just in time for a quick breakfast, and in keeping with our destination it had to be pora paos and bun muska with chai.
The Kwid was buzzing about happily at the new national speed limit of 120kmph throughout the open stretches of the expressway. Given its compact dimensions, it was easy to flit in between traffic in the (always packed) ghat section and then the outskirts of the city that never sleeps, Mumbai. And thanks to her compact dimensions and light steering, she still was extremely comfortable throughout the city ordeal. It took us a good chunk of an hour to get away from insanity after which the highways were such a welcome relief.
I GUESS THE FIRE THAT BURNS INSIDE THE ATASH BEHRAM IS LIKE THE SUKHAR FOR THE FIRE INSIDE ALL PARSIS
Lunch was at Ahura, a roadside Parsi joint in Manor, two hours outside Mumbai and a place that has grown in tremendous popularity, thanks to Mumbai bikers that have made it a weekend riding destination. And being the only one fit to order authentic Parsi food – the setting was perfect for kheema pao, not dhansaak. Not only was it sumptuous, it also garnered high praise from the others.
With stomachs filled to the brim, Sanjan was just near enough to rest for a while. Sadly, Sanjan is pretty bleak, with tourists opting for Daman. The beaches too were in pretty bad condition. Luckily, your correspondent cum bawa did some exploration and found a nice spot to soak in the sights, sending our shutterbugs into a frenzy to capture the perfect sunset shot. A cold brew was in store for us in Daman as we called it a day thereafter.
Udvada was minutes away from Daman, allowing us to leave our hotel at half past six to capture Udvada’s old-school appeal. The boys were astounded when we made our way through the extremely narrow streets to land right at the door-step of the Iran Shah Atash Behram. I introduced them to Sukhar, the sandalwood sticks that the shops around the temple were selling. Sukhar, as we Parsis call it, are our offerings to the flame. And after giving them a brief explanation as to what happens inside the temple, I left them to their own so as to complete the journey myself.
I have always felt quite at peace whenever I visit Udvada. The Atash Behram has a very strong positive aura around it that lingers on, months after I've visited the place. I guess the fire that burns inside the Atash
Behram is like the sukhar for the fire inside all Parsis, requiring to be recharged every now and then. And like I mentioned earlier, there were many
bawa uncles emerging from their old homes heading to the Atash Behram for their morning prayers, only to return home to clean their beloved cars. Maybe, I too will turn into them one day and that just makes me happy. So, that’s the story about my people. Now put on your topis and jamva chalo!L