Trac­ing the roots of the small but ec­cen­tric Zoroas­trian com­mu­nity with our res­i­dent bawa

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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



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.


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

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