Distance 206 km N of
Journey Time By rail 3 hrs 15 mins, By road 4 hrs
Location On the palm-fringed coast of S Gujarat
NH8 from Mumbai to Vapi Juntion via Manor, Charoti Naka, Talasari and Bhilad; district road to Udvada
A stranger exploring the narrow lanes
of Udvada on a hazy Gujarati afternoon could well find himself wondering whether the rattling contraption that ferried him
into town was an autorickshaw or a time machine. For this pastoral enclave, dotted with storybook cottages, slumbering goats
and whitewashed walls, seems separated by many decades from the concrete-and-cacophony hell of nearby Vapi. But this coastal
town in Gujarat is about much more than leafy lanes and little houses with graceful eaves.
At the heart of the town,
stands the Iranshah Atash Behram, the most important spiritual centre for Zoroastrians the world over. And whether they have
just gotten married, started a business or bought a new car, hordes of Parsi worshippers from Mumbai to Montreal make their
way to this sleepy town on Gujarat’s sublime southern coast to pay their respects to the 1,280-year-old holy fire enshrined
within the sacred Atash Behram.
The Parsis are very protective about Udvada because the Iranshah is believed to be
their oldest consecrated fire. The holy flames, which blazed in Iran were stamped out by religious oppression, so today even
the Zoroastrians of Yezd and Hormuz make pilgrimages to this otherwise inconsequential town for their fire.
Udvada is not entirely immune to change, and only about a hundred Parsis continue to live here. Efforts are, however, being
made to have the town listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site and to counter the invasion of asbestos roofs and RCC monstrosities.
See and do
The sacred Iranshah Atash Behram
Udvada is a tiny town and if you are a
brisk walker, you could probably cover every single street in about an hour. If, however, you like to stroll on the beach,
inhale the briny air and peer into porches, you will have a full weekend.
Iranshah Atash Behram: Although the Iranshah
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 all the hustle
in the vicinity are fascinating.
Admitted, however, that the old priests and the mathabanna-clad housewives don’t
always seem pleased to see non-Parsis lurking so close to their holiest fire. But, if anything, the irritable mutters and
secretive stares just add to the atmosphere.
The Iranshah has been created out of 16 fires, including fire from a burning
corpse, a shepherd’s house, a goldsmith’s hearth, a potter’s kiln and from lightning itself. Instead of
waiting for lightning to strike and obligingly create a fire, it is believed that the high priest Nairyosang Dhaval meditated
for days and when the heavens finally cooperated, he trapped the fire and proceeded with his rituals.
Unchanging streets: Much of the fabric
of old Udvada is still intact and visitors can spend a wonderful evening peering into Faredoon Cottage and Sodawaterwala Dharamshala,
swapping ‘saibjis’ with Mehli Uncle and Shirin Mai, and reliving a bygone age.
The old Parsi houses in
Udvada reflect a distinct culture. Most have double otlas or porches — the outer one is used for bargaining with veggie
vendors while the inner one is used for praying and gossip sessions.
Little galis run behind the house which, in the
old days, were used by night-soil collectors and menstruating women. Most houses still have their own wells because well water
plays an integral role in the purification rituals that the priests have to undergo. If you strike up a friendship with one
of the residents, so much the better because that will give you a chance to sink into one of those comfy-looking planter’s
chairs, gaze upon the sepia-tinted pictures of British royalty and listen to tales out of the past.
While a number of tiny eateries have cropped up, most visitors to Udvada eat the enormous meals served up by Globe
Hotel. Breakfasts usually comprise eggs and at least one meat dish — keema (minced meat) or cutlets. Lunch often features
bhoi fish, which is the local speciality, and vast quantities of dhansak — an ambrosial mutton gravy thickened with
dal. Dinners are equally lavish affairs and equally non-vegetarian.
Try the dhansak, Russian patties and pulao dal
at the restaurant at the Ashsisvang Hotel. Non-guests are welcome at this restaurant, which organizes outdoor seating in its
garden. Mek serves Parsi cuisine only to residents. These are supplemented by a procession of hawkers who supply hand-churned
ice-creams, neera (unfermented toddy) and other small-town treats.
Courtsey: Mid Day Newspaper