In Search of the Zoroastrians


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State Gujarat
Distance 206 km N of Mumbai
Journey Time By rail 3 hrs 15 mins, By road 4 hrs
Location On the palm-fringed coast of S Gujarat
Route 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.

Of course, 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.

Where to eat

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


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