Come Sunday or one of the auspicious days in the Zoroastrian calendar, and the otherwise sleepy village of Udvada comes alive with Parsi families and pilgrims. The environs of the Iranshah Atash Behram Fire Temple buzz with shops selling sandalwood, flowers, Zoroastrian religious objects and souvenirs and food products like Parsi cuisine spice mixes and pickles, and street food vendors. Says Dasturji Khurshed Dastoor Kaikobad, the high priest of Iranshah Udvada, “Udvada is an important place of pilgrimage for the 1,00,000 to 1,25,000 Parsis around the world. The flow of religious tourists to Udvada has risen rapidly with the improvement of the Mumbai-Ahmedabad National Highway, on which our village falls, making it easily accessible for Parsi day trippers and weekenders from cities like Mumbai, Surat, Navsari and Bharuch. The development of resorts and hotels at Daman near Udvada and in the industrial city of Vapi has also made Udvada an attractive destination for Parsi families who come for prayers and take the opportunity to introduce the children to the cuisine and ethnic culture of the Parsis, who have maintained their religious and cultural identity.” Apart from the dharamshalas and hotels that serve authentic Parsi cuisine, 19th and early-20th century Parsi residences, libraries, museums and event halls are an integral part of the Udvada cultural experience.
According to Dastoor, many initiatives are being undertaken to conserve and protect Udvada. Since Udvada is a religious place, it is mainly the priestly families that live here. The non-priestly families include those that have established hotels and shops to cater to Parsi pilgrims visiting Udvada. There are about 125 Parsis in and around Udvada. The typical Parsi homes here with their high ceilings, ornamental skirted sloping roofs and double otlas (porticoes), some of them over a century old, are now under threat from the real estate boom in this part of Gujarat. Eminent Parsis, Udvada’s Parsi residents and conservation organisations are now working to improve the infrastructure, restore and renovate heritage buildings, and protect the environment of Udvada. “During the 1,290th anniversary celebrations of the Shreeji Pak Iranshah in April 2011 — the sacred fire that now burns in Udvada — this destination received much coverage. Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi who attended the commemorative event has also taken Udvada seriously as a place worth conserving,” he says.
Since the Iranshah Atash Behram is not open for non-Parsis, Dastoor says the Zoroastrian Information Centre has replicas of the interior of fire temple for tourists to get an idea of Parsi religious rituals. “Supported by the state government and the Tourism Corporation of Gujarat Ltd, this museum was conceptualised by us with Foundation for Development of Udvada trustees like Mrs Homai Modi and Dr Homi Dhalla. The architects Pankaj Joshi and Jamshid Bhiwandiwalla restored a heritage building and created five rooms that offer an insight into various aspects of the Parsi legacy — the history of the Zoroastrians, the culture, the rituals, the arts, crafts and costumes, the contribution of great Parsis to the community and the development of India, and so on. There is also a shop for Parsi souvenirs, food products and religious objects,’’ says Dastoor. The foundation is now working to get a heritage precinct declared around the fire temple.
One of the striking heritage buildings is the Sodawaterwala Dharamshala which has recently been renovated. Says Maneck Tadiwala of Mek Caterers, which manages this religious guesthouse, “This dharamshala, and hotels like Globe and Ashishvangh, are keeping alive the Parsi culinary legacy for Parsi families. Apart from Mumbai and Gujarat, Parsis are a microscopic minority of less than 100 people in other cities of India. They only get to eat our authentic food when they come to Udvada.” He adds: “typically, a Parsi breakfast in Udvada would comprise sweet curd, aleti paleti (liver) and sev (vermicelli). Many Parsis come here for Navjote ceremonies or wedding rituals, during which boi machh (fried fish), bhaji dana ghosht (mutton cooked with veggies), fish or prawn pathia, gajjar mewa achar, mutton pulao, patra machh (steamed fish wrapped in banana leaves), saas machhi (yellow rice with pomfret fillets in a whitish gravy), kadi made with til and khas, and lagan nu custard, which is a pudding, are some favourites. Mava boi and other Parsi sweets are popular during festivals like Pateti and Nowruz. Apart from Udvada, we cater Parsi cuisine at events in places like Surat and Ahmedabad.”
Maneck’s son, Eric, is an activist concerned about the flora and fauna of Udvada. “The Valsad-Vapi belt in which Udvada falls is known for its fine teak forests but these are threatened because of their demand. This valuable resource of trees is in danger because of mass plantation of fast-growing exotics that do little for the environment,” explains Eric, adding, “the fine habitat around Udvada can be judged by its wildlife like the Indian rock python. I am often called upon to rescue wildlife that strays into human habitation or gets injured.”
Dastoor too agrees that Udvada is ecologically fragile and its environmental balance is a cause of concern. “The ingress of sea water into the village is causing damage to properties near the coast and also to the fresh water sources. This needs to be arrested. We are also concerned that high rise buildings may come up in this area with the realty boom, which will cause ecological imbalance because there is inadequate sewage infrastructure,” says Dastoor. The government has been proactive. “The Gram Panchayat has stopped dumping the solid waste into the sea and instead made disposal pits, which is a positive step. We have given a wish list to the state government about regulations to protect Udvada’s heritage, which we hope will be taken up in the coming years.”
The story of Udvada's sacred fire
Parsis descend from a group of Zoroastrians who migrated from Iran to avoid persecution from invaders. The sea and land routes to India were well known to them because of trade between the Persian speaking lands and India. According to the medieval text called Kisse-i-Sanjan written by a priest, Bahman Kaikobad, the Zoroastrians landed and settled first in Diu island and then set sail for Sanjan which they are believed to have reached in the eighth century. In keeping with their promise at the time of a storm on the way, they wanted to establish an Atash Behram, the highest grade of ritual fire for Parsis, in the land they wanted to settle in. They were given permission by a ruler, named Jadi Rana, to settle at Sanjan on certain conditions. The Atash Behram was consecrated using 16 fires, including Asfan which is fire by lightening. While Parsis prospered at Sanjan and nearby towns along the Gujarat coast, the Islamic invasion of Sanjan led to their fleeing with the fire which was housed in Navsari, and for a short while in Surat, before it was moved to Udvada in 1742. The present day Udvada fire temple was constructed by Lady Motlibhai Wadia in 1894, replacing the older buildings.