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The journey of the holy fire

india Updated: Sep 25, 2008 16:31 IST
Piya Bose Desai
Piya Bose Desai
Hindustan Times
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India’s western coastline boasts of vast stretches of untouched beaches dotted with gently swaying palm and coconut trees. It is also home to several imposing forts that have been witness to several invasions and migrations over the years.

The past
One of the most fascinating tales of immigrations is that of the Parsis, who came to India from Iran to escape persecution by the Arabs, who had taken over their country by defeating the prosperous Sassanian empire.

The Arabs coerced them to give up their religion and embrace Islam, thus they fled across the Arabian Sea with their sacred fire called the Iranshah — symbol of Ahura Mazda, the Lord of Light.

They first landed on the pristine beaches of Diu. Here the Iranians came to be called Parsis, probably after the ‘Farsi’ language they spoke. The name could have also come from ‘Pars’ a southern Iranian province.

The present
The architecture of Diu is, however, mainly Portuguese style, similar to what Daman and Goa have on offer, having been under the rule of the Portuguese for a long time. Very little evidence remains of the landing of the Parsis, except for an old Tower of Silence. The lazy, uncrowded beaches, gently swaying coconut trees, limestone cliffs interspersed with old Portuguese forts and cathedrals makes for an idyllic retreat. Also on offer is a variety of exotic liquor and several small pubs that dot the town. All you need to do is laze on the beaches with a can of chilled beer in hand and soak up some sun in a romantic setting!

An unknown future
After staying at Diu for a few years, the Parsis decided to relocate to the port of Sanjan in Gujarat still fearing the Arabs. Probably made defensive by their warrior-like appearance, Jadi Rana, the ruler of Sanjan denied them entry into his kingdom. He sent them a glass filled to the brim with milk, to show that his kingdom was full. The leader of the Parsis mixed sugar in the milk and sent it back to symbolise that they would only sweeten his kingdom. Needless to say they won over the king and were allowed entry. However, they were instructed to observe certain norms that would help them blend with the locals. Some of these were wearing Indian clothes, laying down weapons, conducting their marriages in Indian style and speaking the local language. The Parsis agreed to this and thrived prosperously for many years. When the kingdom was attacked by Muslim invaders, they helped the king’s army, but fled from Sanjan to save their sacred fire after the king was defeated.

A sleepy coastline
Present-day Sanjan is a sleepy fishing village. The shores of Nargol, which is on the extreme western fringe of the country, is largely inhabited by the local fisherfolk, who spend hours in the sun drying acres of bombil. Colourful fishing boats dot the horizon and small children can be seen suspending wooden baskets in the water to catch unsuspecting fish. If isolation and history excite you take a walk on the shores or take a boat ride to the neighbouring village Umbergaon.

In Sanjan, one can visit the tall tower with an edifice of the sacred fire that was constructed to mark the landing of the Parsis and the first consecration of the sacred fire in the country.

Nearby is a Parsi sanatorium that serves excellent dhansak. Technically, it is only open for Parsis. But you can request the caretaker to let you sample the delicious fare. A short walk away is a dome-shaped agiary. Every Sunday, the local bazaars are laid out with lots of interesting stuff to buy. From Sanjan, the Parsis headed towards the nearby Bahrot Caves. They installed the Iranshah in these secluded caves and stayed there for 12 long years, to protect their faith.

One can do an interesting trek to reach the caves. The first part of the trek requires walking through a forested area to the base of the cave. The second part involves climbing up the hill to see the spot where the brave Parsis protected the Iranshah.

This trek is very popular in the winters and is definitely worth it if one is interested in something alternative.
From the Bahrot caves, the Parsis moved to other parts of Gujarat like Vasda, Navsari, Surat and Balsar before finally alighting at Udwada. It was here that the Iranshah finally found a safe haven.

Finally, home
Udwada is a quaint little village out of some fairytale. Nothing there seems to have been touched by time. All roads in the village lead to the Atash Behram where the Iranshah burns. It is an exquisite structure and the hub of all activities, drawing Parsis from far and wide. The village has another place of worship called the Pundol Agiary, which is shaped like the flames of the sacred fire.

Do pay a visit to the Zoroastrian Centre that has excellent exhibits on the history of Udwada, the Parsi immigration into India and visuals depicting the social, cultural and religious life of Parsis.The beautiful white building has a laid back feel. Photography is allowed with the permission of the caretaker.

A brisk walk can easily cover the entire village in about an hour. Rows of ancient and, in some cases, dilapidated houses line the narrow lanes. Many have wells outside which are still used for drinking and bathing. The entire setting is quaint and transports one back in time.

Several bakeries dot the village, serving Nan Khatais among other delicious Parsi fare. The Hormuzd bakery built in 1931 and the Iranian bakery have an immense fan following. Old Parsi ladies with colourful scarves around their heads sell fish pickles and various masalas to prepare Parsi dishes.

Small boys on bicycles go around the village selling hand made strawberry and mango ice creams, which are simply out of the world. It was here at Udwada that Parsis heaved a sigh of relief and the sacred Iranshah had finally completed its long, challenging journey that had spanned centuries.

Piya is a corporate lawyer who likes to travel