Two giant stone statues guard the main entrance. They hold a sword to their chest and stand at attention as mortals pass them by. Udvada’s Aatash Behram is the oldest and the holiest fire temple of the Zoroastrian community, and these majestic sculptures greet you in the most intimidating manner. It is this temple that drives the economy of Udvada, otherwise a nondescript town some 200km away from Mumbai.
While the fire temple is out of bounds for all non-Zoroastrians, fortunately, the town isn’t. The houses are huge; the streets are narrow; women continue to cover their heads with scarves; men lounge around in their sudreh and kusti. It is like walking into one giant Parsi baug, only quainter and quieter. But the town will be abuzz in December, when PM Narendra Modi is expected to come down for Iranshah Udvada Utsav. The festivities, beginning December 25, will include heritage walks, Parsi skits and religious lectures.
Where to stay
The most popular options are Ashishwan Hotel (9925558138) and Globe Hotel (0260 2345243). While they do have modern facilities, like air-conditioned rooms, these hotels have an old-world charm and give you the experience of living it up Parsi style. Room rates at Ashishwan Hotel range from Rs 1,500 to Rs 2,000 (per person, per night); at Globe Hotel from Rs 2,300 to Rs 2,400 (per person, per night), and include lunch, dinner and breakfast.
What to do
If you are driving down, make a pit stop at at Ahura’s, a charming Parsi restaurant just off the highway after the Charoti toll plaza. Order the Salli Par Edu (fried eggs on potato slivers), kheema pav, Akuri (Parsi egg bhurji) and Poro (Parsi omlette). Breakfast for two is approximately Rs 450. If you opt for the train, head straight to the hotel and look out for Khurchan (a mix of goat organs), Aleti Paleti (a mix of chicken/goat organs), both of which are served with freshly baked bread.
Udvada is a one-horse town, and you can walk through most of it in a day. The houses have a unique architecture — high ceilings and sloped roofs with trademark double porches that date back a century or more. The newly-renovated Aatash Behram is a sight to behold, even from the outside. Most people are warm and cordial; if you request, most will even allow you into their homes and let you photograph them. But there are others who don’t like the idea of being photographed. So don’t shoot indiscriminately. Parsis offer sandalwood to keep the Atash Behram fire going and you will find it in abundance here. Also available at every other street corner will be huge bunches of mint leaves and lemongrass — two key ingredients in the Parsi version of the masala chai.
The hotels’ menus change almost daily. We recommend, the fried boi (deep-fried Indian white mullet), Machhi Ni Curry (fish in a coconut curry), bheja cutlets (cutlets made out of goat brain), roast chicken and mutton pulao dal. Wash down the food with a bottle of ice-cold Sunta Raspberry and wrap up the meal with handmade sancha ice cream: opt for fresh mango or sitafal. In the evening, take a walk by the beach and watch the sun set on this ancient little town.
The next morning, start your day with a dudh na puff, a glass of chilled milk froth topped with nutmeg and cinnamon; the local vendors chill the froth in an earthen pot overnight, which gives it a unique taste. Take a little bit of Zoroastrian culture back with you. Head to the market opposite the Aatash Behram and buy some fresh mint leaves, hand-rolled dry papads and pickles from EF Kohla, an age-old Parsi brand. Don’t miss a visit to Irani Bakery and Hormuzd Bakery, known for their yummy mawa cakes and melt-in-your-mouth batasas, nankhatais and khari. As you can see, there isn’t much to ‘do’ but there is something charming about Udvada. And I suspect it’s because it lies at the very heart of a small, lovable but dying community.
* Udvada is 230km north of Mumbai along the well-maintained NH 8.
* If you wish to leave your car behind, five trains from Mumbai headed to Gujarat stop at Udvada.
* You can even opt for a bus to Vapi, which is 3km from Udvada.
(All photos: Shantanu Das; Courtesy: Parvez Damania)