Controversy over entry rules at new Navi Mumbai fire temple
Today, Zoroastrians from Navi Mumbai will inaugurate their first fire temple, 11 years after it was conceived. There are between 300 and 400 Zoroastrians in Navi Mumbai. In the absence of a local place to worship, community members would travel to fire temples in Thane, Dadar or Bandra.
Since May 9, priests have been consecrating the holy fire that will be the central feature of the shrine. Zoroastrian religion accords different grades to holy fires and Navi Mumbai temple will be designated as a ‘dadgah’, which is of a lower grade than agiaries and atash behrams, highest category, of fire temples of which there are less than 10 in the world — four in Mumbai.
The run-up to the inauguration, however, has been marked by a debate among Parsi-Zoroastrians about the rules of entry into the fire temple. There were messages in Zoroastrian social forums that Navi Mumbai fire temple’s trust deeds mentions Zoroastrians as beneficiaries. This has alarmed orthodox members of the community who use the term Parsi-Irani-Zoroastrians to describe themselves.
For India’s Parsis, their distinction as an ethnoreligious group has been at the core of their identity. Only descendants of Zoroastrians who escaped to India a millennium ago to escape religious persecution in Persia (now Iran) are called Parsis. Another group of Zoroastrians that migrated to India a century ago from Iran are called Iranis and they have mostly assimilated into the older community.
Yazdi Desai, chairman of Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP), community’s largest representative body, explained why there is a concern that non-Parsis will be allowed into the Navi Mumbai shrine.
“In recent years, there have been many non-Parsis abroad who practice Zoroastrianism. There are Tajiks and Azerbaijanis who have become Zoroastrians. There are people in the West who have converted to the religion. They are not Parsis,” said Desai.
Desai, who wrote to Navi Mumbai fire temple, asking them to clarify, said the trust deeds of all fire temples in India specifically mentions that only Parsi-Zoroastrians can worship there.
“The trust deeds — of Mumbai shrines — do not even mention Irani-Zoroastrians (because the shrines predate their arrival, though they worship at the shrines),” said Desai. “Allowing entry to non-Parsis will kill our religion.”
Another issue of debate is the nature of the fire at the shrine. Zoroastrian tenets require holy fires are consecrated from seven sources, including lightning. “Such fires have not been created in the last century and currently, there are no priests who can create such a fire,” said Desai. “So how the Navi Mumbai trust claim to have created a holy fire?”
When the plans for the Navi Mumbai fire temple were first made, it was proposed to shift the fire from a less frequented shrine run by the BPP in Mumbai to the new place. “In 2016 they came to us and we asked them to show the trust deed. They did not and we refused to shift the fire,” said Desai. The trustees of the Navi Mumbai could not be reached for a comment.
Even if the Navi Mumbai fire temple allows non-Parsis into its premises, it will not be first one. In the past, members of a group called the Association for the Revival of Zoroastrianism (ARZ) converted a flat in Colaba into a prayer hall that was open to non-Parsis. “It was not a permanent arrangement. The lady who had given the flat to us had allowed us to use the space on condition that we will vacate it when her son (who lived abroad) visited India,” said Vispy Wadia of ARZ.
The place has closed down. In December, members of a group who are known in the community as ‘reformist’ for their campaigns to accept mixed marriages and non-traditional methods of funerals, inaugurated a fire temple in Pune which is open to anyone who wants to pray there. The fire temple provides religious services like navjotes or (initiation ceremonies (like baptism in Christianity) for children of mixed parentage. Unlike the Colaba prayer hall the Pune facility is a dadgah (one of the several grades of fire temples) with daily religious ceremonies and priests.