Known for their stylish get-ups and hairdos, the Ghunnawalas — Alamai, 65, Anahita, 48, and Armaity, 20 — make sure to visit their stylist just before Navroze, the Parsi New Year day. But this will go unnoticed as the family’s three generations – who have descended on Udwada from Golwad in Gujarat, Lucknow and Mumbai respectively — don silk, embroidered scarves in obeisance to the Iranshah Atashbehram, the fire temple at Udwada.
Zoroastrians from all over the world, Parsis, Iranis, Kadmis, Shenshahis and Faslis, have on their wish list a visit to the fire temple at Udwada. The mummified village of Udwada is located on the Gujarat coast and is preserved by all its old Zoroastrian residents. The entrances to every home here have been swept and swabbed to be decorated with sagan nu chalk (festive Rangoli impressions, typical to Parsi houses). Take a walk down any Udwada lane and you’ll feel like a traveller in time, visiting old Gujarat with wells, large wooden swings and armchairs adorning every porch.
On New Year, the sleepy village awakens just that wee bit as visitors from Mumbai, Pune, Valsad, Surat, Lucknow and even Canada, Pakistan and Australia, throng to the most-sacred and oldest and perennially-burning fire in the world. A special larger-than-usual garland of lilies and roses adorns the entrance welcoming pious Parsis like the Ghunnawalas, who leave their Swarovski-studded sandals and Jimmy Choos, to barefoot it to the sanctum sanctorum and invoke the God’s blessing on the first day of the New Year.
As pilgrims visit the Udwada fire temple, they recall how the first stop of Parsis when they were persecuted in Iran and fled to India was Sanjan — where the consecrated fire was then installed. Later, as Udwada became their abode, the fire was shifted to the temple there. Aspi Chappghar explains how a tablet – tracing the history of Zoroastrians — has been installed for posterity at the site to commemorate the first installation of the holy fire in India there.
Although many visitors are grand old bawas and bawis who command a robust body, especially well-fed on Navroze breakfast of malido, sev, bafeelu eedu(boiled egg) and dhai, they all squat before the holy fire. Outside, everyone is greeting the other “Navroze Mubarak” and shaking hands heartily. One such jovial family are the Patels from Valsad. The 80-year-old matriarch Dhun Patel is beautifully dressed for the auspicious day in a red gaara (hand-embroidered Chinese motifs on fabric). Her husband, Darius Patel, with his red topi and walking stick plays perfect foil to her. The frame is completed by their grandchildren who have come from Mumbai and Lucknow just to visit various fire temples around Gujarat.
Just across the fire temple, baby Danish is happy and unaware in the pram as his grandmother explains the intricacies of cleansing the floral offerings to be placed in the fire temple. Every object that goes in whether it is sandalwood, or flowers, or people, has to have a wash, a prayer and then enter the premises. She then narrates how the priests, like her son, have to wake up at zero hours and carry out the rituals at the holiest of holy fire temples. “It is an exhausting and draining ritual for the young priests and much more so for the older ones. The prayers continue till 7pm,” she says.
The line of alms seekers outside is – obviously so — longer than any other day, with subdued greetings of ‘Saal Mubarak.’ Every Parsi who visits Udawada celebrates in a different way. Many families stay overnight, then order delicious Parsi cuisine from Globe Hotel, Sodawaterwala or Jamshetjee Jeebhoy Dharamsala. More flavours of hand-churned ice-cream are available on this occasion. The vendors ambush pilgrims and tempt them with mouth-watering flavours like raspberry, a weakness among bawas.
The JJ Dharamsala family of mother, father and daughter are together for the special day. On other days, their eight-year-old daughter is away in a boarding school in Mumbai, since schools and hospitals are almost non-existent in the ghaam (village). The Sodawaterwala Dharamsala owner was commissioned to distribute free celebratory lunches to every Parsi resident in Udwada. A welcome gesture invites most of the poor Zoroastrians who eke out living selling sandalwood, scarves, papads and biscuits at the local bakery.
As they wait on the platform of Udwada station to return home to Mumbai, long-lost acquaintances come face-to-face with a Saal Mubarak.