UDVADA, PART 1: The Journey of Iranshah

My next few posts will be on the village of Udvada in southern Gujarat, the most sacred locale for the Parsi Zoroastrians as it is home to the Iranshah Atash Behram. Before I get to the current state of the village, I offer some discussion of Iranshah’s history.

The origins and early history of the Iranshah fire is shrouded in myth. Amongst many Parsis, it is popularly believed that the fire was brought from Iran by the first Parsi migrants who came to India in order to flee increased persecution in Iran. This is unlikely, especially if, as tradition holds, the first Parsis came via sea. We find a different story in the Kisseh-e-Sanjan, a lengthy Persian poem recounting how the Parsis left Iran for Diu and finally landed at Sanjan on the coast of Gujarat. The Kisseh is, however, a problematic source: written in 1599-1600 CE by Bahman Keikobad, a priest in Navsari, it purports to describe events that happened seven to nine centuries beforehand. In the past, Parsi historians have taken the content of the Kisseh all too literally, extrapolating precise dates of the Parsi migration (the two most commonly cited dates of the Parsi migration are 716 CE and 936 CE) and unquestioningly adopting its narrative of Parsi history.

As our only written source on the Parsi migration to India, it is nevertheless worthwhile to see what the Kisseh says about the holy fire now known as Iranshah. Sailing east from Diu, Bahman Keikobad tells us, the Parsis encountered a ferocious storm.  The dasturjis prayed to God:

‘Wise Lord, come to our rescue in this plight,
Save us just once from this calamity!

Victorious Bahrām, come to rescue me!
Make things auspicious for me in this trouble!

By your grace we’ll not suffer from the storm,
there’ll be no dread within our hearts or souls.

You are defender of the helpless ones!
Reveal the way to us who’ve lost our way!

If we should find salvation from this whirlpool,
and no disaster falls on us again,

If from this sea we reach the land of Hend,
and are contented there with happy hearts,

We’ll light a Fire of Bahrām, our Protector,
O save us from this plight and make us strong!

We’ve undertaken this ourselves with God,
Apart from Him we have no other help.’[123-131]

Ahura Mazda did not disappoint: ‘A fair wind blew, there was a glorious light,’ and the Parsis landed safely at Sanjan, where they were later met by the local raja Jadi Rana (whether this Jadi Rana existed at all is a valid question; there is no corresponding evidence in Gujarati historical records to such a figure) . After receiving Jadi Rana’s welcome and establishing a settlement at Sanjan (the Kisseh makes it seem as though nothing existed in Sanjan before the Parsis, though recent archaeological excavations have suggested that Sanjan might have been a significant international port), the dasturjis approached the ruler for permission to consecrate a holy fire:

The dastur said to him, ‘O noble prince,
you’ve given us a place in this domain.

Now I would wish that, in this land of Hend,
somehow we may set up the Fire of Bahrām.

We need to clear the land three leagues around,
so it is proper for the rite of Nirang.

No strangers shall encroach upon that place.
It’s only for the blest ones of our faith.

There must not be a single joddin there,
and then the ritual for the fire will work.

If someone makes a noise, no doubt that instant
the ritual will be rendered null and void.’[195-200]

Jadi Rana gave his permission, granted a plot of land, and cleared out non-Zoroastrians from the vicinity. Having received necessary religious implements from Khorasan (in northeastern Iran), the dasturjis went to work and, ‘With sacred rites the priests and elders all, set up the Irān Shāh in light on light’ [220]. This is also the earliest reference we have for the holy fire being called ‘Iranshah.’

Iranshah remained in Sanjan for several centuries, tended by the priests of the Sanjana panthak (the Parsis divided coastal southern Gujarat, where they settled, into five ‘panths’ or divisions of priestly authority). Several hundred years later—most likely in the fourteenth or fifteenth century—Sanjan was, according to the Kisseh, besieged by Muslim invaders and, following a protracted and bloody battle, the fire was removed to the remote Bahrot Caves for safekeeping. It remained in the caves for twelve years, after which it was transferred to nearby Vansda for another fourteen years. Finally, as the Kisseh tells us, Changa Asa, a prominent Parsi layman from Navsari, invited the Sanjana priests to take Iranshah to his hometown, a far more convenient location for Parsi pilgrims. ‘For, as it is, each year we take the road, and in this month there is great hardship for us. / For this falls in the month of monsoon rains, to make the journey there is difficult,’ Changa Asa reasoned [386-87].

The Kisseh ends with the Iranshah fire and the Sanjana priests being welcomed to Navsari, an event that took place around 1479 CE. This, of course, is not the end of the story of Iranshah’s migration. Navsari was the headquarters of another panthak, that of the Bhagaria priesthood, and, as such, the two panthaks had to engage in delicate negotiations over priestly authority and who could carry out various rituals. While Sanjana dasturjis preserved their custody of the Iranshah fire itself, Bhagaria dasturjis had the sole authority to preside over other ritual services required by Parsi pilgrims (Iranshah was, at the time, the only Atash Behram of the Parsis of India). This arrangement, as one could expect, proved highly unstable. Susan Stiles Maneck provides a glimpse of worsening Sanjana-Bhagaria relations in her book, The Death of Ahriman:  Culture, Identity and Theological Change Among the Parsis of India (Bombay: K.R. Cama Oriental Institute, 1997). Maneck notes that the increased power and prosperity of the Bhagarias—brought about by wealth of Navsari merchants as well as revenue from Parsi pilgrims visiting the holy fire—was matched by a growing impoverishment amongst the Sanjanas and a diminishment of their authority (in fact, historians have argued that the Kisseh-e-Sanjan might very well have been written with the purpose in mind of bolstering Sanjana authority). In 1686, the Sanjanas sided with the laymen of Navsari—keen to assert their own authority over community matters—in order to check the power of the Bhagarias. This led to a melee where six laymen and two Bhagaria dasturjis were killed. Further squabbles and fights ensued, at one time necessitating the intervention of the nizam of Bharuch, and at another time leading to the Iranshah fire being evacuated to Surat for three years.

Iranshah’s three century-long stay in Navsari came to an end in 1740 after the Sanjanas, with the authority of the gaikwad of Baroda, moved the sacred fire to Valsad or Bulsar (with Navsari deprived of the holy fire, the Bhagarias in 1765 consecrated their own Atash Behram). Two years later, they chose a small seaside village, Udvada, as the new home of Iranshah and the seat of the Sanjana panthak. The fire was brought into the home of Mobed Mehernosh Hormuzd Bhathela on 28 October 1742. It was housed in several other residences and buildings before Bai Motlibai Wadia commissioned the current-day structure to be built in 1894.

* * *

Jhanda Chowk, Udvada.

Udvada occupies a special place in the hearts of all Parsis. For me, it is especially personal. I am a descendant of two of the nine priestly families of Udvada—the Patels and the Mirzas—and three of my grandparents came from that village. Regardless, I had my first opportunity to visit Udvada only last weekend. I was well-acquainted with the common narrative of Udvada’s decline—its steady abandonment by Parsi residents, its crumbling and shuttered houses, and the continuous erasure of its history as old Parsi residences come down one-by-one.

Nevertheless, seeing the state of Udvada firsthand still came as a shock. I am not referring to the Atash Behram itself, which was recently refurbished in relation to the 1290th salgreh (anniversary) of the fire’s consecration. I refer to the village, which I believe that we must hold in equal reverence as it has been the setting for so much Parsi Zoroastrian history and tradition. Parsis might equate Udvada to Mecca or Jerusalem. But neither of those two holy centers is in such a neglected, decrepit, and shameful state.

In the following posts, I will write on two imminent threats to the village of Udvada, one external and one internal. The external threat manifests itself in the form of a major—and legally questionable—development planned on the village’s outskirts by a consortium known as Nucleus Developers. Nucleus Developers, which owns a 168-acre property just a stone’s throw away from Iranshah’s gates, is threatening to convert a bucolic landscape of mango and chikoo orchards into a massive complex of farmhouses. If built, the scheme would dwarf the village of Udvada—in area, at least.

The second threat emanates from the Parsis themselves. The community’s sheer neglect of Udvada’s impressive built heritage—its unique houses and buildings—has led to the loss of several old houses in recent years. In the place of these lovely old buildings are empty lots or ungainly concrete structures. In any other country, such heritage would be lovingly and conscientiously preserved—especially by a community that prides itself on being ‘educated.’ So much history is lost when we apply the sledgehammer indiscriminately.

Some Further Reading

The above passages of the Kisseh-e-Sanjan are taken from Allan Williams’ The Zoroastrian Myth of Migration from Iran and Settlement in the Indian Diaspora: Text, Translation and Analysis of the 16th Century Qeṣṣe-ye Sanjān, ‘The Story of Sanjan’ (Leiden: Brill, 2009). Williams provides a translation of the text as well as extensive historical commentary. Of special interest to the Parsi community is Williams’ discussion of the various dates that have been proposed for historical events such as the Parsi arrival in Sanjan. Other work on the Kisseh and early Parsi history include: Jivanji Jamshedji Modi, Dastur Bahman Kaikobad and the Kisseh-i-Sanjan: A Reply (Bombay: 1917); S.H. Hodivala, Studies in Parsi History (Bombay: 1920); S.K. Hodiwala, Parsis of Ancient India (Bombay, 1920); Modi, A Few Events in the Early History of the Parsis (Bombay: 1922); and H.E. Eduljee, Kisseh-i Sanjan (Bombay: K.R. Cama Oriental Institute, 1991). A discussion of recent archaeological digs in Sanjan—which strengthen the argument that the Parsi arrival in Gujarat was intimately linked to existing maritime networks, and perhaps ‘pre-existing’ Zoroastrian settlements in western India—can be read in Rukshana Nanji and Homi Dhalla, ‘The Landing of the Zoroastrians at Sanjan: The Archaeological Evidence,’ in John Hinnells and Alan Williams, eds., Parsis in India and the Diaspora (London: Routledge, 2007). If you can read Gujarati, the best source to consult is S.K. Hodiwala’s પાક ઈરાનશાહની તવારીખ, Pāk Īrānśahnī Tavārikh (Bombay: 1927). Also see Mitra Sharafi’s dissertation, Bella’s Case: Parsi Identity and the Law in Colonial Rangoon, Bombay and London, 1887-1925 (Princeton University), for discussion of a significant legal case involving the Iranshah Atash Behram in 1900, Navroji Manekji Wadia and others v. Dastur Kharshedji Mancherji and others.

My thanks to an anonymous caller from Udvada for pointing out errors in an earlier version of this post.

Dinyar Patel