Dasturji Khurshed Dastoor, High Priest of Udvada, speaks about the Udvada land controversy case, how he and his family have been affected, and what Parsis can do to help Udvada.
The Gujarat Revenue Tribunal has issued a ‘status quo’ order in the Udvada land controversy case, temporarily suspending Nucleus Developers’ ability to develop the property. Is there still an immediate danger to Udvada?
Yes. If the Revenue Tribunal eventually rules in Nucleus’ favor, they can begin building immediately. Even if the tribunal does not rule in their favor, Nucleus Developers can still move the Gujarat High Court. The stakes are high. Nucleus could also break up the 168-acre property into smaller holdings, something that would make it much more difficult to stop development.
Right now, we have the support of the government of Gujarat, but if the government changes, this support could vanish.
What can Parsis do to help the Udvada Samast Anjuman?
Parsis need to stop listening to and spreading rumors about the case. There have been a lot of rumors and inaccurate accounts that have been floating around on the internet. For example, one such rumor is that the Udavada Samast Anjuman once owned the land in question and is now paying the price for its decision to sell it off. However, the anjuman never owned the land—a portion was owned by a separate trust call the Shree Bagh-e-Iran Trust. The Udvada Samast Anjuman has publically released several statements on the case and these are authoritative. But the spread of rumors has exacted a toll on the anjuman’s cause. In order to protect Pak Iranshah, we as a community need to show unity rather than divisiveness.
How do local Udvada residents feel about Nucleus Developers’ project?
The whole of the local Udvada population is now behind us. This was not always the case. Last Republic Day, representatives from Nucleus Properties were welcomed by panchayat officials at the flag-raising ceremony at Jhanda Chowk. I was originally barred from speaking at a gram sabha meeting scheduled for 7 February 2011. In response, I began approaching local organizations and committees, such as the machimar (fishermen) sabha, and I explained the negative impact that the project would have on Udvada’s infrastructure and fragile environment. By the time that the gram sabha meeting finally took place, by the grace of Pak Iranshah, villagers indicated their support for the Samast Anjuman and their opposition to Nucleus’ plans.
How have you been personally affected by the case?
Nucleus has accused me of wanting to stop their development so that we can bring in a Parsi buyer and make a profit on the land. They have also issued several verbal threats to me and my family as well as to Parsi supporters of the Udvada Samast Anjuman.
Fighting the case has been very taxing on my family and me, especially since I have to travel frequently to Ahmedabad and Valsad. Luckily, the anjuman has had a number of strong supporters. Behram Mehta of Aava Water has been instrumental in helping us in Ahmedabad with matters that involve the state government. Maneck and Eric Toddywalla have provided crucial local support in Udvada. Rustom Marshall has been providing his able assistance as our legal representative. Architects Jamshed Bhiwandiwalla and Pankaj Joshi have been working to provide infrastructure for saving Udvada’s unique Parsi heritage.
What is being done to protect the sanctity of Udvada for the long-term?
A special body, the Udvada Development Authority, was created in March 2011. The body has the authority to regulate development in the village. I represent the Samast Anjuman in the Development Authority, and the other members include the village sarpanch and a town planner. The village has been divided into three zones: the vicinity of Iranshah, which has been given the highest priority for regulating development; a buffer zone around this core region; and the peripheries. All the Parsi-owned houses around Iranshah have now been graded for their heritage value. These can no longer be legally demolished without the approval of the authority.
Individual Parsi community members need to also do their part to preserve and protect Udvada. Many Parsis have property in Udvada but their houses are empty and in a state of complete disrepair. They have a responsibility to preserve these traditional houses, come what may. It is our heritage and it is a prerogative. It is not that expensive of a task.
Udvada village currently sits a comfortable distance away from the messy industrial and commercial development that has sprung up around National Highway (NH) 8, a good eight kilometers to the east. For the moment, the village can still be accessed via narrow country roads that wind through orchards and wooded areas.
This might all soon change. For the past year, a local consortium, Nucleus Developers Private Limited, has threatened to turn an expansive plot of land northeast of the village into a sprawling compound, replacing orchards and farmlands with brick and concrete, and threatening to dramatically alter the rural ambience of Udvada village.
The story of the current Udvada land controversy is long and complex. Without relevant court documents, it can be an extremely confusing case to follow, compounded by the rumors and unverifiable statements that have flown back and forth in the community over the past few months. The account I reproduce below is based on reputable news reports and conversations I have had with many Parsi community leaders over the past several months. In spite of this, I have still had great difficulty piecing together the facts. A lack of hard facts and transparency, and the widely diverging narratives on the identity of Nucleus Developers and their intents, only confirms—in my mind—the murkiness of affairs that surround this project.
Nucleus Properties currently owns an area of approximately 168 acres zoned for farming, which, according to a comprehensive article published by Parsiana in June 2011, is now the site of expansive orchards (wadis) consisting of some 7,000 to 12,000 trees. As satellite maps reveal, this is currently one of the densest concentrations of green cover immediately bordering Udvada village. While one corner of this property is only a few minutes’ walk from the Iranshah Atash Behram, in the direction of Dastoor Baug and Ashishvangh Hotel, the land spreads out to the north and west to almost touch the sea. The 38 acres closest to the Atash Behram were originally owned by the Shree Baug-e-Iranshah Trust (which is different from the Udvada Samast Anjuman, the local Parsi organization. In response to accusations that the organization should never have allowed the disputed land to slip out of the control of the Parsi community, the Samast Anjuman has on several occasions clarified that it has never owned any of the property now in dispute). In 1966 it was sold to a Jamnadas Nagardas Modi, who in turn sold it to Lallubhai Jogi, a locally known figure, under whose tenure the property reached its current dimensions. Jogi sold the land to Nucleus in July 2010.
Parsiana, along with Vada Dasturjis Khurshed Dastoor and Peshotan Mirza, stated that Nucleus’ original plan was to set up some sort of factory—either a garments or a plastics factory—here. Aside from the desultory effects on nearby Iranshah, the project would have wreaked havoc on Udvada’s fragile environment, depleting groundwater reserves (the same reserves used by Iranshah’s wells, by the way) and potentially accelerating the process of coastal erosion in the region. Not to mention that the development would have been legally questionable—the land is specifically zoned for agricultural use and requires government approval if it is to be converted for other uses.
In spite of this, Nucleus had secured permission from local authorities, namely, the deputy collector of Valsad, for conversion from non-agricultural use. In a statement released in February 2011, the Samast Anjuman noted:
Udvada Samast Anjuman found it surprising that whilst in normal circumstances change of tenure of land from ‘agricultural land to nonagricultural’ is a long drawn out process, in the present case the same was done speedily. Udvada Samast Anjuman therefore decided to take up the matter with the district authorities and the Government of Gujarat to enquire into the speedy manner in which the tenure of the land was changed from agriculture to non agriculture and that too so very close to sacred Shreeji Pak Iranshah. The authorities have been reminded that they had some years earlier designated Udvada as ‘Pavitra Yatradham’ [place of holy pilgrimage] on account of Shreeji Pak Iranshah being located there.
As Dastoor told Parsiana, the collector of Valsad overturned the deputy collector’s approval after the Parsi community registered its outrage. Once the story hit the news, Nucleus apparently backpedaled and stated that they only wanted to build farmhouses on the property. Meanwhile, Nucleus filed an appeal with the Gujarat Revenue Tribunal, which overturned the collector’s decision. At the same time, however, the Tribunal issued an order that ‘status quo’ be maintained as on the date of the order, which I understand to mean that Nucleus is prevented from further development of the property for the time being (I have not been able to locate the Tribunal’s order through legal search engines, and the Tribunal’s website has not been updated since 2010). According to well-placed sources in the community, Nucleus has not as yet taken the next possible step of moving the Gujarat High Court on the matter, and thus the situation is deadlocked.
The Samast Anjuman, for its part, has tried to interest the highest echelons of the Gujarat government in its case. The land controversy was unmistakably in the background when Iranshah’s 1290th salgreh (anniversary) was celebrated on 24 April 2011 with chief minister Narendra Modi as the guest of honor. ‘Today, once again, when the sacred fire was facing a different kind of threat, [the] Government of Gujarat at the behest of its unparalleled and dynamic Chief Minister Shri Narendra Modi has risen to the occasion to assure its safety,’ Dastoor stated in a message he issued on the occasion of the salgreh.
Just how big is 168 acres? On its website, Nucleus has a schematic diagram of its proposed development, divided into 128 plots for farmhouses (see Image 2). They have, perhaps wisely, not indicated how the property compares in size to the village of Udvada. I have attempted to do so in the maps included here. In Image 3, I have traced the rough borders of the Nucleus site onto a satellite map of the Udvada area. In Image 4, I have superimposed Nucleus’ schematic diagram into this rough trace. It is readily apparent how this development would completely dwarf the existing village of Udvada. The developers themselves acknowledge on their website that their property is ‘double the size of the entire Udvada Village.’
In its development proposals, Nucleus has already had to make some concessions to the Parsi community. It has, according to its website, earmarked the 25 acres closest to Iranshah for ‘a beautiful garden for Parsis and other villagers of Udvada with parking space for vehicles bringing passengers to pay homage to Iranshah, etc.’ To their credit, Nucleus has also closed the main entrance to the property, situated just beyond Dastoor Baug (see Image 1), and made a new entrance one kilometer away, in response to fears of increased traffic right next to Iranshah.
In spite of these concessions, the project is still a cause for great concern. In a message posted on their website, addressed to ‘The Respected Parsi Community, Respected Elders & Dear Young Intellectuals,’ the directors of Nucleus, Pramod Banka and Salim Kherani, argue that their project has been ‘misunderstood.’ But the tenor of the rest of their letter only raised the sense of alarm for the present writer. After praising new boxy residential developments in Udvada that have shattered much of the village’s historical ambience, the directors explain away Dasturji Dastoor’s concerns about increased traffic by pointing out that the complex’s new entrance is now one kilometer away from Iranshah. No thought is given to the obvious uptick in traffic that will occur in the village, especially when the developers plan to open a parking lot on the grounds closest to the Atash Behram.
The developers further note that the farm houses will ‘be purchased only by the Elite Class of People from Cities of Mumbai, Surat, Baroda, Ahmedabad, etc.’ [sic] and will not serve as permanent homes. But one wonders whether there really will be such a great demand for these farm houses when upwards of 40 percent of existing houses in Udvada village, by one estimate given in the Zoroastrian Information Centre, are currently vacant and abandoned. And, if the farm houses are indeed restricted to ‘the Elite Class of People,’ there is even more worry that Udvada’s limited infrastructure and resources might come under great strain.
The remainder of Nucleus’ letter is bizarrely threatening in tone:
Now that the matter is in court, we shall be compelled to fight our case. It is very pertinent to note that, in Udvada, of the 33 [new] Residential Buildings which have come up, majority of them belong to Parsi Community and almost 70 % to 80 % of these buildings are illegal structures constructed without any regard to the law of the land. We have gathered all the evidences, using Right To Information Act, about these properties. Now, if we are harassed, even if our project is the most genuine and legally tenable, then, we shall also be compelled to move legally against these illegal projects where not only these vested interest persons (Vada Parsi Dastoorji [Dastoor] and his associates) and other Members of Parsi Community will suffer, a few other innocent people from the Udvada Village will also suffer. And with that, an unnecessary tension will be created in Udvada and an anti-Parsi environment will also crop up. If this happens, it will be very dangerous for all of us.
(I am unable to confirm whether, as Nucleus claims, so much new Parsi construction is illegal. Dasturji Dastoor disputed this figure when he spoke to Parsiana.)
Nucleus continues by raising allegations against Dasturji Dastoor:
And dear Readers, do you know why the Vada Parsi Dastoorji and his associates are creating hurdles for our project ? Its just because these very people want us to sell our entire Project Land to them at a price below our purchase price. And they are threatening us that if we will not sell the land to them at below cost, then they will not allow us to do any development activity on our project land.
Dastoor explained the Anjuman’s stance to Parsiana, and an excerpt of the article is given below:
‘We are ready to purchase the land at a reasonable price…we don’t want to cause any nuksaan (loss)’ to the present purchase ‘but we will not pay double the price,’ Dastoor avers. He claims that the sale price from the previous owner Lallubhai Jogi to Nucleus was finalized at Rs. 37,50,00,000 (US$8,333,333) or around Rs. 22,50,000 an acre! But Kherani envisions selling plots to individual buyers at Rs. 500 to 600 a sq. ft. At 43,560 sq. ft. to an acre, the price works out to Rs. 2,40,000 an acre! If construction of homes is to be done Nucleus would charge an additional Rs. 600 to 700 a sq. ft. Thus the built up cost would work out to around Rs. 1,200 per sq. ft. The current price for an ownership flat in Udvada is around that amount.
Exorbitantly high real estate prices, unprofessional PR, threatening language, and insinuations—something does not add up here.
In January, when I spoke to the Anjuman’s advocate in the land controversy case, Rustom Marshall, he stated that the easiest resolution to this dispute is also the most difficult: purchase of the land from Nucleus by a creditable third party keen on maintaining the agricultural nature of the land. For the moment, the Nucleus case remains with the Gujarat Revenue Tribunal. And, as opposed to the case of a few months ago, it currently incites less discussion and provokes less interest in the Parsi community. One hopes that the Parsis—be they in India or abroad—take keen interest and involvement in the case. The sanctity of their holiest fire temple hangs in the balance, after all.
In my next post, I will delve further into Nucleus controversy, outlining some of the main arguments made by the Udvada Samast Anjuman against the developers by utilizing some court documents at my disposal.
My thanks to Parinaz Madan, a Mumbai-based lawyer, for her help with this and future posts on this topic.
‘The Wadi at Udvada,’ Parsiana, 7 June 2011, pp. 32-33, 47-48.
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’ . 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.
* * *
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 ઈરાનશાહનીતવારીખ, 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.