Udvada train station

Udvada is a coastal town in Gujarat, about 240 km north of India’s bustling commercial capital, Mumbai. It is a small town but for Zoroastrians (Parsis) it is as venerable as the Kaaba in Makkah and Vatican in Rome for Muslims and Catholics respectively, as it is the site of Iran Shah, an Atash Behram (fire temple), where the holiest of the holy fire burns.

To me images of Udvada float in and out of my life, quite like the ebb and flow of the tide pounding the shores of the Arabian Sea on which Udvada lies. My memories of this temple town are interspersed with lazy summer holidays which just happened to be spent in the crucible of my faith and that of my forefathers.

By the end of April when schools were out for the summer, a smattering of stay-at-home moms would gather their kids, nephews and nieces, bundling us onto a steam train bound up the coast for Udvada. It’s where my maternal grandmother lived with my spinster aunt. It was our version of the ultimate summer getaway.

We knew every rail stop on the way and the gastronomic delights associated with them. Vendors would file into the second-class compartment selling everything from fresh seasonal fruit like chikoos and pears to snacks like daal-singh and coconut water.

Four hours later, we alighted from the train with our olive green beddings and battered suitcases. A long, bumpy rickshaw ride later, we’d reach our grandmother’s house at the edge of the village. By then we were just as dusty and dirty as the urchins playing nine-stones at Zanda Chowk (village square).

Late afternoon we would run into the fruit orchard looking to eat the mangoes straight off the tree. Late evenings we would scamper off to the beach. Once on the beach, sandcastles were made and destroyed; crushes discussed threadbare, chor-police games won and lost, and the ultimate game of cricket was staged. The grand-finale every evening was the game of antakhshari with songs sung to invoke light in a village rendered dark by daily load-shedding and brownouts.

A weekly visit to the Iran Shah would cap our holidays, with a tonga-ride to a nearby village thrown in for good measure.

Historical background

Iran Shah Atash Behram from inside the gate – photo credit: Traditional Zoroastrianism

The Iran Shah, Udvada’s Atash Behram, is a pilgrimage site for Zoroastrians from all over the world. Atash Behram is the name given to both the highest grade of fire used in Zoroastrian worship as well as the temple that houses the fire.

On fleeing the Arab invasion of Persia (Iran), a group of Zoroastrians got into a boat along with their holy fire and set sail east from the Strait of Hormuz.

According to the book The Kissah-i-Sanjan by Dr Jivanji Modi, the Zoroastrians from Hormuz joined the Persians at Makran, Balochistan’s coastal region that spans south-eastern Iran and southern Pakistan. Makran already had a Zoroastrian community and as the Arabs advanced east so did the Zoroastrians who continued to sail eastward and anchored on the shores of Sanjan, a hamlet on India’s west coast in 715 AD (approximately).

The benign Hindu King of Sanjan offered shelter to the group — who were referred to as Parsis (the people from Persia) — on certain conditions, and thus began the epic legacy of Parsis making their home in a then undivided India.

They soon started building a temple to house the holy fire. The first temple to house the fire was built in Sanjan, after which, as the Parsis moved up and down the coast, the fire too moved with them and made the journey to Navsari (a town north of Udvada). In 1742 AD it was decided to build a permanent home for the holy fire and it was bought to the Atash Behram building at Udvada making it the oldest functioning Atash Behram in the world.

Why call the holy fire Iran Shah?

According to the book Religion and History of the Parsees by Meherbano Kekobad Marker, the Atash Behram at Udvada is referred to as Iran Shah as in the Sassanian times all Atash Behrams were referred to as Iran Shah, implying thereby the spiritual role of the Holy Fire in the governance of the country.

The Iran Shah is well served by priests from nine families who have sacred rights to serve and tend the holy fire. They are descendants from the leading priests who were associated with the holy fire as it landed on the shores of Sanjan to Navsari and now Udvada.

They tend to the higher liturgies that go with the holy fire in rotation and with much reverence. Although they all do not live in Udvada, they come ever so often to exercise their holy duty.

I no longer live close to Udvada, nor do I spend my summer holidays there. My grandmother is long gone, but my aunt still lives in the same house I spent my summers. The village has now been granted the status of ‘World heritage centre of religious harmony’ by the government of Gujarat, India. But for me, the train ride, the mango trees and the beach make for lasting memories of a fun-filled childhood spent in the shadows of Iran Shah — a symbol of a faith that tells me to think good thoughts, say good words which automatically will be translated into good deeds.