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Burning bright

As two dozen Parsi agiaries fall off the Development Plan’s list of heritage structures, Meher Marfatia picks her favourite fire temples in Mumbai

It was a bit worse than forgetting to bring the ring to a wedding. At my Navjote the family found we had left behind the 72-thread lamb’s wool woven “kusti” cord meant to circle my waist to initiate me into the faith. Fortunately, the distress was fleeting. Thanks to the fact that the ceremony was at Tata Agiary, mere metres from our house. My brother ran back, got it and I was officially ordained Parsi within minutes of the mistake.

The Wadiaji Atash Behram at Dhobi Talao is fronted by a lovely courtyard fountain.
The Wadiaji Atash Behram at Dhobi Talao is fronted by a lovely courtyard fountain. Pic/ Sameer Markande

Standing oasis-like on frenzied Hill Road, rechristened Hell Road by my mother, the Tata Agiary’s distinctive feature is a striking stained glass panel of Zarathustra amid Edwardian motifs centred in the main prayer hall. It once graced Tata Palace. My maiden name was Dastoor (meaning “priest”) and down to great-grandfather every ancestor did stoke the sacred flame in neighbouring Navsari. This makes me a believer, even if not an overly fervent follower of the faith. I’m among the last 40,000 members of my minuscule community in the city, baffled by two dozen agiaries left unlisted in the Development Plan.

At Dadar Parsi Colony, the manicured gardens around Rustom Faram Agiary and its handsome structural sprawl render it imposing. File PIC
At Dadar Parsi Colony, the manicured gardens around Rustom Faram Agiary and its handsome structural sprawl render it imposing. File Pic

With both parents spending their childhood at Dadar Parsi Colony, the Rustom Faram Agiary has also been a part of my growing up. Manicured gardens around its handsome structural sprawl render it imposing. The fire temple was built by a philanthropic Agra hotelier who moved to Mumbai surprised to find the largest housing colony for his community had no place of worship. As this keeps a record of residents since the 1920s, I know I’ll return to trace my roots here sometime soon — Mancherji Joshi, visionary founder of this leafy colony, was a maternal grand-uncle.

The Tata Agiary on Hill Road in Bandra famed for its stained glass panel of Zarathushtra.
The Tata Agiary on Hill Road in Bandra famed for its stained glass panel of Zarathushtra. Pic/Suresh KK

Other hubs proudly tending their own altars are the Jokhi Agiary in Godrej Baug on Malabar Hill and Karani Agiary in Cusrow Baug on Colaba Causeway. Blessed by morning “maachi” offerings and jashans on auspicious days, they enjoy footfalls aplenty, being on the premises of better populated baug complexes. How long they stay strong is really anyone’s guess in the marauding madness of roads mapped to plough through churches and metros through parks.

It’s business as usual outside the Vatcha Agiary in the bustling heart of Fort.
It’s business as usual outside the Vatcha Agiary in the bustling heart of Fort. Pic/Sameer Markande

It took an agiary of course to solemnise my marriage a quarter century ago. The Jejeebhoy Dadabhoy Agiary at Colaba continues to dress resplendent in a swathe of orchids and organza for weddings which promise to welcome more members to the fold. It remains every young couple’s first port of call after they exchange vows and before guests leap to long tables laden with caterer Tanaz Godiwala’s fine feast of “lagan nu bhonu”.

The agiary of the family I married into is tucked into an alley behind Flora Fountain. The Banaji Limji Agiary, containing Bombay’s earliest sacred fire from June 1709, is fondly dubbed Kote ni Agiary or “fire temple of the Fort”. Children cheerfully call it Bakri Agiary for the goats grazing in the courtyard.

A small miracle is presented at Soonaiji Agiary, nestled in a lane I love, across August Kranti Maidan where chocolate queen Meher Pinto rules and generations of children have played Chor-Police and cricket. Amazingly, the natural grain of veins in the marble of one of its walls is fanned out to form the face of Zoroaster, right from the paghri on the prophet’s head to his
flowing beard.

Round the corner from where we live today, my children light flickering oil lamps in Saher Agiary at Breach Candy. A sense of sheer peace is palpable when you touch the cool rim of the “kebla” ledge in its sanctum sanctorum. The pretty cottage-roofed venue witnesses a number of nuptials below tree trails of hanging lights to give it a fairyland look.

Small is beautiful again in the case of the Thoothi Agiary. Sandwiched squat between Shapoorji Pallonji’s mansion and Raj Bhavan, it is a miniature landmark in itself. Nothing short of nirvana to hear prayers overlooking the serene bay waters this agiary sits perched on, at the Arabian Sea edge along an ambling arc of Walkeshwar.

Oppositely proportioned is the huge Assyrian-style façade of the Vatcha Agiary inside Kermani Building at the point where DN Road joins PM Road. A pair of big winged bulls rise like sentinels guarding the 100-year-old gates topped by a “fravashi” angel motif looming benevolently. I’ve often visited the Iranian Anjuman Zoroastrian office in the same building to research the unique culture of the land we set sail from with fresh hope.

As significant for its sanctity as for its architectural beauty is the Holy of Holies — the Wadiaji Atash Behram on Princess Street in Dhobi Talao. Bombay has four Atash Behrams. Indo-Iranian in design, the Wadiaji’s fluted columns, crenellated verandahs and octet of Porbunder stone pillars parallel Darius the Great’s audience hall in ancient Persepolis. A cluster of sandalwood shops patronized by Parsis in this area have given it the name of Chandanwadi.

It is said that 16 different fires are ritually mixed to create a pure Atash Behram flame. These include fires from an ascetic, shepherd, soldier, king and goldsmith. Hands folded before this one — burning slow and steady, bold and bright – I feel all of them warmly, wisely watching over me.

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