At Nargol in south Gujarat, where the Zoroastrians first set foot in India, I found a cluster of whitewashed walls enclosing beautiful heritage homes, mostly manned by caretakers. After a leisurely walk along its quiet lanes, I stumbled upon four kilometres of virgin beach with endless casuarinas swaying in the gentle breeze. And as I left my footprints on the white sands, it was easy to imagine that this beach is almost unaware of its own existence.
By the end of the 7th century, Arab invaders had vanquished the mighty Sassanian Empire. Many people who belonged to the Zoroastrian faith were consequently killed. Those who survived fled to the mountains of Iran. They were hounded out from there too, and after a brief respite in the town of Hormuz, they set sail for the friendly shores of India.
The ship that carried them was enveloped in a massive storm. The ship was rocked but not their faith. They prayed till the storm passed. Suddenly, the passengers discovered that they were washed ashore on to the shores of Nargol in western India.
Legend has it that their leader, a Dastur, or a Parsi priest, led his people to the durbar of the king of Sanjan named Jadhav Rana. When the Dastur requested permission for his people to settle down in Sanjan, the king asked for an empty vessel and some milk. Then, in full view of all present, he poured the milk into the vessel till it was full to the brim. And gave it to the Dastur, as if to mean that there is no place in the kingdom to accommodate Dastur’s people.
The Dastur took the milk vessel in his hand, sprinkled sugar into it, and returned it to the king. The vessel didn’t spill over but had become sweeter! The king was impressed with this brilliant metaphor such that he gave them permission to settle down in Sanjan. Thus began one of the greatest integrations of two communities ever witnessed in the world.
The fire is safe
A few years later, the Parsis requested the king to allow them to build a fire temple. The Sacred Fire, according to the religion, is the Son of Ahura Mazda, or the Eternal Light, and is made from 16 fires. Fifteen of them come from earthly sources including a brick-maker’s kiln, a goldsmith’s fire, a baker’s oven, a shepherd’s house, a crematorium and a king’s house. The 16th fire is from a fire caused by lightning that comes from heaven. The consecrated fire then occupies pride of place in the sanctum sanctorum of a Fire Temple.
It took three years to purify this fire, and after it was placed in the Sanjan temple, it burned bright for 669 years, till the Mughals under Sultan Mahmud attacked Sanjan in the 13th century. The Parsis who had laid down their arms picked them up again. 1,400 valiant warriors under Ardeshir fought alongside the king’s army. The Mughals defeated them after a bitter battle. Fearing the kind of persecution that their forefathers had suffered at the hands of the Arab, the Parsis fled to the mountains of Bahrot, 20 kms away. With the most valuable possession of them all: the Sacred Fire.
It was hidden in the caves of Bahrot for 12 years, then taken to the jungles of Vansda for 14 years, later, it remained safe in Navsari for 313 years, three years in Surat, back in Navsari for 5 years, then in Valsad for a year, until it reached Udvada in 1742. Here, at Ground Zero of Parsis the world over, this sublime fire has been burning bright at the Fire Temple of Iranshah Atash Behram.
At Sanjan, there is no trace of the original fire temple, nor are there any quaint Parsi homes. There is only a commemorative pillar that was built a century ago, to mark the place of arrival of the Parsis in India.
Rest and rejuvenate
Drive along the sea from Udvada to reach the twin beaches of Bordi and Gholvad. Called the chikoo bowl of Maharashtra, don’t miss the Parsi cuisine. Gool Khush restaurant gets our vote. Walk as much as possible on the deserted, 17-km-long beach. After you’ve worked up a large appetite, feast on Lagan-Nu-Bhonu, Sali Boti, Dhansak, Kheema-Pao, Dal-Pulao, Patra-Ni-Machchi, and top it all with Caramel Custard. If you’re still game, roam around the shaded chikoo orchard nearby, and take a deep breath. The aroma of toffee from the resin of these trees is all-pervading; it also serves up as a delicious dessert.
It is believed that Prophet Zarathusthra, unlike other mortal kids, laughed when he was born. Probably, looking at the waythe Parsis have integrated so well into this country, he must be smiling now.
Nearby, the picturesque Asavli Dam, which was built painstakingly by hand, has a mosaic of paddy fields on one side and the tranquil waters on the other side with scenic hills in the backdrop. The Parsis kept their holy fire safe and burning for 12 long years among these hills of Bharda, at the Bahrot Caves.
How to get there
>> Sanjan is roughly 200 kms from Mumbai.
>> Take a left to stay on the Western Express Highway and continue on NH8.
Where to stay: Staying options at Sanjan, Nargol or Udvada are not much to write home about. Instead, use Bordi or Dahanu as your launch-pad. Log on to www.maharashtratourism.gov.in to choose what suits your budget.
Best time: Throughout the year