Rayomand Coins

Guarding the guardians

Priests’ lives matter. No one would dispute the sentiments conveyed by these three words. Yet, over the past few decades, several priests have suffered severe burns in various fire temples throughout the country, and some have succumbed to their injuries. The response has largely been to ask the priests to remain vigilant while attending to the fire or not to wear the long cotton jamo but a dagli while performing certain ceremonies. The Parsiana cover story "Death by diva" (August 7, 2009) was published after three priests suffered burns in the course of three months. The article noted, "A spark of divinity can ignite the most holy. But when it inflames not one, but three priests in three fire temples in three months, there is cause for concern. Realizing that it is the conjoined responsibility of the mobeds, the behdins and the trustees to create a safer haven for those who are faithfully feeding the fires, in mid-May (2009) Parsiana approached nearly 30 stalwarts of the community asking them for their views on the subject."

Many of the suggestions made by the respondents were practical and may have been instituted in some fire temples. But whether the practices continued over time is not known. What is known is that the burning and the deaths continue.

According to the figures available on the website of the National Safety Council in the USA, in 1980 the number of fires in homes was 5,200. By 2018, the number had been brought down to 2,820. So by educating the public and initiating changes in the way homes are built and managed, they were able to successfully reduce fire incidents.

In the 1960s people often blamed car crashes on the ineptitude of drivers and plane accidents on pilot error. Over the course of time it was found that cars lacked certain basic safety features which caused consumer activist Ralph Nadar to title his book on the subject Unsafe at Any Speed. Thereafter seatbelts became mandatory, locking devices on cars improved. Cars were built so that they absorbed the impact of a collision, air bags were installed and so on. In the airline industry, the scope for pilot error was minimized by technology and other precautions.

The WZO (World Zoroastrian Organisation) Trusts and Empowering Mobeds (a joint initiative of the Trusts and the Athornan Mandal) have issued a statement listing various precautions and safeguards that priests and fire temples can follow (see "A burning problem," pg 20). It is not a comprehensive list, nor are all the items mentioned in consonance with modern firefighting techniques. But it is the first institutionalized attempt to focus on the dangers and offer remedies.

The suggestions made in the Parsiana 2009 article were more comprehensive and detailed. For example while the WZO/Mobeds write-up states that garments treated with fire resistant chemicals would lose their efficacy when washed, the late P. D. Sunavala, former professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, had specified in Parsiana’s 2009 article, "The major cause of fire in fire temples is on account of the priest’s robe (jamo) catching fire... So the most important thing is to make the jamo fireproof by applying fire retardants. The most widely used fire retardant for cotton fabrics is Tetrakis-hydroxymethyl-phosphonium-chloride (THPC). This is a water-soluble crystalline compound produced from formaldehyde, phosphine and hydrochloric acid. The formulation for applying on cotton fabric consists of THPC, urea and trimethyl-melamine in the ratio of 2:4:1 plus various auxiliaries. Normally about 35% solution is applied. After impregnation the fabric is dried and subjected to the standard vertical flame test for its fire retardancy. The finish is durable to both laundering and dry cleaning. Its primary limitations are stiffness and reduction in tensile strength on some fabrics. To overcome the limitations several other formulations of THPC have been developed." Eminent plastic and reconstructive surgeon Dr Suhas Abhyankar, associated with the Masina Hospital, Bai Jerbai Wadia Hospital for children and Dr D. Y. Patil School of Medicine, told Parsiana on November 8, 2020 that one should initiate discussion with textile manufacturers to explore all the possibilities of developing fire retardant/resistant materials.

Another WZO/Mobeds suggestion to wrap a blanket around a person in flames is a no-no as the thick blanket entraps the heat and increases the severity of the burns.

When firemen attend to a fire, they do not do it singly. They know the dangers of managing fires whether in homes, institutions, outdoors or in forests. Our fire temples for the most part lie desolate and unfrequented. At an agiary where the boi ceremony is performed five times a day, a lone priest tending to the fire in the early hours of the morning when he may be tired or drowsy and all alone is fraught with danger. Should his garments catch fire who would be there to assist him? Or see that he is administered medical assistance and rushed to the nearest hospital? Whether that hospital is equipped to deal with burns is another cause for concern. When a priest is rendered helpless or dies there may be no replacement available. In a community with dwindling numbers and an aging population, every life counts.

The sporadic article, public statement, announcement, media report, etc cannot be a substitute for a council of priests sitting together and formulating measures that are effective and ritually acceptable.

The reality is that no record is kept by any institution or association, of the number of priests or lay people burnt in fire temples, to our knowledge. Aside from an occasional mention in the print and social media there is no all-India movement or effort to try and ensure that maximum safety regulations are in place. If we cannot pull together and arrive at meaningful guidelines then the situation can only grow more dismal.


Villoo Poonawalla