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The faltering fires

The forsaken and largely forgotten Seth Jamshedji Jejeebhoy Godavara Agiary tucked away in a by lane between Sir Pherozeshah Mehta Road and Gunbow Street shot into prominence after the Udvada high priest Dastur Khurshed Dastoor said selling the dilapidated one-story structure after relocating the sacred fire is a smarter option than repairing the 160-year-old building (the fire is 193 years old). As expected Dastoor was lambasted by the traditionalists.

Over 20 years ago when the fire temple’s owners, the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) wanted to shift the consecrated fire from the Fort area which has six functioning fire temples to the proposed Shapoorji Fakirji Jokhi Agiary at Godrej Baug, a few devotees objected and approached the courts. When the trustees’ plans were thwarted, they brought instead a fire from Navsari which originally burned in Gujarat’s Tavri village.

The BPP has budgeted Rs 40 lakhs for the repairs to Godavara which reportedly sees between eight to 12 footfalls a day and has 10 tables booked for the August muktad days when prayers are recited for the dead. In contrast the Rustomji Sorabji Indawalla and Avabai Ardeshir Kharsetji Wadia Agiary at Dhobi Talao and the Mancherji Khurshedji Langdana Agiary behind the BPP office reportedly do not have a single muktad table. Most fire temples are bereft of devotees. On a regular Sunday morning between 8.30 a.m. to 9.30 a.m. the Hormasji Bomanji Wadia Atash Behram at Dhobi Talao has around four to five worshippers; the Sorabji Khurshedji Thoothina Adaran at Walkeshwar has one or none.

When Parsiana visited the Shapurji Burjorji Bharucha Daremeher in Bharuch 10 years ago, the priest said we were the first visitors in a fortnight. In the Pestonji Aslaji Doongaji Agiary, also in Bharuch, not a single footfall occurs a day, according to Dastoor, a statement collaborated by one of the trustees. Plans to shift that fire to Godrej Baug failed and a subsequent proposal to enthrone the flame in the Shirinbai and Khurshedji Hormusji Doongaji Daremeher at New Bombay met the same fate. Some dissenters moved the court and blocked the transfer.

In the Goolrookh Gupta vs Valsad Parsi Anjuman case, her lawyer Percy Kavina told the Gujarat High Court in 2012 that the Mota Shapur Daremeher in Valsad would not even record one footfall an hour. The Anjuman had passed a resolution barring entry to Parsi women married to non Parsis even if they had a civil marriage and continued to practice the Zoroastrian religion.

Crores of rupees are spent by the community to maintain fire temples all over India, even though most are unfrequented and forgotten. As the community numbers continue to decline and the shortage of mobeds exacerbates, a grim future faces these sacred structures. Unlike in the West where Christian churches are sold, amalgamated or converted to other uses, houses of worship are a sensitive subject in India. One has only to see the blood that was and is shed over temples, mosques and churches in India. A culture of intolerance is being bred.

In the past, several fires were shifted with the former structures either being closed, sold or converted to other uses. Marzban Giara’s book, Global Directory of Zoroastrian Fire Temples lists 52 agiaries as being "closed." These were consecrated between 1672 and 1923 with around 90% in the 1800s. Of these, 13 fires were shifted elsewhere. Of the 52, 11 were shut in Bombay, four abroad (Aden, Rangoon, Sukkur in Pakistan and Zanzibar) and the rest, elsewhere in India, mostly southern Gujarat. The Iranshah fire was shifted from Sanjan to Bahrot to Vansda to Navsari to Surat, back to Navsari, then Valsad before being enthroned in the Udvada Athornan Anjuman Atash Behram.

The April-May 1974 issue of Parsiana carried an article asking readers, BPP trustees, etc "Are there too many fire temples in Bombay?" Of the four trustees who responded, Erach Nadirshah, Dr Aspi Golwalla, Shiavax Vakil and P. P. Khambatta, three felt "the number was too large" while Khambatta stated they were not, but added that "a few are situated in places where little use is made of them." They replied in their individual capacity and not as trustees. Of the six lay people interviewed, five, including a mobed, said there were too many; one said no.

Forty-five years later the reality is even more stark. There are over 50 fire temples in Bombay and the surrounding areas. According to the Rivayats, correspondence exchanged between the priests in Iran and India from the 15th to the 18th century, Zoroastrians are duty bound to create a fire temple close to their environs. But what happens when the inhabitants move elsewhere and/or their numbers diminish? How does one sustain the institution?

Most fire temples were constructed around the mid-1800s as the Parsi population grew, prospered and dispersed. The all-India Parsi population peaked at 1,14,890, according to the 1941 government of India census. In the 2011 census, the all-India count was only 50% of that figure, 57,264. Today the number must be closer to 50,000. Bombay recorded 46,000 Parsis in the 2001 census. No figures were released for Bombay Parsis in the 2011 census. But looking at the birth and death figures one would approximate the Bombay population in 2019 to be around 35,000. This works out to an average of 700 Parsis per agiary. If one assumes the elderly and the very young cannot visit on their own and the children of interfaith women are barred entry, the numbers fall further. Agiaries like the ones in or near Parsi residential colonies have a higher number of worshippers as versus neighborhoods where fewer or no Parsis reside.

In the areas where Parsis are few, raising funds for a mobed and his assistant’s salaries, not to mention kathi, minor and eventually major repairs, is a momentous task. And even when funds are forthcoming, where are the priests? In Lahore, lay people look after the fire temple and even perform muktad ceremonies albeit in an abbreviated form. But what happpens when the residents are either infirm or working and cannot undertake such a task?

Chances of arriving at an acceptable solution to the abundance of agiaries are slim. Even if those affected agree on a course of action, any individual/s can move a court to thwart or infinitely delay the proposal. The fear of creating a controversy and landing in litigation would deter the most well-meaning trustees/residents. Added to these concerns is that many trustees are elderly, infirm and financially unable to sustain a fire temple or a law suit. How long can an ageing, dwindling community continue to prop up a disproportionate number of agiaries? A Shapoorji Pallonji, a Dr Cyrus Poonawalla, the trustees of the Zoroastrian Charity Funds of Hong Kong, Canton and Macao can only do so much. Pervin and Jal Shroff of Hong Kong are being rebuffed and maligned after pledging to make the single largest monetary donation to the community. Their philanthropic objective was to sustain one of the most precious community institutions, The B. D. Petit Parsee General Hospital.

Will such opposition deter others from lending a helping hand? As BPP trustee Kersi Randeria told the Global Working Group meeting in Bombay last December, "Who in his right mind would want to donate after seeing Jal Shroff’s offer of help?" If a handful of people can block assistance to an institution that cares for the disadvantaged, ill and infirm, what chance do our fire temples have?



 

Villoo Poonawalla