Immigrants from Iran

THE ROAD FROM SURAT TO BOMBAY runs through flat terrain with many industrial establishments until it is within a few miles of the border between Gujarat and Maharashtra, a frontier that did not exist before 1960, when the former Bombay State split along linguistic lines into Gujarat and Maharashtra. Beyond the border, the countryside changes suddenly and dramatically, becoming hilly, greener, and much more rustic.

We stopped at Sanjan, a small town near the Arabian Sea and just within Gujarat. In 689 AD, some boatloads of Zoroastrian refugees, fleeing from the Moslems in Iran landed at the, port of Sanjan. The local Indian ruler gave them sanctuary. Thus, began the Parsi community in India.

Sanjan today is a small rather untidy country town surrounded by Arcadian landscape. The modernistic Parsi agiary (fire temple) stands in a walled enclosure at the edge of town close to the Surat to Bombay railway line. It is only open to Parsis.

Close to the agiary and open to the public there is a large enclosure dominated by a tall obelisk surmounted by a gold coloured jar from which gold coloured metal flames are modelled. On three of the four sides of the obelisk there are inscribed plaques: one in an ancient Parsi script (maybe Avestan), another in Gujarati, and the third in English. These notices explain that the obelisk was inaugurated in 1920 by Sir Jamsetji Jeejeebhoy. The column was erected to celebrate the arrival of the first Iranian Zoroastrians at Sanjan and their welcome by the Hindu ruler Jadi Rana.

Next to the obelisk, there is a structure containing a Parsi time capsule placed there in 2000. It contains objects that characterise the past and present of the Indian parsi community. It does not mention when the capsule may be opened.

About 50 yards from the monument stands a cluster of buildings. One of them that stands alone is a meeting hall. The other buildings are parts of a hostel (dharamshala) where Parsi pilgrims can stay for 15 rupees per night in simple accommodation. The main room of the hostel contains aging photographs of no doubt eminent Parsis. There is also a bust of Dadabhai Naoroji, one of the founding members of the Indian National Congress.

We left this peaceful flower filled Parsi compound and returned to the National Highway. We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant called Atithi (means ‘guest’) and ate a very good mutton dhansak, a Parsi dish containing meat cooked in a gravy rich in dals and spices. We were surprised how excellent it was. A few hours later, we met a Parsi friend in Bombay, who told us that the restaurant is owned by a Parsi.

After crossing the river or large creek near Vasai, which was once a Portuguese possession and port, we entered the region of Greater Bombay. Immediately, the countryside ended and the landscape became urban. We were 70 kilometres from the heart of Bombay. We drove that distance through an uninterrupted built up area containing modern high rise buildings that look over large areas of slums filled with makeshift corrugated iron shacks, most of which have TV satellite dish antennae.

Eventually, we crossed the attractive Rajiv Gandhi Sealink Bridge that connects the suburb of Bandra with the upmarket Worli Seaface. It was not long before we were cruising along Marine Drive, one side of which is the sea and the other a series of buildings that includes many fine examples of Art Deco architecture.

Soon, we became immersed in the social life of Bombay, a tropical version of Manhattan: endlessly fascinating but quite exhausting.

From Persia to India: Parsis in Gujarat and Diu

A Parsi dharamshala (guest-house for pilgrims) near Udvada Station

The Parsis, followers of the ancient Zoroastrian religion, are few in number, making up a minute fraction of India’s population.

Fire Temple in Ahmedabad

In 2014, there were less than 70,000 Parsis in India, and this number is decreasing rapidly. Though insignificant in numerical strength, the Parsis have made a disproportionately enormous positive impact in many fields of activity in India and the rest of the world. To appreciate their achievements, one need only consider that the following well-known personalities are all of Parsi origin: the politicians Dadabhai Naoroji, Bhikaiji Cama, and Pherozeshah Mehta; the industrialist families Wadia, Petit, Tata, and Godrej; scientists Homi J Bhabha and Homi Sethna; musicians  Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, Zubin Mehta, and Freddy Mercury; military men including Sam Manekshaw; authors  Rohinton Mistry, Firdaus Kanga, and Bapsi Sidhwa; actors John Farhan Abraham and Boman Irani; and a host of other famous people.

A Parsi library in Udvada

The Parsis originated in Iran (Persia). Following the invasion of Persia by Islamic forces, the Zoroastrians were persecuted by the invaders. Some of them chose to flee to India from Iran. It is not known exactly when this exodus began, but it is likely to have been sometime during the 8th century AD. In India, the Zoroastrians were free to observe their religious practices and were known as ‘Parsis’.

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Entrance to a former Parsi Fire Temple compound in Diu

Although details are subject to discussion, it is widely thought that the Parsis first settled in Diu on the Saurashtrian coast of Gujarat for 19 years. They left this place when an astrologer-priest announced: “’Our destiny lies elsewhere, we must leave Diu and seek another place of refuge” (see: They sailed across the waters from Diu to the coast of southern Gujarat, where it is believed they landed at Sanjan. They settled in Sanjan and places nearby including Udvada, Bharuch, Navsari, and Ankleshwar. Cutting a long story short, Parsi communities developed all over Gujarat and Maharashtra (notably in Bombay and Pune).

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Model of a Fire Temple priest in athe museum at Udvada

As with other religions, Zoroastrianism has several unalterable core features. One of these is worship at Fire Temples. The Fire Temple, to which access is denied to all but Zoroastrians, contains a fire that must be kept alight by the priests. An English traveller John Jourdain (ca. 1572-1619) wrote of the Parsis in Navsari: “Their religion is farre different from the Moores or Banians for they do adore the fire, and doe contynuallie keepe their fire burninge for devotion thinkinge that if the fire should goe out, that the world weare at an end.”

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Atash Behram in Udvada

During my recent trip to Gujarat, I visited Udvada, which is home to an extremely important Fire Temple. In my new book (see below), I wrote: “Udvada is home to a historically important, highest-level Parsi temple known as an Atash Behram (i.e. ‘Fire of Victory’). Established in 1742, this is the oldest of the eight Atash Behrams in the India. The sacred flame that it houses has been burning continuously for longer than any other Parsi sacred flames in India. Its sacred flame was lit on a bed of sacred ashes brought to India by the first Parsis to arrive there.” Being a functioning fire temple, my wife and I who are not Parsis, were unable to enter this esteemed place of worship.

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Disused Tower of Silence, Diu

Another characteristic of Parsi religious observances is the mode of disposing of the deceased. Although some Parsis are buried – I have visited a Parsi cemetery in Bangalore, the majority of Parsi corpses are dealt with quite differently. They are placed in the so-called Towers of Silence.

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Interior of a Tower of Silence, Diu

I wrote that the Towers of Silence are: “… where the corpses of Parsis were traditionally left exposed to the sky so that their flesh could be consumed by vultures (a practice that may have begun in Persia by 900 AD).”  In Bombay, there is now a problem: no vultures. I wrote: “The depletion of the vulture population has been attributed to the toxic medications, such as the painkiller diclophenac, that become concentrated in the corpses’ during life, and remain there after death.”

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A disused Parsi building near a Tower of Silence, Diu

Like the Fire Temples, functioning Towers of Silence are out of bounds except for Parsis, alive or dead. There was a thriving Parsi community on the island of Diu, a Portuguese colony until 1961. Several decades ago, the last of the Parsis living in Diu left the island to settle elsewhere. The community that had lived there for many centuries had its own Fire Temples and Towers of Silence. These have long since become abandoned or re-used for other purposes. However, they retain enough of their original features to show visitors, who, like my wife and I, are not Parsis, what cannot be seen in functioning Fire Temples and Towers of Silence. What we found and much more is described in detail in my new publication.