All roads lead to Udvada Utsav, in Southern Gujarat, for the three-day International Udavada Utsav, from December 25 to 27, this year. Beyniaz reports from the first ever International festival of the Parsis.
The first ever International Udvada Utsav, was held at Udvada, in Southern Gujarat, on December 25, 26 and 27, 2015. Zoroastrians from all over India and many Parsis from abroad made a bee-line to Udvada in coastal Gujarat. After praying and offering sandal wood to the Holy Fire at the Iranshah, the Holiest of Zoroastrian shrines in India, visitors to this sleepy town took part in the Udvada Utsav. The festivities included heritage walks, skits, treasure hunts, a Vintage car rally, dances and skits by Zoroastrians from all over, performances by Shamak Daver and his dance troupe and actor Boman Irani; competitions and lectures.
The PM was expected to attend because the festival was his brainchild. Prime Minister Modi wanted a festival to attract Parsis from across the world because he wanted to portray Udvada as a place of religious harmony and tolerance. An ad film on Udvada was made by Superstar Amitabh Bachchan recounting the sugar in the milk story of how Zoroastrians first came to India, for Tourism Gujarat. The entire village of Udvada is a Heritage Precinct. It is a small, sleepy Fishing village with a Parsi population of about 60, including the families of the priests who serve the Iranshah. It now springs to life as thousands of Zoroastrians descend here to renew their faith.
However, due to unforeseen circumstances, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had recently regretted his inability to be present as earlier planned, at Udvada on December 27, 2015. Arun Jaitley, Minister for Finance, Corporate Affairs, and Information & Broadcasting was the Chief Guest instead. Mr. Ratan Tata, Chairman Emeritus, Tata Sons was the Guest of Honour and was felicitated as the ‘Icon of Success’ on December 27, 2015.
Saurabh Patel, the Minister for Energy & Petrochemicals, Civil Aviation & Tourism, for the Government of Gujarat was present on December 25, 2015, to inaugurate the commencement of the Iranshah Udvada Utsav celebrations.
Mr Modi suggested that the month of December be chosen so that Parsi NRIs on their annual visit to India could visit Udvada. This may well be the biggest International Parsi held celebration so far. All rooms were booked for December as far back as June. Hotel owners told me that they had inquiries for bookings from Zoroastrians living in England, America, Canada, Pakistan, Germany and Iran.
The Iranshah at Udvada is the holiest fire temple in India. The flame here has been continuously burning for more than 1,300 years, fed by sandalwood. Many centuries ago, Zoroastrians left Persia in small boats to escape religious persecution but they could not take their Holy Fire with them. They landed at Diu and stayed for a few years. Later they decided to move towards the Southern Coast of Gujarat. The first boat, led by their High Priest landed in the tiny village of Sanjan after a terrible storm around 720 AD. He led his people to the local King named Jadhav Rana to ask for permission to settle there. The king looked at the tall warrior-like men and showed them a vessel full of milk to signify that there was no place in his Kingdom for the newcomers. The High Priest mixed some sugar in the milk to show that his people would only sweeten the land that gave them shelter. This impressed Jadhav Rana so much that he gave them permission to settle in Sanjan. The locals started calling the Persian settlers Parsis, either because they came from Paras in Persia or because they spoke Farsi, which sounded like Parsi to the Gujaratis. Thus began a long and happy integration between the Gujaratis and Persians. Parsis began to speak Gujarati and the women wore saris draped in the Gujarati style.
During the storm at sea, the Persians vowed to build a fire temple which they consecrated from 16 different sources such as a brick-maker’s kiln, a goldsmith’s fire, a baker’s oven, a shepherd’s house, a king’s house and a bolt of lightening. It took three years to purify this fire, and after that it was placed in the Sanjan fire temple, where it burned for 669 years, until Sultan Mahmud attacked Sanjan in the 13th century. 1400 Parsis fought with the King’s army but were defeated. The sacred fire was then taken to Barhot Caves in the mountains and hidden there for 12 years. It was also tended to in the jungles of Vansda for 14 years, then in Navsari for 313 years, three years in Surat, back in Navsari for five years, then in Valsad for one year, until it reached Udvada, in 1742.
Visiting Udvada is going back in time. The place and its inhabitants are very quaint. One gets to eat the freshest fish here. Sampling the fried ‘Boi’ or mullet is a must while visiting here. There are many small hotels serving some of the best Parsi cuisine in the world. Notable places to stay and eat are Ashishwan Hotel and Globe Hotel. The gastronomical journey begins from breakfast itself. The day starts with Parsi chai or tea, flavoured with mint and lemon grass leaves and boiled in milk and water. Breakfast dishes tend to be either sev or sweet vermicelli topped with raisins and nuts or Ravo or semolina cooked in milk and again topped with dry fruit. Eggs are either the ‘Parsi Pora’ or omelette made with various spices, onions, coriander and green chilli or the ‘Akuri’ or Parsi version of Anda Bhurji. The side dish has to be either liver fry or kheema pav. Lunch is either fish curry or rice, ‘Palau Dal’, or Dhansak washed down with Raspberry and Ice-cream Sodas. Dinner is fried Boi Fish, mutton cutlets and ‘kid gosh’ or lamb. Auto drivers double up as hand-churned ice-cream vendors selling mango and custard apple ice-cream.
A quick bath and a visit to the Iranshah leaves one time to walk around the beautiful village and look at the centuries old houses with sloping roofs. Non-Zoroastrian visitors cannot enter the fire temples as the original Persians had promised the King that they will keep their worship separate and never try to convert anyone. The Zoroastrian Information Centre inaugurated by Narender Modi when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat, is situated in an old bungalow. It showcases the achievements of famous Parsis and has models of the inside of a fire temple with a priest tending to the flames. One can easily spend a day admiring all the exhibits on display. Entrance is free. A walk along the beach and a visit to Daman, an Old Portuguese Colony only 11 kilometres away, are other good options.
Udvada is only 200 km from Mumbai and easily accessible by road and train.
Pix: By Author & Utsav Pix sourced from author’s friends.
Beyniaz is a Law Graduate from Mumbai; she has Master’s Degrees in Economics and Politics from Mumbai University. She has written many Political Commentaries, Book Reviews, Sports Articles and Features on various Personalities, Travel, Food and Geospatial Technology for magazines and newspapers in India and abroad. She loves flying, adventure sports and cricket. A history buff, Beyniaz’s sparkling wit is a part of her persona.
Her interests include reading, writing, cooking and travelling. She lives in Secunderabad, India.