When Arabs conquered Persia in the 7th century, they firmly suppressed Zoroastrianism, the religion the local population practiced. Several Zoroastrians were killed or forced to convert to Islam; others fled and migrated to India. These Zoroastrians are called Parsis, literally meaning from Pars (Persia), and have made their homes predominantly in Gujarat and Bombay. Famous for their delicious dhansak and their eccentricity, the Parsis are still somewhat of an enigma to the rest of India—not least because non-Parsis are not allowed to enter their places of worship. Here’s a guided tour of one of Bombay’s oldest fire temples through the eyes of a (non-practicing) Parsi.
The white muslin sadrah I retrieved from the back of my cupboard’s lowest shelf was yellowed with age. Seven years had passed since I last wore the sleeveless vest, a symbol of purity and righteousness that Parsis are supposed to wear every day. I pushed aside a wave of guilt when I tied the sacred thread, the kushti, around my waist, remembering my grandmother. “The kushti is a symbol that you are ready for battle,” she often said with a gleeful chuckle. My grandmother was always ready for battle, particularly if it involved defying authority, so I reassured myself that she would have approved of my clandestine quest to reveal the secrets of the forbidden fire temple to the outside world.
I put my sadrah on under a black t-shirt wide-necked enough to show its straps, just in case anyone doubted my Parsi-ness and questioned my right to enter. It had happened before. The last time I visited the fire temple (also called agiyari), I was writing an anthropology paper about sacred spaces and asking devout Parsis why they did not allow non-Parsis to enter. I remember several old ladies eyeing me suspiciously, as if to ask, “Who are you, and why don’t you know how to pray properly?” They tut-tutted at the colour of my headscarf and apparent lack of reverence—only on my fourth visit did I learn that I was expected to buy a stick of sandalwood as an offering to the holy fire.
The fire is the raison d’être of the fire temple—“Ohhhhh, that’s why you call it fire temple”—a flame that must be kept burning forever. Yes, forever. A Parsi dasturji (priest) told me that if a fire temple moves location, the burning fire has to be transported in the dead of night, still burning, in a Parsi-manned truck to minimise the risk that a non-Parsi might see it. Imagine a group of priests, clad in white linen gowns, trying to discreetly haul a large silver afrinagan (cup) with a live flame onto a truck at 3:00 am and driving from one end of Bombay to the other. Parsis are that serious about the eternal fire, but they don’t worship it. They believe it’s a pure flame and don’t want impure (read: non-Parsi) eyes cast upon it.
Before my visit, I piously pulled my hair back behind a cream-coloured scarf before ascending the stairs to the agiyari. The warm Saturday sun glinted off the silver, winged horses on either side of the arched doorway. I lurked around, taking surreptitious photographs of signs that professed, in block letters, ‘Entrance only for Zoroastrian Parsees.’ I followed an old lady in a long, blue skirt to the back entrance, up two stairs to a tiled veranda with a sink and changing room for ‘ladies only’—presumably for when their kashti becomes loose and they need to re-tie it. I crossed the threshold into the main room of the agiyari. A large, full-length, garlanded portrait of Zarathustra, the founder and prophet of Zoroastrianism, met my gaze. Latticed grills on the window let very little natural light into the long, rectangular room, filled with solemn rows of black benches.
The walls are cluttered with thin, paper calendars with Sundays and holidays marked in red, and flower-wreathed portraits of eminent Parsis. The room is quiet enough to hear the whir of eight long-stemmed fans hanging from the high, terraced ceiling. At the front of the room is a low stage, where the dasturjis sit to conduct prayer rituals. I’m not sure if there is a musty smell in the air, or if the old, steel Godrej cupboards conjured up the mustiness in my mind. Or perhaps it was the antique wooden bookshelf, filled with brightly coloured slim religious paperbacks and past issues of the weekly magazine, Parsiana.
If you’ve read this far, you must really want to know about the holy fire, so I’ll end the suspense. Near the back entrance of the agiyari’s main hall is the Keblah room. The fire is located in an inner chamber of this room. Only priests can enter the room with the fire to feed it with sandalwood and perform ritual duties. Following propriety, I took off my shoes before entering the Keblah room and sat in one of the cream-colored plastic chairs around its periphery.
To diffuse the almost-overpowering aroma of sandalwood and the inevitable heat of the fire, hand fans courtesy Peekay Wines are scattered on the chairs (only the Parsis would allow a donation from Bombay’s oldest alcohol shop into a place of worship). The chairs face a richly engraved silver doorway to the room with the fire, which was quietly burning in a silver cup with a curvy stem and wide, sensible base. The room has a grilled window at the back and a large bell in one corner, which the dasturji rings periodically. A framed series of drawings entitled The Divine Life of Zarathustra and other portraits hang off the walls. In one corner is a shelf lined with red and blue-covered copies of the Avesta, the Parsi prayer book.
The plush, velvet maroon carpet on the floor made it easier to kneel before the fire—one worshipper after another knelt down and bowed their head to the threshold of the inner chamber out of respect for the fire. They placed their sandalwood offerings in a wooden container attached to the door. When the priest emerges with a long-handled disc-shaped container bearing sandalwood ash, I watch carefully and follow suit as others apply the ash as a tikka on their foreheads. There is a heightened religiosity in the Keblah room, silent except for the priests’ intermittent chanting. Even the most talkative Parsis seem to surrender to a calm concentration when they pray here.
Aside from a few sideways glances I got for staring and frantically scribbling in my small, black notebook, no one paid much attention to me. When I left, the main entrance had been thrown open, and the sunlight illuminated a red stain-glass of the Faravahar, a guardian angel, in the archway. Before I was halfway down the stairs, I had untied my scarf and scuttled away before an inquisitive Parsi followed me out to ask what I had been writing.
If you enjoyed this article we suggest you read: