A Travellerspoint blog

EXODUS FROM PERSIA: THE PARSIS IN GUJARAT AND DIU

The Parsis in and around Gujarat

A Parsi library in Udvada

A Parsi library in Udvada


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

Atash Behram in Udvada

Atash Behram in Udvada

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.

Fire Temple Ahmedabad

Fire Temple Ahmedabad

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’.

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: http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/parsi-communities-i-early-history). 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).

A Parsi priest (museum exhibit in Udvada)

A Parsi priest (museum exhibit in 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.”

Udvada: a Parsi guest house

Udvada: a Parsi guest house

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.

Tower of Silence near Diu

Tower of Silence near 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.

Inside a disused Tower of Silence near Diu

Inside a disused Tower of Silence near 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.”

Parsi corpse preparation 'chapel' near Diu

Parsi corpse preparation 'chapel' near 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.

Entrance to Fire Temple complex, Diu

Entrance to Fire Temple complex, Diu

If you wish to read more about this and visiting the fascinating territories of Gujarat, Daman, and Diu,
get a copy of my paperback by clicking HERE

or download my Kindle by clicking HERE

Posted by ADAMYAMEY 08:48 Archived in India Tagged india bombay iran persia gujarat diu udvada parsi zorastrian Comments (2)

GUJARAT DAMAN AND DIU

A Jain temple in Kutch Mandvi

A Jain temple in Kutch Mandvi

Many people visit India from abroad, but relatively few visit Gujarat and the former Portuguese colonies of Daman and Diu, which lie on Gujarat's coastline. This is a pity because the area is rich in treasures, both monumental and cultural. Gandhi was born in Gujarat and Lord Krishna spent his last moments on earth in this part of western India.

My recently published, illustrated book is a travelogue describing eight weeks travelling in the area, mainly by local public transport.

My wife, who accompanied me, is fluent in Gujarati. This allowed us to speak with many people, who expressed their views on Gujarat's past, present, and future. We spoke with everyone from shop-owners to students, from taxi drivers to royal princes.

In the former Portuguese colony of Diu, we were lucky enough to meet the grandson of one of the colony's former Portuguse governors. He opened many doors that most visitors would not know existed.

My book is available on Kindle and as a paperback.

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FOR KINDLE, click: HERE

FOR PAPERBACK, click HERE

Posted by ADAMYAMEY 02:08 Archived in India Tagged india gandhi gujarat daman diu krishna Comments (0)

HAMPI: INDIA WITH AN INFANT

Exploring an archaeological site with a nine-month old baby.

EXPLORING HAMPI WITH A BABY

Jain Temples at Hampi. 1996

Jain Temples at Hampi. 1996

It was early in 1996. We never intended taking our nine-month old daughter to visit Hampi to see the ruins of the once great city Vijayanagara, which had in its heyday rivalled Rome in its splendour. We had hoped that her grandparents in Bangalore were going to baby-sit for us, but just before my wife and I were about to depart they felt unable to oblige. So, with little preparation, we boarded the sleeper from Bangalore to Hospet, the nearest town to Hampi. My wife clutched our little one on a narrow, hard, swaying railway bunk bed, desperately trying to prevent her from falling off.

HOSPET being met at the station 1996

HOSPET being met at the station 1996

At Hospet, our hosts, officials at a local mining company, greeted us with banners which they had made for us. They drove us to a comfortable hotel, whose rooms lacked air-conditioning and fridges. The ambient temperature never dropped below thirty Celsius, even at night. When our daughter needed a bottle of milk, we prepared it, and had to use, and then dispose, of it in less than 45 minutes because in that heat the artificial milk deteriorated rapidly.

Hospet in 1996 was less sophisticated that it was, say, a decade later. We ate in simple restaurants, often outdoors under shades. Our daughter took a shine to the South Indian food that we were usually served. She took this from our plates and, also, to our horror, off the not too clean floor. Years later, I can report that unlike many of her school friends she has never suffered from allergies. I am sure that her foraging in Hospet is to some extent to be thanked for that.

Occasionally, I felt like eating North Indian food. We found places, which bore the notice “NIDS”, which meant ‘North Indian dishes served”. I should have known better than to order a ‘NID’ in a very provincial South Indian area, but I did, and was usually disappointed by the curious concoctions that appeared on my plate. On one occasion, I ordered a ‘Peshawari naan’, something that I love. What arrived was surreal. It looked like a circular pizza base that had been painted bright green, and it was covered by bits of dried fruit and fresh banana. It was almost, as they say in the USA: ‘close, but no cigar’.

Hospet. A restaurant serving 'NIDS' 1996

Hospet. A restaurant serving 'NIDS' 1996

Optimistically, we had taken a folding ‘buggy’ to Hospet. This never got used, as there was hardly a square metre of ground smooth enough to roll it. Luckily, our hosts drove us around the vast archaeological site in a large four-wheel drive. Our daughter, sat happily perched on or other of our laps as we bounced across the rough ground between the various attractions.

In 1996, the ruins at Hampi were in a far better condition than they are now. For example, the Vittala Temple with its musical pillars was in fine condition. Now, it is a sad shadow of what it was in 1996. It has been vandalised by evil-doers as well as by the authorities, who have tried to save it from collapsing by adding hideous concrete supports. Back in ’96, it was possible to wander from one attraction to another through a landscape romantically dotted with fragments of earlier civilisations, both Hindu and Islamic. In contrast, today the major attractions are walled off, and attract entry fees. Although I consider Hampi still to be a most exciting archaeological area, it has lost some of the charm that it had when we visited with our baby. She has not only visited Hampi thrice since and is planning another trip soon, but has also grown up to become a professional art-historian. I like to think that her early exposure to mediaeval Indian art has played a role in the evolution of her professional interests.
Our baby had no difficulty with the high temperatures and discomforts during our visit to Hampi and Hospet. She seemed to have enjoyed it immensely. Not only that, but so did the locals. Wherever we went, and this was true of most other places that we visited in India in 1996, she was adored by everyone including total strangers. We had thought that I, a ‘gora’ (a fair-skinned non-Indian), would have attracted attention during our trip from Bangalore, but this was not the case. I was ignored, but our little child was mobbed by well-meaning passers-by, especially little boys who patted her affectionately and told us how sweet she was.

HAMPI  coconuts on sale near the 'Elephant Stables' at Hampi 1996

HAMPI coconuts on sale near the 'Elephant Stables' at Hampi 1996

Some short while after our trip to India, we visited Italy, a country famed for spoiling children with affection. At the end of our visit, we concluded that the Indians are far more ‘soppy’ about little children that even the Italians.

Posted by ADAMYAMEY 03:47 Archived in India Tagged india baby archaeology karnataka hampi hospet vijayanâgara Comments (2)

SRIRANGAPATNA - the sangam

This is a short account of my recent sad visit to the sangam at Srirangapatna in which I describe the Hindu funerary procedures following the death and cremation of a close relative in India.

View of the sangam at Srirangapatna

View of the sangam at Srirangapatna

The ashes of Hindus, who have been cremated, are usually placed in the waters of a river that flows into the sea. The deceased's ashes were to be placed into the waters of the River Cauvery at the sangam (place where several streams unite) at Srirangapatna.

Crematorium Lalbagh

Crematorium Lalbagh

Hindu graves at Lalbagh crematorium

Hindu graves at Lalbagh crematorium


We drove to the crematorium near Bangalore's Lalbagh Gardens. While the ashes were being collected, I looked at the cemetery next to the crematorium. This extensive slightly overgrown plot was full of graves. These were all Hindu graves. In the past, I had visited another cemetery dedicated to Hindu burials. Then, I had been surprised to discover that Hindus were buried instead of cremated, but it had then been explained to me that in Bangalore (and maybe other places) there are sects of Hindus that favour burial over cremation.

The ashes were returned to us in an open terracotta pot. We placed these in the car, and set out towards the old Mysore Road. The traffic along the section of this that runs through the extensive outskirts of Bangalore was terrible. This was because of the construction works for a new elevated metro line, which will run above the old Mysore Road. Eventually, we reached the highway to Mysore (State Highway 17). This good road had been built in 2003 to make it easier for the then Chief Minister of Karnataka to travel between Mysore and Bangalore.

At the  Iyengar restaurant

At the Iyengar restaurant

Dosa with chuthey and sambar (red liquid) at the Iyengar restaurant

Dosa with chuthey and sambar (red liquid) at the Iyengar restaurant

We stopped for breakfast at a small, extremely clean, roadside restaurant run by Iyengars (a caste of Tamil Brahmins, devoted to the worship of Vishnu). I ate one of the best dosas (rice flour crepe) that I have had for a long time.

Mourners performing a Pooja by the Cauvery

Mourners performing a Pooja by the Cauvery

The sangam at Srirangapatna is at the eastern end of an island in the River Cauvery, which contains the extensive remains of the capital of the state run by the great Tipu Sultan (1750-1799), including his lovely Summer Palace decorated extensively with frescos. Most of Tipu’s former capital is at the western end of the island. The sangam is a few yards east of the beautiful Al Aqsa Masjid, a complex containing the mosque where Tipu’s body lies.

Man holding jar of ashes in a coracle at Srirangapatnam

Man holding jar of ashes in a coracle at Srirangapatnam

We parked next to the small bazaar, which stands high above the waters of the river. Apart from snacks and drinks and tacky souvenirs, this market supplies many items needed to perform the ceremony that precedes placing the ashes into the river. These include coconuts and small jugs for pouring milk or water, and also items of clothing. We had brought all that we needed from Bangalore, and did not need to use these stores. The view from the bazaar is lovely. The three streams of the Cauvery converge, flowing rapidly around small rocks and islands. The river banks are covered with luxuriant vegetation, and hills can be seen in the distance.

Rowing a coracle towards the lingam

Rowing a coracle towards the lingam

Steps lead from the market to a large stone-paved area, the ‘ghat’, at the water’s edge. More steps lead from the paved area down to beneath the level of the water. People mill around. Most of them are either locals or mourners, who have come to immerse ashes. There are always a few foreign tourists and, also, local beggars. Others are the tourist policemen, and they are outnumbered by Hindu priests who offer their services for a fee, which has to be negotiated with some bargaining.

By the ghat at Srirangapatna

By the ghat at Srirangapatna

Having engaged a priest, X, carrying the deceased's ashes, followed him down the steps leading to the water. Seated facing the priest with the ashes between them, X and the priest performed the complicated ceremony that precedes immersion of the remains. The ceremony, or ‘pooja’ (as Hindu ceremonies are called), involves much chanting and placing various items on top of the ashes. I was too far away to see exactly what was being done.

Idols and birds on a rock near the sangam at Srirangapatna

Idols and birds on a rock near the sangam at Srirangapatna


When the pooja was over, X carried the ashes down the slippery steps under the water, and then released them and their container into the water so that the deceased's remains could flow to the sea. After doing that, X immersed himself in the river before returning to dry land. As tradition dictates, he removed his clothing, and discarded them on a pile of other discarded clothing, before dressing in fresh clothes. Although we did not discard our clothes after the cremation, we were asked to bath, and then change into new clothes after it was over. It is considered inauspicious to re-enter the house wearing clothes that have been present at a funeral.

Many people at the sangam dispose of ashes far out into the river at a small stone ‘lingam’ around which the waters swirl vigorously. They reach this place in coracles rowed by oarsmen whose services can be obtained for a small fee. When another relative died some years ago, we visited the lingam in a coracle about a month after his death. We wanted to see where his ashes had been released. The coracles are so unsteady that passengers are advised to lie down in them to improve stability in the crocodile-infested waters of the River Cauvery.

Coracle at Hampi

Coracle at Hampi

Some years later while we were visiting the archaeological site at Hampi, we had to cross the River Tunghabhadra in a coracle because the bridge that had been built there had collapsed, and had never been rebuilt. Unlike the coracles at Srirangapatna, the ones that ferried people at Hampi were full of people. We had to stand up, wedged in with bicycles and motorbikes. By the time we had crossed the short stretch of water, we were up to our ankles in water which had seeped into the coracle!

Women washing at the ghat   Srirangapatnam

Women washing at the ghat Srirangapatnam

Posted by ADAMYAMEY 02:53 Archived in India Tagged india bangalore ghat karnataka cremation srirangapatna river_cauvery lingam Comments (0)

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