Friday, May 2, 2008

My Favourite Fire-Temples

Although the real prayer comes from - and is felt in - the heart, you cannot deny the peace you get when you enter a temple - any temple. More than it has got to do with any religion, I feel a temple is a place where you can just go and channelise your thoughts and pray to the Lord. But I frequent my Parsi fire-temples regularly and although all temples are equal in my eyes, there are some that hold a special place in my heart. Not because they are greater than the rest or something, but because I visit them often and have built a connection sort of.

Fire-temples are quiet little places tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the street or locality on which they are located. There are around 52 fire-temples in Bombay. You'd be surprised to know that in most of them, no matter how noisy the locality is, once you enter the temple premises and the complex, it gets very quiet and the outside noise gets blanked out. Inside, you'll often see a couple of people here and there, mostly elderly, near the main Fire sanctum, praying diligently from their books and quietly. You could hear their soft hymns and muttering prayers, but thankfully no loud noises, shouting at the top of their voices or ferociously beating drums or ringing bells as if God is going to come down the very next moment and bless them only first!

Although conventional opinion says that mornings are the best time to pray since you start the day, fire temples do look very beautiful during and after sunset. Especially, the Udwada Pak Iranshah fire temple - Zoroastrianism’s highest order fire-temple situated in Udwada, Gujarat. Because in this temple, no electricity is allowed, the only light present inside the temple after hours are that of the Holy Fire from the sanctum and from lamp shades and chandeliers lit up not by electricity, but by lighted diyas. It's ironical because its darkness, yet there are good vibrations all around. Inside the main Fire room, you feel at times that you can't see, yet you feel guided. It looks very romantic. You'll notice a few priests -Parsees call them dasturs - praying quietly in some corners, while a few benches would be occupied by visitors. Most fire temples allow electricity though, but still evenings in agiaries bring about some nostalgia and great peace of mind.

I visit the Vatcha Gandhi agiary at Hughes Road almost on a daily basis. This is like my home agiary and one that's been there for many generations. This is also one of the few agiaries of the world where young priests undergo their practical training before they are formally inducted into priesthood. Around 3-4 times a year, the secondary prayer hall gets converted into a boarding school types as a bunch young priests camp for almost 10 days till their ceremonies take place.

The two big fire-temples on Princess Street (Anjuman and Wadiaji) are much bigger. I like going there, alternatively with also the Dadiseth and Banaji temples at Chira Bazar and Charni Road, respectively, on Wednesdays. Nothing special that day, but just like that. Earlier when the Bastani restaurant was open, I used to pop in there for a quick breakfast – they used to serve the best bun-maska and chai in town, now that honour goes to Sassanian Boulangerie, also near Metro cinema – every time I visited either of the two at Princess St. Now I have made my peace with Kayani Bakery, opposite to the erstwhile Bastani that has now shut shop because of some legal problems amongst its partners. Sassanian bakery also gets to see me sometimes and they serve very good bun muska.

I also used to go to Yasdani bakery once upon a time in Fort, but those buggers apply layers of butter in the bun that makes me run for my life, far far away from all that cholesterol. Irani cafes and restaurants are a dying breed, what a pity. The second or third generations chaps are interested in doing MBAs; they are not interested in continuing the restaurant heritage. By the way, if you had visited the Bastani when it was open, do you remember that long board of rules and regulations that said stuff like, ‘No smoking’, ‘No gambling’, ‘No fighting’, ‘No standing up on the chairs’, ‘No talking’, etc. That board, hung on a wall, was like a monument.

The Banaji Limji agiary, tucked away in a remote street in Fort, is the oldest fire-temple in Bombay. Like all fire-temples, this one too has a dome over and on top of the holy fire, but is the only one where you can actually climb upstairs - via a narrow staircase outside the building - to be able to see that dome. The chimneys are on top of such domes. Legend has it that this particular room inside of which the top of the dome falls in was once the home of the Fairy godmother in whose name and worship a lone sailor used to come here and light a lamp whenever his ship used to dock on the Bombay port. The Fairy godmother, it is said, was pleased by this gesture and granted him a wish. Till then, and up till now, the belief is that if you want something, you climb up to this sanctum and light a diya in the fairy's name and make a wish. Although my general past experiences have taught me to not only wish for possible things, but also that wishes granted comes after having made some respectable effort, I will never forget that day when I had wished here for a summer placement job after having tried desperately for over 2-3 months and have almost given up hope, and then went home only to get an interview call that same day. I started my summer project 2 days later!

Another favourite is the Navsari Atash Behram in Navsari, Gujarat. (picture to the left) The structure is most majestic with a large garden and the big entrance akin to a palace. The garden is not as well-kept as before, but it still holds a certain charm. I have spent almost all my childhood vacations here during my schooling as my grandparents used to live right next to it. Now the mohallas surrounding the Atash Behram, once full of Parsis whose earlier generations had come, settled and thrived there for generations, bear a deserted look. Locked houses in neglected and ruin-like state remind you of those that have migrated to Bombay and abroad for greener pastures. Now I feel lucky if I manage to go there once in even 2-3 years.


Anyways, my most favourite fire-temple in the world is the Panchgani’s Chowksi Agiary. This is one of the most serene temples I have ever visited. That it is situated in one of the most beautiful hill-stations and my favourite abode in the world – Panchgani – makes it all that more special. The place was spotless clean years back during one of its ex-dasturs regime, but is not as well-maintained these days. But still I love it. Surrounded by trees and lot of greenery and tall pine-like trees, you could just go and sit there for hours and you won’t get bored. (picture to the left) The highway is just outside, yet it sounds like its miles away – the sounds of buses and trucks passing by miraculously get blocked out. One of the best things about this structure are a row of stained glass that you can see in the picture next to this.

All Parsi fire temples must also have a well inside the complex. Many Parsis light a diya near the well as also inside the temple, itself. But Panchgani is full of monkeys, if you light and keep it on the periphery of the well and out in the open, they swoop down from tall trees and take away the diyas thinking its food.

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