“If 3000 people are sitting in this pandal, then 20 more such pandals can accommodate all the Parsis living on Planet Earth right now. That’s how small a community we are.” Thus spake actor Boman Irani, and the 3000 Parsis packed in under the canvas at the Iranshah Udvada Utsav cheered lustily. In his usual witty way, Irani had captured the serious problem facing the Parsi community today: their dwindling numbers. The 2001 Census pegged the number of Parsis in India at 69,104.
Udvada is a tiny, sleepy village on the western coast of Gujarat, where the first sacred fire of the Parsi Zoroastrians has burned continuously for 273 years. It has a special place in Parsi culture and hearts, the equivalent of a Mecca, a Vatican City or a Varanasi. Quite appropriately, it is the venue of the Iranshah Udvada Utsav (IUU), a three-day festival which has brought the community together for, arguably, the first time since the bulk of the upcoming boomtown of that time, Bombay.
Irani has essayed some memorable roles written by Bollywood’s scriptwriters in recent times, and he quotes his rise as an example of the high esteem this tiny community is held in. Photography was his bread and butter for many years, and he did theatre on the side, until he got his big break as an actor in Hindi cinema with Munnabhai MBBS. During his photographer days, he got prime space at the Russian Consulate in Mumbai for his studio, at a nominal rent; the Consul General in Mumbai merely asked for confirmation that he was really Zoroastrian. “If you are Zoroastrian, that’s good enough,” he says, “That speaks volumes for our identity, and the legacy that we have inherited from our forefathers.” And this makes it incumbent on the community to ensure that the legacy continues. “We are also Indians, and we must excel for our country. When you are smaller, you should be louder: by actions, by deeds, by professionalism. The fewer the numbers, the greater the responsibility on the younger generation.”
Dr Shernaz Cama, who was felicitated at the festival, says that the numbers are projected to decrease further and today we probably have just 59,000 Parsis left. Dr Cama spearheads the community’s effort to increase its numbers, with the Jiyo Parsi Scheme where financial incentives are provided by the Ministry of Minority Affairs.
The scheme, Dr Cama told The Hindu , has an advocacy programme that counsels couples to have children when they are younger. “The advocacy has had a snowballing effect within the community, with one couple undergoing counselling bringing in more such couples into the programme. Festivals like IUU will definitely help this initiative as it will help the community mingle together.” Launched in 2013, Jiyo Parsi “is showing positive results. We have had 37 births in 2014, and over 66 couples are currently being counselled under our advocacy programme. Our target is 200 babies in five years. Surrogacy has also been allowed, and that will help as the financial incentive will increase from Rs 5 lakh to Rs 10-12 lakh per couple.”
Dr Cama is also curating an event in New Delhi in March next year, which will feature rare manuscripts from British museum, and 27 rare artefacts from Iran. It is an attempt to bring an international spotlight on Zoroastrians.
Though the state of Gujarat has always valued the heritage of Udvada, nothing much had been done to preserve its heritage, until the then-Chief minister Narendra Modi sanctioned funds to build a Zoroastrian Information Centre and Museum, and repair and widen its roads.
Weeks after Mr Modi became India’s Prime Minister, he gave further encouragement to the community. Dinshaw Tamboly (who along with Vada Dasturji Khurshed Dastur, the head priest, met the Prime Minister in June 2014) says, “The Udvada Area Development Authority was set up, and Rs 10 crore for 2015-16 and Rs 10 crore for next financial year were sanctioned. Mr Modi was also keen to visit the festival, but due to his diplomatic visits, he is unable to come. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley will be present on Sunday.” Mr Jaitley is scheduled to felicitate Ratan Tata at the festival.
The organisers also told The Hindu that the festival would not have been possible without the involvement of Dr Cyrus Poonawala, the Serum Institute of India founder, and a philanthropist. The community’s tradition of philanthropy is strong. The Iranshah Atash Behram, the fire temple dating back to 1742, is maintained with the help of Wadia family.
But Udvada has more precious heritage that needs conservation. Jehangir Bhiwandiwala, who conducts heritage walks in the town, says, “Udvada has a medieval character, which is planned. Having faced attacks and persecution in Iran and later, when the Atash Behram was created, in Sanjan, [Udvada] was planned in such a way that the fire temple was camouflaged. Earlier, the houses of the nine families tending to the sacred fire had the same height and characters of the fire temple to protect it from invaders.” He adds, “Udvada was known for camel grazing, and gets its name from ‘Ut-vada,’ literally a place for camel grazing. Every house has a well within. The toilets in the homes were planned in such a way that they do not interfere with the sacred Parsi rituals. The houses in the town show an amalgamation of Persian, European, and Indian architecture styles.”
Parsis moved to Bombay over generations partly because they were attracted to the opportunities that the metropolis offered. But more recently, other factors have contributed too. Hoshang Havewala, whose family once owned 12,000 acres of farmland near their ancestral village of Nargol, 35 kms away from Udvada, says, “Parsis had large tracts of farmland, but the land reform deprived many of the large landholding, and many moved to cities. It is obviously very hard to preserve old wooden houses,” he says. “Luckily my house is fairly modern, and I have managed to look after it.” Havewala, though, now lives in Mumbai.
Bhiwandiwala says that the festival will help bring greater awareness to the conservation efforts. “The sea levels have been rising, and protection of structures on the coast is a concern. Parsis from Mumbai come in their SUVs and whiz past Udvada within an hour without showing their concern for its heritage. There is a need for sensitising the community and tourists. The drainage system needs an overhaul as the seepage in the soil can contaminate the water in the well which is used for rituals.”
To keep Udvada’s flame burning, the younger generation must, to put it gently, reproduce. But, as Boman Irani says, “Dasturji [the head priest] also asks me, what can we do about the dwindling numbers? What can I say? I can’t go on the honeymoon and supervise! Young girls and boys, get on with it!”