Kozhikode's Parsi legacy

A silent witness to halcyon days of yore.

A silent witness to halcyon days of yore.  

FLANKED BY colourful shops and establishments, Sweet Meat Street is one of the liveliest areas in Kozhikode. But not many know that half-hidden in the midst of the melee is a unique heritage structure: Kerala's only Parsi fire temple.

Once home to over 300 Parsis, Kozhikode today has only one Parsi family, the Marshalls. The patriarch Darius P. Marshall remnisces, "My father used to say that a rivulet of the Kallayi once flowed down SM Street. It was on either side of this stream that the shops were set up by the Parsis." The 18th century saw many Parsi families from Gujarat and Bombay flock to Kozhikode and contribute to the vibrant trade of the region. Marshall's grandfather arrived from Bharuch in 1858, and set up a coir factory in the developing town. A Parsi family - the Hirjis - were the most renowned soda makers of Kozhikode. The famous Dr. Kobad Mogaseb was the only doctor those days to have a degree in medicine from London.

But Kozhikode's days of Parsi brilliance are a thing of the past. "Many Parsis left for Mangalore, Bombay and Cochin," says Marshall.

Today the INTACH-listed, 150-year-old dadgah (fire temple) stands as a silent witness to the halcyon days of yore. The hall where the Parsi families held their monthly get-together is rather run-down. The prayer hall, resembling Christian churches somewhat in its layout, is being maintained well. At the altar is a huge receptacle for the holy fire, into which offerings are made by the faithful during the prayer. Paintings of the Prophet Zarathustra (Zoroaster) adorn adjacent walls. Unlike an agiari (a more sacred fire temple), a dadgah need not have the holy fire burning round the clock. In a quaint throwback to more illustrious times, there are nearly a hundred chairs in the prayer hall. But in all of Kozhikode the only worshippers are the seven members of the Marshall family.

On March 21, Parsis celebrate Jamshedi Nauroze (their New Year) but Kozhikode has no priest to conduct the ceremonies. This, despite the fact that the Calicut Parsi Anjuman functions as a headquarter for Parsis in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. "We are prepared to give Rs 10,000, free lodging, medicines and a trip to wherever the priest comes from every two years. But Parsi priests are a difficult species to get," says Mr Marshall. Since a get-together of Parsis is impossible, "We will call other friends over for dinner on Nauroze," says Marshall's wife Katy.

Indeed, the Marshalls seem to have integrated themselves into the Malayali way of life very well. The poly-linguistic family speaks Gujarati, Malayalam, English and Hindi, consider themselves to be `Malayali Parsis' and have plenty of Malayali friends.

However, Marshall admits that leaving Kozhikode was an option he had toyed with many times. "Business at the workshop has dipped considerably after the new dealership system and warranties on vehicles. But I cannot leave Kozhikode, the ties that bind are too strong. Someone has to take care of the fire temple property."

Marshall's sons, Zubin and Farzan, have no intentions of leaving Kerala either. They speak fluent Malayalam and prefer Malayali food, especially the traditional sadya. "We also love Malayalam films," says Marshall. His wife concurs. "They are very good though I don't understand some dialects," she says, before adding, "After watching the Malayalam version, we find it tough to sit through the Hindi remakes."

Spoken like a true Malayali, indeed.


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