Parsi cultural jamboree revs up sleepy Udvada

When Parsis organize a “Kumbh Mela”, there are no naga sadhus, only scantily clad Shiamak Davar dancers twirling to Dean Martin’s 1954 hit “Sway”. The first-ever Iranshah Udvada Utsav — a cultural jamboree that will draw over 4,000 Parsis across three days — kicked off on Friday with speeches by Gujarat’s finance minister Saurabh Patel, and the Udvada head priest, Dasturji Khurshed Dastoor. Amid Achaemenid wall friezes, floodlights and soaring music, Dastoor called the high-octane festival PM Narendra Modi’s “brainchild”.
Praising the Parsis for their achievements and their contribution to the country, Patel, the chief guest, rued their dwindling numbers. “It’s sad that such a lovely community is becoming smaller and smaller,” he said. “You all must be worried, but so is the rest of Gujarat.” Parsis number under 60,000 in India and a little over a lakh across the world.
As for Udvada, he praised the quaint architecture and pleaded with the community not to redevelop their charming bungalows. “If you have to sell, sell to a Parsi,” he told the audience, amid loud applause.
While the Utsav’s objective was to showcase Parsi culture and strengthen community ties, business is booming in this sleepy Parsi hamlet. Globe Hotel, a guesthouse beloved for its generous servings of Parsi specialities like fried boi and pulaav daar, has been fully booked since the festival was announced in July and they aren’t unique. All of Udvada’s hotels and dharamshalas have been turning away guests, and even private residences are overflowing with friends and relatives. Aspi Sepoy, who runs a religious store, has had between 300-400 walk-ins since Thursday. At this time of the year, there would normally be 15 to 20 a day, he says.

Much of the festival’s focus will be on how Udvada became the home of the Iranshah, the Parsis’ sacred fire. The tale begins in the 7th century when the Sasanian rulers of Persia were defeated by Arab invaders. It is believed that at that time about 2,000 Parsis set sail for India to escape religious persecution. Legend goes that between the 8th and 9th centuries, a high priest consecrated the holy fire in Sanjan from 16 different sources, including a burning corpse, a potter’s kiln and lightning. The refugees declared it their new king “Iranshah”. When Muslim invaders attacked Sanjan centuries later, the fire was stowed away in the Bahrot caves and then the Vansda forest. Later, it moved back and forth between Navsari, Surat, and Valsad before finally ending up in Udvada in 1742.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was initially expected to attend. His fondness for this minuscule community was emphasized by Gujarat minister Saurabh Patel. “He loves Parsis,” he said, adding that Modi often spoke about the community’s rich history at meetings when he was Gujarat’s chief minister.

Finance minister Arun Jaitley is now expected to represent the government on Sunday.
Over the next two days, visitors will be treated to treasure hunts, heritage walks, dance performances, comedic acts, historical presentations, Parsi plays and karaoke nights. On Friday, one dance troupe featured young boys and girls sporting white “duglos” and red “kor” saris grooving to the tune of La Bamba. Except the lyrics had been changed to, “Who am I? A ba, ba, bawa.”
Most of Udvada’s 60-odd permanent residents can’t remember the town ever being so lively. Guests have been streaming into their homes all day, blown-up images of their wooden bungalows line the streets and fairy lights and streamers have popped up across the village. Their dirt streets have been paved over and compound walls have received a new coat of paint. But there are still murmurs of discontent. “We weren’t included in the planning,” explains one resident. “We would have liked to be invited,” says another. “Even the town’s 50 Parsis had to buy their own tickets.”

Published on Times Of India