A photo project takes you inside the lives of Parsis in Gujarat

Designer Ashdeen Lilaowala with photographer Porus Vimadalal and stylist Prayag Menon revisits the historical site of Udvada to capture a slice of time

The word Parsi carries with it connotations: delicious food, good humour, a love of liquor and loud-mouthed conversation (and a certain proclivity for mischief), to name but a few. A community of culture vultures, heirloom hoarders and automobile enthusiasts, few things are as sacred to it as Sunday lunch and the sleepy seaside town of Udvada in Gujarat, which is home to the Iranshah Atash Behram, the holiest site for the country’s Zoroastrians, wherein the holy fire contained within has been burning for over 1,200 years.

It’s a rite of passage for every young Parsi to visit Udvada and the Atash Behram after their navjote (the ceremony that formally initiates them into the Zoroastrian faith), and many Parsis continue to visit throughout their lives—a pilgrimage of devotion rather than compulsion. Of course, being Parsi means that once duties are dispensed with, it’s time to do what Parsis do best: eat, drink and be merry. Of course, you’ll find no alcohol here but there’s plenty else on offer. (Sometimes, a sober weekend can be a good weekend too.)

In the following photo essay, designer Ashdeen Lilaowala, photographer Porus Vimadalal and stylist Prayag Menon travel to the heartland of Udvada to discover more. They share their stories below.

On the concept:

“There is a strong sense of being Parsi in Udvada in terms of the food, the houses, and how it has stayed rooted for so many years. We wanted to show that connection, to take vintage clothes and create the look of a young Parsi girl and what she would look like in Udvada today. I borrowed a dress from my neighbour and something from my mom, accessories from the ’80s to put the look together with jewels and various elements. To take this essence of what it means to be a Parsi and put it in a modern kind of concept while showing a smaller part of Parsi culture which is not often seen.

Today, when women go to the temple in Udvada, they wear the traditional Parsi embroidery of Gara— whether it is on a kurti or a sari. They feel they can connect with the culture through clothes. Today’s women are looking at Gara with pride and it’s not just for weddings or special occasions. It is about how you include it into your lifestyle.” — Ashdeen Lilaowala

On the photos: 

“Udvada is a quaint coastal town in southern Gujarat – known to house the first “Atash Behram” /Zoroastrian fire temple, in India. The once predominantly Parsi majority town, now mostly comprises locked houses and few aged residents. Many inhabitants have left Udvada for better prospects. The idea was to document the town, its houses, and the people. Despite it all, life there is peaceful and one finds Zoroastrians from across India and overseas visiting to pray at the temple. I remember visiting the town a few times when I was younger. Not a lot has changed since, but you do see some development in and around the place. You get to eat some of the most delicious Parsi food at the dharamshalas/community housing here. 

This series is a collaboration with designer Ashdeen Lilaowala, who has revived the art of the Parsi Gara style of embroidery and popularised it to the world. Ashdeen is also quite active in the Parsi community. We documented two of his saris (one worn by the High Priest’s wife and the other worn by singer Delraaz Bunshah). Delraaz also wore 2 authentic vintage looks (sourced from the wardrobes of Parsi women) and all the looks were styled by Prayag.” — Porus Vimadalal

On the styling: 

“I was very inspired by vintage photos of Parsi girls and how they would dress. Udvada is a coastal town that seems lost in time, and has a comforting quietness about it. For the photo series, in addition to the largely senior/aged population that now mostly comprise the town’s residents, I thought it would be apt to style Delraaz in vintage pieces, to resonate with the vibe of the town. 

Being with Porus the last 16 years (and being married to him for the previous six) has resulted in me  having a lived experience with a perspicacious understanding of Parsi life. I fluently speak Parsi Gujarati and have read about the religion and its teachings in detail. 

We visited Udvada after many years, stayed in a Parsi dharamshala which was run by a mother and son duo – Hilla and Shezad Marolia – who are so passionate about cooking. The food was incredible, we even encountered local Gujarati women who were selling an assortment of items like fresh lemongrass, ginger, papads in various flavours amongst other items. It was great to interact with the residents and hear their life stories whilst we went about documenting the town. A blissful 36 hours.” — Prayag Menon

Photographer: Porus Vimadalal
Stylist: Prayag Menon
Model: Delraaz Bunshah
Concept: Ashdeen Lilaowala

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