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Parsis around the world will usher in Parsi New Year on August 17, 2016. This marks the first day of the Zoroastrian calendar. As with most Indian religions, the Navroze date changes each year. This happens because the Zoroastrian calendar does not account for leap years in the Georgian calendar that is followed worldwide. However as with all New Years, Navroze (or New Day) also signifies the beginning all things new and all the rituals associated with it celebrate the ushering of a new era. The Zoroastrian Parsi community is a tiny one — by some estimates there are just a little over 50,000 Parsis left in India — and they follow the teachings of the Prophet Zarathustra.

HOW IS NAVROZE/PARSI NEW YEAR CELEBRATED

Celebrations of Parsi New Year involve homes getting a fresh coat of paint and decorations that include garlands and flowers. The thresholds are decorated with chalk and colored powder. Faithful also visit Fire Temples and offer their prayers to the eternal flame that stands at the center of the place of worship. Entry into the fire temple is restricted only to members of the Zoroastrian Parsi community. Most Parsis begin the day with a sweet preparation, Sev, made out of vermicelli, milk and sugar among other ingredients or Ravo, another sweet delicacy made out of sweetened semolina before praying at the fire temple. The rest of the day is spent exchanging sweets and greetings and visiting family and friends.

In what is a unique tradition and perhaps restricted only to Mumbai, home to majority of the Parsi population in the world, Parsi families set out to watch Gujarati plays, most of which have all of a one-day run in theatres across the city. The food-loving Parsis wind up their day with a dinner feast at a local restaurant that cooks it up, especially for this single day.

At their very heart, Parsi customs are similar to the Hindu ones. And even though the community stands out in many ways — most of them are tall, fair and can pass off as foreigners — it has assimilated into the Indian milieu. To find out how the Parsis of India came to be part of India’s socio-cultural fabric, we will have to travel back in time… to about eighth century AD.

HOW DID THE PARSIS ARRIVE IN INDIA?

The story of the arrival of Parsis in India is one where the line between legend and history gets blurred. This account is narrated in the epic poem Qissa-e-Sanjan or the Story of Sanjan. It tells the tale of a Parsi priest who arrived with his people, fleeing persecution by the Muslims in Persia. The group arrived on the shores of Sanjan seeking asylum from the local king Jadav Rana. Suspicious of the new people, the king showed him a bowl of milk filled to the brim, signifying that his country was full and that there was no place for anyone new. The priest coolly added a spoonful of sugar that dissolved in the bowl without the milk overflowing. By doing so, he promised that like sugar to milk, the Zoroastrians too would mingle with his people and sweeten their lives and land.

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Over the centuries, the tiny community seems to have kept its word. The community has contributed to the society in the form of infrastructural facilities, schools and hospitals. It wouldn’t be unfair to suggest that a good deal of Modern India’s success can be traced back to a handful of people from this very community. The Tatas, the Godrejs and the Wadias are but three families that fuelled the engines of progress. Mahatma Gandhi famously said of the community that ‘in numbers, Parsis are beneath contempt, but in contribution beyond compare.’

But we stray from the topic. After arriving on the shores of Sanjan, the foreigners were granted asylum and a plot of land to consecrate the fire — Parsis are fire worshippers — they had carried with them from Persia. By some accounts, though, the first Parsis to arrive in India were not the ones who came to Sanjan. They had settled in Diu before they set out to strike roots in the mainland. In any case, Jadav Rana extracted a promise from the Parsis, which among other things, would prevent them from attempting to convert his people and giving up arms.

The Parsis kept their end of the bargain and assimilated with the local community. Jadav Rana being a liberal ruler permitted them to practice their religion — the very thing they had fled their motherland to preserve — and did not interfere in their affairs. In Sanjan, the Parsis suffered no persecution and the following three centuries passed without any major upheavals. As centuries passed, the Parsis began adopting local customs. Their women began wearing saris and nose rings; their religious practices began assimilating elements of Hindu worship. And even though they continue worshipping Zarathustra, the altar of the average Parsi almost always has idols and photos of Hindu gods such as Ganesha and saints such as Sai Baba among others. As their number increased, the Parsis spread to different parts of the country; some moved to the neighboring towns of Navsari, Ankleshwar and Surat others moved further away, towards Mumbai in the south to Punjab and Sind in the north. In some places (like Mumbai) they flourished but in others (like in Sind etc) they were perceived as a threat and were decimated. And in even other places they were forced to convert.

In a strange twist of fate Islam — the very religion they had fled from — followed them to India too. In 1465, in what may seem to be a cruel rerun of events that unfolded in Persia several centuries ago, Sanjan was ransacked by the Muslim Sultanate. The promise made to Jadav Rana — that of not taking up weapons — was temporarily suspended as the Parsi community fought alongside their Hindu kings. The priests rescued the sacred fire from Sanjan and carried it to a cave in the Barhot hills. Here, protected by the forest and the sea, the fire remained safe from the plundering below. The fire is believed to have stayed here for at least 12 years. When things calmed down, the priests brought the fire down from the hills and installed it in Navsari. It was in the 1700s that they decided to return the flame to Sanjan, the very place where their ancestors had landed. But en route the priests settled down in a town called Udvada and install the fire there. It was in 1742 that they consecrated the fire temple in Udvada, instantly putting it on the map. The fire temple of Udvada is called the Atash Behram and is considered by the Parsis as being the holiest in the world.

HOW YOU CAN CELEBRATE PARSI NEW YEAR!

Non-Parsis are not permitted inside fire temples. Parsis also don’t encourage conversions, citing the promise made to Jadav Rana and banishes women who marry outside the community. The rule is relaxed for men who find non-Parsi wives; while they and their children get to keep their religion, their significant others continue to remain ‘parjaats’ or outcasts. So if you want to be part of the Navroze celebrations, it clearly wouldn’t include a trip to the temple. But barring the prayers, you can participate in every other Navroze ritual, simply because none of them are religious. The most important ritual, of course, includes food. This year, several Mumbai restaurants are creating special menus to celebrate Parsi New Year (or Navroze).

BEST RESTAURANTS IN MUMBAI TO CELEBRATE PARSI NEW YEAR

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San-Qi (Four Seasons Hotel, Dr E Moses Road, Worli 022 24818000) is hosting a Parsi Food Festival. Chef Shehrezad Kapadia has turned to her grandmothers kitchen for inspiration and will serve a traditional Parsi meal aside from specialties such as komli na churry chawal and topli paneer.

Pondicherry Cafe (Sofitel Mumbai BKC, Bandra East; 022-61175000) also has an ongoing Parsi food festival called ‘Khavani! Pivanu! Majjani Life! (Eat! Drink! Life’s Good)’. The festival gets its name from a dialogue in the hit Bollywood film, Munnabhai MBBS but one that also captures the uncomplicated nature of the genial Parsis. Pondicherry Cafe isn’t just serving Parsi food but also has on display the traditional Gara (a type of embroidery, almost exclusive to Parsis) saris and books about the community.

Dinshaw’s may be better known as an ice cream brand but the Parsi-owned company will serve traditional masala dal with rice, chicken farcha, salli boti and berry pulao at their outlet, Dinshaw’s Xpress Cafe (6 Oshiwara Shop, Windermere Building, Link Road, Andheri West; +91 9004530507).

Fancy a traditional Parsi Bhonu? Head to the old favorite Cafe Mocambo (23/A, Sir Phirozshah Mehta Road, Fort; 022 22870458), whose chefs will serve their trademark Parsi thali. This will include jaldaloo salli boti, sali chicken, farcha, Parsi roti and a soft drink of your choice. Enjoy this with saria, sev and chicken or mutton dal with complementary caramel custard.

Jimmy Boy (Vikas Building, Horniman Circle, Fort; 022 22700880) is one of the few old-school restaurants serving just Parsi meals (Cafe Britannia is another but it remains open for just a few hours from Monday to Saturday). And it promises to pull out all stops this Parsi New Year. Its trademark three-course Lagan Nu Bhonu (or Wedding Meal) is, without a doubt, the best offering in the restaurant’s menu. The meal includes patra ni machchi/saas, mutton/chicken pulao served with masala dal, gajar mewa nu achar, salli murgi/gosht and lagan nu custard.

The popular patisserie, Theobroma (Colaba Causeway, Cusrow Baug Colony, Apollo Bandar, Colaba; 022 33716011) is ringing in Parsi New Year with its chocolate caramel salted cake, tamatar par eedu and salli boti puff among other lip-smacking delicacies at its various outlets across the city. Head to the Colaba outlet for the widest variety!

If you are looking for something out of the ordinary this Parsi New Year head down to SodaBottleOpenerWala (G Block, The Capital Building, BKC, Bandra East; 022 40035678). The Mumbai outpost of the immensely successful Delhi joint is also offering Parsi Bhonu (or meal) but with a slight twist. The cafe will juxtapose menus of the older generation with that of the newer one in a cook-off of sorts featuring the mother-in-law-daughter-in-law team of columnist Bachchi Karkaria and Akshata Karkaria.

Cafe at the NCPA (Dorabaji Tata Road, Nariman Point; 022 67230110) will serve a special menu to celebrate Parsi New Year. The chef Farrokh Khambata will be turning to traditional favorites of patra ni machchi, lagan nu stew and bharuchi akoori among others but will also add a contemporary touch with his nitro pomegranate and rose petal kulfi.

Having struck roots in the coastal state of Gujarat, fish and seafood form an important part of Parsi cuisine. The pop-up shop Bawi Bride Kitchen (Flavour Diaries, Rohan Plaza, Off SV Road, Khar West +91 9819285720) will serve a seven course Parsi sea food meal that will include malai na prawns, rawas na cutlets among other dishes.

And finally, if soaking in some art while enjoying a feast is your idea of Parsi New Year, head down to Pala Fala (Art Hub, Atria Mall, Dr AB Road, Worli; 022 65583333) for a buffet that includes unlimited portions of salli chicken, mutton dhansakh, lagan nu custard and patra ni machchi among other dishes. Keep your hands of the paintings.

IRANI CAFES OF MUMBAI

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One cannot speak of Parsi cuisine and not mention Mumbai’s Irani cafes. These turn-of-the-century establishments once doubled up as provision stores (also occasionally stocking booze) but today serve as the perfect place to find a cheap and quick meal. While some of these cafes do serve lunches and dinners, some others are basically bakeries with a large seating space. The Irani cafes stand out for their unique furniture (Irani chairs and tables are a thing), cheap food (mostly bakery) items and their location. It isn’t unusual to find Irani cafes as corner shops: having entrances from two adjacent streets. The reason for this architectural quirk is quite interesting.

Back in the day corner shops would be frowned upon by the Gujarati merchants who saw these properties as sinh mukhi or lion-faced. According to vastu shastra, the Hindu system of architecture, these shops were bad for business since they were wide at the mouth but narrow at the rear. According to the beliefs of the merchants, it would cause more money to go out of the property than for it to come in. These merchants thus preferred gau mukhi or cow-faced properties which had a narrower opening than its rear. The Zoroastrian Iranis who carried no such vastu baggage grabbed these properties at throwaway prices and set up their shop. Today only a handful of these Irani Cafes remain.

Intrigued? Here are six Irani Cafes in Mumbai that will take you back in time

PARSI PLAYS IN MUMBAI

Theatre forms an important part of Parsi New Year. The ritual of watching a Parsi play every New Year is perhaps unique only to this community. Amateur theater groups often put up plays that run for just a week or so and are clearly targeted at the Parsi New Year audience. Don’t expect any intelligent conversation or philosophical treatises to unfold on stage because all the plays are slapstick comedies featuring innuendo-filled dialogues. Curiously, audiences for these plays include oldies and kids alike. Even so, the plays (in a strange twisted fashion) promote traditional values. The plays sometimes also encourage the young to procreate in order to save the dying community.

While watching a play might seem a somewhat intriguing tradition to have, the roots of this can be traced back to the mid-1800s when Parsi Theatre evolved out of a need for local entertainment. Up until then, the British would stage amateur or professional productions every now and then. The Parsi community, which by then had become a prosperous one, began staging their own productions. These groups began with folk adaptations of Shakespeare, complete with songs and dances. But before long, they turned to Indian epics, legends and folk tales. Even though Parsi theatre companies traveled far and wide, performing in all parts of India, Mumbai (then Bombay) remained a hub and saw a steady increase in the number of Parsi theatre groups. By 1860 there were as many as 20 of them! Indeed, the history of theater in Mumbai can never be complete without a mention of the Parsi theater groups. And so, it is not very difficult to imagine that the rich Parsi families of the 19th century would patronize their own for some entertainment on Parsi New Year.

Following plays are being performed across venues in Mumbai:

Power Fool Couple playing at Nehru Centre (Dr E Moses Road, Worli; 022 24920482) and Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan (Dr KM Munshi Marg, Behind Wilson College, Chowpatty; 022 23631261, 022 23698085, 022 23634462, 022 23634463) centers around a theme that is often swept under the carpet: inter-community marriages. At the center of action are a Parsi girl and a non-Parsi groom. The issue of marrying outside of the community is a touchy one for traditional Parsis. So the play, which is being produced by the veteran actor/director Dinyar Contractor, should be an interesting to watch.

Wife WonderFool Pappa PowerFool (playing at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan: Chowpatty) seems more along the lines of the traditional slapstick plays and involves a Parsi husband and wife finding themselves in the unlikeliest of circumstances resulting in a few belly laughs.

Talking of unlikely circumstances, Babo Ayo Courier Ma is yet another slapstick comedy about an infant arriving (and you may have to sit down for this) via a courier service! The play will be performed at YB Chavan Auditorium (General Jagannath Bhosale Marg, Nariman Point 022 22028598)

The plot of Pappa Panva Nikalya playing at Tejpal Auditorium (Gowalia Tank, Mumbai; 022 23802679) has curious parallels to the somewhat grim real-life case of the fertility expert Dr Rustom Soonawala who was accused of rape by one of his female patients. Pappa Panva Nikalya that revolves around a dentist and a flirtatious young patient who accuses the good doctor of molesting her presumably has a happy ending.

Bombay Bawa playing at Jamshed Bhabha Theatre (NCPA, Nariman Point; 022 66223737) is not exactly a play but rather a collection of classic sketches written by the late playwright/journalist Adi Marzban and a few originals written by Meherzad Patel. Expect lots of songs and dances and much happiness.

UDVADA TRAVEL GUIDE

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Home to the Atash Behram, the oldest and the holiest fire temple in the world, Udvada is an important pilgrimage site for Parsis. Udvada is a one-horse town and is about 200 km from Mumbai, home to the largest population of Parsis in the world. So it isn’t entirely surprising to find Mumbai Parsis flocking to Udvada over the weekend, seeking divine intervention or just some time out from the bustle of the city life.

How to reach Udvada: At least half a dozen trains along the Western Railways tracks connect Mumbai to Udvada. The train journey takes a little over two-and-a-half hours. But the fastest way to reach Udvada is by road. The well-laid-out NH 8 has made the commute far easier and over the last few years more people prefer to drive down to Udvada than take the train.

Where to eat en route to Udvada: Parsi da Dhaba (+91-88062-79379) and Dairy Land Parsi Dairy (+91-80079-62862) are the two traditional favorites. These two pit stops fall on the right hand side of the road if you’re heading to Udvada and serve delicious Parsi dishes. Dairy Land also offers melt-in-your-mouth paneer pakoras and batata vadas that would give even the Maharashtrian restaurants a run for their money.

What to do in Udvada: Time comes to a standstill in Udvada. The quiet lanes and large houses of Udvada hark back to a time when life was simpler, slower and grander. Even though Gujarat Tourism promotes Udvada as a pilgrimage destination, it is easy to fall in love with the town with its narrow lanes and huge homes. If your ‘to-do’ list involves getting lost in these lanes and getting insights into the customs, life and culture of this small community. When you’re done soaking in the history, just head down to the beach and watch the sun set on the town that continues to stick its thumb at Father Time.

Best places to stay and eat in Udvada: Most pilgrims prefer to check into Globe Hotel (0260-2345243) or Ashishwan Hotel (+91-99255-58138) and these two remain the best hotels in Udvada. The tariff (varies from season to season) includes three meals. There’s no fixed menu but you can be rest assured that you won’t be disappointed by what you are served.

Remember: Atash Behram is out of bounds for all non-Parsis. While you can aim your cameras in the direction of the temple you aren’t permitted to cross the threshold. As a rule, when in Udvada seek permission before you shoot photographs of people and their homes. More often than not people are warm and welcoming but over the last couple of years, Udvada has piqued the interest of several young non-Parsi travelers and Mumbai hipsters, something that the locals are only just getting used to.

NAVSARI TRAVEL GUIDE

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Navsari was home to the industrialists Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy and Sir Jamshedjee Tata. Both their homes have been converted into museums. Two other residents of Navsari were the political leader Dadabhai Naoroji and Homai Vyarawalla, India’s first female photo journalist. Vyarawalla, unfortunately, remains a forgotten heroine of Navsari; despite all efforts, we were unsuccessful in tracing her home as also that of Dadabhai Naoroji. Today, Navsari straddles the past and the present. While on the one hand the glitzy lights of Dominos and Subway outlets scream for attention, on the other are shops selling neera and local cold drinks. The modern glass buildings jostle for space with traditional one-storey Parsi homes. In several ways Navsari is like any other small Indian town. Despite this, though, it continues to retain some of its old world charm.

How to reach Navsari: Navsari and Udvada are about 75 km apart and are well connected by a network of state transport buses. Navsari is also a railway station along the Western Railway line of the Indian Railways. If you’re traveling from Mumbai to Navsari by road, it will take you about four hours or so to reach Navsari.

What to do in Navsari: The First Dastoor Meherji Rana Library should be your first stop. The library has an spectacular collection of well-preserved manuscripts including a Mughal firman that granted land to the Parsi priest after whom the library has been named. The firman that bears the signature of the Mughal chronicler Abu’l Fazl travels a lot for exhibitions around the world but it wouldn’t hurt to head down to the library to check if the exhibit is in town. The homes of Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy and Sir Jamshedjee Tata are the other must-visit places in Navsari and offer fascinating insights into the humble beginnings of the men who went on to define the history of an emerging nation. The museums, like almost everything else in Navsari, are closed between 1pm and 3pm.

Where to stay in Navsari: Royal Regency (Juna Thana, Opp Seth RJJ High School, Navsari, +91-97275-20000) is your typical upscale small town hotel that comes with poky rooms but decent room service. But if you’re looking to experience Navsari like the locals, consider checking Deboo House Homestay (Agiary Street, Navsari). Not only does it have large well-ventilated rooms, the house and its furnishings are well-preserved, in part because their neighbors live here. You can even rent out the whole house (accommodates up to 25 people) for as little as Rs 8,000 per night.

Where to eat in Navsari: Navsari, unlike Udvada doesn’t boast of a lot of Parsi restaurants because the town sees far lesser pilgrims. So the best Parsi food is almost always made in homes and private caterers will be happy to serve you if you give them a large enough order. There is, however a restaurant simply called The Parsi Food (Mahavir Society, Navsari +91-98980-57973) located on the outskirts of Navsari that serves the cuisine as does one Cheragsam Gandhi (02637-240131), the caretaker of Sohrab Baug, a wedding venue about 50 ft southwest of the Atash Behram. But note that Gandhi requires a day’s heads-up. But the real gem of Navsari is Yazdan Cold Drink House (Mota Bazaar, Navsari, 02637-231577). This shop is owned by the Kolahs, well-known for their trademark cold drinks found almost exclusively in the region. If you have a sweet tooth, you will be spoilt for choice at Yazdan Cold Drink House. Try out any of their faloodas and ice cream or if you want to just cool off, try out their sodas (available in rose, raspberry, lime and mango flavors).

If you’re keen on taking the road trip to Udvada and Navsari this Parsi New Year, do read this detailed trip diary: Driving down to Udvada and Navsari is the best thing you will do this weekend.

The Zoroastrian Parsi community has come a long way from the day the priest added sugar to the milk. Over the centuries, this tiny community that is now facing extinction has not just kept its word but also made the tapestry of our multi-cultural nation richer by their presence.