A place of refuge

THE ROAD FROM SURAT TO BOMBAY runs through flat terrain with many industrial establishments until it is within a few miles of the border between Gujarat and Maharashtra, a frontier that did not exist before 1960, when the former Bombay State split along linguistic lines into Gujarat and Maharashtra. Beyond the border, the countryside changes suddenly and dramatically, becoming hilly, greener, and much more rustic.

We stopped at Sanjan, a small town near the Arabian Sea and just within Gujarat. In 689 AD, some boatloads of Zoroastrian refugees, fleeing from the Moslems in Iran landed at the, port of Sanjan. The local Indian ruler gave them sanctuary. Thus, began the Parsi community in India.

Sanjan today is a small rather untidy country town surrounded by Arcadian landscape. The modernistic Parsi agiary (fire temple) stands in a walled enclosure at the edge of town close to the Surat to Bombay railway line. It is only open to Parsis.

Close to the agiary and open to the public there is a large enclosure dominated by a tall obelisk surmounted by a gold coloured jar from which gold coloured metal flames are modelled. On three of the four sides of the obelisk there are inscribed plaques: one in an ancient Parsi script (maybe Avestan), another in Gujarati, and the third in English. These notices explain that the obelisk was inaugurated in 1920 by Sir Jamsetji Jeejeebhoy. The column was erected to celebrate the arrival of the first Iranian Zoroastrians at Sanjan and their welcome by the Hindu ruler Jadi Rana.

Next to the obelisk, there is a structure containing a Parsi time capsule placed there in 2000. It contains objects that characterise the past and present of the Indian parsi community. It does not mention when the capsule may be opened.

About 50 yards from the monument stands a cluster of buildings. One of them that stands alone is a meeting hall. The other buildings are parts of a hostel (dharamshala) where Parsi pilgrims can stay for 15 rupees per night in simple accommodation. The main room of the hostel contains aging photographs of no doubt eminent Parsis. There is also a bust of Dadabhai Naoroji, one of the founding members of the Indian National Congress.

We left this peaceful flower filled Parsi compound and returned to the National Highway. We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant called Atithi (means ‘guest’) and ate a very good mutton dhansak, a Parsi dish containing meat cooked in a gravy rich in dals and spices. We were surprised how excellent it was. A few hours later, we met a Parsi friend in Bombay, who told us that the restaurant is owned by a Parsi.

After crossing the river or large creek near Vasai, which was once a Portuguese possession and port, we entered the region of Greater Bombay. Immediately, the countryside ended and the landscape became urban. We were 70 kilometres from the heart of Bombay. We drove that distance through an uninterrupted built up area containing modern high rise buildings that look over large areas of slums filled with makeshift corrugated iron shacks, most of which have TV satellite dish antennae.

Eventually, we crossed the attractive Rajiv Gandhi Sealink Bridge that connects the suburb of Bandra with the upmarket Worli Seaface. It was not long before we were cruising along Marine Drive, one side of which is the sea and the other a series of buildings that includes many fine examples of Art Deco architecture.

Soon, we became immersed in the social life of Bombay, a tropical version of Manhattan: endlessly fascinating but quite exhausting.

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