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Parsis in a flame war
Orthodox community members, reformists divided over sanctity of fire in Pune temple
Mumbai: For the reformists who built the newly opened Asha Vahishta Zoroastrian Centre in Pune’s Kondhwa area, the fire it houses is a holy one, kindled after carrying out rituals like a jashn ceremony and recital of the Atash Niyeash prayer. But the orthodox in the community are deriding it is just like “any other bonfire.”
At the root of the heated words is the fact that the centre welcomes Parsi Zoroastrians who have married outside the faith. Parsi Zoroastrians have traditionally not allowed non-Parsi spouses to convert to the faith or even enter agiaries and participate in rituals like funeral ceremonies. Further, children of female members of the community who marry outside are also not considered Parsi.
“The idea of our centre was to welcome all and not differentiate on the basis of religion or gender, “said Vispy Wadia, founder member of the Association for Revival of Zoroastrianism, under which the centre has been built. Around 150 Parsis — including Maharookh and Darius Forbes, Kerbanu and Viraf Pudumjee, Darius Khambata, Cyruz Guzder, and Bapsi and Fali Nariman — and the Pirojsha Godrej Foundation donated funds and the land for the centre was purchased in 2010. Work on its construction began in 2014.
“These religiously ignorant legal persons like Fali Nariman and Darius Khambatta have made a mockery and insult of our glorious religion and they must be prosecuted,” says Yazdi Desai, chairman of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet. “The so-called fire temple in Pune is definitely not consecrated. It is just an ordinary fire, like a scout camp fire, and anyone can pray before it.” Dinshaw Mehta, a former BPP trustee, says there is a whole ritual for consecration of an agiary fire: “The Pune fire is a joke on the donors. Just lighting wood in an afarganu vessel is not consecration.” Medioma Bhada, a retired naval officer, says that he is upset with the centre being referred to as a fire temple. “One can call it a prayer hall but not a fire temple.”
Mr. Wadia retorts, “The fire may not be holy for them, but it is for us.”
In 2015, reformers had built a prayer hall near the Worli crematorium for community members who chose cremation instead of the tradition of leaving the body in the Tower of Silence to be consumed by scavenger birds. Since they were not allowed to conduct the four day funeral prayers inside the doongerwadi, the idea of alternate prayer hall was executed. “In a way it is good,” Mr. Mehta said. “Just as the Worli prayer hall stopped the demand for a cremate-ni-bungli at doongerwadi, the setting up of this cosmopolitan fire temple will hopefully stop the inter-married ladies from moving courts to demand right of entry.”
Two high profile battles are already being fought in the courts: a woman is fighting for her grandchildren born to a Hindu father to get entry to the only fire temple in Kolkata; and another Parsi woman married to a Hindu is demanding similar rights from the Valsad Anjuman in the Supreme Court.