August 18 is Parsi New Year and while the Parsis are celebrating with prayers and festivities, let us celebrate this wonderful community. Let’s get a little bit of ‘Parsi’ in each of us.
Walk by a Parsi Baug
These are large housing colonies by the Parsis and for the Parsis. It is believed that the first baug came up in 1912. Within these large colonies are facilities that will make even the well-heeled Mumbaikar green with envy. Some have not one but two swimming pools, gymnasiums, gardens and playgrounds. You might have noticed the prominent Cursow Baug as you walked down Colaba Causeway – that spreads over 84000 sq feet or around 12 football pitches. Even today the rent in these baugs could be as low as Rs. 500 – 1000. The sad part, no entry for non-Parsis. But despair not. There is one Parsi Baug in Mumbai that has no walls and everyone can walk in. Yes, you’ve guessed it – Dadar Parsi Colony. Wikipedia says this is the largest Zoroastrian enclave in the world – believed to house around 15000 Parsis! You must have heard it multiple times and at the cost of sounding repetitive – Freddie Mercury, lead singer of Queen, was from this very colony. Spend an evening walking along the board avenues with branching lanes. If heritage housing is your ‘thing’, head here.
Check out an Agiary
An agiary or fire temple is the place of worship of those belonging to the Zoroastrian faith. There are believed to be around 50 agiaries in and around Mumbai. Most of these fire temples were sponsored by rich business men and named after them. One of the oldest The Banaji Limji agiary close to Horniman Circle is the oldest surviving agiary. It is more than 300 years old. Close by near CST is Maneckji Seth agiary. It has two huge winged bulls on either side and the motif of a fravashi or angel just above the doorway. There are three grades of fires and temples are classified according to the type of fire. What is contrasting to other faiths is that the priests do not recite prayers or hymns, neither do they preach, they merely tend to the fire. That is also why agiaries are intentionally simple with no embellishment.
Sample some fantastic Parsi food
We finally come to the food – did someone just say save the best for last? That’s true! This is one element of Parsi culture that everyone can partake, and joyfully so. Parsi restaurants or cafes are a dying breed. Parsi migrated from Iran centuries before Iranis moved – these are the two groups in the Zoroastrian faith. Whether it’s a Parsi Cafe or Irani, the food is pretty similar except for the restaurant specials. In the mid-1900s, there were more than 500 such restaurants in Mumbai; today maybe an optimistic 15-20. Britannia is probably the best known, especially for its berry pullao; a secret recipe that’s guarded even today. There is an interesting story that when Mr. Kohinoor wanted to open this restaurant the then British commissioner was reluctant to give his permission. Mr. Kohinoor thought of a British name i.e. “Britannia”. The rest is history. “Britannia” pleased the commissioner and they were open for business. Many of these restaurants had humble beginnings as roadside tea cafes and maybe that’s why they still continue to be such meeting points, community areas for everyone comes together for that cup of chai with bun maska. Most of these cafes are at a corner. Legend has it Hindus were superstitious about street corners but Parsis weren’t. You could also check out Ideal Corner, Jimmy Boy, Yazdani Bakery or any Cafe at the corner of Mumbai city. If you are a vegetarian, then these places might not be the best for you except if you love caramel custard or bun maska. In that case, visit the Cafe at NCPA for some sublime vegetarian dhansak or Parsi dal. Grocery shops near Dadar Parsi Colony stock Dhansak masala powder if you are the home-chef.
With that we come to the end of this Parsi journey. Feel like you need more Parsi-ness? Gatecrash a wedding! Yes, you heard me right. What I find the most interesting is you hover around the community dining table, the minute someone finishes you stand behind that chair and it’s not considered impolite. Go stake claim on that chair now.
And Navroz Mubarak to one and all!