If you are familiar with the Zoroastrian community, you probably know that it is one whose numbers are dwindling very rapidly with an approximate world population of 300,000, including both the Iranian and Parsi Zoroastrians. When 2 Zoroastrians meet for the first time, there is an instant sense of familiarity followed by a barrage of questions inquiring about families, home towns, ancestry and a whole lot more. Yes, I am a Parsi Zoroastrian.
During my conversations with the locals when I heard, first of a likelihood, and then a definitive assurance, that there was indeed a Parsi family still living in Zanzibar, there was no way I was leaving the Island without meeting them. Finding out where they lived wasn’t as difficult as I would have thought. Just then, Amanda told me she had read an article not too long ago of the existence of an Agiary (Parsi Temple) in Zanzibar, relatively close to Stone Town. I was now on a mission! However, not too many people knew about this temple. Although there was a thriving Zoroastrian community in Zanzibar for hundreds of years, a majority of them had left during the revolution. Those who stayed on had slowly passed away. We tried to find the woman who had written the article on the internet, but to no avail.
After more inquiries, I found out that the Agiary had been sold a few years ago, to the Muzammill family – they own high end appliance stores in Zanzibar. The building was supposedly still there and if anyone would have more information about it, it would be one of the owners at the Muzammil store. I was supposed to leave the next day, but decided to extend my stay for a day. I had to meet this Parsi family, and visit the Agiary.
Upon inquiring at the store the next day, I was told to come back later that afternoon which is when one of the owners would be there. A bit despondent, I headed towards the house of the Parsi family. There was a Tourist Safari Agency on the ground floor. I asked them how I could get to the apartment upstairs. I was directed to a doorbell outside the building and told to stand there, in full view of the windows above, so that I could be seen and approved, before anyone came to open the door. I rang the bell and waited. What was I going to say? I looked up to see if anyone was at the window, but all I saw was closed curtains. After what seemed like an eternity, a woman opened the door. I introduced myself, and as soon as I said I was Parsi, I saw that smile of familiarity on her face. Diana Darukhanawala, was warm and more than willing to talk to me. I wasn’t the first stranger to ring her doorbell. She said lots of Parsi travelers managed to find out about her, and came to pay her a visit. She lived with her 83 year old father. Her mother passed away last year.
Diana’s grandmother was from Zanzibar and grandfather from Bombay. It was an arranged marriage. He came to Zanzibar on one of his work trips, and decided to stay on after the wedding.
She spoke of the thriving Parsi community she had grown up in, and when it became unpleasant to live there, they all moved away; to Canada, India, America and England.
When I asked about the Agiary and if I could go see it, she warned me that it was now nothing but a dilapidated building. Community representatives from London had come and taken all the scriptures, books, alter materials and paintings in an effort to preserve them. She spoke of visiting the Agiary as a child and her memories of the beautiful rose gardens; she had never seen anything like those blooms.
Soon after my visit with Diana, I headed on my walk towards the Agiary. I was told to ask for Shamba ya Parisi (Swahili for The Temple of the Parsis). 30 minutes later I was at exactly what I was told to expect – dilapidated building hidden amidst unattended grounds that once used to bloom exquisite roses.
I met John, the old caretaker of the property. He only spoke Swahili. Luckily, his daughter Mariam, who is expecting her third child any day now, spoke English and became our translator. He had lived there all his life, caretaker of the grounds since the time it was an Agiary. They didn’t have keys to the locked building. I saw an open window and climbed up to it, to see if I could get a glimpse of anything – no luck.
The Muzammils are using the property as a go down for storage. They’ve hired John to keep the place going. He showed me where the priest lived with his family, and then took me to the cemetery attached to the grounds. Walking through the wild, tall grass and taking pictures of hidden tombstones; obituaries inscribed on stone, on marble, some in English, some in Gujarati, others in both, reading names and brief stories of a generation twice removed from mine, was probably the most beautiful of my experiences.
On my way back, I got a spurt of internet signal where my emails started coming in on my phone. One of them was from my mother wishing me for my birthday (the Persian one) – Zoroastrians follow the Persian calendar and hence celebrate two birthdays. After showering me with blessings as only a mother would, she told me to make sure I did something special that day.