A Zoroastrian in Zanzibar

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.

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Diana

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.

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Shamba ya Parisi

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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.

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Window view

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.

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The Cemetery

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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.

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43 responses to this post.

  1. […] Click Here for the full story Share this:PrintEmailTwitterFacebookMoreStumbleUponDiggRedditLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. […]

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  2. Posted by Aspi Maneckjee on July 22, 2012 at 1:17 PM

    Very en lighting article. Congratulations.

    Reply

  3. […] reading on Farah’s blog. You May Also Like:Three Parsis Amongst List of 129 Padma Awardees for 2012 The Indian Government […]

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  4. I can relate to this. I am from Zanzibar. Your last photo is of the tombstone of my dear beloved father.

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  5. WOW, just wow all i can say. am sure our forefathers who must have settled their must have defi done some good work their too.

    Reply

  6. Posted by Hoshi Elavia on July 23, 2012 at 8:16 AM

    thanks

    Reply

  7. Posted by Hormazdyar KUTAR on July 23, 2012 at 10:17 AM

    Very interesting Farah, Will remember to go past there when we go to Zanzibar as we have been planning to do for some time now..
    Please keep me on your mailing list for the future.

    Regards,

    Homi

    Reply

  8. Posted by Phiroz Kharwanwalla on July 23, 2012 at 1:34 PM

    Wow What an en-lighting
    article

    Reply

  9. Posted by Zarin Avari 9Nee Badhni) on July 23, 2012 at 6:03 PM

    Hi Farah, I ws born in Zanzibar and left after the revolution. I returned with my family for a holiday in 2007. My father and maternal grandfather are buried there.

    Reply

  10. Posted by J Kumana on July 23, 2012 at 10:08 PM

    Very interesting indeed. A lot of parsi zoro communities which once were thriving have now shriveled up or dwindling – particularly in parts of the former British colonies that are now dominated by inhospitable rulers. Pakistan, Aden (Yemen), South Africa, and Hong Kong come to mind, but the communities in Bahrain and UAE are still strong. What made you decide to visit Zanibar? In the US and Canada, however, we are growing and prospering.

    Reply

  11. Posted by Pervez Patel on July 23, 2012 at 10:47 PM

    Dear Farah: I liked your blog very much and reading it, I felt as if I was in Zanzibar myself. At one time so many priests from my home town, Udvada, served in the Agiary there. I admire your will and persistence to see our Agiary there, in whatever condition you found it and sharing all the pictures with likes of me. The first tablet in the cemetery is that of my mother’s kakaji, Shapurji Bhikhaji Sidhwa, who spent all his life in Zanzibar. He was a famous person there and owned Clove Gardens and Ice Factories. I am so proud of you that you extended your vacation by one day and finally saw Agiary and the Cemetery. Both places gave you blessings on the most auspicious day – your birthday – and your mom (is her name Gool?) sent you her blessings as well. I think I know who you are and we have met in New York. Best wishes.

    Ervad Pervez P. Patel

    Reply

  12. Posted by NAVROZ F BHAGWAGAR on July 24, 2012 at 3:45 AM

    very intrasting though few in number we seem to be all over the world
    regards navroz nagpur india

    Reply

  13. Posted by ADIL JAL DARUKHANAWALA on July 24, 2012 at 8:34 AM

    Farah, great job and wonderful story. I like the historian sleuth in you and for sure that is what made the feature come alive! It has also got me thinking of doing some snooping from here on because I would like to know how the Darukhanawalas’ got there to Zanzibar and which arm of the family are they from. Thanks again and keep on doing what delights you.

    ADIL JAL DARUKHANAWALA

    Reply

  14. Posted by Hilla Mazda on July 24, 2012 at 3:39 PM

    Super Farah! Well done. Sad to see any agyari in a rundown condition, and being used to store stuff! Very sad.

    Reply

  15. Posted by Dinaz Ravji on July 24, 2012 at 10:52 PM

    I
    WAS BORN IN ZANZIBAR AND DIANA DARUKHANAWALA IS MY FIRST COUSIN,MY

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  16. sad huh! i guess we should see it coming in other places of parsi existence as well. felt like the ruins left behind in Iran. hope is all we have left.

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  17. Posted by Perviz Vatchha on July 25, 2012 at 2:33 AM

    It was such a pleasure reading this article.

    Reply

  18. Posted by Mrs Dilnavaz Variava on July 25, 2012 at 3:52 AM

    Interesting article, but sad to hear of the absence of Zoroastrians now in Zanzibar. I recall being told by an environmentalist friend that the Parsis caused a problem in Zanzibar by gifting some crows to the King – which multiplied and became a major nuisance. Worth checking out that story !

    Reply

    • Posted by Dara on September 2, 2012 at 2:25 PM

      It is said that crows were first seen in Zanzibar in 1897.

      I wonder if the Parsees brought crows to Africa.

      Crows travel on ships, often over thousands of kilometres, so they could turn up on almost any coast in the world that is close to major shipping routes – most likely in ports, peninsulas and fishing villages.

      Crows were deliberately introduced to some locations of Africa for the purpose of garbage elimination and clean up services or to control agricultural pests. It was also thought that crows control rodent pests around farm houses.

      crows are highly social, staying in a locality for perhaps their whole life. Movement into new areas is often as a result of major disturbances (e.g. attempted unorganised control) on nest or roost sites, however, adult birds regulary travel up to 20 km per day to known feeding areas.

      Reply

  19. Posted by Aspandiar Jamshed on July 25, 2012 at 4:08 AM

    Once upon a time we were such a vibrant community,the path finders,pioneers.
    As years went by we seem to have gone down hill.WHY?.Is it because we have a suger tendency to dissolve where ever we go?

    Reply

  20. Posted by Anu on July 25, 2012 at 8:14 AM

    You should connect with performer Shailja Patel, whose family is from Zanzibar. Here is her TED performance about a Zanzibar female performer. http://talentsearch.ted.com/video/Shailja-Patel-A-poem-for-Bi-Kid;TEDVancouver

    Reply

  21. Posted by Mrs. Dinci Nadir Karanjia on July 25, 2012 at 8:30 AM

    That was so beautifully told & photographed Farrah . Would love to read your other articles too . All the best . Dinci

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  22. Posted by Dinshaw Kanga on July 25, 2012 at 7:13 PM

    Hi Farah,
    I have lived in Canada since 1967 and know quite a few Parsis from Zanzibar who live here. I will forward your article to them. Thanks.

    Reply

  23. Posted by Khurshed Jehangir Dastur on July 25, 2012 at 10:14 PM

    So sad to see our agiary in such a bad state. For us Zanzibaris it was and will always be an edifice that gave us our unbinding faith in our religion and imbibed in us a sense of community that has stayed with us for more the fifty years since we all left our place of birth.Thanks ,Farah. Best regards Khurshed

    Reply

  24. Posted by perin driver on July 26, 2012 at 2:01 AM

    V. beautiful and v. informative article – but i must tell u that Parsis have been known to have gone and settled in Africe – in fact when i was in Colege around 1947-49 we had two Parsis Vera Shastri and Jangoo Shastri – but they were from Nairobi which was a more frequented place by Parsis -Perin driver

    Reply

  25. Posted by Kurush F Dalal on July 26, 2012 at 4:07 AM

    lovely article … wonder what will happen to the cemetery ….

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  26. Posted by Rashna P. Baria (nee Sethna) on July 26, 2012 at 9:08 AM

    Hi Farah, it was wonderful reading the article. i was born in Zanzibar (Parsis then called it ‘Jambar’ Came to India with my parents in 1964 during revolution Was four years old then. In 2008 had come to Zanzibar with my cousin Pervin Nunes who has a house in Bejou in Zanzibar. Had met the Darukhanawalas then. In fact I had also met the mother who was alive then. We visited the agiary and as soon as we entered the compound, i thought i could still smell sandalwood. The agiary is is a very sad state. My great uncles and aunts “Sethnas” were also buried there.

    Reply

  27. Posted by homi daruwalla on July 26, 2012 at 9:59 AM

    thanks farah
    i was born there and my grandfather is burried at that cemetery
    it brought back the memmories of the good time we had there till i was 12 and left zanzibar after the revolution
    want to visit it sooner now
    homi daruwalla

    Reply

  28. Posted by roshen on July 27, 2012 at 1:46 AM

    I LIVED THERE FOR TEN YEARS AND MY HUSBAND WAS FROM THERE
    I STILL MISS IT.
    Thanks for the update. we visited Zanzibar with all our children and grandchildren in 1995 and it brought vivid memories again but there has been a lot of change since we left.in 1964

    Reply

  29. Posted by Bepsy Kanga on July 27, 2012 at 6:49 AM

    My brother Hoshie sent your lovely article – brings back memories of our recent visit to Zanzibar (well last year in June 2011) – long time after we sadly had to leave the beautiful island after the revolution (with rest of the parsee community). I have joined the blog.

    Dinshaw Kanga (any relation?)

    Reply

  30. Posted by Rushna Bilimoria on July 27, 2012 at 3:11 PM

    Dear Farah:
    I was born in Bombay but lived in Zanzibar because my father was from there, and my brother Nauzer was born there. I had my novjote done there and I can still remember the beautiful tall coconut trees bustling in the wind, beautiful rose bushes, jasmine, and all the other fruit trees as you go along the road to the cemetery. It was like a having a piece of heaven on earth itself ! I went back to visit the Darukhanawalas in 1998 on my way to Bombay and sadly the Agiary was not in the best of shape but the old charm and beauty is still there, even in your photos you can still feel it……
    Thank you so much for sharing this with all of us.

    Kind regards
    Rushna Bilimoria

    Reply

  31. i did send my comment yesterday – however i am sending it again-
    it was really nice in fact v.nice to read about u Farah – i was born in Bombay and have lived all my life in Bombay tho i have visited my folks who have migrated like many other Parsis= i just wanted to inform u that when i was in College- St.Xaviers – i had met two v. nice folks from Africa – Nairobi to be exact – they were Veera Shastri and Jangoo Shastri – but i am always happy to hear from Parsis who have settled in far off places – wishing u Good Health and Life’s Every Happiness Always with ur loved ones Always
    perin driver – Bombay India

    Reply

  32. Posted by Pervin Noshir Wadia on July 28, 2012 at 5:17 AM

    A Very beautiful and informative article. It really touched my heart. GOD BLESS OUR PARSIS!!!!!!!! AMEN

    Reply

  33. Posted by Tina Mody on July 28, 2012 at 7:45 AM

    We were there a few months ago and saw the same state of the agiary but unfortunately never got to meet with Diana as we were only in stone town for a few hrs with cranky kids. It must hv been hard for all those people to leave the wonderful island. It was a piece of heaven on earth! A truly magical holiday for our family plus the splendour of seeing the agiary. Even in its poor state there was something magical about it.

    Reply

  34. Posted by Diana Darukhanawalla. on July 29, 2012 at 2:10 AM

    Hi Farah,
    You have written a very nice artical on the Zoroastrian in Zanzibar. I was happy to read it. One of my relatives from Canada forwarded it to me. I wish you all the success you deserve in your future.
    With regards,
    Diana. Darukhanawalla. ( from Zanzibar.)

    Reply

    • Posted by Bepsy on August 2, 2012 at 7:12 PM

      Hi Diana,
      It was very lovely to meet you and your dad when my brother and I visited you in 2011. It was my first visit since 1983. My other brother Dhun is still in Dar.
      Hope all is well with you both. I’ve been reading about the recent ferry tragedy in Z’bar – a second one.
      Keep in touch. Bepsy Kanga (your neighbour in Shangani)

      Reply

  35. Posted by Freddie Desai on July 31, 2012 at 2:22 AM

    Hi,I am gladd to kn that there r Zorastrains in Zanzibar. Keep theb good work going.

    Reply

  36. Posted by Bakhtawar (Bucky) Amaria on August 1, 2012 at 9:41 PM

    THANKS FOR SHARING THE WONDERFUL AND ENLIGHTENING ARTICLE ABOUT PARSIS IN ZANZABAR. I THOUGHT THAT THERE ARE ONLY 80-90,000 IRANIAN AND PARSI ZARTHUSTIS IN THE WORLD. BUCKY AMARIA

    Reply

  37. Great story…

    Reply

  38. Posted by Roshani Nash on August 17, 2012 at 11:05 PM

    It was really fun to read your blog. I am a Parsi, born and raised in Bombay, and moved to the USA in 1968. I live on a small island in Hawaii called Molokai. Look us up if you ever get to Hawaii.

    Reply

  39. Thank you all for your very kind words – it was so heartening to know that this story reached so many readers around the world!

    Reply

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