Today in Gowalia Tank, the Soonabai Hirji Agiary completes 200 years and celebrations are afoot on a grand scale. And we are trying to think of what Mumbai must have been like when the temple first opened for worship with the sacred fire in place.
Located near August Kranti Maidan, the agiary has been catering to the religious needs of Parsi Zoroastrians staying at Tardeo and Cumballa Hill area for 200 years. Higher liturgical ceremonies are performed here, writes Marzban Jamshedji Giara, and religious lectures are held regularly. Jashans and muktad ceremonies are performed are also performed.
The façade of the agiary building comprises of mixed elements from Persian architecture with the rising sun at the apex symbolising the glory of the Zoroastrian religion. There is a small portico in front which is quite distinctly charming.
It’s history is detailed. The first agiary on the premises was smaller, built by Ervad Dorabji Hormusji Ranji in 1812 and its expenses were met by him and Bai Soonaiji, daughter of the late Seth Hirji Jivanji Readymoney, (the first Parsi to start trading with China) and widow of the late Seth Nusserwanji Rustomji Banaji. It was consecrated by Dastur Khurshedji Jamshedji JamaspAsa.
At the time, cows and bullocks used to drink water from the pond and hence it was named Gowalia Tank. Bai Soonaiji purchased this estate of 17,000 square yards along with the agiary in 1821-22. In September 1842, Bai Soonaiji had built a new daremeher in her estate and had an atash adaran consecrated. Thereafter in 1862 after setting apart 5,000 square yards for the family house, the remaining 12,000 square yards was entrusted to the agiary.
As the Bai Soonaiji Hirji Readymoney Daremeher building became dilapidated, her successor Sir Cowasjee Jehangir Readymoney, (Kt. C.S.I). spent Rs.3,000 and had it repaired and the old adaran fire was re-enthroned September 1876.
In April 1925, the agiary had been virtually rebuilt once again, renovated with financial aid from Sir Cowasjee Jehangir, son of Seth Jehangir Readymoney who was the elder son of Bai Soonabai. This new building was constructed at an expense of Rs.1,50,000 and the original agiary which was at the head of Forjett street was brought here. Later a large hall of this agiary was inaugurated at a function in December 1925.
The Trust owns several properties: Agiary Building, Soonaiji Building and Serenebai S. Mancherji Banaji Building No.1 at Forjett Street; Soonaiji Terrace, Soonaiji Mansion, Banaji Old Chawl and Banaji New Chawl next to Agiary; six shops at Forjett Street and other lands on lease. The income from these properties is used for religious and charitable objects of the Trust.
Think of the flame staying alive for the past two centuries, while around it the world changed. Sion Causeway was just ten years old when it all began, and was known as Duncan Causeway after the then Governor, and people from Bombay Island were finally linked to Kurla in Salcette Island. In 1803, there was a huge fire that destroyed much of the Old Fort area, so much of this area of the city must have been fresh and new when the Bai Soonaiji Hirji Agiary opened. And so much of the economic development of the city was in the future, with not a mill in sight at the time, and even the concept of dabbawallas still almost 80 years into the future.
The sights the sacred fire has seen and now it is 200 years old!