The Parsee Legacy in Aden: A Tale of Faith, Adventure, and the Eternal Flame

Aden's history is as colourful as its marketplace tapestries, especially when you peek into the corners of its religious past. Before the British came knocking in 1839, Aden was a place where the call to prayer mingled with the whispers of ancient faiths. The city, with its natural harbour caressing the Arabian Sea, was a spiritual crossroads as much as it was a commercial one.

Nestled at the base of the Tawila Tanks in Crater, Aden, the Parsee community carved out a spiritual niche that endured through the ages. The Zoroastrians, or Parsees, rooted in the teachings of Zarathustra from ancient Persia (Iran), have always been known for their adventurous and enterprising spirit. Many ventured far from their homeland, and in places like Aden, they established Agiaries (Fire Temples) to cater to the spiritual needs of their diaspora. One such Agiary, a testament to their deep-rooted faith, was built by the enterprising Parsee Cowasjee Dinshaw Adenwalla.

In the heart of this Agiary in Crater, right next to the Playfair Tank, the Atash Padsha (Holy Fire) was first consecrated in 1883. This sacred flame was a beacon of light for the community, symbolising the presence and protection of Ahura Mazda. Surrounded by the lush Parsee Gardens, established over one of the original tanks of the Tawila Tanks complex, the Fire Temple was more than a place of worship; it was a cultural anchor for the Parsees in Aden.

Adjacent to the Agiary was the Tower of Silence, also known as dakhma or doongerwadi. This unique structure, built by Cowasjee Dinshaw himself, was used for the exposure of the dead, a practice deeply ingrained in Zoroastrian tradition. Here, atop the tower, the dead were laid out under the open sky, a process integral to their beliefs about purity and the elements. The bodies, arranged in rings by gender and age, were left to nature and the birds of prey, a solemn rite that underscored the community's connection with the natural world.

The Tower of Silence, perched 200 metres south of the Tawila Tanks on the Shamsan Range, overlooked the Fire Temple and the town of Crater. Its presence was a constant reminder of the cycle of life and the spiritual beliefs that the Parsees held dear.

However, the winds of change swept through Aden with the advent of communism post-1967. The Agiary, Dakhma, and their associated assets became state property. With the Parsee community set to leave Aden, a poignant question loomed: What would become of the Atash, the eternal fire that had been the spiritual heart of the community?

Cowasjee Dinshaw, the great-grandson of the Agiary's founder, took upon himself the solemn responsibility of preserving the Atash. Believing strongly in the fire's blessings and its role in uniting and energising the Parsee community, he resolved to ensure its survival. After prolonged negotiations, the sacred flame was finally flown out of Aden on a historic day, 14th November 1976. Aboard a chartered Air India Boeing 707, with an all-Parsee crew, the Holy Flame embarked on its journey to Lonavala, India. As the plane ascended, a 21-gun salute echoed across Aden, a fitting farewell to the Parsee era in the city.

The Parsee Agiary (Fire Temple) in Crater, Aden
The Parsee Agiary (Fire Temple) in Crater, Aden

Today, the remnants of the Parsee heritage in Aden tell a bittersweet story. The once-vibrant Tower of Silence stands largely forgotten, its path now obscured by debris and its walls defaced with graffiti. The echoes of a once-thriving community have faded, leaving behind only traces of their profound legacy.

Noshir Patel, reminiscing about the Parsee presence in Aden, vividly recalls the large clock in the temple and the gardens that were a hub of community gatherings. He fondly remembers the annual dinners at the end of each Parsee year, hosted by prominent business families like the Cowasjees and the Dinshaws. These events, where the entire community came together, highlight the strong bonds and cultural vibrancy of the Parsees in Aden.

The story of the Parsee community in Aden is a tapestry of faith, adventure, and enduring legacy. From the consecration of the Atash Padsha to the poignant departure of the Holy Flame, their history is a testament to the resilience and adaptability of a community that, though now dispersed, left an indelible mark on the cultural landscape of Aden.

Both "Parsi" and "Parsee" are correct and used interchangeably to refer to the Zoroastrian community originally from Persia (now Iran) who settled in India. The term "Parsi" is derived from the word "Persia" and is more commonly used in modern times, especially in India. "Parsee" is an older English-language variant of the word that was more commonly used in the past, particularly during the British colonial period. The choice between the two often depends on historical context or personal preference.

Parsee Tower of Silence in Aden
Parsee Tower of Silence in Aden

The Parsee Tower of Silence