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May 23, 2024
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Desire for the Fire! Unfolding ‘Uninterrupted Fire’ on Air India Boeing 707 by Ashwani Joshi

Nawanshahr: In a remarkable and forgotten chapter of Indian history, a tale of unyielding determination and reverence unfolds.

During the 1800s, Aden had become an extremely prosperous port city and a home to thriving business. About a thousand Parsis (Zarathustis) belonging to business and shipping community had settled in Aden by the end of 19th century. The Parsis also built a fire temple in Aden to cater to their spiritual and religious needs.

A unique characteristic of Parsi religious fire – known as ‘Atash’ – is that it is an amalgamation of fire from 16 hearths, of which 14 are from different occupational hearths (fire from a blacksmith’s hearth, shepherd’s hearth, baker’s hearth, etc.), 15th from a funeral pyre and the 16th from a fire caused by natural lightning. The core and fundamental religious belief of the Parsis states that this religious fire – Atash – must remaining burning uninterrupted and must be protected at any cost so that the fire is not even seen by any non-Parsi.

In 1967, the British left Yemen and the country became a hardcore communist country. With no respect to religious sentiments of anyone, the communist government of Yemen wanted to seize the Parsi temple, which would mean an end to the religious fire – that should have burned uninterrupted without the flames being doused. This was becoming difficult and so the Parsis started to look for another country where they can carry this fire.

The land route of carrying this fire would be sacrilege as the holy fire would have to pass through Islamic territories, which would mean sacrilege. Another dilemma was that the fire could not be directly carried on ships as it is not allowed for the religious fire to be on water. Yemen was not coordinating and helping the Parsis with this problem of ‘spiritual existence’.

When things seemed grim for the Parsis, India agreed to host. The story doesn’t end here, rather gets more interesting from here. It took a lot of diplomatic efforts to figure out a concrete plan – not just to bring the fire from Aden to India, but also by protecting all the religious sentiments. PM Indira Gandhi, Foreign Minister Y.B.Chavan and Field Marshal Sam Maneckshaw took the matter in their hands.

It was planned that India will send an Air India Boeing 707, manned by ALL-PARSI CREW, with Parsi priests to receive the fire from Aden. This was a difficult task because Air India needed Parsi pilots

There were a few, but they had been flying other planes and hence needed to train and complete flying hours needed to fly 707. After a lot of efforts, this finally happened on 14 November 1976. Captain Sam Pedder, a Parsi, took off for Aden. Once the flight landed, it was not touched by any ground staff at Aden airport to maintain the sanctity of the plane that would carry the holy fire.

All along this, Air India had reconfigured this Boeing 707 first class to carry LIVE BURNING FIRE – first and only incident in the world when a plane has carried live fire in flight. With prayers, chants and all customs followed, the fire was loaded into the all-Parsi plane that took off for Mumbai. To prevent the fire from dying, sandalwood was continuously being added to it inside a pressurised plane cabin at the altitude of 30,000 feet. Any spark could have resulted in a massive catastrophe. Thankfully, with all care, the plane landed safely.

Once it reached Mumbai, the fire again had to be protected from the sight of non-Parsis to protect the religious sentiments. It was planned by now that the holy fire would rest in a Parsi temple in Lonavala. The entire Mumbai – Lonavala stretch of road was blocked for public and a green corridor was created. The fire was unloaded and escorted by Parsis in cars and eight buses. The holy fire, finally, reached its new home in 1976.

Can any country in the world show an example of  love for a foreign  religion whose followers are only ~50,000 in number all across the country ! The last label anyone in the world can attribute to India, is of intolerance. Show me an example of tolerance greater than this!

(The purpose of publishing this story is Motivational as well Nationalism)

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