I first visited Iran in 1995. On that memorable trip, I met for the first time a visionary and inspirational retired banker – Coovershah Mehta, with whom I instantly bonded and have since remained inseparably close friends, despite his age being much older than mine. Over the years, along with a few other dedicated volunteers, we established a Social Voluntary Group (acronym SVG) and have been privileged and blessed to have taken over a thousand fellow Zoroastrians to experience the magic of mystical Iran.
Our last tour was in 2018 – mainly due turmoil in the Middle East in 2019, and then the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic making travel impossible. Both of us felt a tremendous urge to revisit Iran and on 3rd November, 2023, we flew to Tehran, despite family and friends advising us against doing so in keeping with the conflict in Palestine.
But the reality was very different from what our well-wishers envisaged. Iran was peaceful, progressing and prospering. Families could be seen shopping or dining in restaurants. Many young women did not have their head or face covered – this was a big change I noticed for the first time in Iran. Iran seemed cut off from the rest of the world and the turmoil outside its borders.
Almost every other car on the road was an SUV and with petrol being cheaper than water, almost every family seemed to own a car. A 500 ml bottle of water cost the equivalent of Indian Rs. 5/- but a litre of petrol was just the equivalent of Rs. 2/-! Taxis were aplenty and also available on Apps (like Snapp or Tap30). In fact, as a safety measure for women passengers, Iran does not grant taxi license to single men!
While most locals now use Iranian Bank debit and credit cards, international cards are still not accepted at most establishments. Though almost every hotel offers free Wi-Fi to access google and Gmail, one cannot access WhatsApp or Facebook. After two days of digital detox, I was quite frustrated being cutoff. I finally installed a VPN App and viola – I was reconnected with the external world, while still enjoying the beauty of Iran.
Almost every local seemed to be using social media and WhatsApp using VPN Apps – paid or free versions. Iran’s relationship with India is good and at every establishment we were greeted with a smile.
It was autumn and the weather was neither warm nor too cold. Fruits, especially pomegranates, were in abundance. At the Yazd Atash Bahram complex, one could virtually pluck a low hanging fruit off the tree! There were super large pumpkins all over and apart from barley soup, I noticed the locals enjoying pumpkin soup at restaurants.
We arrived in Tehran at 5:00 pm and I was looking forward to Iranian cuisine – the restaurant did not disappoint, serving us the juiciest lamb Koobideh kebab and fragrant saffron rice, dipping wheat lavash (flat bread) in garlic yogurt and sipping on Doogh – a chilled mint-flavoured, fizzy, yogurt drink.
Next morning (4th November), we left by car for the foothills of Mount Damavand. It happened to be the thirteenth day of Aban (yes, the Islamic Republic of Iran has officially retained all the twelve Zoroastrian months) which marks three important events: the anniversary of the takeover of the former US embassy in Tehran by Iranian students; the anniversary of the exile of the late founder of the Islamic Republic, Imam Khomeini by the Shah (1964); and the Student Day (marking the day in 1978 on which several students taking part in a protest rally against the Shah were martyred). Certain roads were blocked and there were protest slogans over loudspeakers, just like in India. There was also a light drizzle.
As the name Damavand suggests, it was covered with clouds but we did manage to get a sneak peek of the peak when the clouds momentarily decided to stop playing hide and seek. In any case, the evening before I had witnessed the most spectacular view of the entire mountain from the aeroplane just before our descent into Tehran. I must have seen this mountain several times but each time I see it, my heart skips a beat. Love for a woman may be at first sight. But love for Damavand is at each (and every) sight. It is magnificent in its majestic beauty and to pray at its foothills is to connect through Nature to Nature’s Wise Creator.
The restaurant at Polur village as we descend from the foothills serves the most amazing roast chicken as also several other Iranian delicacies.
The same evening, we flew off to Yazd – a Zoroastrian spiritual hub. Our first stop was the Atash Bahram. Zoroastrians enter from the rear side. However, non-Zoroastrian tourists who come by busloads everyday can enter from the front entrance but after paying an entrance fee. The Atash Bahram is a major tourist attraction and I cannot but help stating that it does compromise on the solitude and serenity that we witness in India.
A walk around the Marker complex was a walk back into time. It is an ancient architectural marvel and the exhibits at the museum quite varied and interesting. Evening saw us at the Zoroastrian villages of Cham and Zainabad where twenty-eight years ago, my friend and I had some very special spiritual experiences which later triggered in us the passion to make several others experience Iran.
The spiritual glowing fire embers at Zainabad continue to have the same shape and soft glow that cannot be described. There is something truly special about these fires which one can only experience in-person but fail to describe in words. We felt truly blessed.
The next morning, we visited the Holiest of Holy shrine of Peer-e-Sabz – a mountain oasis amid a barren salt desert. Nothing grows for a radius of several miles. However, here, atop this mountain is a natural stream of water which brings life to this mountain. The climb up the mountain is steep. However, we noticed that the local Zoroastrian Anjuman has now thoughtfully placed bannisters for senior citizens to hold while ascending and descending and even benches at various levels for pilgrims to sit and rest.
Once at the top, I drank the water of this oasis and felt immediately refreshed. If praying at the foothill of the snow-clad Mount Damavand is a heavenly feeling, praying at this desert mountain shrine is a mystical feeling which again, can only be experienced and not explained.
It also happened to be the ninetieth birthday (according to Roj) of my friend and we cut a Royal Bakery fruit cake that he had carried from Poona. This trip had some amazing coincidences of dates. We both felt blessed and grateful.
Both of us have been to Iran more than twenty-five times. However, this trip was by far the most memorable. Maybe because we packed so much within just one week. Maybe it was the good weather. Maybe it was the gap of five years. We decided not to analyse why. We were content knowing that it was a week filled with several reconnections – reconnecting with our ancient spiritual roots, reconnecting with our ancient holy fires and even more ancient sacred mountains. But, most important of all, was reconnecting with our true inner self amid natural surroundings.
We both feel truly blessed and grateful. If Ahura Mazda wills it, we will revisit Iran again next year and hopefully with many other fellow Zoroastrians!