Visitors to Chermas and Universal Bakery on MG Road in Secunderabad will notice a beautiful old Heritage Building nearby, which is always meticulously well-maintained. It is the Seth Viccaji Meherji & Seth Pestonji Meherji Dar-e-Meher, also known as the Old Parsi Fire Temple in Secunderabad. It was consecrated on 12th September 1847 and celebrated its 165th Salghireh or anniversary on 2nd August 2012.
The Agiary or Fire Temple compound has residential quarters and commercial shops too.
In the last 10 days or so, dozens of Zoroastrians have been visiting this Fire Temple to get the ‘muktad’ prayers done for the souls of their ancestors. The Agiary has rows of beautiful fresh flowers kept in German silver vases; the scent of sandalwood and muted chant of prayers all soothe the senses of devout worshippers. There are usually three priests (Mobed Sahebs) and one helper (Chasniwalla) to manage the Dar-e-Meher. The priests are well-paid and also have free accommodation, electricity and water in return for their dedicated service to the Fire Temple. During these holy days before the Parsi New Year, priests from other towns and cities also come to Secunderabad to help out. This year, there were 100 vases kept in the Temple with daily prayers being said in memory of the departed. On New Year’s Day or Navroze, hundreds of Zoroastrians visit this Fire Temple.
Captain K F Pestonji takes a very keen interest in the day-to-day working of this Fire Temple and he recounts the history behind this stunning heritage building in the heart of Secunderabad. Two brothers, Pestonji Meherji (1783-1854) and Viccaji Meherji (1798-1853) built this gorgeous Fire Temple. They were originally bankers and cotton traders from Bombay who were doing business in Latur and Sholapur. Around 190 years ago, the then Nizam invited them to do more trade in Hyderabad.
The Hyderabad-Bombay cotton trade at that time used 500 bullock carts a year. The number soon rose to 5 lakh bullock carts annually! The trade peaked 160 years ago as tonnes of cotton were being exported to Manchester, England. The two brothers built hundreds of kilometres of roads, bridges and travellers’ bungalows where the weary could rest. In all the bungalows were plaques with the inscribed words, “For the Tired Traveller with God’s Blessing.” There was absolutely no mention of the brothers’ names on these plaques as they were real philanthropists.
The Nizam had borrowed a princely sum of Rs 40 lakh from the two brothers in order to maintain the troops provided to him by the British Army to protect him from Tipu Sultan and the French soldiers. At that time, instead of paying the half per cent interest annually, the Nizam instead chose to grant the brothers a big ‘Jagir’ or properties and the revenue earned by the brothers from this was consideration in lieu of interest.
With great pride Captain Pestonji mentions that the Meherji brothers were the only Parsi family in the world to have minted their own currency in the Nizam’s mint at Aurangabad, Maharashtra. The coin was called the Pestonshai Sicca and Seth Pestonji Meherji was allowed to insert his initials on the coin. It was one of the most beautiful coins struck, both in design and purity of metal during the mid-19th century. More than one crore such silver and copper coins were struck from 1832 to 1842. Today only a few original coins remain with the descendents of the family and four of these coins are on display in the British Museum in London.