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Saturday, March 21, 2009

Parsis (Zoroastrians) in India - Endangered Species

                                                                                                     हिंदी में यहाँ देखें

While moving around downtown, Mumbai, you are most likely to come across the imposing building housing the Parsi Fire Temple (Atashgah). The beautiful frescoes decorating the outer walls has always attracted me. However the notice board prohibiting entry of non-Parsis always intrigued me. I was always tempted and tried to have a peep inside. At times I even felt like entering the premises, under disguise, wearing a Cap but something within forbade me.

The population of Parsi community , the followers of Zoroastrian faith, is dwindling. They number around 1,25,000 world-wide and out of that nearly 80,000 reside in India and most of them are in Mumbai. Prophet Zarathustra (meaning one who loves camels), introduced the Zoroastrian religion in ancient Iran some 2600 years back. He was also born to a virgin mother "Dughdova". His spoken directives are contained in Avesta, their holy book. Originally this consisted of 21 chapters but additions were supposed to have been made subsequently. The Avesta also incorporates "Gathas" personally authored by the Prophet in the form of verses. Their religion advocates Good thoughts, Good words and Good deeds. They are basically fire worshippers. In their temple, Atash Behram, the holy fire, remains burning all the time and is never extinguished. They refer to their God as Ahura Mazda.

Before we start exploring about them, let us briefly have a look at their glorious past. As early as 550 BC, Cyrus the Great established the Achaemenid Persian (Iranian) Empire with their capital at Persepolis. It reached its zenith during the rule of Darius I (522-486). They patronized Zoroastrianism and ruled over a vast area extending to three continents and twenty countries. It was the largest empire in the ancient world. The empire could not, however, withstand the attacks by Alexander the Great and crumbled by 330 BC. Again during the Christian era Ardashir I established the Sassanian Empire in 224 AD which ruled for the next 400 years upto the 7th century AD. Parts of western India (Present day Pakistan) were also under their control. Their state religion was also Zoroastrian.

After the fall of the great Zoroastrian empire, to escape from persecution at the hands of the invading muslims, the Parsis started en-mass migration to safer places. They had a fair idea about the Gujrat coast due to their long trading association. The migration started from an area known as Khorasan (which was a part of Iran earlier but now stands divided amongst many countries) somewhere between the 8th and 10th century AD. The first batch of more than a 1000 people arrived at Diu by the sea route. A local ruler named Jadi Rana or Jadav Rana gave them shelter with an understanding that the Parsis will adopt the local language and customs. The story woven around the offer of shelter says that the King, apprehensive of tall, fair and warrior like foreigners sent a bowl full of milk, implying that there was no place for the Parsis in his kingdom. The leader and High Priest of Parsi community, Dastoor Neryosang Dhaval added sugar to the milk and sent the bowl back to the king. This action implied that just as sugar mixed with milk added taste and flavor to it, Parsi’s will mix with the local people and be an asset to the kingdom – Some say he dropped his Gold ring in the milk instead of sugar signifying that they will only add to the wealth of the kingdom, and never take them away.

These Parsi refugees named their settlement as Sanjan, the name of the town in Turkmenistan where from they had come. Shortly thereafter, within years, a second group also arrived known as Kharsani or Kohistani who also brought with them the instruments of their faith (Alat). A third group is also reported to have arrived taking the overland route. Although there are no documentary evidences regarding their arrival in India, a book titled as "Kissa-e-Sanjan" written by Bahman Kaikobad contains the story of the arrival and settlement of Parsis at Sanjan. This was written in 1599 AD and is relied upon as an authentic work.

within five years of their arrival, they had constructed a Fire Temple for consecrating the holy fire (Atash Behram) brought by them from Iran. Although they had adopted the local language and the customs of the people of Gujrat, they preserved their cultural identity and religious traditions zealously. By 10th century AD they had started moving out and settling in other parts of Gujrat as well. During the 15th century, Sanjan was under attack by the Muslim army. Majority of them fled to Navsari together with the Holy Fire where it got housed in a temple in 1516 AD. Due to differences amongst the high priests, the holy fire got shifted to Udvada in 1742.

Around 1620 the English East India Company was enabled to establish its factory at Surat which became a major trading centre. Parsis who were either traders are artisans, were induced to settle down at Surat to exploit the business opportunities it offered. The English also preferred to deal with the Parsis and many of them became the brokers of the Company. Under the famous wedding treaty of 1665 (Catherine Braganza of Portugal to Charles the Second of England) the islands of Bombay were ceded to the British Crown which was eventually leased out to the East India Company. The Company was interested in developing Bombay as its base for it operations and it needed skilled people for various activities. People from Surat were given inducements to migrate to Bombay including the Parsis. Once again the Parsi population started moving to Bombay because of the prosperity it held for them. Gujrat also suffered from a great famine during that period which further accelerated the movement of Parsis to Bombay. As a matter of fact Parsis were already settled in Bombay even prior to 1640 during the Portuguese occupation. There are records of one Dorabji Nanabhoy who is said to have been engaged in trade during 1640.

As was the case with Surat, here in Bombay too the English preferred to have Parsis as their trading partners. One Rustom Manek seems to have been the first authorised broker of the Company who was conferred the title of "Seth". It was his son Navroz, who established the Parsi Panchayat in 1728. The Panchayat was intended to implement self governance within the community but due to several reasons it got confined to welfare activities which it continues to administer as a Trust. Being close to the British, Parsis understood the importance of modern education for the prosperity of their community. The first English School was started by them in 1849 and surprisingly it was a co-educational one even at that time. Later on separate schools for boys and girls sprang up. Parsis are credited for their immense contribution in every field including India's independence movement. Some of the eminent personalities being, Feroze Shah Mehta, Dadabhoy Naoroji, Bhikaji Cama, Homi J Bhabha, Homi K Bhabha, Sam Manekshah, Jamshedji Tata, Sooni Taraporewala, Nani A Palkhiwala, Wadias, Godrej and many many more.

As already said, Parsis worship the holy fire. A child (irrespective of a boy or a girl) is initiated into the Zoroastrian faith between the age of 7 and 9 years during a ceremony known as Navjot which is something like the thread ceremony amongst Hindus. It is the first time when they wear a Sudrah (shirt made of muslin which has an inner pocket) and also tie a woolen girdle known as Kushti. This Kushti is made out of 72 threads of Sheep Wool and tied winding the waist thrice. These are the compulsory accompaniments for any religious ceremony. They also sport a vermilion mark (Bindi) on their foreheads on such occassions. They look upon the Earh, Fire and Water as sacred and are revered. So as not to desecrate these elements, they offer their dead to the Sky. When some one dies, after the religious rites, the body is taken out and the room is sprinkled with Cows urine for purification of the area. The dead are placed above a tower (Tower of Silence) known as Dakhma to be eaten away by vultures. The skeletal remains fall down the well and get decomposed due to presence of charcoal, lime and other chemicals. The first such tower was built in 1673 in the Malabar Hill area of Bombay on the land provided by the East India Company. Earliest of their fire temples (Atashgah or Agiary) at Bombay are at Banaji Lane, Opposite Akbarally's show room built in 1709 and on Nariman Street, near CST which was commissioned in 1733.

As already stated in the beginning, the Zoroastrians (Parsi) are now in the category of endangered species. Year after year their population is coming down due to a very slow birth rate as compared to the elderly taking to the tower. One major reason being general apathy towards getting married amongst the males. They seldom consider taking a partner before they are 40 and above. On the other hand modern girls from the community,in their twenties, majority of whom are of western orientation seek partners outside the community. This is a sort of vicious circle. The Parsi community does not accept outsiders to their fold and on the other hand all their people who seek alliances outside the community are driven out. Speaking about accepting outsiders, a high priest of Navsari Atashgah once said:

"if such persons have not shown a sense of fidelity to their own religion of birth, then what guarantee do we have that they will show an unflinching commitment to our Parsi/Irani Zarthoshti beliefs and reet-rivaj?" He further stated:

"I believe that our religion is truly "mazishtacha, vahishtacha, sraeshtacha", the mightiest, the best, the purest and therefore throughout my life my family members and I have always been proud to have been practicing Parsi Zoroastrianism in all respects. Whilst we respect all religions, we should not fall prey to introducing the precepts and practices of other faiths into our homes, nor should we indulge in pujas, fasts, and prasads, if we wish to be truly spiritual in the religion of our birth."

Interestingly and contrary to these statements, the DNA studies carried out amongst the members of the community reveals that the male part of the DNA, i.e the Y Chromosome does indicate the presence of an Iranian ancestry but the corresponding feminine part seems to have been lost and replaced by a Gujarati lineage. Obviously this indicates that the Parsis, when they landed on the soils of Gujarat, had established marital relationship with the local women folk.

Here is a rare video on problems with their funeral: