By Bharati Sarkar
India is richer today due to the contributions of a tiny community. In the sciences, the arts and industry, Parsis have given back more than a thousand-fold in return to the land that gave them shelter a thousand years ago. But, they are a dying community. With UNESCO stepping in to help preserve their heritage, their story is one that must be told, read and preserved.
A little over a thousand years ago, a bedraggled and tired group of persecuted people from Iran landed at Sanjan. Sanjan, a tiny principality, (about 100 km north of present day Mumbai,) was ruled by Jadi Rana.
The beleaguered king, not too keen on allowing foreign refugees to settle in his tiny kingdom, sent a bowl full of milk to the foreigners, signifying that the land was full and could support no more.
Understanding Jadi Rana’s ploy, the leader of the refugees added a pinch of sugar to the bowl which did not overflow.
Jadi Rana understood this astute gesture of sweetening the milk and the message behind it, and graciously allowed the Parsis to stay. Since then, legend has it, that they have added sweetness to local life without being a burden.
Parsis are of ancient Persian descent, and belong to the Indo-European branch of the Aryans. The word ‘Iran’ itself derives from the Avestan Airyana, Sanskrit Arya-yan or the ‘way of the Aryans’ that becomes Irya-an or Iran according to scholar-historian, Piloo Nanavutty.
Unlike other foreigners who came to India to plunder, loot and rule, the Parsis assimilated with a quiet dignity into India’s history and contributed their extraordinary genius in every walk of life. As intelligent refugees, while guarding their own ethnic, cultural and religious identity with fierce pride, they were always mindful of their status and made friends wherever they went. As an ethnic group, Parsis have excelled in a way no other community has and it would seem that their upbringing and strong religious belief may be the reason for this. There is, in the Zoroastrian creed, a simplicity that defies challenge. Be good, do good, think good and fight evil. Be responsible for yourself and don’t blame others. Listen to your conscience but laugh and enjoy life. Look after your own people, and so on. From the time a child is able to understand social dynamics, right and wrong are clearly defined and the child is made responsible for his/her thoughts, words and deeds. No wonder that when a Parsi child goes wrong (a rarity), the whole community hangs its head in sorrow and shame!
Starting with business and industry, through law and literature, including the armed forces, and spanning the arts, music and nuclear science, Parsis always gave more than they took from their adopted land. A large number of Parsis settled in Bombay when famine struck Gujarat in 1790. The city’s cosmopolitan outlook and its dynamic vitality brought out the Parsi’s natural zest for life. And it became a springboard for some of the most talented men and women from that community to take flight in their varied areas of expertise.
The names of eminent Parsis roll off like a veritable who’s who of eminent Indians: Dadabhoy Naoroji, Sir Jamshedji Tata, JRD Tata, Ratan Tata, the Wadias, the Godrej clan, Homi Bhabha, Sam Maneckshaw, Madam Bhikaji Cama, Zubin Mehta, Soli Sorabji, Fali Nariman, and others too numerous to list.
To discover their ancestry we have to retrace our steps all the way to the Iranian Bronze Age, somewhere between 2600 and 2000 BC, taking the linguistic similarities between the Rig Veda and the Zoroastrian Gathas as a benchmark. A fiery young man named Spitama or Zarathustra was born in the beautiful city of Arak in Azerbaijan with the divine sign. At the age of 15, Zarathustra turned away from worldly pleasures and devoted his life to the worship of God. At 20 he went to meditate in a cave. The problems of evil, the mystery of human existence and the riddle of the Universe were the questions that he sought to answer. Zarathustra came face to face with his God, Ahura Mazda, and the Gathas, that formed the verses of Zoroastrianism came from his daily communion with Him. Fire is given pride of place in the Gathas as a bright and powerful creation of Ahura Mazda, preferable to idols or other objects symbolizing divinity. However, ‘fire worship’ is not mentioned anywhere despite a common misconception of Parsis being fire worshippers.
Zoroastrianism is the world’s oldest revealed religion predating Christianity by more than a couple of millennia. Despite its birth in prehistory, the religion survived. It has survived persecution, the destruction of close to 90 per cent of its recorded history and tenets, migration to distant lands and the assimilation of alien customs and languages. The core beliefs have remained intact because these beliefs are practical, life-driving forces that Parsis have always lived by, no matter where they were forced to settle down over the ages. ‘Resist evil’ is the credo of the true Zoroastrian. The Prophet demands his followers’ active participation in fighting evil wholeheartedly, a militancy that is absent in other creeds that preach a turning of the blind eye and even forgiveness in the face of what is wicked. This constant endeavor to remain on the side of the good and the just helped in building a character where responsibility, effort, industry, courage, justice, truthfulness and self-sacrifice were traditionally ingrained.
THE INDIAN PARSI
In India, Parsis in general assimilated into the culture prevalent in Gujarat without relinquishing their own traditions that were bequeathed orally down the ages. This oral tradition included prayers, customs and rites of passage and some heroic legends that are still extant, zealously guarded by the elders but not extensively known by the younger generation. Most Parsis speak Gujarati and most women choose to drape their saris the Gujarati way, with the pallau across the chest from the right shoulder and tucked behind the waist on the left. Down the centuries, many social and cultural customs of Gujarat have become intrinsic parts of Parsi tradition, in dance, music and cuisine. But, their religion has remained pristine and their core beliefs have kept them a people apart.
RITES OF PASSAGE
Parsis have distinct rites of passage that start at birth and solidify with the Navjote (literally, new light) ceremony (similar to the Jewish Bar Mitzvah and the Hindu thread ceremony). The child (male or female) is blessed and inducted into the Zoroastrian way by donning a sacred thread (kusti) and a soft muslin undershirt (sudreh or Sudra), a tradition that pre-dates Zarathustra. She/he is initiated into the faith through prayers and community blessings. There is a great similarity here with the Jewish custom of initiation into the faith. The marriage ceremony, that always takes place after sunset, is a joyous affair and among some, includes the western custom of the groom kissing the bride. Both the Navjote and marriage ceremonies embody the spirit of free choice. In both ceremonies, the individuals are asked if they embrace the faith or the partner freely, of their own choice.
The final rite of passage is still the most authentic and considered truly alien because Parsis take their dead to designated, enclosed places called Dokhma or Dakhama, euphemistically known as ‘Towers of Silence’. The corpse is left in the open for scavenging birds to dispose of and emanates from the Parsi belief in doing good right up to the end. A week or so later, the dried bones are lowered into a deep pit layered with sand and charcoal, for decomposition. In all of the above ceremonies, the sacred fire, fed with sandalwood and incense, plays a pivotal role.
A ZESTFUL PEOPLE
Between birth and death, however, is where the real Parsi story takes place. Parsis are a community of doers and givers. The authentic, life-celebrating philosophy of the Zoroastrian makes the Parsi’s zest for life a refreshing contrast to the moaning and groaning interpretation that many Hindus, Muslims and Christians have given to their own lively traditions. A Parsi will laugh and drink and party, but she/he will also work hard to achieve and give and build. Despite its intrinsic gentleness, there is nothing timid in the Zoroastrian way of life.
Indian Parsis traveled to other parts of the world to settle down in every continent, yet, the total number of Parsis today is an alarming 63,000. It was determined in a long drawn legal battle that ended in 1908 that you had to be born a Parsi, you could not convert to become one. You could become a Zoroastrian but not a Parsi. So, Parsis married within their limited community and as happened with Egyptian nobility thousands of years ago, the Parsi blood thinned and became a feeding ground for genetic diseases. The killer genes simply got passed down the line until Parsis are now a community prone to hemophilia, osteoporosis and cancer.
For many years, inter-community marriages were heavily frowned upon but today, it may be the only means of saving a vibrant group of people from dying out on us. And it is not just the race that is in jeopardy of extinction. The entire Parsi tradition, if you recall, was orally transmitted down the ages. With a thinning number in the younger generations and a larger group of elders, this tradition is in vital need of documentation and preservation. The UNESCO has made a gesture in this direction by creating a forum and giving a small donation as seed money for a project (called Parjor) to retrieve and record what is left of the Parsi way of life. The project coordinator, the dynamic Dr Shernaz Cama says: ‘The project is in desperate need of help, from both Parsis and others who are interested in preserving this community’s history. We need men, materials and money. To travel to places, document stories, legends and artifacts on film and even physically. We plan a museum, a library and films.’
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