A simple analogy passed down across generations, binds the Parsi community to their adopted home in India. A tale of milk and sugar. According to legend, when the Zoroastrians reached the shores of Gujarat after fleeing persecution in Persia, an Indian king named Jadi Rana (or Jadav Rana) greeted them. When they asked for asylum, the king presented them with a glass filled to the brim with milk – his point being that there was no room for refugees. In response, the Zoroastrians added a pinch of sugar to the milk; to show that they would blend in with the local population and add to their sweetness.
It was a persuasive argument, and the Parsis were to stay. When and whether this happened is contested; the latest surviving account of their historic migration dates their arrival in India from Persia to between the eighth and tenth century A.D. Some of the conditions were that they adopt the local language (Gujarati) and dress (the Sari for women). This, they did, and the modern Indian Parsi is a blend of Persian and Indian customs that date back several millennia.
On August 17, the Parsi community in India celebrated Nowruz – an Iranian new year celebration that has 3,000 years of heritage. In the current time-cycle, it counts down from 632 A.D. – when the last Zoroastrian monarch ruled.
In India, curiously, the Parsis celebrated this in August as opposed to March – when Iranians mark the new year. Perviz Bhote, a learned member of the Parsi community in Hyderabad, explains the simple reason behind this – the Parsis in India forgot to account for leap years. Since 1029 A.D., the Parsi Indian calendar hadn’t added the extra day needed every four years – resulting in the New Year falling on different months.
Many Parsis gather with their families at the fire temple (which only permits Zoroastrians inside), glimpse the sacred fire inside and pay their respects.
Fire is sacred to Zoroastrians. For them, it is the fire of creation and exists in various grades of purity. Fires caused by lightning are among the highest grades of purity, with the highest being a combination of 14 types of fire, as Perviz tells us. From this comes the Zoroaster dualism of light and dark ; one of the earliest religious divisions of good and evil.
In fact, the writer of the books behind the popular TV show, Game of Thrones, was inspired by Zoroastrianism when he wrote in the fire-worshipping religion of R’hllor.
Most of India’s Parsis live in Mumbai, but there are also communities in Hyderabad, Kolkata and parts of Gujarat. The Gujarati influence remains strong – holy books are written in Gujarati script, and the snacks, sweets, and saris reflect Gujarati influences. On Nowruz, it’s customary to wear the garments of your ancestors – sometimes featuring Gujarati saris spun many generations ago.)
Beneath the smiling faces greeting each other with “Nowruz Mubarak”, an ancient symbol stands out. Farohar (also spelled Faravahar) is the guardian angel of the Parsi faith. Zoroastrians are guided by a simple maxim – Humata, Hukhta, Hvarshta; Good thoughts, good words, good deeds.
Their amiability made them good intermediaries between the British and the other Indians. Perviz tells us that the first Parsis came on the invitation of Salar Jung I – the Prime Minister of Hyderabad State in 1853. Their familiarity with speaking Persian won them the grace of the Nizam. Soon, they had a vital role in his administration.
By the time of Indian independence, many Parsis were prominent industrialists. While many were financially successful, the community declined in numbers. Part of the reason is that Parsis in India follow patrilineal practises; a Parsi male marrying a non-Parsi female may have Parsi children, but not the other way around. In many ways, the community is split on the right way forward.
Perviz is too fascinated by the past to feel burdened by the present. Over the years, she’s traveled through all the Parsi communities in India – even visiting their long-lost coreligionists in Yazd, Iran. Speaking of the Zoroastrian kings of old, Darius the Great (who ruled over a greater percentage of mankind than any ruler in history) and Cyrus, she says:
History tells us that whichever region they conquered, they never imposed Zoroastrianism.
Zoroastrian customs have many similarities to early Vedic practises. It is a religion that predates Islam, Christianity, and even Judaism.
Perviz’s prayer table is a microcosmic representation of India’s syncretic tradition. You can spot Zarathustra (also known as Zoroaster) – ancient prophet of the Zoroastrians, Sai Baba, and Ganesha. Following the tradition, she keeps curios from the past, including the jhabla – the traditional Parsi wear of her grandfather from when he was just a boy.
She remembers the Zoroastrian prayers in Avesta – written in Gujarati script from a delicately bound – and tiny – prayer book, made in 1859. She recites the prayer for when one is initiated into Zoroastrianism.
While many young Zoroastrians are caught up in the competitive business world, some take up the role of a priest to keep an ancient flame burning. Peshdad J. Pilcher lives next to the Seth Viccaji-Seth Pestonji Meherji Parsi Fire Temple. At 28, he is the youngest priest they have.
For Peshdad, his fascination with Zoroastrianism began early, reading the Shahnameh – the national epic of Iran, and a rich source of history for the Zoroastrian people. By the time he reached the seventh grade at school, he was training to become a priest. He was never compelled to becoming one – though both his father and grandfather were priests before him.
As one of India’s minorities, the Parsis are invaluable to the country’s secular tradition. Their decline in numbers concerned the government; even as many emigrated to Canada and the United States. The response, from the Ministry of Minority Affairs, was the Jiyo Parsi programme – aimed at encouraging and aiding Parsis in having children.
At Hyderabad’s oldest fire-temple, the flame has been burning in various forms for over 170 years. A 3000-year-old past connects the Parsis to the present. It’s left to their young to carry the sacred flame forward.
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