Zoroastrians use Internet dating to rescue religion
MUMBAI, India — After trying for four years to have a baby, Khorshed Bulsara called on her fellow Zoroastrians for help. She tapped into a new fertility clinic whose mission is to save one of the world’s oldest religions.
Her doctor waved off concerns that Parsis, as Zoroastrians are known in India, may suffer fertility problems linked to generations of inbreeding within a tiny and highly insular community. She put Ms. Bulsara through a battery of tests, prescribed fertility drugs and began an expensive program of in vitro fertilization.
To defray costs, a local Parsi organization and anonymous Parsi donors gave the couple about $2,500.
The investment paid off. In September, Ms. Bulsara delivered Parsi triplets. “There is a way to fulfill one’s dream of having a beautiful family through the wonders of technology and the undoubted power of prayers,” said her husband, Khushro Bulsara.
There are fewer than 200,000 Zoroastrians in the world, experts say. Most are in India and Iran, the religion’s birthplace. The numbers are clearly dwindling in India. According to the 2001 census — the latest figures available — India’s Parsi population had fallen to 69,601 from 76,382 a decade earlier.
To replenish their ranks, followers of the Iranian prophet Zoroaster, who is thought to have lived about 3,500 years ago, are extolling not just the modern benefits of fertility clinics but also those of Internet dating.
The high-technology push to connect and reproduce Parsis comes as education and work opportunities pull a younger generation into the global work force, delaying love, marriage and children. Like other ethnic groups, Parsis in India are trying to adapt to a changing world without changing too much themselves.
“I am totally in favor of using the best technology available to bring our boys and girls together,” says Khojeste P. Mistree, a Zoroastrian scholar here in the former Bombay who has two children in the U.S. — a son at Ohio State University and a daughter at Georgia Institute of Technology. “We are trying to preserve a religion and a people,” he says.
For many Parsis, the aim also is to marry someone who shares the same culture and is familiar with the religion.
The Zoroastrian faith centers on a supreme God who presides over seven creations: the sky, waters, earth, plants, cattle, man and fire. Among these creations, fire — a source of light and life’s energy — occupies a central role in the religion. It burns inside Zoroastrian temples as a focal point of worship. Man’s spiritual aim is to preserve these creations. (Thus in death, the Zoroastrian’s body is placed in a “Tower of Silence,” or stone amphitheater, and devoured by flesh-eating birds. The ritual seeks to avoid sullying sacred fire with cremation or the earth with burial).
How Zoroastrians dispose of their dead is outlined in religious texts and even mentioned about 2,500 years ago by the Greek historian Herodotus, according to the Zoroastrian scholar Mr. Mistree. Zoroastrians believe exposure to the sun and birds of prey — vultures mostly — cleanse the corpse in a naturally harmonious way, says the Oxford-educated Mr. Mistree, noting that several Indian cities with sizable Parsi populations continue the practice. In Mumbai, the “Tower of Silence” has been equipped with solar panels to speed up desiccation and compensate for the city’s vanishing vultures.
Parsis arrived in what is now western India in the 10th century after Islam drove them from Persia. Rather than trying to win converts in their new home, Parsis formed self-contained communities that effectively barred newcomers to the faith. Children of mixed marriages were admitted only if the father was a Parsi. Because Zoroastrianism doesn’t seek converts, a small band of the faithful were able to live peacefully among Hindus, Muslims and Christians.
During the British rule of India, Parsis showed a knack for commerce. Today, they are well represented among the rich and famous. The Tata family, India’s best known industrialist clan, is Parsi. Others include the conductor Zubin Mehta and Freddie Mercury, the late lead singer of the rock band Queen.
But it took lesser stars in the Parsi firmament to do something about population decline.
About two years ago, Cyrus Poncha, the head coach of India’s squash team, said he wasn’t having much luck meeting Parsi women. So his older brother, Neville, posted his picture on Shaadi.com, one of many Internet sites offering matchmaking services for Parsis.
Neville also solicited and screened candidates for Cyrus. He said he knew enough about appealing to the tastes of Parsi women to play down his brother’s squash playing and play up the family’s roots in cosmopolitan Mumbai.
“It was love at first sight,” recalls Cyrus about his first date with future wife Roshan, one of the Parsi women his brother arranged for Cyrus to meet through the Internet. As he closed a car door, Roshan says she caught Cyrus’s “lovely light brown eyes” and came to a similar conclusion: “Marriage material.”
Several years earlier, Neville had met his own wife, Yasmin, through the Internet. They chatted via email for months before meeting. Now the mother of two young Parsi boys, Yasmin feels she has fulfilled her child-bearing obligations to the community.
“I am so not having a third child,” says Yasmin, a former journalist. “I have to think about my sanity.”
The shrinking population in India isn’t the only threat to the Parsi community, which is growing older and coming under scrutiny for possible genetically linked health problems, too. According to India’s 2001 census, people over 60 years of age account for 31 percent of the Parsi population, while children under 6 constitute less than 5 percent.
“Entire villages are emptying out and nursing homes are filling up,” says Shernaz Cama, director of the Unesco Parsi Zoroastrian Project in New Delhi. The project has supported studies on the prevalence of cancer and infertility among Parsis.
The demographic shifts have fanned fierce debate about the Parsi community’s future. Orthodox members contend there is nothing wrong with Parsi genes and that emigration accounts for the shrinking numbers in India. Liberals argue the community would be better served by welcoming all children of mixed marriages and recognizing converts, too.
For years, the Bombay Parsi Punchayet, an organization managing the affairs of local Parsi city residents, has offered discount family housing in one of the world’s most expensive real-estate markets, Mumbai, and subsidies to those in need after having a third child. It also funds holiday trips for young Parsis in the hope that some will find a Parsi partner and have children earlier in life.
Recently, it has begun reimbursing couples for exams at the new fertility clinic. In the 16 months since it has been open, the clinic has counseled 85 Parsi couples, and about 20 of them have conceived, according to Anahita Pandole, the clinic’s gynecologist and a Parsi herself.
To date, the 4-month-old Bulsara triplets represent the clinic’s biggest success. On the fourth floor of an apartment down the street from the clinic, Khorshed Bulsara wakes her swaddled children from an afternoon nap. On the walls are pictures of the prophet Zoroaster and a sister of Khorshed’s who moved to Houston and married a descendant of Parsi priests who became a business consultant. They have two sons.
Ms. Bulsara’s three children lie together on an old bed that has been in the family for more than a century. After a fifth hand was spotted during an ultrasound, she called her husband to break the news about the Parsi community’s three newest additions. “All he could say was “Wow!’ ” laughs Ms. Bulsara.