Bringing up the mediums: Parsi Mobeds


May 14, 2007

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Parents make the heartbreaking decision to send their children to residential schools for various material reasons. It’s seldom for a cause. But last year, parents of 30 Parsi children decided that the cause of serving the community was worthy enough. So they packed them off, some of them only about six years old, to the Athornan Madressa at Dadar, a boarding school for future Zoroastrian priests situated in a leafy by-lane of the Parsi Colony.

The school is one of only two in the world (the other one too, is in Mumbai, in Andheri). Graduates, known as “mobeds” or priests who pass out of the school, serve the Zoroastrian community in India and outside. Often, many of them come from humble backgrounds.

In a way, the Madressa signifies the attempts of the besieged Parsi community to keep its traditions alive in the changing world and produce priests who would take care of the shrinking community’s religious traditions and practices. Mobeds usually come from a line of priestly Zoroastrian families, called Athornan. Not all of them attend the school and many of them memorise the prayers and rituals at home before being ordained. But in order to carry out more complex rituals and ceremonies, the mobeds need to complete a stint at one of the two boarding schools.

The innocent small mobeds at the Madressa are more like little muppets, dressed in traditional black cap worn by Zoroastrian priests. On a sultry Saturday afternoon, they are here working hard to learn their prayers amidst the din of a marriage hall right across from the school. With lunch hour minutes away, restless kids drone away, some dreamily looking out of the small classroom on the ground floor. The school itself is a non-descript, three-storied structure, with a mess on the ground floor. The mobeds learn throughout the day, starting at 5:30 in the morning and then attend another normal school (which gives them the required education to pass the tenth standard or SSC board) and by ten in the night retire into a huge dormitory. The school principal, 41-year-old Ramiyar Karanjia lives on the floor above along with his wife and two children.

Needless to say, there are students who feel miserable. They do not like their new surroundings. Principal Karanjia and his family often act like surrogate parents to their little wards who miss their families. They join the Madressa at a young age and continue to study till they “graduate” (are ordained) when they are 14.

Shehrezad R Pavri is one such acolyte. Hailing from Navsari in Gujarat, Pavri was initially very hurt and upset when his parents left him on the path leading to priesthood. But some six years later, the bespectacled and confident Pavri who is now all of twelve years old is a rising star in the Mumbai Parsi community, especially at the Madressa. He is the school’s youngest ordained priest who memorised the Yazashne, a 300-page Zoroastrian holy book in just two years, instead of the customary four, and also learnt the Zend Avesta (the sacred text of the Zoroastrians) in a record time after entering the school in 2001. Pavri is one of the 30-odd holy “men” that the Madressa takes in annually since the first batch started in 1919.

For someone who is just 12 years old, Pavri speaks of serving the community in a very unwavering tone. “I am a priest and I will continue to be a priest,” he declares without hesitation. When pointed out that he was just twelve years and too young to take such decisions, a smile comes to his face. “There is no such thing as young in this school. It’s how you interpret your life,” he says.

Ryan Dastur, a local Bandra boy and classmate of Pavri, though acts his age when asked what he loved the most. “I love eating at McDonald’s and am happy sometimes we are treated by the school at the local McDonald’s.” There are a few students who stay on at the school even after they have finished their studies. Sixteen-year-old Yazad K Mandiwala from Navsari in Gujarat, who is an ordained priest, lives in the school premises and studies at the nearby Khalsa College. For such senior students, films and outings are permitted as long as they do not make a habit out of it.

The other school that trains future Parsi priests is Andheri-based Cama Athornan Madressa which was founded in 1923. Once it was sought after. Now it has only a handful of students due to various reasons including the absence of a secondary school where the budding priests could further their education.

One of the first graduates of the Athornan Madressa was Jal Savak Kuka who is now 99 years old. “We were the first batch of graduates which passed out. We were the talk of the community then. It was a matter of prestige to study there,” he recalls.

Over the years, things changed. The low salaries of the priests and the general vibrancy of the world outside the Madressa discouraged parents from consigning their children to priesthood. Most priests today have full time alternate careers. However, Karanjia says that there is no shortage of Parsi priests because the community itself is very small with only 69,601 people according to the 2001 census. But, it is the future that worries the community. They fear the day when there is still god but no priests.

Original article here