Doomed by faith

India's Parsi community is shrinking fast. For every birth, there are five deaths, prompting fierce debate between reformists and traditionalists who are concerned about ethnic purity. By Andrew Buncombe in Mumbai

For centuries, Mumbai's Parsis have brought their dead to the Towers of Silence to be devoured by vultures, a traditional form of “burial” the community insists is hygienic, efficient and in keeping with their faith. Yet these days, there are very few of the carrion-eaters to be seen.

With Asia's vultures having been drastically reduced by the widespread use of toxic pesticides, the Parsis have been forced to erect solar concentrators – essentially large magnifying lenses – to help turn the corpses into dust. “There are not many vultures,” said Cyrus Siganporia, a retired engineer who helps at the peaceful, secluded site on the city's Malabar Hill where peacocks strut and birds sing. “They come sometimes, not often. 'Sometimes' is the word.”

But while India's Parsis are suffering from a shortage of vultures they are also facing a much more pressing problem, a shortage of themselves. Never vast in scale, almost everyone agrees that the community's numbers are now falling perilously low. A 1940 census put the total of Parsis at 114,890 but a similar count in 2001 discovered the community that follows one of the world's oldest religions, and which included the late Freddie Mercury, the industrialist Ratan Tata and the writer Rohinton Mistry among its members, may now number as few as 69,000. Almost all live in and around Mumbai.

The falling numbers have created an increasingly heated debate within the Parsi community on how best to tackle the problem. The debate, which has led to name-calling and accusations of racism and sexism between the traditionalists and the reformists, has included religious, social and legal issues.

And the arguments are only likely to get hotter and more aggressive. Within months, the Parsis of Mumbai will for the first time be able to vote directly to elect the members of their ruling council, or panchayat. The new council will play a crucial role in helping decide what direction the Parsi community takes in coming years, and as the election date gets nearer both sides are becoming more outspoken. “It's quite aggressive,” said Mehernaaz Sam Wadia, a 28-year-old lawyer who, with her brother, runs a blog dedicated to Parsi issues. “Things are heated between certain people.”

Parsis are Zoroastrians, followers of the prophet Zarathustra and ethnic descendants of Persians who took refuge in India more than 1,300 years ago when Muslims overthrew the Sassanid Empire. Believers in the god Ahura Mazda, Zoroastrians, who number only about 200,000 worldwide, with the rest living mainly in Iran, worship in front of symbols of the sun or fire. They believe active participation in good deeds and works helps keep the universe's chaos at bay. They believe, too, in the purity of the elements, hence their tradition of neither burying nor cremating the dead but in laying out their bodies to be cleaned to the bone by carrion-eaters.

Although they have always been small in number, India's Parsis have been unusually successful. In addition to the late lead singer of Queen, whose real name was Farrokh Bulsara and who attended St Peter's boarding school in Mumbai, many have held senior positions within government, business and the military. The Godrej industrialist family – well known for its philanthropic projects in and around Mumbai – are Parsis, as was Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, the former chief of staff of the Indian Army, who died this week.

More prosperous and better educated than most Indians, Parsis typically marry late and have few children. But such habits have helped create the Parsis' numbers problem. Despite initiatives such as paying 1,000 rupees (£12.50) a month to any Parsi family that has a third child, the death rate in Mumbai stands at about 1,000 Parsis a year; there are only about 200 new births.

Jehangir Patel, editor of Parsiana magazine, lists every month the community's births, deaths and marriages. “There has been no direction on how to deal with this problem,” he said in his office, in a yellowing, 100-year-old building in the south of Mumbai that once housed a Parsi hospital. “People meet in private but nothing gets further than that. If the election happens, I think

the trustees coming in with a mandate would be in a position to give leadership.”

The issues to be highlighted in the election relate directly to the Parsis' population problem. A key issue is that of conversion. Traditionalists say it is impossible for anyone born outside of the Parsi community to join the religion. They also insist that while the children of a Parsi man who marries outside the religion are recognised as Parsis, that does not apply to a Parsi woman who marries outside of the community. The reformists want to open the doors.

Among those pushing for a more liberal, tolerant approach are the brothers Kerssie and Vispy Wadia, two Mumbai-based businessmen who are building a so-called fire temple that will be open to the spouses of Parsis who have married outside the fold. The brothers insist their opponents are less interested in religion than they are with the ethnic purity of the Parsi community.

“They have turned our great religion into a small club of just 69,000 people,” said Kerssie Wadia, who with his brother set up the Association for Revival of Zoroastrianism (ARZ). “There is a motive for our action and that is to save our religion in India. I want my religion to survive in India. We believe that Zoroastrianism should survive even if Parsis don't.”

The ARZ has already been donated land for the new temple and the Wadias said 18 Parsi priests have agreed to become part of the project. The brothers say 120 spouses who have recently married Parsis in Mumbai will be welcomed at the temple.

Asked about allegations that they are changing the foundations of their religion, Vispy Wadia said: “We are more orthodox than [those who oppose us]. We follow all the rituals in their totality. We are trying to bring it back to what it was before they made it into a racist religion. To us, the religion is more important than the question of race but to our opponents it's the other way around. It has become ingrained with Parsi psychology.”

If the Wadias represent one end of the spectrum, the other is occupied by people such as Khojeste Mistree, a chartered accountant and scholar who established the Zoroastrian Studies institute. Mr Mistree is one of the most outspoken members of the community and says he is a “voice in the wilderness”. Opposed to conversion and a defender of the tradition that recognises only the children of male Parsis who marry outside the community, he even questions the very claim that the Parsis' numbers are tumbling. He also defends the traditional “sky burials” at the Towers of Silence, which is strictly off-limits to non-Parsis and which some members of the community have rejected, opting for cremation instead.

“I think what we are seeing is redistribution of [Parsis] around the world,” he said. “Parsis are emigrating to the US, the UK, Australia and the Middle East. If you look at the numbers, the 1982 census said there were 71,630 Parsis and the latest census showed 69,601. So you have 2,000 fewer Parsis in India, but I think that more than 2,000 have emigrated in those 20 years.” Mr Mistree said it was possible the community's numbers in India were declining a little but he insisted the solution was not conversion. He said his faith had never permitted conversion and there was no evidence of Zoroastrians proselytising or seeking to convert people of other faiths. Asked why the ethnic purity of the Parsi community was such an important issue, he said: “It is the ethnicity that has kept this religion alive for more than 3,500 years.”

He has said he has not yet decided whether he will stand for election to the new council though he claimed there was pressure on him to do so. The Wadias said they will not stand because they are less interested in the politics than they are in promoting their version of the faith. But they have suggested to their supporters who they might vote for.

So the Parsi community of Mumbai is preparing itself for what is certain to be a long and heated contest. Minoo Shroff is the outgoing chairman of the panchayat and is standing down after 21 years. In that time, he said, the board had done what it could to help boost the community, including making payments to families with a third child, operating a free fertility clinic and set aside housing for newly-weds.

Yet he too admitted this had been insufficient to counter the falling numbers. He said, somewhat wistfully: “What we need is early marriage and encouraging people to have families.”

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  • Siloo Kapadia

    Deekras, this election is going to be epoch-making for the community. Either we are going to vote for change and survival or to stay the same way and for death to the community.

  • Kaiomarz Engineer

    Who ever your are Siloo SHUT UR MOUTH. and keep your negative advise to your own self

  • Siloo Kapadia

    No deekra, this is not negative advice. This is exactly what is happening. Yes, this will be a big election that will decide the fate of the community. Expect a breakup regardless on how the election goes.

  • Kaiomarz Engineer

    Our community will survive , I have no doubt in that…

    Only solution is to cut down on intercaste marriages and discourage late marriages..

    All Other survival technique’s (As accepting non parsi’s and offsprings of intercaste marriages) are gonna make us a part of the main stream and we as Parsis will loose the identity.

    And till now, who ever were running the elections and the BPP were atleast doing an excellent job of preserving our ethnicity. So I would not be ungrateful , but atleast give them a due appreciation.

  • Siloo Kapadia

    “Preserving our ethnicity?” Sounds more like sexist racism to me. They are the people that are in fact the cause for our decline. I for one am looking forward to the elections!

  • Rustomji Sethna

    Siloo

    Make up your mind. Is it sexist or racist ? Both are not mutually inclusive that you can combine them in a sentence.

    On a larger note, every comment you have here on this site is always negative, berating people and institutions that do not follow your personal philosophy and ideloogy.

    If everything about the Parsis of Bombay is so negative, why then do you want to associate with them and be one of them. Why not go your own way, with people who are like minded as you and start your own thing?

    You have enough opportunity to do this at ZAGNY, and even there, its not as “liberated” as you would want to be.

    Just negative criticism from outside the fence does not bring about any productive, creative dialogue.

    I would be most happy if you would be more proactive and positive in your approach and not sound like a broken record on every comment.

    Parsi Khabar moderators are free to delete this comment if it is too harsh.

  • Kaiomarz Engineer

    Well Said Mr. Rustom Sethna

    That madam , is really sitting in US and comenting on issues that come up in Bombay. If she was so concerned, she would rather give her “so called wise advise” to her Dekra’s of Zangy.

    So Mrs Siloo, deal with the elections of Zangy and stop poking your noise in our (as you would call ) ORTHODOX matters.

    I am preety much proud of my Orthodox ethnicity and rather be called an Orthodox , then be a person like you who has forgotten the pain our ancestors have taken and preserved our beautiful race and religion.

  • Siloo Kapadia

    Rustomji:

    First of all it is BOTH sexist and racist. Sexist because the offspring of Parsi men marrying nonParsi women are accepted, yet the offspring of Parsi women marrying nonParsi men are not.

    It is also racist as people who are not born into the faith are not allowed to join. No other religion in the world that I have heard of does that. None. If one wants to join the religion, then why not?

    As for the “indentity,” keep your identity as you see fit. Just allow others to join the religion and go to the agiaries. You can form some sort of “priviliedged club” and have your own meetings, your own ghambars, etc. But as long as the money is tied up by narrow-minded people, then I will speak up.

    As for being a Bombay Parsi, well, I am not. I live in the United States, where ZAGNY is quite liberal and open-minded, to much your chargrin.

    No deekras, I am not giving negative criticism, but I do want things to change. The upcoming election will be a very big factor in this. And YES, I do expect a big split in the community. This exchange of opinions on this site is proof of what is yet to come.

    Go my own way? Fine! Just split the money and agaiaries into two, one for those of us and one for you all, and we will be gone.

  • Rustomji Sethna

    A ha !. So there in lies the ulterior motive.

    You and your ilk are after the money that you need to propagate your flavor of the religion.

    The money does not belong to you or me. Those who bestowed the trust funds had the choice to do what they wanted. And they set the rules.

    Who are you or I to demand their money without respecting the rules they laid down.

    So it all boils down to money.

    Well for all those who want to change the ways of the society, raise your funds and do your own thing. The funds that exist come with certain caveats, all of which you want to break.

    ZAGNY itself is an example. They raise their own funds and they set their own rules as to who can come into their house of worship etc.

    So if you are really so zealous, put your dollars in front of your actions and then let it take course.

  • Siloo Kapadia

    No deekra, it is not just money. It is money to ensure our survival. And I am sure that the community, especially the younder members, unstand this and will vote accordingly.

    Also who says that the current leadership is representative of the whole community? Let the people decide!

  • rustom jamasji

    heres a topic i think very pertinent to zoroastrian history and gives forsight for our future..

    Recent hapenings around us sometimes can be taken as lessons especially when on similar issue, our community faces the same delima.

    In kashmir the people rejected the proposal of alloting land to other community as ‘It wud change the demography’of the place…by means of demography i.e culture that wud impact the religion and thus wants of the place.. The same place passed a bill to apply shariat law in that land though it belongs to a secular state.
    Apart from this it also has advantages politially( again similarity to the Break up of Persia starting from Armenia being christianised–leading to the People of Persia and their religion being rubbleised and made into a minority)…

    Communities protecting its demography is not uncommon especially small communities. Even countries adapt such similar steps, like the uae, qatar, muscat etc.

    Also the reason to apply religion laws to the civic structure is to make sure that foreign or adapting persons dont influence the law, culture etc of the land with their foreign/alien rel/beliefs.

    Another point to ponder from the above example is that the majority of India are not going to take kindly to the deeds of the second majority of india.. and its reprecusions will be felt on the real minorities. In such circumstances, how do zoroastrians who have not yet made the majority feel threathened, protect its intrests .

    I am not talking Indian politics here but facets that have been part of our history and once again cud repeat itself, the similarity to the downfall of Persia cud happen to its remaining remenants, lessons of converting a place and thus stating it as’ theirs’…the non existance of noises being heard by the original people of the land..i.e pundits as they are small community mkaking their right seem negligible..and lastly as a lesson for our future … to learn how others be in a minority or majority protect their culture-> rituals–> practises–> community—> thus faith

  • Aspi Mehta

    I for one am sick and tired of being bossed around by all these so-called Bawaji Bullies. I am glad that for one someone like Siloo Kapadia had the guts to stand up to you people. Now the only thing to do is to see how the vote will go. But as they say, either way, you all will vulture food and we will have our way.

  • rustom jamasji

    Hey aspi Mehta…wow havent seen such contradictions in just 4 lines.
    First of all no ones asking you to follow anything. Infact when was the last time any zoroastrian told you what to follow. Yah one can always blame the Zoroastrians if one i not allowed to change Zoroastrianism to ones personal taste.
    And in any your desperation of having ‘your way’ is quite visible to everyone but may you can blame others for it.
    As far as vulture food, well you nor Parsi Khabar nor me wud have been discussing Zoroastrianism if those you mock would have wanted to change and do with their personal ways. But i guess one needs to know history for that

  • Siloo Kapadia

    The real issue here is RELIGIOUS REFORM. There is so much that is from Hinduism and so much that is just custom. Do we just keep on doing what we have always been doing, and become extinct, or keep the good and toss anything else.

    The “traditionalists” want to stay the same, regardless, and to them I say great. They are already dying out. In North America Zoroastrian institutions are flourishing, not only because of immigration, but also because of acceptance of others.

    Again, I say let us split up the funds and you go your way and we will go ours. As it is they are dying out. We will be the winners.

    It will be interesting to see how the vote goes.

  • rustom jamasji

    Dear Siloo
    On ure question of do we continue doing what we were?
    Well if you want to follow Zoroastrianism you are welcome to and if you dont want to , noones holding a gun. But please dont take this freedom to alter zoroastrianism to silookapadiasm’..or anything else as it wont remain zoroastrianism or mazdayasnism!.

    Also it quite ironical that those who wish to convert others to zoroastrianism want to change it!!
    Oh ofcourse some in their fervour to push zoroastrianism want to do away with everything else but the gathas, achieveving further the cause of those who burnt our books in the first place.

    You can also feel free to mock and harbour a thirst to refurbish zoroastrianism but the proof of the puding is that after major holocaust and onslaughts on the Mzdayasni empire from christian empires and arab, Zoroastrianism didnt die out , infact rose again..and survived for more than a milenia..now compare this to your rattling for the need to change in at most 50 years.Also compare this sucess to the chaos spread thru demands to alter zoroastrianism to suit personal tasets like yours. You can also consider yourself smarter than zarathustra himelf and thus the need to change it but why not start ure own instead This also takes us to the crux of the chaos and that is selflishly taking from zoroastrianism and again selfishly trying to change it to suit oneself.

    About dying out due to traditionalists.
    Again how wrong you are. Traditionalists are those who by following a traditions keep it alive and also pass it on to the neext generation..again aiding it to survive another gen.Infact zoroastriansm nor us can survive as Zoroastrians if zoroastrian practises are re written by others..eg islam.christianity, silooism etc.

    Infact the old generation that warned against fusion due to intermarriage or other such aspects are correct to the ‘T’ as change to zoroastrianism is being forced by them and zoroastrianism is mainly being lead to chaos due to such desperate wants to change it.

    Also if one studies zoroastrianism its practises have proven to be scientific and relevant even today including the practise of dokhmenishini… but again those who want to convert others to zoroastrianism ..in their wisdom also want to change it..!???

    Then lets go to your voting bit…
    In your fervour for voting , you have dismissed an important factor and that is the will and wishes of the donors!. Ofcourse you would like to change that too! or label them again as traditionalist and thus bad!!
    Also if any religion was to change due to voting then you would have worn a Burkha thru out your life since majority of the people during their onslaught on mazdayasnism felt that your forfathers shud adapt to christianity/islam!

    Also in ure race to win could you give thought to the fact that even if zoroastrians die out, zoroastrianism wil be studied as an magnificient religion not a concoctions of your tastes! Got to add here that wishful thinking such as end of mazdayasnism was well hoped for those who wanted to change zoroastrianism to their faith but alas this time for the sake of change this catastrophe cud be aided due to the thirst you share to change zorioastrianism from within

    Yet Mazdayasnism will win as long as the younger generation studies zoroastrianism before passing judgement to change it.

    Again its ironical that such big contradiction again arrises from those who showcase promoting zoroastrianism yet like in ure own words reform it!