Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World


Ruby Lilaowala remembers Muktaad, in the Afternoon D.C.

Muktaad are the ten days preceding the Parsi new year which are devoted to intense prayers and elaborate rituals for the departed souls (Mukt-Atmas). Whenever I visit a fire temple and see the daily offerings of flowers, fruits and sweets (Prasad) my mind rewinds to the kitchen of my childhood, which pulsated with gran’s energy, as she prepared everything herself and chose the freshest fruit for her departed husband whose photograph “lived” along with those of our Prophet in the kitchen corner. She was an iconoclast who refused to pay priests (“who hardly knew my husband” she’d say) to pray for her hubby’s soul. She prayed herself, at times wiping a tear prompted perhaps by a happy memory of her loving marriage.

Memories of scent come to mind – the fragrant burning of sandalwood mingled with the perfume of handpicked jasmine, lilies and roses, plus gran’s lace handkerchief saturated with Yardley’s Lavender wafted across the kitchen, radiating through the house. Having first offered the consecrated goodies to her hubby, she’d then extend her nurturing hand to us in the physical world.

As a child, this was my first experience of the seamless relationship between everyday life and the world beyond where everyone’s ancestors live. This relationship contained the secret of the multifaceted nature of existence and the immense possibilities of transformation like the humble flour’s (atta) metamorphosis from wheat, into sweets for the departed souls. An entire world unfolded in the kitchen as these sweets were strictly rationed out to us to avoid wastage, grounded in the knowledge that food is not merely a commodity to satiate hunger but an essential means of harmonising the body and mind by eating pure (saatvic) fruits, vegetables, dry fruits and grains.

The warm kitchen became the magical place of my childhood associated with customs, rituals, laughter, worship and daily chores, as gran would grind all masalas on the big black grinding stone.

“Never waste food” gran taught us and I’ve passed this on to my children and grandchildren. Alas! Today, vital buffer stocks of grains rot away in India while the poor die of starvation. This goes against the grain of spirituality and “sacredness of food”. In Zoroastrian religion, food is sacred and we have a short prayer like the Christian grace of thanking the Lord before starting to eat. The religion respects all forms of life on the evolutionary ladder and there’s an old Parsi custom to keep aside a morsel of food for the dog.

The modern generation of Parsis, don’t have the time for saying a one-minute grace. Some families don’t even eat dinner together like in the good old Parsi homes which you never visited at 8 p.m. because that was dinner-time and it would be impolite to impose. Some youngsters practically live on unhealthy fast-foods and will never even know the delicious taste of food made with home-grinded-masalas.

I “Fast-forward” my memories of childhood to today. I’ve just returned from the Fire temple. My hair smells of sandalwood? I feel the presence and blessings of all the good souls in higher realms known as Yenghee-Hataam in Zoroastrianism and Sangham in Buddhism (Sangham Sharanam Gachchami). I think of gran ruling the kitchen like a Roman Triumvirate. Memories of the past become sharper each year, at Muktaad-time, as I try to retrace the contours of a lost world?of long ago.