Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Pilgrimage to Iran – 2006

By Noshir H. Dadrawala

The month of May 2006 marked my eleventh visit in the last one decade to Iran – the Spiritual Motherland of Zoroastrians all over the world. It was also one of my most exciting and memorable visit and this was thanks largely due to a group of seven adorable children and teenagers whose zest for rediscovering their religious and historical roots was not just compelling but also a challenge for me.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is not a party zone nor is it the most happening place on earth. And yet it was fun and learning for two weeks with a bonding and sense of family that was truly magical. Not one of us, including myself, felt homesick for even a day. In fact the most somber moments were during our descent into Mumbai on our return. Life was not going to be the same after our return. All good things come to an end and so did this pilgrimage. But what has remained etched in our hearts is the beauty of the mountains and streams in Iran, the grandeur of the former Zoroastrian empires, the spirituality of the Zoroastrian villages and the mountain shrines in the mystical deserts of Yezd and most important of all the spiritual empowerment that comes with seeing history unfold with your own eyes and experiencing divinity in the land that has cradled the great Zoroastrian religion for thousands of years.

It was truly magical when the children sang devotional monajats at the shrine of Nauraki. The sun had just set in the distant hills and here at this little shrine, in the middle of a salt desert, we had lit a devotional fire that was not just fed with the fragrance of sandalwood but also the devotion of the entire group and the children – the future torchbearers of our miniscule community – whose chanting of “Kudavind Khavind Parvardegar?????” brought tears to many eyes. I had never been so moved in my life and what’s more, my faith in the youth of our community was further reinforced.

Under the banner of the Social & Voluntary Group (SVG), we were a motley group of fifty-five from not just Mumbai, Pune, Nagpur, Udvada, Navsari, Surat and Ahmedabad but also from England and Germany. The youngest member of the group was just seven years old and the senior most was eighty-five. For two weeks we lived like one big family, praying, eating, singing, dancing and laughing together.

Yes, it was a pilgrimage. But a Zoroastrian pilgrimage – and therefore with a difference! Going on a Zoroastrian pilgrimage is about learning how to balance the more serious aspects of life with the lighter moments of life. Yes, we all did pray, participate in jashans, listen to Shahnameh recitals and learned discourses in the bus and at historic sites. But in-between we also found the time to dance, sing, make merry and offer thanks to the Good Lord Ahura Mazda with the traditional chanto-pani almost everyday after sunset.

We savored fish at the Caspian, barbecue nights and if you think chelo-kebab is the only fare one can expect in Iran, you are sadly mistaken. Try the Iranian mirza-gashemi and you will kiss your baigan-bharta goodbye!

We performed our traditional thanksgiving Jashan at the foothills of mount Damavand on a cool but sun kissed day with clear blue skies, wetted our feet in the calm waters of the Caspian, and drove our bus through foggy mountain paths with temperatures dipping at three degrees Celsius. And to think that folks back home in India were roasting at temperatures above thirty degrees.

In Kermanshah and Hamadan we not only experienced the unfolding of Zoroastrian history but also Nature’s stunning craftsmanship at two ancient caves with breathtaking stalactite and stalagmite formations. But history is at its best in Shiraz. When I asked the children at dinner what they felt about Persepolis – with one voice they said, “Awesome”! I couldn’t agree more. But there were also many who found their experience at Naqsh-e-Rustom even more enchanting. And why not! Not only is this Necropolis the final resting place of Darius and Xerxes the Great but also some of the most inspiring inscriptions have been etched there in the high mountain cliff – inscriptions that not only fill our hearts with legitimate pride but inspire us to live by the ideals of these Great Kings.

Naturally, the high point of our pilgrimage was Yezd – a province that is seeped in Zoroastrian spirituality and the sacrifices of our people after the fall of the once mighty Sassanian Empire. But I am sure the spirit of our ancestors was gladdened with our prayers, devotion and hearty singing of “Chate Hame Zarthoshty?????.”

The general mood in Iran seemed upbeat. Iranians appeared to be quite happy with their new President and most of them felt that he is the answer not just to the prayers of the common man in Iran but also to President George Bush. I talked to several Iranians – bus drivers, shop keepers, local guides, students and the elderly and they all felt that America would not dare to attack Iran. “We are not Iraq”, seemed to be the mantra that every Iranian was chanting. “Hit us and we will hit Israel”, said one local Iranian. “Mr. Bush will trigger World War III if he attacks us”, said another.

In the meantime the condition of the Zoroastrian community in Iran is satisfactory. Official census figures indicate that there are more than 90,000 Zoroastrians living in Iran. However, the Zoroastrian Anjumans in Tehran and Yezd believe the Zoroastrian community’s total strength in numbers to be around 25-30,000. The community mainly resides in urban Tehran and rural Yezd with a few others scattered in Shiraz, Isfahan and other centers.

Zoroastrians are no longer a persecuted community in modern Islamic Iran. There may be a degree of discrimination when it comes to employment or securing certain state benefits. However, in Iran, Zoroastrians, Christians and Jews are recognized minorities and have one representative in the Iranian Majlis (Parliament).

Zoroastrians in Iran are mostly agriculturists cultivating pomegranate and pistachio farms in Yezd or self-employed in trade or transport services. Many Zoroastrians own or drive tourist buses. Being a bus driver is a fairly lucrative career option and moreover a very macho thing in Iran.

Like in Mumbai, the Zoroastrians in Iran try to live as far as possible in a community setting. This has several advantages in terms of common cultural bonding, inter-dependence and sense of security. In Tehran there is a huge Zoroastrian housing complex called ‘Rustom Baugh’ built under the patronage of Late Arbab Rustom Guiv. In Yezd, there are virtually exclusive Zoroastrian villages like Cham, Zainabad, Moborake and Sharifabad.

Issues like late-marriage, no-marriage and inter-marriage are virtually alien to Zoroastrians in Iran, particularly those residing in rural Yezd. Most of them marry by the time they are in their mid-twenties and each couple raises on an average at least two to three children, if not more and inter-marriages are rare. Among themselves they speak a Persian dialect called Dari which is quite difficult for non-Zoroastrians to understand. However, in the course of day-to-day business Farsi is the lingua franca.

Iranian Zoroastrians are ethnically of Persian origin tracing their roots largely to Yezd and Kerman. Parsis who came to India from Iran, about 150 years after the fall of the Sasanian Empire (i.e., around the 9th century A.D.) trace their ancestry back to the province of Khorasan, known in ancient times as Parthia. There are no major differences between the religious doctrine, beliefs and practices of the two. In fact, in India, it is a settled law that the term “Parsi” includes Irani Zoroastrians (see 68 Bombay Law Reporter pg. 794 – Jamshed A. Irani Vs. Banu J. Irani).

Many Zoroastrians residents of Iran wear the sudreh-kusti only when entering a fire-temple. This is more out of habit and local custom that has been handed down over generations that faced persecution. Almost every Zoroastrian home, particularly in Yezd, has a hearth fire or an oil lamp before which prayers are offered, morning and evening. Sopra tables are laid out every Tuesday and Mushkil-Aasan prayers are offered every Friday, especially by elderly women.

The Dokhma (towers of silence) are a major tourist attraction in Yezd. Curious westerners, especially Germans, come in large groups to study and admire this ancient system for the disposal of the dead, which has since many years been abandoned in favour of burial. With the hot desert sun and the dokhmas situated on remote hilltops, the system was working quite effectively. However, excessive westernization under the Pahlavi regime made certain Zoroastrians living in Tehran embarrassed of this ‘archaic system’. Although the Zoroastrian villagers in Yezd were happy and comfortable with this natural and effective system, the ‘urban intellectuals’ spurred by the Late Mohammed Rezasha Pahlavi, brought sufficient pressure on the simple villagers to change the centuries old system of dohkmenashini.

The Zoroastrian villagers are truly a simple, warm and friendly people. They love meeting fellow Zoroastrians who come as tourists or pilgrims and their hospitality and graciousness is legendary. Even the poorest Zoroastrian family would not allow a visitor to leave without a cup of tea, ‘sherbet’, sweets or fruits.

The desert province of Yezd, in Iran, is an ancient Zoroastrian stronghold. Even today a number of ancient spiritual fires are preserved in its sleepy little villages. The fire that burns in the village of Sharifabad is said to be more than 2,000 years old. Also, the only Atash Behram other than the eight that burn in India, is in Yezd.

There are also the legendary “flying fires”. This is not to say that one can see them fly. According to oral tradition, the Zoroastrians of Yezd believe that generations ago these special fires came flying into certain Zoroastrian villages like Cham and Zainabad. These special fires were typically found crackling and glowing on a cypress or mulberry tree in the village. One could rationalize that lightening may have struck the tree or the intense desert heat may have triggered a spontaneous fire. But there is no denying the fact that these fires have a natural origin. Over the decades devout “Atashbands” (keepers of the Holy Fire) have preserved these Fires with great devotion and piety. Several miracles and legends are associated with these fires.

There are hardly any ordained Zoroastrian priests left in Iran. Most fire temples have a mobedyaar or a para-mobed. No major liturgical ceremonies like Yasna, Vendidad, Vispered and Nirangdin are performed. However, Jashan ceremonies and Ghahambars are observed. Navroze is a major National festival and celebrated with great enthusiasm.

There are also a number of Holy Shrines, which the locals revere as “Pir” (ancient/holy). These mountain shrines consist essentially of sacred rocks in high and lonely places. According to folklore, after the defeat of Yazdagird III (the last Zoroastrian monarch of Sasanian Iran) at the hands of the Arab invaders, his family not only had to flee from the palace but were separated and had to roam about in the wilderness. The invaders were in hot pursuit of Yazdagird’s wife and daughters. It is believed that when everything seemed lost, the princesses prayed to Dadaar Ahura Mazda for help, whereupon the mountains opened up and took them in. Most of these shrines are mountain oasis bringing life and fertility in the hot and arid salt deserts.

The only sore point on our entire tour was the return journey to India. Iran Air threw in a small aircraft with an insensitive Turkish crew. The aircraft was packed to capacity and over laden with excess baggage. The pilot finally decided to fly after a delay of several hours on limited fuel. This entailed an unscheduled refueling stop at Bandar Abbas. The flight arrived in Bombay nearly eleven hours behind schedule. The children however took a very positive view of this setback – “We had an extra eleven hours to be together” they said, tears streaking down everyone’s cheeks, including mine!

Thank you, Rayomand, Jamshid, Natasha, Delfruz, Hoshidar, Delnaz and little Karrena for your love, your quest for learning and making this pilgrimage so memorable for all of us. God Bless you all and may all of you make your families and the community proud of your achievements by living your lives as good Parsi Zoroastrians. Ameen!