The Parsi in history, imagination, life and culture


May 13, 2016

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A series of events in the capital seeks to demystify the fast-dwindling community who migrated to India more than a millennium ago.

By Shailaja Paramathma VoN,

Bhikaji-cama-newIn the Zoroastrian faith, a spiritual force called “Fravashi”, is a guardian angel watching over every man, woman, child, plant, animal, and even the sun and the moon.

This force was certainly looking after those followers in the 8th Century who crossed over from Iran to India fleeing religious persecution at the hands of Arab invaders.

The community that later came to be known as Parsi, made India its home, thriving in its milieu of religious tolerance and made spectacular economic and intellectual progress.

From nuclear physicist Homi J Bhabha to former Attorney General of India Soli Sorabjee, from the Tatas to presence in Bollywood, Parsis in India have, through thrift and education, prospered all along and assumed responsible roles in science, industry, law and entertainment. The community, while being modern in its outlook, has conserved its traditions zealously.

This spirit of modernity and tradition of Parsis has now become a subject matter of interest in the cultural circuits of India. New Delhi is hosting a series of cultural programs, including exhibitions on Zoroastrianism, celebrating the contributions of the tiny but well-off community.

Showcasing success

The exhibitions are part of the Hamari Dharohar scheme of the Ministry of Minority Affairs and their objective is to preserve the rich heritage of the minority communities in India.

Among those supporting these initiatives are: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), ParZor Foundation for Preservation of Vulnerable Human Heritage, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)-University of London, India International Centre and the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA).

Describing this interest in Parsis, Dr Shernaz Cama, Director, UNESCO ParZor Project, says: “When we had launched the Jiyo Parsi in 2014 to try and increase the birth rate of the community, the question being repeatedly asked was ‘Who is a Parsi’?”

She says that in Delhi this question keeps cropping up, as compared to Mumbai, which has a larger Parsi population. Which is why the government decided to hold the exhibitions in the national capital.

The exhibitions are being held at three venues simultaneously— National Museum, IGNCA and the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA). Spilling into multiple halls, many exhibits have traveled long distances—Turkey, Uzbekistan, and the UK (The British Museum and The British Library).

The exhibition at IGNCA is called “Threads of Continuity, an exhibition of Zoroastrian life and culture.”

The exhibition at National Museum is named “The Everlasting Flame, Zoroastrianism in History and imagination,” and the one at the NGMA is called “No Parsi is an Island.” All three are open till May 29.

The exhibits provide a window to the world of Parsis—their religious beliefs, their customs, and their process of assimilation into India and their contributions to modern India. Thus, for example, there is the rare photograph of Dadabhai Naoroji exercising influence in the British parliament and painting of Bhikaji Cama unfurling the tricolor in Stuttgart, Germany in 1907.

Keeping faith alive

A 3000-year-old religion, Zoroastrianism predates both Christianity and Islam. It revolves around three basic tenets—Good Thoughts, Good Words and Good Deeds.

God is known as Ahura Mazda and the place of worship is called dar-e mehr, which is a Fire Temple. One of the important exhibits is the replica installation of the Fire Temple accompanied by detailed video footage of the rituals followed inside the temple. These are curiously similar to Hindu rituals.

Also impressive are the displays on the rituals followed at the time of death. Zoroastrian tradition considers a dead body unclean and to prevent the pollution of earth, the dead are placed atop a tower and exposed to the sun to be scavenged by vultures. These towers are called Towers of Silence.

A model of the Tower of Silence in Mumbai is on display too and it is heartening to know about the development of an aviary near the Tower of Silence in Mumabi to augment the vulture population, which  otherwise has been pushed to near extinction due to the administration of painkiller diclofenac to cattle.

Legends and History


Looking back, among the Zoroastrians who stayed back in Iran, many were forced to undergo religious conversion and lead a life inferior to that of the followers of Islam as Islam became the state religion. They were among the poorest and the least educated. Legends narrate how Zoroastrians were not allowed to buy a single piece of cloth but had to scramble for bits and pieces left over after sale to Muslim customers. But their nimble-footedness and dexterity can be gauged from the fact that they sewed together the strips to create colorful ensembles complete with intricate embroidery along the stitches.

As for the ones who chose to immigrate to India, they flourished. One legend describes the first meeting between the King of Gujarat, Jadi Rana and the newly-landed Zoroastrian refugees who were seeking asylum. Rana, being apprehensive, brought forth a milk container filled to the very brim, signifying that his kingdom was already heavily populated and could not grant them sanctuary. In response, a Zoroastrian priests added a pinch of sugar to the milk, indicating how their arrival would not spill the milk over the container but would make the lives of the citizens sweeter. Impressed, Jadi Rana gave shelter to the emigrants and permitted them to practice their religion and traditions freely.  

Mughal emperor Akbar, who was known to take active interest in all religions in his realm, invited Parsi spiritual leader Dastur Meherji Rana to his court to expound on Zoroastrianism. Tradition relates that Akbar was impressed and took the fire as the symbol of holiness in his court.


Modern challenges

At present, there are only around 61,000 followers in India—the highest among all nations.

The biggest threat that the community faces is from within. Their dwindling numbers are due to few marriages and fewer births. Focus on careers and pursuit of intellectual achievements has put family life on the back burner for an entire generation of Parsis.

To preserve this miniscule minority, UNESCO, New Delhi, has initiated the “ParZor Project”, titled “Preservation of Parsi Zoroastrian Heritage–Campaigns and International Conventions”.

The Jiyo Parsi initiative of the ParZor Foundation, launched in 2014, is being supported by the Government of India. Audio-visual setups at the exhibitions show documentaries on the subject and the witty advertisement campaign, which, when launched, had gone viral. The tag line said: “Be responsible, don’t use a condom tonight.”