When people talk about the Parsi community, it is inevitable that the conversations turn to Fire Temples and the Parsi form of worship, which is unusual and unique to the community. There is a mystique around this place of worship, as non-Zoroastrians are prohibited from entering Fire Temples.
It was this curiosity that curators — Firoza Punthakey Mistree and Sarah Stewart — decided to demystify while curating the exhibition, ‘The Everlasting Flame : Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination’ by creating a Fire Temple replica. “We strongly felt that creating a Fire Temple replica will go a long way in clearing the mystique surrounding them, as people generally want to know what it looks like from the inside.
We have taken immense care in designing it. The archway with winged bulls is a copy of the facade of the Seth Maneckji Seth Fire Temple in Mumbai built in the early 19th century. The sanctum design is taken from the great Anjuman Fire Temple also in Mumbai and is replete with designs and motifs from the city palace of Persepolis in Iran,” Mistree tells Metrolife.
“The portraits of the great and the good of the Parsi community in the room surrounding the sanctum sanctorum is very similar to what you would see if you actually entered a Fire Temple,” she adds.
The Temple is just one aspect of the ongoing exhibition at the National Museum that offers a visual narrative of Zoroastrian history and culture using over 350 objects, including artefacts, textiles and paintings. Divided into 10 sections, the exhibition traces earliest days of emergence of Zoroastrianism as the foremost religion of imperial Iran, then moves on to give a glimpse of their sacred texts ‘Avesta’, followed by photographs of traditional ‘Dakhma’(tower of silence) —a circular, raised structure to exposure the dead to scavenging birds for the purposes of excarnation. They follow this ritual because the community strongly believs in maintaining the balance of all five elements of the earth and preserving environment.
Many Zoroastrians fled Iran post Arab conquest in 7th century to escape persecution of Muslim invaders. In India, they settled in the regions of Gujarat and Sindh. Wherever they went, they left indelible mark in fields like business, trade and commercial activities. However, the biggest concern for one of India’s tiniest minorities is their dwindling population, and keeping this in mind, the Ministry of Minority Affairs and the Ministry of Culture have supported this exhibition, along with two parallel exhibitions in the city, to celebrate their rich culture and significant contribution in developing India.“The world is just beginning to comprehend and have come to recognise this small community and its contribution. We hope that this exhibition will help our own people and more importantly the outside world to recognise the beauty, sacredness and validity of our traditions,”
The biggest challenge for the curators was to first develop a storyline that could cover the culture of Parsi-Irani community spanning three millennia and geographically covering nearly eight countries from Mesopotamia to China, with Iran and India being the two focal points. “It is very easy to get carried away and fling everything into the pot, but strong curatorial oversight is needed to deliver a compact exhibition that conveys a central message,” she says.
“Zoroastrianism and its followers have had a long and sometimes tortuous journey and yet it has had meaningful influence on several cultures and religions and the objects and antiquities shown in this exhibition, expand on these ideas of co-option, assimilation and resilience,” she added.