Our fifth author in the Everyday Parsi 2020 series is Ervad Zarrir Bhandara of Los Angeles, California, USA
Ervad Zarrir writes…
The 10 days of Shehenshahi Muktad begins this Thursday August 6th 2020, Roj Aastaad Maah Asfandaard YZ 1389, with 5 Hamaspathmaidhyem Gahambaar and Gatha days beginning August 11th Tuesday and Navroze (New-Year) on August 16th Sunday.
As I go down memory lane, I’m taken back to 1973, when I performed my first Muktad prayers and even before that time, when I was a student at the MF Cama Athornan Madressa for a little over a year. I remember walking holding my father’s hand at 4 am in the dark to get a bus to go to the Agiyary. I was just a 9-year-old lad half asleep getting trained to serve the community, every weekend, afterwhich my mother would come around 11 am to pick me up.
My first three years I performed the Muktad prayers at the Rustom Framna Agiyary in Dadar Parsi colony, where Muktad was held for 18 days and I would stay at the Agiyary for all 18 days. Oh, the fragrance of pure Sukhad & loban along with the delicious aroma of fresh breakfast including Bhakhra, dar ni pori, chapti, Popalji, malido etc. come to my mind as we (about 50 mobeds) would start the day at 5:30 in the morning. I am being the youngest would be called nallah and favorite of all the priests and laities. Some priests would just carry me to our morning prayers, which would end around 1:30 pm with only two 15-minute breaks for breakfast and lunch. Then the priests would take a couple of hours nap, not me though, I would go out in the park to bicycle or play, I don’t know how I had so much energy. After that the evening prayers would begin with the Satum prayers and Jashan. Again, from 7 to 9 pm, like a puppy I would be playing with my newly made friends in the park.
In 1976 (when I was 13) on weekends and holidays, I started performing prayers at the Anjumanna Atashbehram under the stewardship of late Dasturji Dr. Kaikhuhroo JamaspaAsa and under Panthakis late Cawasji and Soli Masani. Here, I really grew in terms of my learning experience and developed lifelong friendships including Ervads Burjor Tarachand (current manager of Anjumanna Atrashbehram), Darayas Karkaria (Financial Advisor at Langrana’s), and Adil Masani (Financial advisor of FEZANA and ZAC). At Anjuman Atash Behram we had a similar kind of routine starting the day around 5:30 am but here the mornings would end around 11:30. During Muktad days (which was 10 days) myself and Adil would go for lunch together. Many times, we would have 3 jugs of fresh juice, before the prayers. During breaks, I would have delicious hot “Market” (a concoction of tea and coffee) with late Soli Masani and other friends. We would have a lot of fun as well after the prayers, but we truly gave our 100% when performing the rituals. I eventually rose to the position of an assistant Panthaky.
At that time, we had the largest clientele in our Atash Behram with about 75 Muktad tables. I would help Soli -my Panthaky- to arrange everything for the morning till 11:30 pm and sleep in the same hall where the Muktad was set up & where the beloved spiritual guests were residing. At 4 AM we’d wake up and start working again. On the 5th Gatha night the prayers would finish at 3 AM, but somehow my friend Adil Masani & I would still have energy and would take a long stroll from Marine drive to Nariman point and back (coastal area) till 6 AM when Adil takes the train to Andheri (home) and I would go back to Atash Behram to perform the New year prayers.
I fortunately became well-received and liked amongst my comrades there, mainly because of the way I would perform the rituals. I’d take my time to pray and pray loudly with passion so the vibrations would echo throughout the Atash Behram and into the other realm. There, I also had the privilege to pray with the older brother of Dasturji Dr. Firoze Kotwal, late Ervad Kersasp Kotwal, brother of late Dasturji Dr. Framroze Bode (CA), late Ervad Burjor Bode and the best priest I have ever met- late Ervad Darabji Masani. I found Ervad Masani to be the most humane, humble person, and knowledgeable in rituals, yet, you would barely hear him utter a word. Whether he spoke to a child or a high priest he would speak to them with the utmost respect. This was his greatness and it is very rare to come across
From 1977 till 1992 I started praying at the Doongerwadi (Tower of Silence), I was just a teenager when I joined. I would have to pray next to a corpse for the whole night, my longest time praying at a stretch was 13.5 hours. While others my age were having fun & enjoying the frivolities of adolescence, I was striving towards being the best in reciting my prayers and performing rituals. Priests came from all over Bombay to Doongerwadi, so you’d get to see the cream of the crowd. All throughout my career I have been privileged with laud & compliments, but here I received the best compliment(s) of my career. This came from some very elderly, experienced priests who had been practicing for 50-60+ years. Unfortunately, I don’t recall their names, but they all said this or something similar: “we have never seen, and we will never see a mobed praying like you.”
Besides prayers, performing rituals, and my academic studies, my second passion was Karate, I attained a Black belt in 1983 under Hanshi Vispy Kapadia and was appointed assistant Karate instructor for all the wings of Maharashtra state police. I’ve taught about 50 schools total in Bombay. Simultaneously, I continued the noble profession of Mobedi. By this time, I had also started teaching Navjote prayers to young kids.
In the late eighties, I enrolled in AET -an Advanced Priestly Training post-graduation course- under the chairmanship of Dasturji Dr. Firoze M. Kotwal, where the teachers were Dasturji himself along with Khojeste Mistree- teaching world religions, Dr. Huzan Kharas/Davar- teaching Social work, and Dr. Farokh Buchia- teaching Psychology/counselling amongst other teachers. I learnt a lot and the best part was to get a chance to volunteer at Asha Daan-Mother Teressa’s home (Thanks to Huzan). On completion of this course, I received the best student award for the entire four years’ course, which was presented to me by the then vice Chancellor of Bombay University Ms. Mehroo Bengali.
Despite all that I had accomplished till then, I always felt something was missing, I was not satisfied with the way rituals were being performed (i.e maintaining ritual purity, reciting prayers without shortcuts, etc.). However, I knew that if I brought up my concerns and if they had been implemented it could potentially put a lot of priests and helpers out of work, so it remained a desire for some time until I came to CA, USA.
From 1992 to 2016 we performed the Muktad ceremony for the Southern CA community in our own home for twenty-five consecutive years on an honorary basis. Muktad vases, fragrant flowers, sukhar, loban, & delicious fruits & Parsi food (veg) are brought from all over Southern CA every Muktad. Even though the community would have to cram into our small home, so many were eager to attend every year. One year we even had the privilege of having high priest late Dasturji Kaikhushroo Meherjirana visit our home to pay respect to Muktad.
In 2008 we received a very special new edition to our family. My wife, Tinaaz, noticed a small white stray dog roaming around in front of our house, seeming to be very lost. My daughter, Danish, followed him and saw he had no name tag, so she brought him home and we adopted him. This was coincidentally a day before Muktad was going to begin on Ashishwangh roj, Asfandarmad mah, which is why we decided to name him Ashish. The little guy turned out to be very calm natured, sweet, and quiet. He started sitting with us in many of our ceremonies including Muktads. He stays quiet, doesn’t move around much during prayers, and doesn’t ever try to eat the chasni. Because of Ashish, we’ve been able to maintain the Sagdid ritual here in California (showing the deceased person’s body to a dog) during Geh Sarna ceremonies.
Finally, in 2016 ZAC (Zoroastrian Association of So.CA) finished building our Atashkadeh/Agiyary and in 2017 we had our first Muktad there. This year with grace of God and the blessings of our Hama Ashofarohars it will be my 48th year of performing Muktad prayers along with my son Ervad Zerkxis Bhandara. Zerkxis started doing Muktad with me in 2007 (it will be his 13th Muktad this year). As a father and Zarthosthi priest it has been a great pride & joy for me to perform ceremonies with my son. Especially, since there are not many priests who regularly perform duties here, it has been a great help to have him. Zerkxis is also an aspiring religious academic who has received his BA in Religious studies at the University of Santa Barbara and is working on his Masters in the same at the California State University of Long Beach. I am further blessed that he is passionate about adhering to our ritual customs accurately & carrying our traditions- including Muktad- forward.