Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Celebrating the Persian New Year in Mumbai

Every year in the third week of March, Manijeh Irani, 64, makes a tour of the markets of her adopted city, Mumbai—grocery stores, stalls of fresh and dried fruit, sweet shops, even an aquarium—for goods to adorn her festive table for Nowruz, the Persian New Year.

Article by Chandrahas Choudhury | Wall Street Journal

Nowruz (”new day”) is pegged to the Northern Hemisphere’s vernal equinox and symbolizes the upswing of the forces of light and life after the dark cold days of winter; it is one of humanity’s oldest holidays. In Tehran, where Mrs. Irani spent the first 18 years of her life, every household marked Nowruz by setting up a haft seen, a festive tableau of seven or more items whose names begin with the Persian letter “s.” These include sonbol, the flowers of the purple hyacinth; senjed, dried fruit; shams, a lighted candle; and sabzeh, a bowl of live greens such as wheatgrass. Mrs. Irani also adds pomegranates; a bottle of rose water, “which makes life sweet-smelling and fresh”; a goldfish bowl; a mirror, “in which you see your smiling face reflected, to keep you smiling through the year”; and a platter of colored eggs.

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Nowruz, which falls this year on March 21 in Iran and India (and on March 20 in North America), is the first day of the calendar of Zoroastrianism, the state religion of the great Achaemenid and Sassanian empires that preceded the Islamic conquest of Persia in the 7th century. The faith sees human existence as a battle between good and evil overseen by a divine creator, Ahura Mazda. On Nowruz, the sun—the symbol of Ahura Mazda’s light and energy—wrests back the day from winter, and the entire world is filled with the zest of new life.

In recent years, Mrs. Irani has seen the observance of Nowruz spread in Mumbai through a peculiarly 21st-century process of emulation. “Although there are many Zoroastrians living here for centuries who celebrate Nowruz, it was very rare when I first came to see a haft seen table, and my table was a great attraction. In the past decade, though, because of YouTube and Facebook , many Indian Zoroastrian families can see how Nowruz is celebrated in Iran, and they have begun to set up their own tables.”

In modern-day Iran, Nowruz is a secular festival celebrated by all—including the country’s Shiite Muslim majority—with weeks of exuberant feasting and singing, family reunions and vigorous spring cleaning. Many countries of the Silk Road, part of the ancient Persian world, also celebrate Nowruz, as do the tens of thousands of the Iranian diaspora who have migrated in recent decades to the U.S.

But in Mumbai, Nowruz is strongly linked to the faith (and fate) of the Zoroastrianism from which it first emerged. It is a day when the city’s prosperous and influential Zoroastrian community—founded more than a thousand years ago by refugees fleeing persecution in newly Islamic Persia—celebrates its long history as part of the mosaic of Indian civilization.

In Iran, the land of its origin, Zoroastrianism has dwindled to about 25,000 adherents, for whom religious discrimination is a fact of life. Meanwhile, the Parsis—as Indian Zoroastrians are called—number about 60,000, mostly settled on the west coast of India in Mumbai and Gujarat. Though themselves now depleted by declining fertility rates, out-marriage and emigration to the West, the Parsis of India now constitute the epicenter of world Zoroastrianism. That makes Nowruz in Mumbai a day to dream of the rejuvenation of the faith itself.

Yet Zoroastrian history in India, like most other Indian histories, is a palimpsest. There is a more explicitly Iranian layer to Nowruz in Mumbai as well. In colonial India, the ancient Parsi community rose to become a part of the elite and thereby also became highly anglicized, but in common parlance, the term Parsi is also applied to Zoroastrians among a second group, the Iranis. A vivid, voluble community in modern India, they trace their origins to 19th-century immigrants from Iran, mostly from the mercantile classes, and include both Zoroastrians and Muslims. Mrs. Irani, as her name suggests, married one such Zoroastrian.

Separated from their coreligionists by several centuries of life in the Indian subcontinent, Zoroastrian Iranis live in a sometimes uneasy coexistence with the older stratum of Zoroastrian Parsis. They share their places of worship, a philosophical and ethical lexicon, a nostalgia for a lost homeland and a golden age, and a reputation for hard work, integrity, volubility and eccentricity. But just as often they define themselves in opposition to one another.

“Parsis think of Iranis as loud and unsophisticated, we find them snooty and prissy,” said Mrs. Irani’s husband, Sheriar Irani. “They gravitate toward professional occupations like corporate life, law and journalism; we prefer to run businesses and restaurants.”

“It’s true, we Zoroastrians are a very spirited and argumentative people, which is why it seems like there are more of us in Mumbai than we really are,” said Shernaaz Engineer from behind the desk of her fifth-floor office in the city’s art district. Herself a Parsi, Ms. Engineer holds a position of great importance in the community. She is the first female editor of the weekly Jam-e-Jamshed, the primary forum of Zoroastrian opinion in India and, at 187, the second-oldest newspaper in the country.

When I met her, Ms. Engineer and her small staff of eight were hard at work putting together the newspaper’s special Nowruz issue—a 72-page edition (up from the usual 20) showcasing the vibrancy, even stridency, of Indian Zoroastrianism. It teemed with notices from caterers and restaurants advertising elaborate festive menus, clubs and associations inviting patrons to their feasts, and priests and intellectuals offering Nowruz-centered exegesis.

But where could I have a taste of Nowruz before the day? I followed one of the advertisements in Jam-e-Jamshed (“Iranian Sweets Palace, One & Only Shop for Nowruz sweets in India”) down to its source: a nondescript lane in the city’s Bhendi Bazaar. There, Mohammad Hasan Hajati, an Irani Muslim, had just pulled up the shutters of the tiny, 110-year-old shop that his great-grandfather started. Inside, the spry sweetmaker was bent over a copper platter the size of a manhole cover. He was cutting into diamond-shaped pieces the crusty golden baklava, redolent of pistachio, almonds and rose water, that he had just baked.

“This is no ordinary baklava,” he said, giving me a piece to taste. “All my ingredients are imported directly from Iran; you will not find them in any other shop in Mumbai. Further, real baklava must always be set in copper vessels, cooked over a wood fire and then fed with honey for two days.”

It was clear that Mr. Hajati was skilled in the arts of both baklava and rhetoric. “I must be the only merchant in Mumbai who tells his customers, ‘Don’t take more, take less.’ That way there will be some left for each customer. And after all, a single piece of this baklava is enough to keep you happy for a long time.” Licking my sticky fingers, I agreed, and asked for a box to take home to my friends in Delhi. Licking my sticky fingers, I agreed, and asked for a box to take home to my friends in Delhi. As I took my leave, I wished him “Nowruz Mubarak,” happy new year.

“Nowruz Mubarak!” he responded. “But why just Nowruz? Each and every day can be a new year, if you are happy.”

—Mr. Choudhury is a novelist and essayist based in Delhi. His new novel “Clouds,” set in the world of Zoroastrian Mumbai, comes out in September from Simon & Schuster.