A language for all ages: A dive into the language of Zoroastrians shows our connected roots


March 5, 2024

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Mumbai University’s decision to open a centre to study Avestan and Pahlavi is as important for the Parsis as it for the rest of the communities

Article By Kurush Dalal | Hindustan Times

Ashem vohu vahistem asti ushta asti ushta ahmai yad ashai vahistai ashem. These words by the prophet Zoroaster were sung over 3,500 years ago in northern Persia, and mean righteousness/truth is the greatest virtue. The language of a large chunk of prayers of Zoroastrians is in a barely known language called Avestan. Another significant number of texts are in a language called Pahlavi — both languages have an interesting intermingled history.


PREMIUM A fragment of a stone relief from the Sasanian empire bearing a Pahlavi inscription using Middle Persian script. This piece is currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art(Wikimedia Commons)

Avestan was not only the language of the ancient Persians, it is also a cousin to Rig Vedic Sanskrit. As many scholars of linguistics in West Asia and South Asia have remarked, one can translate poetry from one to the other without losing the poetic metre. There are several similarities in the texts of the Zoroastrians and the Rig Veda, so much so that you cannot truly study one without the other.

This isn’t surprising since Avestan and Rig Vedic Sanskrit have a common language of origin which the linguists call Proto-Indo-Iranian. This, in turn, is descended from a common ancestral language called PIE (Proto-Indo-European) which is the ancestral language of Latin, Greek, German and most European languages.

In fact more work has been done at working backward to reconstruct PIE than any other proto-language. It was as PIE speakers migrated from a common homeland that the language groups — due to isolation — created regional dialects and then regional daughter languages.

Thus, Union minister Smriti Irani’s announcement that the ministry of minorities affairs is signing a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Mumbai University to open an Avestan Pahlavi Language Centre, with perhaps a Chair, and on a budget allocation of ₹11.20 crore, is fabulous news. The studies in these subjects, which were flagging over the past few decades, will not only be revived, but will also encourage a deeper understanding of our shared roots with persons across communities and even religions.

A common ancestry

It was in India that Sir William Jones, a judge in the Calcutta high court and a renowned linguist who set up the Asiatic Society of Bengal in what was then Calcutta, first postulated a common ancestry of Sanskrit, Latin, Gothic and Celtic languages in 1786. The research into these proto-languages has continued to this day. DD Mahulkar’s Pre-Paninian Linguistic Studies (1990) is just one of the more recent, and well-renowned works.

A photomechanical print of Sir William Jones made by Joshua Reynolds, which is now part of the National Library of Wales portrait archive(Wikimedia Commons)

But what happened after these languages came up?

Avestan led to the development of Old Persian which was spoken by the Achaemenids (founded in 550 BC): it was their official language, and is the earliest source of the word “Hind” in the 522 BC inscription of Darius the Great, one of the emperors of the Achaemenid Empire. The state religion was Zoroastrianism and this kept Avestan alive side by side with Old Persian.

In the third century AD, we see the rise of the great Sasanian Empire under Ardeshir I Papakan and the language of his court was Middle Persian — another term for which is Pahlavi, taken from the name of the script used to write it. In the Sasanian era, however, a script emerged for the writing of Avestan called the Avestan script and a variant of this, called Pazend/Pazand, to write the commentaries on the religious literature of the Zoroastrians.

Surprisingly, Avestan doesn’t seem to have been written prior to this. It was only orally transmitted — much like the Vedas.The only know script from that time is Cuneiform, which, in turn, goes back to the 3rd millennium BC in southern Iran and was even used by the Achaemenids to write Old Persian in the sixth and seventh century BC (and even a bit later).

Pahlavi is a very complex script with just 14 letters that make 40 different phonemes, resulting in complex ligatures. Pahlavi continued to be used as a prestige language long after the fall of the Sassanian Empire to the Caliphate in 641 A.D. Modern Persian, the language of Iran and a large part of Central Asia and Afghanistan, and once the language of the Mughal court in India, emerged from the language, Pahlavi.

Thus, it is critical to learn and keep alive the study of Avestan and Pahlavi to better understand the language of the Vedas as well as the Persian spoken all over northern India and the Deccan. Not to mention to understand better the nuances in the scriptures of the Zoroastrians as well as their Rig Vedic cousins.

Kept alive through its script

Interestingly the Pahlavi script did not disappear and turns up in the 10th-11th century A.D at the Kanheri caves (now in Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park) in a series of inscriptions. It also turns up later on a series of portable stone crosses along the west coast of India. These crosses found in Kerala with one each at Goa and Anuradhapura (Sri Lanka) are inscribed in Pahlavi and known as the Saint Thomas Crosses in memory of St Thomas a disciple of Jesus Christ who is said to have brought Christianity to India in the 1st century A.D. They are very similar to similar crosses found in Herat (Afghanistan) that dated to the third century A.D. Pahlavi continued to be the language of the Eastern Syriac (aka Nestorian) Church. Many of the Indian Pahlavi Crosses have been ascribed to dates between the third and ninth centuries. There certainly needs to be much more research on this topic.

The cross of St. Thomas carved in black stone found in the church of Our Lady of Expectation built on the top of St. Thomas Mount in Chennai. Many of the Saint Thomas Crosses along the west coast of India have inscriptions in Pahlavi and have been ascribed to dates between the third and ninth centuries A.D. (Wikimedia Commons)

To be sure, much research has been done on Avestan and on Rig Vedic Sanskrit in Germany, the USA and the UK. In the UK, the School for Oriental and African Studies has been running a lovely course, ‘Introduction to Avestan’, along with the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI), Pune, supported by UNESCO PARZOR (Parsi-Zoroastrian) in Pune too. Various institutions in India have also done critical research on Avestan and Pahlavi, notably the Asiatic Society of Mumbai, BORI, the KR Cama Oriental Research Institute, to name just a few.

The upcoming centre has its work cut out. It must offer the possibility to further study the Cuneiform script in which Old Persian is written, as this is an overlooked area in Persian Studies in India today. There is only one qualified Cuneiform reader, Shri Shailesh Kshirsagar, in all of India that I know of. A holistic set of studies between this centre, the departments of Sanskrit and Persian at the University of Mumbai, BORI and universities in the West and in Iran could result in a fascinating new appraisal of these critically important languages and their history. This centre could also shed more light on the Pahlavi Inscriptions of Kanheri and those seen on the crosses. A complimentary study of the Parsis, their archaeology, history and culture, their religious and philosophical evolutions, and the sociology of the Avestan speakers needs research too.

For many years the University of Mumbai has run a small but successful Masters course in Avestan and Pahlavi. The Sir JJ Institute has run a consolidated five-year Bachelor’s course in Avestan which is recognised by the University of Mumbai and is almost a prerequisite for the MA. The Sanskrit Department of the University has also run a paper in Avestan. This has sadly been discontinued in recent years and one hopes, will be revived at the upcoming centre.

The generous grant can also be used to bring on permanent faculty. This is indeed a great opportunity for the study of these languages and hopefully will open a new chapter in Indian academia.

Dr Kurush F Dalal is the director, INSTUCEN School of Archaeology, Mumbai. The views expressed are personal.