India’s Zoroastrians dying out for lack of Parsi clergy

In the cramped heart of the suburb called Andheri, the MF Cama Athornan Institute was strangely quiet. The institute, founded in 1923 to train Zoroastrian priests, is a large, M-shaped edifice with excellent infrastructure and teachers dedicated to the welfare of their students.

By Samanth Subramanian

At present, those students number precisely four.

Mumbai - Jan.27 ,2011 - The four students of the M.F.Cama Athornan Institute at Mumbai attend  their regular classes.
 (Subhash Sharma for The National)Classroom after classroom lay locked, their blank innards barely visible through smoked-glass windows. One room on the first floor, so big that even the softest voice echoed, used to be a dormitory holding as many as 50 beds; now it is occupied only by a clothesline strung across its breadth, bearing the laundry of its residents.

One leg of the M has been rented out as office space to an aviation academy. "Have you ever seen a school like this, where there are more teachers than students?" Dastur Firoze Kotwal said with a sigh. Mr Kotwal is a high priest and one of the religion’s greatest scholars. He is also an alumnus of the Cama institute and a former principal there. "It is almost a dying seminary."

The state of the Cama Institute, Mr Kotwal said, mirrors the state of the priesthood in Indian Zoroastrianism. "For every 10 priests who pass away, there isn’t even one to take their place," he said. "Nobody is entering the priesthood anymore."

Much of this shortage stems from the tension between secular and religious studies – between the choice, in front of a young man, of a private-sector job in India’s booming economy and the relatively low-paying, unstable work of a priest.

The first mention of Zoroastrianism dates back to the 5th century BC, making it one of the world’s oldest religions. The Indian Parsis are descendants of Persian Zoroastrians, who, forced into a minority by the advent of Islam, fled to south Asia, in particular, to India’s west coast.

The Parsi community is still concentrated in the western state of Gujarat and in Mumbai. The last Indian census, in 2001, counted 69,601 Parsis in the country – a decline from the 1981 figure of 71,630, and from the 1951 figure of 111,791. A report by the National Commission for Minorities identified low birth rates and migration as causes for the steady drop in India’s Parsi population.

Khushru Panthaky, the principal of the Cama Institute, one of the two Zoroastrian seminaries in Mumbai, called the Parsis a "microscopic minority". So while the number of students aspiring to the priesthood is dwindling in every religion, he said, "the problem is much graver in such a small community", because the death of the clergy will mean the death of the religion.

Until the late 1970s, the Cama Institute offered both secular and religious lessons, but its trustees began to observe seminary graduates drifting away from the priesthood and towards other professions. In reaction, they removed the secular component entirely – and watched, then, as the number of students dropped from nearly 50 into the single digits.

By the time secular studies were reinstituted, roughly a decade ago, it proved too late. The strength of the Cama Institute’s student body has hovered in the low single digits ever since.

One former priest, who asked to remain anonymous, recalled the Cama Institute’s redaction of secular studies as a major mistake. "Who’d want to be illiterate?" he said.

He insisted that he didn’t regret abandoning his training for a job in the insurance industry.

"Would I have got 80,000 rupees [Dh6,400] a month, a car, a holiday home, medical benefits, and a 9-to-5 job as a priest? I wouldn’t. Which is why I don’t want my son to become a priest either, even though he’s studied for it. ‘Tell me you’re not going to practice’, I keep saying to him."

But at the other major Parsi seminary in Mumbai, the Dadar Athornan Institute, the principal, Ramiyar Karanjia, appeared optimistic. His school has 22 students, and its premises seemed distinctly livelier. Students’ chants in Avestan – the ancient Zoroastrian language – filled the building as they pored over their lessons.

Mr Karanjia quickly offered other examples of priests who were, in the true hereditary tradition, initiating their sons into the profession. "It’s true – priesthood may not be the first choice for these youngsters. There aren’t any benefits, and it isn’t a glamorous job," he said. "Until recently, in fact, young priests couldn’t even eat out or go to the movies without exciting comment."

But Mr Karanjia cited a number of schemes initiated by the Athornan Mandal, a welfare body for priests, to supplement the priests’ incomes. One adds 2,000 to 3,000 rupees a month to a young priest’s salary while another offers a purse of 30,000 to 50,000 rupees to priests who complete 40 years of service.

"A full-fledged priest can earn 25,000 rupees a month," Mr Karanjia said. This is, no doubt, a sharp increase from earlier salaries in the clergy. But some priests point out that 25,000 rupees goes only so far in a city like Mumbai, and intelligent, well-educated young men can find jobs with salaries that could be 10 times higher.

The lack of qualified priests has begun to affect the quality of Parsi rituals, said Pirojshah Siddhwa, a teacher at the Cama Institute and a member of the Athornan Mandal’s managing committee. "Sometimes we can’t even find the full complement of 14 priests for a particular ceremony – priests who know every prayer by heart," he said. "So we often have to bring in priests who simply read out the prayers from a book."

Some Parsi temples, in fact, have started to ordain priests who have memorised only a couple of the requisite chapters, rather than the full 72, of the liturgical texts. This abridged course of study takes only a few months, as compared to the orthodox route of six to eight years.

Mr Karanjia suspected this was a bid by the temples to supplement their incomes: performing an initiation can bring in a fee of up to 50,000 rupees. Mr Panthaky, the Cama Institute principal, opposed such "read-only priests".

"Some of the higher-order rituals need both hands. How can a priest read and perform those rituals?"

Mr Siddhwa seemed resigned to this trend, as much as he said it disturbed him.

"Even reading the texts takes a certain expertise, and many of the people ordained this way can’t read at that level," he said.

Then he smiled sadly through his snow-white beard and said that if a priest can read well, it may only be practical to use him. "Perhaps, at this stage, we can’t help it."

  • Dorab.

    PERSONS WHO DELIBERATELY PLACE BLINDFOLDS ON THEIR EYES NEED TO LEARN AN OBJECT LESSON.
    EARLIER IT WAS SAID “:NO PRIESTS NO JATHOSTI DHARAM”. NOW THIS NEEDS TO BE ALTERED TO
    “NO JARTHOSTI SO NO RELIGION LEFT” OUR “FARSIGHTED” POLITICO TRUSTEES WILL REALIZE THEIR STUPIDITY AFTER ANOTHER TWENTY YEARS.
    WHEN THE COMMUNITY HAS SUCH “FRIENDS” WHO NEEDS ENEMIES FROM OTHER COMMUNITIES?

  • Jeannie Antia

    Where are the part-time priests – the priests on an voluntary basis when time and life-style suits into their families and other professions?

  • Siloo Kapadia

    This article is a joke, right?

    You have got to be kidding! The Parsee community in India is dying out for one main reason and one main reason only: the backward, racist thinking of that damned BPP and their refusal to allow conversion of nonParsees, nonParsee spouses of Parsees, children of such marriages, and in many instances their making Parsees who marry nonParsees into outcasts. This is the reason the community is dying out, deekras. It is not due to the fact that younger Parsees do not want to become priests. What rubbish. They can become priests part-time and pursue other careers they way they do in other parts of the world. And immigration is not the major factor either. Many Parsees remain in India but they marry outside of the community and are in most instances ostracized.

    Perhaps the community should stage a Tunisia-style revolution and seize power away from these power-hungery racists. Then we will see the end to the decline in the community.

  • goozidi

    We don’t need those fake priests. those rituals are worthless. Zoroasterian is a very simple fate, way of life instead of religion. Also the Faravahar symbol does not relate to zoroasterinizem. First it does not have the guy in the middle, second it is a symbol of the spaceship that our ancestors traveled from another planet to the earth.

  • Behram Aga

    A very interesting read if you please. THE WRITING IS ON THE WALL THAT THE DAYS ARE NUMBERED. All jingoism will be lunacy and will expedite the end.
    The need of the hour is change of mindset, and the farcical argument touted as Tarikat, Rit-rivaj, customs, traditions, and thousand year practice.
    It is said “Old order changeth.” So be ready and prepared to embrace change or perish. It was fine while it lasted to hold the community to ransom by Gadi ghoda, and Tola gola, and all that nonsense which did not ever exist in the Madar Vatan. The lucre and the bucks are dwindling as most agiyaris are financially bankrupt, and employ half-breed/crossbreed and may be, in some cases non-Parsis to do menial work in the agiyaris and atashbehrams.
    For priesthood the person should have a bent of mind towards that profession knowing fully well that there are no big bucks and the life will be simple and frugal. Foisting priesthood on sons of priests is like flogging a dead horse. Also induction of women who are desirous of becoming priests should be accepted wholeheartedly. There was no discrimination between men and women in MadarVatan Iran.
    Let it be realized that Gujarat is being bereft and barren of the bawas; the last bastion is Bombay where all the bawas are holed up. For how long? The answer is blowing in the wind.
    The fundamental question is “ARE YOU INTERESTED IN SAVING THE RELIGION OR THE PARSI COMMUNITY.?”
    Take your pick, and live with it.
    Behram Aga.

  • Barak Aga

    .
    The Title of this article is incorrect.

    It should have been “ZOROASTRIAN CLERGY DYING OUT FOR LACK OF ZOROASTRIANS”.

    It is an irony that the man who’s image graces the WAPIZ page in the “Ask your Dastur column”, and who has championed insularity is bemoaning a drastic fall in the number of initiates to priesthood.

    But isn’t Dastur Kotwal the victim of his own warped mindset?
    Dastur Kotwal along with the other High Priests are responsible for the mess they are in.

    Not only is the community dying out, the vultures who eat our dead are already dead, and the priests who are to pray for the dead are themselves a dying breed.

    But the WAPIZ in support of their sleazy calendar have proclaimed, “Who says the Parsi community is dying out”.

    Now who is to be believed, the WAPIZ, or their cronies the High Priests.

  • Barak Aga

    .
    Dear Dasturji Kotwal,
    The “Business of Zoroastrianism”, or “Zoroastrian Company Limited” brings only short term political dividends.

    You and your cohorts tried to milk the religion, but your strategy was all wrong.

    Poor business sense in restricting the number of customers.

    You made Zoroastrianism an exclusive boutique catering only to “Parsi” and “Irani”, customers, so your business failed.

    Had you permitted other ethnicities to join the faith, the number of your customers would have gone up, more priests would have had employment, and you would have earned a lot more as “ashodad”.

    You shot yourself in the foot.

  • Kewats

    Needs information about the Parsian community those lived in
    Itarsi Dist Hoshangabad MP 461111 regarding protection of Parsian Graveyard
    area and to make it free from encroachments please arrange any contact number

     

    Akhil Dubey

    9827222972

    Itarsi-MP-IN

  • Kewats

    Needs information about the Parsian community those lived in
    Itarsi Dist Hoshangabad MP 461111 regarding protection of Parsian Graveyard
    area and to make it free from encroachments please arrange any contact number

     

    Akhil Dubey

    9827222972

    Itarsi-MP-IN

  • Aathravan

    If you are not sure of your own Zarathosti identity and religion how can you like others make any comment on friends and enemies. It’s like this: when someone does something wrong it’s easy to blame parents for their upbringing rather than blaming that wrong-doer. If you don’t believe in this saying then, you should seek the answer in your Gireban …… you are to be blamed and not the Priests and religion.

  • Aathravan

    If you are not sure of your own Zarathosti identity and religion how can you like others make any comment on friends and enemies. It’s like this: when someone does something wrong it’s easy to blame parents for their upbringing rather than blaming that wrong-doer. If you don’t believe in this saying then, you should seek the answer in your Gireban …… you are to be blamed and not the Priests and religion.