Parsi-Iranian way of life and a journey to the roots

While lamenting the lack of interest on Zoroastrian religion, the mother-in-law mentioned that there are opportunities to learn the Avesta language and Zoroastrian scriptures.

Article by Natasha Dotivala | DNA India

Curiously, the Parsis, a dwindling community, show little interest in their heritage and scriptures. This, despite the fact that the oldest Parsi newspaper, the Jam-e-Jamshed, has an advertisement this week on the commencement of structured courses in Avestan, Pahlavi & ancient Iranian languages at Sir JJ Zarthosti & Mullan Feroze Madressas. The classes are managed by the Bombay Parsi Panchayat (BPP). Thanks to the efforts of various organisations and individuals, the community is now being goaded to reconnect with its lost language and take pride in its rich history.

346869-parsi-rnaAvesta is a language of the ancient Indo-Iranian family and is the oldest extant Iranian language. There are a lot of similarities between Vedic Sanskrit and Avestan due to their common origin. What Sanskrit is for Indian languages, Avesta is to the Iranian branch of the Indo-Iranian languages.

Little is known of the basic religion, rituals, customs and ceremonies of the Parsis and even less is understood. It was Avabai, wife of Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy, the 1st Baronet, who founded a school in 1864 to promote the Avestan language and scriptures for the younger generation of the priestly class. Around the same time, one Mullan Feroze, started a similar initiative. Lack of students, however, led to the merging of the two schools in the last century. Thus was formed the Sir JJ Zarthoshti & Mullan Firoze Madressas (school).

It was in 1894 that the Avesta-Pahlavi department was set up for graduation and post graduation studies in the Bombay University as it was then called. Then, too, due to lack of enthusiastic response, the undergraduate course had to be scrapped.

Ervad Dr Pervez Bajan, the Principal of Sir JJ Zarthoshti & Mullan Firoze Madressas, said that St Xaviers’ College, affiliated to the Mumbai University, is the only institution in India which offers a masters degree in Avesta.

Currently, there are 35-40 students with some even pursuing PhD. Abroad, the language is taught in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the London University, in the US, France, Germany and Sweden.

The religious texts have been transliterated into Gujarati and, in the recent times, into English to cater to the youth. But the meanings of the words still elude them. For that, one needs to study the language, which most of them are reluctant to pursue.

Learning the language and scriptures takes time, effort and passion. Farida Khambatta, a fourth year student at the Madressas, says, “It requires dedication and hard work, which is why many people drop out in the first year, especially because of the grammar.” To encourage students to soldier on, the BPP is offering scholarships to those who successfully complete each year at the Madressas.

UNESCO’s Parsi Zoroastrian Project, in collaboration with SOAS, is offering a free 10-day course at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune, to teach the basic principles of the Avestan language. By the end of the course, students can translate simple Avestan texts into English.

To revive interest in the rituals, customs and traditions of the Zarathushti community who still stay in Iran, Parsis are encouraged to travel to that country. Twice a year, trips are organised by two religious scholars Ervad Dr Ramiyar Karanjia and Ervad Bajan, who take about 75 people with them. According to one account, Parsis began trickling into India from Iran in the 7th century to escape religious persecution. The visits to their place of origin are aimed at firming up their understanding of their roots and the Parsi-Iranian way of life.

It is a robust beginning of a journey that will throw light on the course the Parsis may take in the future