As you travel north on the railroad route from Mumbai towards Surat, the first station beyond the Gujarat border is Umargam. The second is a small, unassuming coastal settlement named Sanjan.
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On Nov 18 every year, this small town is visited by Parsis from across Gujarat and other states to commemorate an event that occurred over 1,000 years ago. To understand that event, one needs to travel back in time.
In antiquity, Iran was home to empires like those of the Medes (728?550 BC), the Achaemenids (550?330 BC) and the Parthians (248 BC?224 CE). Persia and the Zoroastrian religion and culture reached their zenith under the last great Persian state, the Sassanid Empire (224?651 CE).
The Sassanids fought wars against their greatest rivals and neighbours, the Byzantines, which weakened them considerably. Then, the Sassanids found themselves on the radar of another expanding power.
By the time of his death in 632 CE, Prophet Muhammad had brought most of Arabia under Islam. After his death, his successors, Abu Bakr and Umar, the Rashidun (‘Rightly Guided’) Caliphs started a campaign of conquest and expansion.
Under their personal supervision, Muslim Arab forces attacked the Sassanids in present?day Iraq and Iran.
"In 651 CE, at the decisive Battle of Nahawand, Rashidun forces defeated the Sassanids. Emperor Yazdegerd III fled to the northeast, where he was assassinated a year later," Khojestee Mistree of the Mumbai?based K.R. Cama Oriental Institute told IANS.
"The native Zoroastrian Persians resisted the Muslim Arabs for 250 years after Nahawand, engaging in guerrilla warfare until options like paying ‘jizya’ or conversion to Islam finally broke them. It was then that a group of priests (‘Dastoors’) decided to migrate to preserve the religion," explains Mistree.
That was when a group from the city of Sanjan in Khorasan (northeastern Iran) travelled overland to the port of Hormuz. Here, they lived for another 100 years. "Then, a high priest had a dream, urging him to lead his group to India with which Iran had links since the time of Asoka," says Mistree.
"Three boats of Persians started from Hormuz and landed on the south Gujarat coast, then ruled by Hindu Rajput king Jadi Rana. The king, apprehensive of the foreigners, sent a bowl of milk to the Persians, implying that his kingdom was full to the brim, and there was no space for them.
"The Persians’ leader, Dastoor Neryosang Dhaval, added sugar to the
milk and sent the bowl back to the king.
This action implied that just as sugar mixed with milk added taste to the milk, so also, the Persians would mix with local people and prove an asset to the kingdom.
"The king allowed the Persians to settle, provided they adopted the local language and their women wore the native dress. They would no longer carry arms. The Persians agreed to these terms and settled in the place, naming it after their Persian hometown. In time, they came to be known as ‘Parsis’ (from the Fars/Pars region of Iran). The year was 936 CE," relates Mistree.
The Parsis may have prospered in India, but their recent history has been one of problems and controversies.
Dwindling numbers (Parsis numbered 61,000 in the 2001 census). Demographic trends project that by the year 2020 the Parsis will number only 23,000. The Parsis will then cease to be called a community and will be labeled a ‘tribe’.
Dwindling vultures at ‘dakhmas’, their funeral towers, unmarried adults, a large geriatric population, a taboo on mixed marriages and conversions to Zoroastrianism, a divide between reformists and traditionalists ? these are some issues that have dominated Parsi discourse of late.
"At the end of the day, the majority view must prevail. And the majority view is that Parsis must stay traditional, i.e., no to conversions and interfaith marriages. Yes, there is a divide between reformists and traditionalists. But the reformists are a minority who don’t represent the community’s view," says Mistree.
But will a middle path ever be found? "All is not lost. Patience, time and effort and, most importantly, dialogue will yield dividends," says Shernaaz Engineer, editor of the 180?year?old Jam?e?Jamshed newspaper.
What about young Parsis?
"The younger generation is not so caught up in these issues. They are busy forging their careers and live by the motto ‘Live and Let Live’. But despite the fact that their lifestyle demands are very high, they have not lost their community feelings," Engineer told IANS.
So what about the future?
"I hope we will pull through. But that will require serious thought and action. Unless consistent action is taken, we will be in a tough situation.
We can’t take survival for granted. We will have to act and act fast," says Engineer.
(Rajat Ghai can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org )