A proud Parsee: Lord Karan Bilimoria

British-Indian peer Lord Bilimoria is a Zoroastrian Parsee, a minority religion with its roots in ancient Persia. He tells Global how his cultural background has influenced his life and his work

Article by Rita Payne | Global Briefing

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Lord Karan Bilimoria has several identities – he was born in India, is now a British citizen, he is a peer in the House of Lords and a Zoroastrian Parsee, belonging to a community that fled to India to escape persecution in Iran several hundred years ago.

Bilimoria remembers how nervous he was before making his maiden speech in the House of Lords. He says the first thing he did was read the speech made by Dadabhai Naoroji who became the first Indian member of parliament in the UK in 1892. “Dadabhai Naoroji saw himself as representing the whole of India in parliament here in Westminster – 350 million, that was the population of India in those days. I was so moved by that, I keep his speech on my desk everyday in my House of Lords office. I was very nervous but I was proud to speak about my community and my religion.”

Despite his successes in business and politics, it is his religion that often arouses people’s curiosity. Bilimoria is very proud of his roots. When we met in London, he told me: “As someone who is British and Indian, being a Zoroastrian Parsee is a very important part of who I am. We are one of the smallest communities in the world, yet – per capita of achievement – we are probably one of the most successful communities in the world.”

Bilimoria points out that despite their small number, Parsees have achieved international acclaim in almost every field. Among the best known are the conductor Zubin Mehta, Ratan Tata (who turned the Tata Group into a global business), former cricketer Farokh Engineer and the Indian war hero Field Marshal Manekshaw. Parsees excel in the arts too – not many people realise that Freddie Mercury was a Parsee. Bilimoria himself is best known for starting the Cobra beer company, but his first entrepreneurial venture involved supplying Indian-made polo sticks to British outlets, including the exclusive department store Harrods.

He attributes the community’s success to the way Parsees are raised. “You are brought up in this principled way. You see the charitable work that’s being done, the way Parsees not only look after each other but put back into the wider community,” he says. “You just have to go to Bombay, where my father’s family are from, and see the number of Parsee charitable buildings and communities, hospitals, schools – you can’t help but notice it and it’s been done over the generations.”

When they left Persia after its Islamisation more than 1,000 years ago, Zoroastrians went in several different directions in an effort to protect their religion and culture. The ones who went to India became known as Parsees, but there are other large Zoroastrian communities on the border of present-day Iran and Afghanistan. Initially the Parsee community had a very low profile. But under the British, around the 18th century, Parsees began to come to prominence, were given the opportunity to flourish and became involved in several different trades. They took on Indian customs and traditions – Parsee women wear saris, the food is Indian (but with a Persian flavour) and they speak Gujarati, but their prayers are written in the old Persian script.

In a speech in the House of Lords to mark the 150th anniversary of the formation of the Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe, Bilimoria, who is a cross-bencher, quoted a Zoroastrian priest who arrived with a group of refugees in what is now the state of Gujarat. The Zoroastrians asked the local king for refuge but were told there was no space for them in his land. The Zoroastrian priest asked the king for a cup of milk filled to the brim. The priest gently took a teaspoon of sugar and stirred it into the milk without spilling a drop. He then said to the king: “If you take us into your kingdom, we will be like the sugar in the milk: we will blend in with you but we will also make your kingdom sweeter.”

The king allowed them to stay and that group of refugees, and others who followed, flourished to become India’s first Zoroastrian Parsee community.

Bilimoria believes the outlook espoused by the priest explains why to this day Parsees have the ability to integrate wherever they choose to settle. When he travelled abroad for the first time to study, his father gave him some advice. “Wherever you live in the world, integrate to the best of your ability with the community you are living in but never forget your roots,” he said. Lord Bilimoria believes these same principles should apply to immigration in Britain. “We say we are a multicultural society here, we say we are a secular society, we say we are a pluralist society but the ideal situation is immigrant communities integrating fully and yet being proud of their roots.”

When asked about the reaction to his speech by fellow peers, he says: “Because we are such a small community, many people had not even heard of Zoroastrians, they don’t know about the religion, they don’t know about the community and then when you tell them about it they are fascinated, they want to know more.”

One of the traditions associated with Zoroastrians that intrigues outsiders the most is the disposal of the bodies of Parsees after death. In accordance with ancient rituals practised in the Towers of Silence in Bombay, the body is exposed to the sky and decays with the elements as well as being eaten by vultures. The idea is that the dead body, which the soul has left, becomes part of a whole cycle of environmentalism. The logic behind it is that a bird of prey consuming the body forms part of a cycle of life.

Dr Sarah Stewart, a lecturer in Zoroastrianism, explains that doctrinally, dead matter is considered to be the most potent source of ritual impurity. “In keeping with the environmentalist aspect of Zoroastrianism, you keep the earth pure, you keep fire pure, you keep water pure, you nurture plants, so you have to dispose of the dead in an efficient and environmentally friendly way without polluting the earth.”

The practice originated in Iran, but – with the exception of India – Parsees have not been able to continue the tradition in many other countries. Although there are still those who use the Towers of Silence, even in India more and more Parsees are buried or cremated.

Today the worldwide Zoroastrian community is estimated to be around 200,000, with numbers in decline due to intermarriage.

Malcolm Deboo, president of the Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe, is relatively optimistic about the future of the Parsees. “When the Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe, which is the oldest Asian religious voluntary organisation in the UK, was established in 1861, there were only 50 Zoroastrians in this country, mainly Parsees, because Iranians could not leave at that time. Today, the last UK census showed that we are about 4,000 but the community census puts the figure at more than 6,000.”

Deboo says the internet, tablets and Skype have made communication much easier for young people in the community across the world to maintain a sense of identity. “If you look at the first all-India census in the 1870s, Parsees at that time only numbered 70,000. We’re starting from a very small base because of our historical persecution in Iran.”

  • Truth

    So why is his wife and children not Zoroastrians then?