Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

A Parsi art historian rediscovers his heritage on a trip across Iran

What do you mean you’re from New Zealand?” a shopkeeper in Mozaafarieh named Omid exclaimed. We were in the carpet quarter of Tabriz’s Grand Bazaar, and I had just told him that I was a Kiwi Parsi. “Look at yourself: you’re a son of Persia. Welcome home.” This was one of many similar reactions my Zoroastrian identity elicited in Iran. It made me teary, as I walked alone through the vaulted streets of the world’s largest covered bazaar.

By Areez Katki, elle.in

When I told my family I was going  on a month-long trip to Iran, the seat of Zoroastrianism, they seemed puzzled. All my life, I had railed against the community and its insular, patriarchal nature, especially in India, where its racial and ethnic exclusivity had brought it dangerously close to extinction. (In Auckland, where I grew up, Parsis are just one of several minorities they embrace). It has taken me over two fraught decades since I was ordained as a mobed (Zoroastrian priest), at age 10, to reconcile the Parsi and queer aspects of my identity.

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Zoroastrian women at Maryamabad Zoroastrian Colony, Yazd

But now I wanted to know everything there was to know about my community. In fact, I moved to Mumbai and began a project to immerse myself in learning about it, exploring Parsi myths, icons and practices. I’ve been using the medium of textiles for my work as an artist for approximately six years. More recently, through the framework of a personal journey, I’ve utilised craft skills such as needlework, which I inherited from the women in my family, in a hope to explore Zoroastrian identity through a more intimate, matrilineal perspective. The work will culminate in an exhibition at Malcolm Smith Gallery in Howick in February 2019, circling back to the suburb of Auckland, where I grew up. So, in an attempt to expand this odyssey trope, I decided to embark on a month-long solo road trip through Iran; I’d be the first person in my family to go back there.

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Church of Saint Mary, Urmia, West Azerbaijan

Tehran was a confusing place to start. On the surface, it was chaotic and bare; none of the glamour, cultural diversity or freedom of expression that once deemed it the Paris of the East had survived the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Since the overthrowing of a liberal Persian monarchy, human rights such as free speech and personal expressions of faith have been infringed upon. But then one enters little discreet pockets of Tehrani society where you might find a café where women have pushed back their mandatory hijabs, or see a couple kiss, laugh and hold hands. And the more young people I met, most of them progressive and vibrant thinkers, the more I learnt that these small gestures were all signs of passive resistance.

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Carpet weaving matriarchs, Kashan

Another such gesture is the adornment of the iconic Faravahar, in any shape or form, but most commonly as a pendant. The winged angelic symbol is a subtle reminder of a Zoroastrian Persia, which celebrated a brief revival during the  Pahlavi period (1925- 1979), but has been suppressed (yet not outlawed completely) since the revolution. It can be traced all the way back to the height of the Achaemenid empire (550-330 BC), which is still celebrated as the Golden Age of Persian history, when great citadels like Persepolis, Susa and Pasargadae were built by hired, not slave, hands for the first time in ancient history. Its founder Cyrus the Great wrote the world’s first bill of human rights. He was also the only gentile mentioned favourably in the Old Testament, for his humanitarianism and for protecting secularism during Persia’s reign over Europe and Asia. Entering sites like the mountain relief tombs at Naqsh-e-Rustam, Persepolis and  Pasargadae (where the tomb of Cyrus stands) were some of the most moving experiences for me. They were like great, imposing answers to what my nine-year old self had wondered about being Parsi. Pars (present-day Fars) is the region where Persepolis and its neighbouring archaeological sites are, and where the term Parsi comes from. A feeling of pride began to seep into me.

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A wall of pure silk yarn, Tabriz

I also spent a week in Yazd Province. It was there that I sought the guidance of local Zoroastrians, who still live there in small communities, and invited me to join their little gatherings around the village of Maryamabad. My friends Bahruz, a priest, and his son Navid, a real estate agent, made sure that I got in everywhere through the special entrances reserved for us. “This is your homeland,” Navid said to me at one point, “you should not have to hide it or pay to visit our sites.” Despite the oppression the community has faced over the last millennia— forced to flee (as my Parsi ancestors did), convert or practise Zoroastrianism secretly under a totalitarian republic after the Arab conquest in the seventh century—there is an immense warmth and grace to be found here.

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Hossain, one of the three Sohrabi brothers of Kashan, whose family has woven silk on these 500-year-old looms for generations

Chak Chak, also known as Pir-e-Sabz, is home to one of Zoroastrianism’s holiest mountain shrines, and  is one of several sacred shrines or ‘Pirs’ around Yazd. There is one family that still tends and guards it, with a devotion that astonished me, considering the remoteness and the rough living conditions they have to endure in order to do it, such as scarcity of water and electricity.

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Barberries, nuts and dry fruits at a bazaar, Tehran

Other Zoroastrian villages around Yazd provided incredible cultural insight, especially if one considers their status as the  birthplace of monotheism and the globally beloved paisley motif. The latter was derived from an Achaemenid stone tablet illustrating the holy cypress tree standing tall and evergreen, against the force of the northern winds. Villages like Cham, Abarkuh, Mubarakkeh still house sacred ecological shrines, each dedicated to a different earth, water or air deity and sanctified by a sarv, or cypress tree. In fact, the Sarv of Abarkuh is considered one of the world’s oldest trees at over 4,000 years. Standing under its grand 26-metre high canopy was an awe-inspiring experience unlike any other.

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Yazdi faloodeh, a delicate cold soup with rosewater and rice vermicelli

Iran was especially revelatory for me as a textile historian. I believe that my month there only scratched the surface of our rich craft traditions. In Yazd alone, I learned about sudreh and kushti weaving (the religious garments worn by Zoroastrians after their Navjote, or initiation ceremony), doozi needlework and handwoven Termeh textiles. Tabriz is known for its Grand Bazaar, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the carpet weaving capital of the world, whose rug  weavers and pashim (wool, in Farsi) spinners are famous. Closer to the north, Kashan was once the world’s centre for the silk trade. This is where I participated in jacquard weaving sessions at the Ancient Crafts Centre and documented the Sohrabi brothers weaving on their 500-year-old looms.

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Chak Chak, also called Pir-e-Sabz, is home to one of Zoroastrianism’s holiest mountain shrines

Carpets here also vary from region to region; my favourites were the West Azerbaijani tribal kilims: flatwoven by matriarchs and encoded with ancient Zoroastrian and Elamite symbols. Some of these icons are still visible in Susa (present-day Shush, the capital of Khuzestan province) where I braved 50-degree heatwaves and visited one of the world’s best-preserved Ziggurat pyramids at Tchogga Zanbil. It is a pre-Zoroastrian Elamite citadel that is also notably the first site in modern-day Iran to gain the UNESCO World Heritage Stamp). Such were my attempts to tie archaeology in with theological studies and textile practices. From what I could observe, learn and record, it was an intricate tapestry that I will spend the next few years of my life trying to understand and decode.

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Persepolis

Going on this self directed road trip let  me improvise as I went along. It gave me the freedom to stop anywhere between major sites and immerse myself in the culture—something Parsi pilgrimage tours seldom afford. The eight- to tenhour drives from province to province unfolded Iran’s diverse landscapes as we climbed the dry, jagged peaks toward Alamut and Behestan Castle in the Alborz Mountains and moved northward to Massouleh and Rasht, with lush green hills flanking the Caspian Sea. I listened to gently shifting dialects between West and East Azerbaijan, Kermanshah, Lorestan and Kurdistan, and noticed their delightful regional quirks, from hand gestures to dressing sensibilities.

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Farvahar bullion embroidery circa 18th century, Yazd

Among all the obscure sites that I had the privilege to visit, what wasn’t hard to find was the kindness of strangers. From simple directions  to the shoemakers’ quarter in Tabriz, an invitation to dine with a Kurdish family at Takht-e-Soleyman, a glass of chilled doogh (a fermented yoghurt beverage) at a dwelling in Kandovan, a bowl of fragrant olive parvardeh (a regional entrée of olives marinated in ground walnuts, pomegranate molasses and cardamom) from a stranger in Rudbar, or a kiss on my Farvahar pendant from a man in Susa.

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Tchogga Zanbil, Susa

Iran might be shadowed in troubling circumstances, but its people seem to be a unified passive force against the dying of the light. They illuminated the way for me to see how magnificent Persia once was, and could perhaps be once again someday. I came away with a much deeper appreciation, knowledge and understanding of my cultural heritage. As an art historian, textile practitioner, and really, just as a Parsi trying to find his place, there could be no greater gift.

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Sarv of Abarkuh, Yazd

Photographs: Areez Katki