There’s a subtle caste system in place. Most Mumbai Parsis don’t want to discuss their tribal brethren. Priests refuse to live in the villages and no fire temples have been built.
Article by Shubhangi Misra | The PRINT
The World Zoroastrian Organisation has constructed 334 houses for rural Parsis so far, primarily in Gujarat. Many such homes in the region display plaques acknowledging this contribution. | Manisha Mondal | ThePrint
Navsari/Dang: Royenton Kunwarji Jila, a devoted Zoroastrian, carries the weight of a painful truth—within his own Parsi community, he is considered lesser.
Taunts about his appearance cut him to the bone when he worked in Mumbai’s fire temples as a young man. “The sahib log would often tell me that I don’t look like a Parsi. And that I am not fair enough and things like that,” he said, sitting on a typical Gujarati porch swing in Navsari district’s Vasya Talav village. “It hurts.”
Hidden in densely forested stretches of Dang, Valsad, and Navsari districts in southern Gujarat, around 200 Parsi families lead a marginalised existence that is completely different from the world of the wealthy, English-speaking Parsis of Mumbai.
These communities, often referred to as ‘tribal Parsis’, are descendants of tribal people who converted to Zoroastrianism. These descendants are the children of pre-independent India’s Parsi landlords, and are the community’s best-kept secret.
“The tribal Parsis have not been fully accepted in the community and are looked down upon by affluent and orthodox families,” said Dinshaw Tamboly, president of the World Zoroastrian Organisation (WZO), which also works for the welfare of tribal Parsis.
The sahib log would often tell me that I don’t look like a Parsi. And that I am not fair enough and things like that
-Royenton Kunwarji Jila
There’s a subtle caste system in place. Most Mumbai Parsis don’t want to discuss their tribal brethren, even if some do acknowledge distant village cousins. Priests refuse to live in the secluded villages and no fire temples have been built. When tribal Parsis come to cities like Mumbai or Surat, they’re handed jobs that no one else wants to do, like cleaning the Towers of Silence.
Zarathustra in Bhil country
A handful of households stand out from the rest in the Bhil hamlets in Dang forest.
Instead of Hindu deities, their doorways feature a winged human figure—the Faravahar, an ancient Zoroastrian symbol—and the tiny verandah alcoves hold images of Zarathustra. Plaques outside some announce the house was built with the support of the World Zoroastrian Organisation.
A woman in the rural Parsi village looks inside a house. Many of these homes were constructed by the WZO | Manish Mondal | ThePrint
Two brothers and their families live in one such house in a hamlet inside Dang sanctuary. They run a small dairy shop and are proud of their Parsi heritage.
The brothers, requesting anonymity, insist there’s no discriminatory practice. They are eager to affirm that their forefathers came from Persia and that the story of the wider Parsi community is also their story.
However, according to Navsari-based Barjis Bamji, who is the warden at a Parsi orphanage in the city, this isn’t entirely accurate. He claims that the brothers’ Parsi heritage goes back only two or three generations—their grandfather was one of over six dozen tribals who were inducted into the Parsi community during a mass Navjote ceremony in 1942.
‘Hindu lovers’ & a quest for reform
About 80 years ago, two Gandhian Parsis, Burjorji Bharucha and Dastur Framroze Bode, embarked on a highly contentious crusade—inducting the children from relationships outside the marriages of Parsi landlords into the community.
In that tumultuous time, when the Quit India movement was gaining momentum and the winds of change swept through India, the two reformers seized the moment to rectify an injustice.
In June 1942, they conducted a Navjote ceremony for 77 people, ranging in age from seven to 60, in the erstwhile princely state of Vansda, about 50 kilometres from Navsari town.
The event created a sensation—and a scandal. It not only exposed a thinly veiled secret but gave it a stamp of legitimacy.
Back then, rich Parsi farmers who owned land in the distant villages of Gujarat often kept local lovers, said Tamboly of the WZO.
“In the pre-independence era, farmers from Surat and Navsari advanced their reach and acquired land in far-flung villages of Gujarat, where they would stay for six to eight months. This is when they would have relations with Adivasi women,” he said.
Such dalliances were a “status symbol” for the Parsi farmers, but the progeny of these unions were not, explained Berjis Desai in an article about the Vansda Navjotes in the fortnightly Parsiana.
The offspring were denied admission into the faith, he wrote, “even though as per the law the children of Parsi fathers and non-Parsi mothers were Parsi Zoroastrians”.
I have to keep reassuring them that I am indeed a Parsi. My forefathers were Parsi and I can prove it
-Royenton Kunwarji Jila
A Navjote ceremony is not a prerequisite to being a Zoroastrian, but in the absence of DNA or paternity tests, it was the only means to assert Parsi identity, according to Desai, author of Oh! Those Parsis.
The reaction from the Parsi community was fast and furious. Nearly all Parsi anjumans and panchayats vehemently denounced the Navjote, and even the Maharaja of Vansda was called upon to intervene and halt the ceremony. Twenty thousand Parsis penned letters to the Bombay Parsi Punchayet, demanding a Samast Anjuman to condemn the Navjotes, although this did not come to pass.
As for the two reformers, orthodox Parsis never quite forgave them.
Enraged conservatives flung eggs and tomatoes at Bode in the KR Cama Oriental Institute’s hall in the 1960s, almost 20 years after the Navjotes, Desai wrote. When renowned humanist Bharucha died, the Bombay Parsi Punchayet was pressured into cancelling a condolence meeting for him.
As time passed, the outrage subsided and the 77 Navjotes and their descendants remained in the Parsi community—never excommunicated, but never fully accepted.
Even today, in Mumbai Kunwarji Jila has to repeatedly assert his identity. “I have to keep reassuring them that I am indeed a Parsi. My forefathers were Parsi and I can prove it,” he said.
‘Sahibs won’t do such work’
A British-era photograph snapped after a cricket match, illuminated a harsh reality for a 30-year-old shopkeeper in Dang—some Parsis were more equal than others.
In the picture, his great-grandfather, a ‘pure-blooded’ Parsi, was seated in a chair, while his tribal Parsi son sat on the ground.
“That was the first time I recognised there was discrimination,” said the shopkeeper, requesting anonymity.
He has come to terms with his place in the Parsi pecking order. People like him must roll up their sleeves and do what others won’t to get any semblance of acceptance.
Every Navroz or Parsi New Year, he and a lawyer friend, also a ‘tribal Parsi’, travel to Mumbai to work at various fire temples. Their duties largely involve cleaning and tending to any odd jobs that the dasturs (priests) assign them.
This is the work they did to support themselves while studying in Mumbai in their early 20s. They don’t need the money now but say they do it for the sake of their religion.
“If we don’t do it, who will? If we don’t do it, our religion will be doomed!” the lawyer declared.
The shopkeepers added that the sahibs and boys from rich households won’t do such work. “We have to step in,” he said.
According to Tamboly, most tribal Parsis who migrate to urban areas end up working in fire temples or in Towers of Silence, where dead bodies are left exposed to the elements and carrion birds. Some find employment in the houses of wealthier Parsis.
Young rural Parsis do the work happily, said Bamji, who runs a Parsi hostel for boys in Navsari.
“We don’t allow non-Parsis inside our fire temples, and the rich people of Mumbai or Surat will not clean the temples, someone has to do it,” he added.
Tribal Parsis are also designated to clean the Towers of Silence.
“Every January we call boys from the villages to come and clean the towers,” said a worker at Surat’s Tower of Silence. “Only those of us from villages do the job.”
We don’t allow non-Parsis inside our fire temples, and the rich people of Mumbai or Surat will not clean the temples, someone has to do it
-Barjis Bamji, warden at a Parsi orphanage in Navrasi
The Dang shopkeeper pointed out that rural Parsis who move to Mumbai are almost always allocated housing in the fringes of the city, in localities like Virar, Vasai Road, or Thane. Even Andheri is a distant dream.
“We are never given houses in South Mumbai, which are anyway very difficult to get, the wait list is so long,” he said.
Then, he suddenly remembered something.
He did once get to stay at the Parsi Colony in Nepean Sea, one of Mumbai’s poshest localities.
“We were allotted the block near the Tower of Silence,” he said, “since nobody else wants to live there.”
Temples and wives in short supply
The 200 Parsi families living in the far reaches of southern Gujarat do not have a fire temple in their vicinity. The people who keep the fire temples clean have to wait for months to see the inside of one.
“No priest is ready to come and stay in these remote parts of the country,” said a member of Navsari’s Vansda Parsi punchayet on the condition of anonymity. “We also don’t have a Tower of Silence here, so we bury our dead.”
The young lawyer from Dang said that for Navjotes or any other ceremony requiring a priest, they must travel all the way to Navsari city, escort the priest to the village, and then drop him back. “They never say no if we approach them,” he said.
No priest is ready to come and stay in these remote parts of the country
– member of Navsari’s Vansda Parsi punchayet
There’s another shortage too: of Parsi women willing to marry the men here.
The dairy shop owner in Dang sanctuary has two Adivasi wives, both Hindus who now follow Zoroastrianism.
“It would’ve been nice to have a Parsi wife,” he said bluntly, with both wives present.
The Parsi custom is to marry within the community, he pointed out, but the women have their eyes on better options.
“What can I do? No Parsi women marry us. They all go and find a match in Mumbai,” he said.
Some villagers claim it’s the other way around— Parsi men from Mumbai who’ve failed to find a bride in the city come to these pockets of Gujarat in search of a match.
“Being a Parsi woman in these villages is very fortunate! It’s like a lottery!” the dairy shop owner joked.
Barjis Bamji, a member of the Vansda Parsi Anjuman, and several villagers agreed with this assessment, but Tamboly seemed surprised. “This is the first time I’ve heard such a thing,” he said.
Coming back into the fold
As twilight falls over Navsari, a group of Parsi boys, aged three to 18, hold up their kushtis—a sacred cord worn around the waist—and chant various prayers. They change positions as they perform a series of rituals, their movements almost like a dance.
They reside at the Dosibai Kotwal Parsi Orphanage in Navsari, functioning as a Parsi boys’ hostel due to the absence of orphans. All these boys live and study here either for free or at reduced rates.
Parsi boys from Navsari pray at the fire temple at the Dosibai Kotwal Parsi Orphanage. It functionied as a Parsi boys’ hostel due to the absence of orphans. All these boys live and study here either for free or at reduced rates. | Manish Mondal | ThePrint
Barjis Bamji, the 55-year-old hostel warden, was once a resident here himself. Currently, he cares for 20 Parsi boys from rural Gujarat and Maharashtra who’ve come to Navsari for education with the support of the World Zoroastrian Organisation (WZO).
Since 1991, Dinshaw Tamboly, President of WZO, has dedicated himself to the social upliftment of tribal Parsis, earning recognition from liberal Parsis worldwide. According to him, the organisation has improved the living conditions of 514 Parsi farmer families across 204 villages in Maharashtra and Gujarat.
The WZO started paying attention to rural Parsis in 1981 after the London office received a thought-provoking letter.
“The letter claimed that while Parsi organisations are working for the benefit of urban Parsis, there’s nobody working for the ones living in rural pockets of the country,” Tamboly said.
In 1987, the WZO conducted a socio-economic survey and found that 687 Parsi families across 209 villages were living below the poverty line. Subsequently, the organisation started working to lift these families out of destitution.
Presently, the WZO constructs cement houses, supports education, covers medical expenses, and provides grains to Parsis. In the absence of robust anjumans to care for these communities, the WZO fills a long-standing void, offering tribal Parsis the kind of communal support that their urban counterparts enjoy, including housing and interest-free loans.
Tamboly said that the WZO has constructed 334 houses for rural Parsis so far, primarily in Gujarat. Many such homes in the region display plaques acknowledging this contribution.
“We support the kids right up to postgraduation. A dozen such Parsis have also studied in foreign universities, which we have supported,” Tamboly added.
Kunwarji Jila is a beneficiary of the WZO’s support. Once a landless farmer, today he runs a small business from his home, making kushtis as well as baatis for lighting candles in fire temples.
Royenton Kunwarji Jila and his wife are a beneficiaries of the WZO’s support. Once a landless farmer, today Jila runs a small business from his home, making kushtis as well as baatis for lighting candles in fire temples. | Manish Mondal | ThePrint
With the help of government schemes like Jiyo Parsi, an initiative to address the declining Parsi population, his family has also grown.
But more than anything, he dreams of a day when his Parsi identity won’t be determined by his appearance but by his devotion to his faith.
“And then, we’ll be equal to the sahibs of Mumbai.”
This ground report is the fifth in a series called Parsipolis. Read all the articles here.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)