Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Zoroastrians hope ‘Facebook for Parsees’ will revive religion

By Rhys Blakely in Mumbai for the Times UK.

During their brief history, social networking websites have united millions of long-lost school friends and diverted millions of office workers from, well, working.

But can one save a 3,500-year-old religion on the brink of extinction?

Zoroastrianism, whose fire-worshipping followers subscribe to the teachings of the prophet Zoroaster, is possibly the world’s wealthiest and most influential faith, but it faces a crisis. Its bachelors tend to marry late, if at all, while women who marry outside the community are excommunicated. As a result, there are only 120,000 Zoroastrians left, a third of whom are over 60. A dwindling birthrate has raised fears that adherents — known as Parsees in India, the religion’s main stronghold — are dying out.

They hope that the key to survival is a website designed to create a database of its young that will encourage them to intermarry. It is being billed as a kind of “Facebook for Parsees” that will place a heavy emphasis on matrimonial matters.

Tashan Mistree, 26, one of the Parsees behind the project, said: “The matrimonial part is important if we want to preserve our ethnicity … That we are a small community means that every individual matters.”

The site, which has the blessing of one of the religion’s most important governing bodies, will be open to Parsees between 15 and 40. It will foster a sense of ethnic identity among members with information about community events and will include a careers portal.

Zoroastrianism may be the world’s richest religion per capita. The religion’s billionaires include Ratan Tata, India’s most prominent businessman and the chief executive of the vast Tata conglomerate.

The community is also politically astute — Britain’s first three MPs of Asian origin were Zoroastrians. Other notable followers of the religion, which traces its roots to ancient Persia, are said to have included the Three Wise Men who visited the infant Jesus.

The website is a bold move for a group that had grown notorious for an ageist culture. “It’s crazy, but for years this religion had not cared for the views of anybody under 75,” said Jimmy Mistry, a prominent Parsee in Mumbai. “The young had been driven away.” The social network is being developed by the youth wing of the Bombay Parsee Panchayat (BPP), a Mumbai-based governing council that is one of Zoroastrianism’s most influential seats of power.

Founded 350 years ago to maintain Mumbai’s Towers of Silence, the platforms on which dead Zoroastrians are placed to be consumed by vultures, the BPP controls land worth billions in central Mumbai, where property prices rival those in Mayfair and Manhattan.

Among other proposals being considered by the BPP is the transformation of the Towers of Silence into huge aviaries to prevent the vultures that pick clean Parsee corpses from flying off and eating carrion contaminated with pesticide, which has driven the birds to the brink of extinction, supporters of the plans say.

On one contentious issue, however, the BPP has so far stood firm: excommunicating the children of Parsee women who marry non-Zoroastrians — one of the chief factors behind the population slump. Khojeste Mistree, a member of the BPP board, told The Times: “It is hard to find young Parsees; they are not many. But we must maintain our ethnic identity.”

• Founded by the Prophet Zoroaster in Iran more than 3,500 years ago

•Thought to have influenced Christianity, Islam and Judaism, all of which developed later

• Emphasises living life to the full under the maxim “Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds”

• Zoroastrians believe in one god called Ahura Mazda, who battles the force of evil, or Angra Mainyu.

• They believe good will eventually triumph, with a tidal wave of molten metal purging evil from the Earth

• Often described as fire-worshippers, Zoroastrians actually believe that fire represents God’s light or wisdom and usually pray in the presence of fire

• About 120,000 still adhere to the religion, with the largest population in India

• In India the bodies of the dead are disposed of by ritual exposure to birds of prey to avoid the contamination of dead bodies coming into contact with fire, water or earth