Parsis in India: Bid to save one of the world’s most successful minority groups as population dwindles

Some 200 Parsis of all ages in festive clothes gather at Delhi Anjuman, a Parsi community centre, to celebrate Navroz, the New Year.

It is the first day of the Persian year and Parsis across the world have celebrated it for centuries.

Article by Murali Krishnan | ABC News Australia

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It’s a time to come together to celebrate, to eat and drink, to connect with the Parsi community and faith. And for some of the young couples to pray for a child.

Parsis at a glance:

  • Estimated 61,000 Parsis in India
  • Ancestry traced back to Zoroastrian refugees from Persia
  • Parsis settled in India somewhere between the 8th and 10th centuries
  • They were escaping religious persecution
  • Zoroastrian is one of the world’s oldest religions
  • Zoroastrians believe in one God, called Ahura Mazda

The Parsi community is one of the most successful minority and migrant groups in the world.

Today, Parsis such as the Tata, Godrej and Wadia families are among India’s top corporate dynasties.

Several prominent Parsis played an important role in the country’s freedom struggle, and there are a number of well-known Parsi scientists and artists that have become world-famous.

Freddie Mercury, the late lead singer of Queen, came from an Indian Parsi family and Zubin Mehta, the world famous conductor of Western classical music, was also born a Parsi.

The Indian Parsis trace their ancestry to Zoroastrian refugees from Persia.

They’re known for their many unique customs, including the famous funeral tradition of laying out the dead in a purpose built tower to be eaten by vultures.

But despite their illustrious past and the continuing success of many Parsis, it’s a very small community today — just 61,000 across India.

Indian authorities see Parsis as a role model for other communities.

While most other ethnic groups in India are growing at a fast pace, the number of Parsis has been dwindling so fast, at 10 to 15 per cent a decade, that the Indian Government and community leaders have agreed on a plan to increase birth-rates.

Four years ago, the Parsi community in Mumbai was facing extinction.

In response, a fertility program, Jiyo Parsi (Live Parsi), was launched by the Indian Ministry of Minority Affairs and the Parzor Foundation, an NGO.

The Parzor Foundation says a tendency for late marriages in the Parsi community often leads to infertility problems for women.

Fertility program celebrates birth of 101st baby

The program recently celebrated the birth of its 101st baby, and there is optimism that the Parsis won’t fade away into history.

It has offered infertility treatment for nearly 100 Parsi couples.

“That was almost a 17-18 per cent decline and that was pretty drastic.”

The Parsi tradition of marrying only within the community resulted in large numbers of people remaining unmarried in the 1970s and 80s.

That was when the decline began.

At that time, it was taboo to even think of marrying outside the community.

“As I was growing I always thought I would marry within the community, due to which I had to wait for a very long time.

“The hunt was long but the result was sweet because I found my wife after 35 years.”

The difficulty in finding a Parsi partner

The late marriages, health complications and a reluctance to have children have all contributed to the falling birth rates within the Parsi community.

For every four people dying, only one child is born, leading to a fast decline in numbers.

But it’s not so easy to find a suitable marriage partner in a tiny community and more than 30 per cent of Parsis remain single now.

Unlike other religions, including Christianity and Islam, the Parsi community doesn’t practice the conversion of people from other faiths into Zoroastrianism.

And under traditional Parsi laws, lineage passes through fathers but not mothers.

That means kids of Parsi women who marry non-Parsis are not considered Parsis.

Purists now fear that the pure Parsi bloodlines will be eliminated in a few generations.

The campaign to stop the decline has certainly helped some Parsi families.

But the question remains whether it will be enough to sustain the shrinking community of 61,000 who live among more than 1.2 billion Indians adhering to much larger religions like Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism.

“Yes, the thought has crossed my mind but it doesn’t worry me that as a species as such that the Parsis are in decline as long as its culture is preserved, the food is preserved and the traditions are kept on,” says Tvisha Shroff, a young professional who works in the corporate world.

“I am not so sure that I am bothered about a particular racial entity in decline.”