Threads of Continuity — an exhibition on philosophy and culture of Zoroastrians in India is currently on in Delhi. MONA MEHTA reports on what she learnt about the Parsis from the show
Half way through ‘Threads of Continuity’— a living culture exhibition on the 61,000-strong Zoroastrian community in India,I run into two senior citizens I had bumped into at the entrance of the IGNCA gallery, Delhi. By now, I had schooled myself well through the many exhibits on the philosophy and culture of the community better known to us as Parsis — their ancestors had come to India from Pars in southern Iran some thousand years ago to escape religious prosecution. I had already learnt about the birth of their faith; about the linguistic similarities between the Rig Vedic Trishtubh Mantra and the gathas of their prophet, Zarathustra, who lived in Central Asia. The only records of the prophet and his teachings are 17 hymns of the five gathas, dating back to 1800-1600 BC. By now I was understandably curious to know what the two elderly women I had met at the entrance felt about the show.One of them,Prem N Singh, said,“It has brought back memories of me singing Ahura Mazda,Ahura Mazda, as a child at school.”
Article by Mona Mehta | The Speaking Tree
“A poem on Ahura Mazda? Are you a Parsi?” I ask. “No, no, but much like the Parsi community,my ancestors too came to India as refugees.They were Armenian Christians who had to leave their home when they were hounded by the Turks,” says Prem.“Ahura Mazda was part of a longer poem,I think by Sarojini Naidu,” she says.“We were all expected to recite it during our scriptures class at the Sadhu Vaswani School in Lucknow. I am talking about pre-Independence days,” she adds, laughing. Back in office later, I quickly googled Sarojini Naidu.She had indeed written a poem titled, The Call To Evening Prayer, that scholars said, ‘celebrated the fraternal coexistence of diverse creeds in a single place’. Allah ho Akbar! Allah ho Akbar! From mosque and minar the muezzin are calling,Allah ho Akbar! Allah ho Akbar! Ave Maria! Ave Maria! Devoutly the priests at the altars are singing,Ave Maria! Ave Maria! Ahura Mazda! Ahura Mazda! How the sonorous Avesta is flowing! Ahura Mazda! Ahura Mazda! Naray’yana! Naray’yana!
Hark to the ageless, divine invocation! Naray’yana! Naray’yana Indeed, the Parsis in India have a shared history with us that goes back several centuries.Their sacred fire rituals appear similar to the Hindu yagnas; their use of the coconut on auspicious occasions,down to the lime powder designs lining the walls in the corridors are much like our traditional rangoli or kolam designs meant to keep insects away.Their designs though are a mix of Zoroastrian symbols of fish and pomegranate and Hindu symbols of good luck. The exhibition has a section showcasing Zoroastrian artifacts borrowed from museums in Tehran. On display is a replica of a large headless sculpture of Darius the Great, a powerful Persian king, dressed as a nobleman. It had inscriptions in three different languages of the empire and in Egyptian too — a fine example of art adapting to surroundings, while keeping its identity intact.
This proved to be a valuable trait of the Parsis — at one time the Persian empire stretched from the Danube to beyond the Indus into China. So it has been for Zoroastrians in India. Known to wear their sacred kushti, a handwoven string, and sacred sedreh, undershirt, but outwardly, as in the Persian empire and in India, they are all for ‘acculturation’ to the group surrounding them. “At the core of Zoroastrianism is a sense of moderation; that’s why we’ve called the exhibition ‘Threads of Continuity,’ says Shernaz Cama, director of the Unescoinitiated Parzor Project that partnered the exhibition.“You don’t say ‘I am superior’, or ‘I am different’, you fit in.
And India has always allowed people to keep their core values intact,” she adds. Far from being refugees, Zoroastrians have coexisted and contributed handsomely to society, by way of philanthropy and institution- building.And they are inspired by their faith. “While tying the kushti that is worn around our waist,we recite a prayer, ‘action’ with ‘good thoughts, good words, good deeds’, meaning man has to act with and for Creation, not as ruler of Creation. It is not a self-centred faith at all, but one that believes in making bounteous this cosmos,” sums up Cama.