The Disappearing Community of India

Parsis

This proud, pioneering, industrious, honest, altruistic and appreciative community has integrated into its adoptive country India and as Indians first have contributed immensely to keep her head high and her flag flying free. The triveni sangam of Humata (Good Thoughts), Hukata (Good Words), Huvarshta (Good Deeds) is the basic tenet of the Parsis who follow the Zoroastrian religion.  Unfortunately now, fewer and fewer people seem to know about this fast vanishing community. Yet those who do know the Parsis, value their friendship for their integrity and fun-loving nature. This is one of the rare Indian communities that can laugh at itself. 

History tells us that fleeing the Arab persecution in Persia in 636–651 CE, Zoroastrians left their homeland for distant lands. One group landed on the shores of Sanjan, which was then the territory of the generous and compassionate King Jadi Rana. They were granted asylum with a few conditions and obligations. One being that they would adopt the language and dress of the region and that they would not seek to convert any one into their religion. Having stayed true to that, Parsis today consider Gujarati as their mother tongue and have adopted the dress code, but have simultaneously developed their own ethnic identity. They are full-fledged Indians in terms of national affiliation, patriotism, language and history, but have maintained certain cultural, behavioural and religious practices of their own.   


Holiest of the Holy

Udvada in Gujarat is a sacred place of pilgrimage for Parsis. The biggest fire-temple known as Iranshah is there. The ‘atash’ or fire that burns there is 1, 299 years old. It was consecrated in Sanjan. Special implements were brought for this purpose to Sanjan from Iran, by road. Sixteen different types of fires form this sacred fire. One of which was obtained from lightning, brought down by powerful rituals and manthric prayers. After the fire of Iranshah was consecrated it moved between 7 different locations from Sanjan, South to the Bahrot Caves, over to the Vansda Forests, then to Navsari, followed by Surat, back to Navsari, south to Valsad and eventually rested in Udvada where it has resided for 276 years and nourished with offerings of sandalwood day in day out. It had to undergo this trial, so it could be preserved intact and kept from being defiled during political instability and other security concerns.


Zoroastrianism

Arguably the world's first monotheistic faith believed to have been founded around 1700 BCE Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest extant religions. Its founder prophet Zoroaster (Zarathushtra), taught that good (Ahura Mazda) and evil (Angreh Mainyu) were opposite forces and the battle between them is more or less evenly matched. A person should always be vigilant to align with forces of light - asha or righteousness and stay away from forces of darkness - druj or wickedness. Both forces reside in man and his choice would eventually determine his own heaven or hell. The Zoroastrian holy book, called the Avesta, was written in the Avestan language, which is closely related to Vedic Sanskrit. The Gathas are 17 hymns traditionally believed to have been composed in Avestan, by Zarathushtra.

What are the main components of the religion as practiced by the Parsi community? Based on scientific reasoning, the adherence to purity and avoidance of pollution of natural elements, play a great role.

The Navjote ceremony is among the most significant moments in the life of a Zoroastrian. Before the age of puberty, a child is invested with the sacred sudreh (muslin vest) and kushti (sacred thread) under the guidance of the priest. These symbols of the faith remain a Parsi’s constant companions. Daily prescribed prayers, worship at Fire Temples, marriages and funerals all have their specific place and rites.


The Community

In 1780, 9.2% of the population of Bombay were Parsis. A first wave of migration followed a famine in Gujarat in 1790. By 1812 the number of Parsis in Bombay had quadrupled. A huge fire in Surat in 1837, saw a second large wave of migrations. Today, the biggest congregation of Parsis is in Mumbai, followed by other cities like Pune, Surat, Amdavad and Navsari.

The Parsis are intimately connected with the history of Mumbai. The cotton boom was largely fuelled by Parsi entrepreneurs. The oldest newspaper in Mumbai, "Bombay Samachar", was run by Parsis. They gave birth to nationalist stalwarts like Dadabhai Naoroji, Pherozeshah Mehta, Sir Dinshaw Vatcha and Madam Bhikhaji Cama. 

One of India's biggest industrial houses was founded by a Parsi, Jamsetji Tata.     Donations to build causeways, roads and buildings by members of the Jeejeebhoy and Readymoney families even determined the physical shape of erstwhile Bombay! I could go on with a list of Parsi firsts which have encrusted many a priceless jewel in Mother India’s crown. From nationalism and patriotism, to academics, sports, industries and institutions, medicine, bureaucracy, printing and publishing, to music, drama and films. 

An interesting titbit. In 1735 Loveji Nusserwanji, a master shipbuilder from Surat, was granted land in Bombay by the East India Company. He took the name of his trade Wadia, and moved into the developing town. Incidentally, the US national anthem "Star Spangled Banner" was composed by Francis Scott Key on board the ship Minden which the Wadias built. The oldest British warship, HMS Trincomalee launched in 1817 (built by the Wadia Group in Bombay), is now a museum ship.  


Parsi cuisine 

It consists predominantly of non-vegetarian fare but vegetables are as important a part of their food. Dhansak is famous around the world as the most popular Parsi dish, yet surprisingly it is a regular tradition to have it on the fourth day of someone’s death.  If there is one thing that Parsi cooking has ‘heroed’, it is the humble, flexible EGG! Parsi egg dishes are in a league all their own.

A typical sit down dinner at a Parsi function
One speciality is the “Akuri” - spicy scrambled eggs on hot buttered toast or with chapattis.  The Bharuchi Akuri is richer, with nuts, raisins, butter and cream. The Parsi omelette too is a singular, spicy version with onions, tomatoes, green chillies, ginger-garlic paste, coriander and powdered masalas, all adding their unique flavours. Their experiments have lead to delicious creations such as Eggs on Lady fingers,  Eggs on potato juliennes, on spicy tomatoes,  eggs on wafers  and you could go on with all sorts of “Par eeda” meaning egg on top of almost anything and everything!  Even kanda-keri par eeda – eggs on mangoes cooked with onions. You might not find anything else in a Parsi kitchen, but you will most definitely find eggs and a willing hostess to plate up some exciting dish with them.


Towers of Silence

In 1673, the British handed over a piece of land in Malabar Hill to the Parsi community for the establishment of their first Dakhma, Tower of Silence - the final resting place of a Parsi. 
 
It is a circular, raised structure built by Zoroastrians for excarnation. To prevent the pollution of the sacred elements: Earth, Water, and Fire, the bodies of the dead are placed at the top of open towers   exposing them to the sun and scavenging birds, thus seeking to effectually prevent decay, with all its attendant evils. The bones, falling into a central ossuary pit disintegrate naturally and anything left gets washed off by rainwater into multiple filters of coal and sand.  
 
In philanthropic Parsi Zoroastrian tradition, this funerary practice is also considered to be an individual's final act of charity, providing the birds with what would otherwise be destroyed.  Unfortunately, the vulture population on the Indian subcontinent has shrunk, chiefly due to diclofenac poisoning of the birds after the drug was introduced for livestock in the 1990s. The few surviving birds are often unable to fully consume the bodies.   Parsi communities in India had evaluated captive breeding of vultures and the use of "solar concentrators"   to accelerate decomposition.  Many now voluntarily opt for burial or cremation, but no other method has proved as fully effective as the original.


Declining Population

So why has this blooming, tiniest of India’s religious minorities, stopped booming? 

*The population of Parsis-Zoroastrians, a notified minority community under the National Commission of Minorities Act 1992 has been a cause of concern for the Ministry of minority affairs. In 1941, the community that stood at 1,14,000 went drastically down to 57, 264 as per Census data of 2011. The community has an aging demographic profile with a large number of middle-aged and elderly populations. While migration to other countries can be assumed as one of the reasons for lower population figures in India, late marriages, voluntary and involuntary childlessness are factors cited by the Jiyo Parsi scheme for the low fertility rates among the Parsi community. There is also a significantly higher percentage of unmarried Parsi males as compared to non-Parsis who are unmarried.

In 2013-2014, the ministry inaugurated the Jiyo Parsi scheme, a Government of India-supported scheme to arrest the decline in population. And since then it has been making advocacy and campaigning efforts to encourage Parsi couples to marry timely, influence their mindset to have their first or next child, tackle the stigma associated with IVF/ART therapy, introduce them to benefits of medical reimbursement, detect fertility problems, make them realize the significance of concepts like work-life balance.

#The Jiyo Parsi Scheme was thus formulated and inaugurated as The Central Sector Scheme for Containing Population Decline of Parsis in India under MOMA on 24th September 2013. There were two major components, Medical Support for infertility treatment, Advocacy and Outreach Programmes. The Scheme is unique not only to India but also worldwide. It is the first time ever that an intervention on a national scale has been attempted in any country to reverse the demographic decline of a whole community. 

Only time, concerted efforts and determination will tell over a decade what results this initiative will have led to.


* https://www.ibtimes.co.in/diminishing-parsi-community-finds-beacon-hope-new-births-despite-losing-178-covid-details-837599
Zarathushtra Image: Prophet Zarathushtra @world _zoroastrian_organization     
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Bio:
To Shernaz Wadia, reading and writing, means an inward journey. Her work has been published in various anthologies and e-journals. She sometimes dabbles in short Japanese forms of poetry too.


4 comments :

  1. The Indian Parsi community gave the world one of the greatest rock stars, Faroukh Bulsara (Freddie Mercury)
    Edwin Spencer

    ReplyDelete
  2. Zubin Mehta is another celebrity from the community.

    ReplyDelete
  3. A very informative read which certainly throws light on the small but significant parsi community. Came to know several things of the parsi history, Shernaz. Nice that the parsi community honours the humble egg in their rich culinary tradition. Do pass on the egg recipes in a blog which will be useful for those interested, like me. God bless

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thank you Shernaz for this enlightening article. Very well written and quite interesting

    ReplyDelete

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