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Parsis of India

by Dr. Jyotsna Kamat

First Online: November 13, 2004
Page Last Updated: January 29, 2014

If we were to to name one minority community that has enriched India, educationally, industrially, economically and culturally, it is the Parsee (a.k.a Parsi) community or Zoroastrians. Parsis from Persia (present day Iran) have found a permanent homeland in India. Numbering today less than a hundred thousand among the one billion Indians, this highly educated and prosperous community is fast disintegrating due to religious and social reasons.

The ancient Persians were racially akin to Indo-Aryans. They worshipped the sun and other elements like earth, water, ether, air and fire (panchamahabhootas). They built temples and installed sacred fire. They are followers of Zarathushtra who lived 3000 years before Christ. Zarathushtra preached monotheism in the name of Ahurmazda who has no form shape, beginning or end. He however acknowledged archangels who protected the humanity through the sacred elements. Hence the purity of five elements was to be protected. Significantly it is fire–god the purifier who symbolizes beginning of civilization. He is most sacred to Parsees.

The Parsis perform sacred-thread ceremony (Navajot) and some rituals are common with Hindus. But the entirely different custom is the disposal of the dead. Unlike cremation, they throw the dead bodies to vultures, allowing the nature for final rites. A human living or dead must be most useful to animal planet. Left to vultures, the soul gets purified for heavenly abode, getting rid of all earthly attachments.

The fire worshippers led a peaceful and happy life in their native land and Zoroastrianism was quite popular in parts of Asia and Europe. But with the arrival of Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries, religious zealots invaded Persia and forcible conversions took place on a very large scale. People fled to different lands. Some came to India by sea, carrying the sacred fire with them. Tradition declares that the flames were collected from potters, goldsmiths, brick makers, shepherds etc, sixteen vocations undertaken by ancient Parsees.

When the first immigrants landed on the swampy port of Navsari (Gujarat) and requested for shelter and patronage of the local ruler; he sent them a bowl of milk full to the brim, indicating that though they are welcome, his land is full of inhabitants. The Parsee high Priest asked for some sugar and put it in the bowl and sent it back. The milk did not overflow and sugar added the taste-suggesting merger as subjects and eternal help to the ruler by the refugee community. The ruler was impressed. India thus became a second homeland to new comers like Jews, Syrian Christians, Central Asian and African communities. All were free to follow their own faith and take up different pursuits.

The fair skinned, mild tempered, intelligent community adopted local language and some customs. They made a mark with the arrival of the British. Many adventurous Parsis had taken to oversees trade. Several had excelled in banking and commerce. With English education Parsee men and women shone in different fields. With prosperity came charity. Many charitable hospitals, schools, colleges, orphanages, choultries in Surat , Mumbai and Pune bear witness to the munificence of the community which reached all strata of society. They also excelled as lawyers, solicitors, doctors and administrators.

National Geographic
Parsi Lady in Traditional Dress
Parsi Lady in Traditional Dress
Photograph dated 1909 by William Thomas Fee

Many Parsis availed British patronage and started industries, a privilege enjoyed only by the ruling class. But some were great nationalists like Dadabhai Navroji (1825-1917) known as Grand old Man of Indian Nationalism, Sir Pherozshah Mehta and Madame Bhikaji Cama. Sir Jamshedji Tata broke the monopoly of the Europeans in industry. Even today the Tatas are a leading industrial house in India. Wadias, Godrejs and scores of other Parsis have made India progressive.

But the genetic stock of this highly intelligent section has become weak. A very conservative community as far as religious matters are concerned has never allowed conversions. Any man or woman marrying an outsider is considered as an outcast. As a result of in-breeding, high incidence of genetic defects has set in. Asthma, heart and neurological problems, myopia, and depression have become hereditary. Many have become Christians and as a result are disowned by the sect. Thus the number is diminishing.

The Parsee priesthood is hereditary. There is a twentieth generation priest in a Mumbai Fire Temple (Agyari). The clergy claim to have kept Zoroastrian race intact and pure. The oldest and biggest Fire Temple is at Udvada (Gujarat). Others are in Navsari, Surat, Mumbai and Pune, where there is concentration of the Parsis. Oldest sacred fire flame still burning today in Mumbai is thirteen centuries old.

© K. L. Kamat
Dadabhai Navroji (1825-1917)
Dadabhai Navroji (1825-1917)
Navroji was an important pillar of Indian nationalistc movement and served as president of Indian National Congress during 1886, 1893, and 1906.

The disposal of the dead (throwing the body to the vultures) is a hoary tribal practice of ancient Iran. The scavenger birds made the clean job in the past in the dokhmas or "towers of silence" where the dead were thrown earlier were situated outside the city with high walls. Mumbai metro has since grown beyond borders, and the  towers are in the midst of the city. They are a health hazard. The shy vultures avoid crowd and have become almost extinct. Special efforts are on to breed carnivorous vultures. Many enlightened Parsis opt for cremation these days. Inter-religious marriages are taking place. These developments are causing concern to elders and religious heads of a fast diminishing community whose birth rate has fallen ominously down.

Like languages, Parsis adapted Indian costumes with their own designs. Women used to were long sleeved blouses and sarees with reverse pallu. Men wore trousers (not dhoti) with long coats and tall cornered black caps. Nowadays there is nothing special to distinguish them from other highly westernized Indians except their fair complexion and sharp features.

Parsee cuisine with liberal use of egg base is very popular. Their vegetable, meat, pulse and rice potpourri (dhanshakh) and fish stuffed with spice rolled in banana leaves (patrani machchi) are a rage.

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