Text by Khushi Makasare
One of the world’s oldest religions, Zoroastrianism might slowly be fading into obscurity.
The Dadar Parsi Colony in Mumbai, India is home to the largest concentration of Zoroastrians in the world. The colony is made up of about 15,000 Parsis, an ethnoreligious group of Persian descendants who follow the Zoroastrian religion.
Continuous political turmoil and draconian acts of religious persecution forced the community to flee Persia in the 7th century. The travellers set sail east, with no certainty of their destination, and landed in the western Indian state of Gujarat. Parsi communities can now be found in several regions across the country, including Mumbai, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Pune, and Bangalore. Besides India, a substantial number of Parsis are also located in neighbouring Pakistan.
An ancient pre-Islamic religion with a rich history tracing back to the era of Iranian empires, Zoroastrianism is followed by no more than 120,000 globally, and numbers are dwindling, with orthodox Parsis refusing to allow the remit for new members to be widened.
The symbol of Zoroastrianism on the facade of a fire temple in Yazd, Iran
Zoroastrianism gets its name from its spiritual founder, Zoroaster (also known as Zarathustra), who inaugurated a movement that challenged the pagan beliefs that existed in ancient Persia. Scholars disagree on when Zoroaster lived. Some insist the religion’s roots date back as far as the second millennium BCE, while others suggest he belongs to the 6th or 7th century BCE, prior to the first Persian empire of Cyrus the Great.
Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion during the Persian empires for well over 1,000 years. But with the Arab Muslim conquest of Persia (633-654 CE), Zoroastrian temples were destroyed, Persian libraries were burned, and Zoroastrians were forced to convert to Islam. It was this widespread persecution at the hands of the Rashidun Caliphate that led to a mass migration of Zoroastrians to India, where they have enjoyed refuge ever since.
Zoroastrians branch out into mainly two communities in the Indian subcontinent – the Parsis and the Iranis – which are culturally, ethnically and linguistically distinct.
RITUALS AND PRACTICES
Followers of Zoroastrianism celebrate auspicious festivals such as Nowruz, the Persian New Year, as well as Pateti, the day preceding Nowruz, where devotees seek repentance. On many such special occasions, the fire temple – the place of worship for Zoroastrians – witnesses large crowds of devoted followers.
While most religions welcome individuals of all ages, Zoroastrianism is somewhat stricter. Instead, to be initiated into Zoroastrianism, children have to be of at least seven years of age or prepubescent. The unusual emphasis on age is due to the ritual’s requirement for the child to recite religious scriptures and prayers in order to be inducted – hence, the appropriate age of seven. This initiation ceremony is known as Navjote.
A wedding is always looked upon as a joyous day of celebration, but the Parsis really celebrate in style. The bride and bridegroom, as well as their guardians, will first sign a marriage contract. Then, the service is followed by feasts and celebrations, which traditionally last up to seven days. Among the many wedding rituals are the Nahan and Supra Nu Murat. In the former, the couple takes a holy bath to purify their souls. The latter is a joyous ceremony where a mustard-hued paste – made from betel nut, betel leaf, dates, turmeric, and coconut – is applied to the estimated faces of the soon-to-be-married couple.
By contrast, the traditional Zoroastrian funeral is an unsettling affair for observers outside the religion. Zoroastrians consider the human corpse to be nasu, or unclean, and there are specific rules for disposing of the dead so as not to contaminate the sacred elements, earth, fire, and water. The dokhmenashini tradition requires laying the dead in an open-air structure called the dakhma, or the Tower of Silence. The bodies consigned to the dakhma are eaten away by birds of prey, mainly vultures. The event has a softer side – the love and respect for dogs. The bodies of the deceased are followed by dogs to the dakhma, and it is believed that in the afterlife, the souls are led by dogs to the gates of heaven.
In recent decades, South Asia’s population of vultures, the principal scavengers in the excarnation ritual, has plummeted, from an 40 million in the 1980s to fewer than 20,000 today. It was discovered that Diclofenac, a common anti-inflammatory drug administered to livestock, was toxic to vultures, which received a fatal dose upon feeding on a contaminated carcass. The issue has had a huge impact on India’s Zoroastrians, who have been forced to resort to cremation. But many priests, vehemently opposed to the idea of polluting fire with dead matter, have refused to hold prayer were to be cremated.
THE 1832 DOG RIOTS
Bombay of the early 1800s was filled with stray dogs, considered a nuisance by the city’s British administered magistrate of police. But with dogs being regarded as particularly noble and righteous creatures in Zoroastrianism, when the authorities decided to resort to culling the animals in 1832, the community was outraged. Protests eventually turned violent as Parsis took to the streets, ultimately forcing the magistrate to back down and allow the dogs to be relocated outside the city. The “Dog Riots” have the distinction of being the first riot in Bombay under British India.
A FORCE TO BE RECKONED WITH
The Parsi community has made important contributions to society in India, with monumental architectural feats and successful careers in the film and music industries. Household names such as Godrej and Tata are some of the most well-known Parsi families to have paved the way for industrial growth. Iconic landmarks across Mumbai such as the Jehangir Art Gallery and Crawford Market were built by Parsi leader and industrialist Cowasji Jehangir Readymoney. He also funded the construction of hospitals and asylums for the poor. Jamsetji Tata, founder of the Tata Group, India’s largest conglomerate, came from a poor family of Parsi priests.
While there have been many accomplished Parsis in history, there is one in particular who made the notorious list. Physician Buck Ruxton, born Bukhtyar Chompa Rustomji Ratanji Hakim in 1899, was from a wealthy Parsi family hailing from Mumbai. Relocating from India to Edinburgh, Scotland to become a surgeon, he soon met a woman who managed a café in the city. The couple had three children and a comfortable life with a live-in housekeeper, but the relationship became strained as Ruxton became consumed by fits of anger and jealousy. Six years later, Ruxton was convicted of murdering the mother of his children and the housemaid, and was hung. The prosecution of the crimes of “The Savage Surgeon” was one of the most notorious legal cases in Britain during the 1930s.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END?
While the Zoroastrian community was only ever a drop in India’s enormous ocean of people, the country has witnessed a huge decrease in the Parsi population over the decades. By some estimates, today there are only around 50,000 Parsis, down from approximately 114,000 in 1941. Among the community in Mumbai, the approximate 750 deaths annually far outstrip the roughly 150 births per year. Approaching half of Parsi marriages are with outsiders, a dilution of Parsi culture that is unacceptable to an orthodoxy that defines Parsi as only those who have Parsi fathers.
Other factors that could explain the dwindling numbers can’t be blamed entirely on religious strictures. Some young Parsis are migrating to the West, while others are choosing to raise one child because of the rising cost of living. Others still, with a limited choice of partners from the community and marrying outside being frowned upon, have resigned themselves to remaining single. With the steady decline in the Parsi population, it seems Zoroastrians are fighting the very extinction of their faith.
In Asian Geographic’s Issue No. 153, Religion is decoded as we delve into the major world religions. Covering Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism.
This issue follows the rise and fall of these major religions as well as the practices and traditions that have stood the test of time. Journey through the history of these religions and gain a deeper understanding of the beliefs that inspire such deep devotion and faith in their followers.
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