Portrait of a Parsee Lady
by Raja Ravi Varma
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A Parsi or Parsee // is a member of one of the two Zoroastrian communities found throughout South Asia. They are ethnically distinct from the Iranis even though both groups descend from Persian Zoroastrians.
According to the Qissa-i Sanjan tradition, the present-day Parsis descend from a group of Zoroastrians from Greater Iran who migrated to the western borders of South Asia (Gujarat and Sindh) during the 8th or 10th century to avoid persecution by Muslim invaders who were in the process of conquering Iran. At the time of the Muslim conquest of Persia, the dominant religion of the region was Zoroastrianism. Iranians rebelled against Arab invaders for almost 200 years; in Iran this period is now known as the "Two Centuries of Silence" or "Period of Silence". During this time many Iranians who are now called Parsi rejected both options and instead chose to take refuge by fleeing from Iran to India.
The word "Parsi" in the Persian language literally means Persian. Persian is the official language of modern Iran, which is also known as Persia. The language (Parsi) is commonly referred to as Farsi, the reason being that, after the Arab invasion of Persia, because of the absence of the "P / G / Zh / Ch" sounds in the Arabic language, Parsi became Farsi. Similarly, Babak Khorramdin's first name, originally Papak (Papa + Kuchak = Papak), "Young Father", became Babak.
The long presence of the Parsis in the Gujarat and Sindh areas of India distinguishes them from the smaller Zoroastrian Indian community of Iranis, who are much more recent arrivals, mostly descended from Zoroastrians fleeing the repression of the Qajar regime and the general social and political tumult of late 19th- and early 20th-century Iran.
- 1 Definition and identity
- 2 Origins
- 3 Demographic statistics
- 4 History
- 5 Parsi religious practice
- 6 Factions within the community
- 7 Prominent Parsis
- 8 Representations in popular culture
- 9 Citations
- 10 References
- 11 Further reading
- 12 External links
Definition and identity
According to the Encyclopædia Britannica,
Parsi, also spelled Parsee, member of a group of followers in India of the Iranian prophet Zoroaster. The Parsis, whose name means "Persians", are descended from Persian Zoroastrians who emigrated to India to avoid religious persecution by the Muslims. They live chiefly in Bombay and in a few towns and villages mostly to the north of Bombay, but also a few minorities near by in Karachi (Pakistan) and Bangalore (Karnataka, India). There is a sizeable Parsee population in Pune as well in Hyderbad. A few Parsee families also reside in Kolkata and Chennai. Although they are not, strictly speaking, a caste, since they are not Hindus, they form a well-defined community. The exact date of the Parsi migration is unknown. According to tradition, the Parsis initially settled at Hormuz on the Persian Gulf, but finding themselves still persecuted they set sail for India, arriving in the 8th century. The migration may in fact have taken place as late as the 10th century, or in both. They settled first at Diu in Kathiawar but soon moved to south Gujarāt, where they remained for about 800 years as a small agricultural community.
The term Pārsi, which in the Persian language is a demonym meaning "inhabitant of Pārs" and hence "ethnic Persian", is not attested in Indian Zoroastrian texts until the 17th century. Until that time, such texts consistently use the Persian-origin terms Zartoshti "Zoroastrian" or Vehdin "[of] the good religion". The 12th-century Sixteen Shlokas, a Sanskrit text in praise of the Parsis, is the earliest attested use of the term as an identifier for Indian Zoroastrians.
The first reference to the Parsis in a European language is from 1322, when a French monk, Jordanus, briefly refers to their presence in Thane and Bharuch. Subsequently, the term appears in the journals of many European travelers, first French and Portuguese, later English, all of whom used a Europeanized version of an apparently local language term. For example, Portuguese physician Garcia de Orta observed in 1563 that "there are merchants ... in the kingdom of Cambaia ... known as Esparcis. We Portuguese call them Jews, but they are not so. They are Gentios." In an early 20th-century legal ruling (see self-perceptions, below), Justices Davar and Beaman asserted (1909:540) that "Parsi" was also a term used in Iran to refer to Zoroastrians.(Stausberg 2002, p. I.373) Boyce (2002, p. 105) notes that in much the same way as the word "Hindu" was used by Iranians to refer to anyone from the Indian subcontinent, "Parsi" was used by the Indians to refer to anyone from Greater Iran, irrespective of whether they were actually ethnic Persian people. In any case, the term "Parsi" itself is "not necessarily an indication of their Iranian or 'Persian' origin, but rather as indicator – manifest as several properties – of ethnic identity" (Stausberg 2002, p. I. 373). Moreover, if heredity were the only factor in a determination of ethnicity, the Parsis would count as Parthians according to the Qissa-i Sanjan. (Boyce 2002, p. 105)
The term "Parseeism" or "Parsiism" is attributed to Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron, who in the 1750s, when the word "Zoroastrianism" had yet to be coined, made the first detailed report of the Parsis and of Zoroastrianism, therein mistakenly assuming that the Parsis were the only remaining followers of the religion.
Zoroaster taught that good and evil were opposite forces and that it was a person's duty to make a choice between the two. The two paths are asha, the path of righteousness, and druj the path of the lie. Good is represented by Ahura Mazda and evil by Angra Mainyu. The Zoroastrian holy book, called the Avesta, was written in the Avestan language, which is closely related to Vedic Sanskrit.
The Qissa-i Sanjan is a tale of the journey of the Parsis to India from Iran. It says they fled for reasons of religious freedom and they were allowed to settle in India thanks to the goodwill of a local Hindu prince. However, the Parsi community had to abide by three rules: they had to speak the local language, follow local marriage customs, and not carry any weapons. After showing the many similarities between their faith and local beliefs, the early community was granted a plot of land on which to build a fire temple.
As an ethnic community
Over the centuries since the first Zoroastrians arrived in India, the Parsis have integrated themselves into Indian society while simultaneously maintaining or developing their own distinct customs and traditions (and thus ethnic identity). This in turn has given the Parsi community a rather peculiar standing: they are Indians in terms of national affiliation, language and history, but not typically Indian (constituting only 0.006% of the total population) in terms of consanguinity or cultural, behavioural and religious practices. Genealogical DNA tests to determine purity of lineage have brought mixed results. One study supports the Parsi contention (Nanavutty 1970, p. 13) that they have maintained their Persian roots by avoiding intermarriage with local populations. In that 2002 study of the Y-chromosome (patrilineal) DNA of the Parsis of Pakistan, it was determined that Parsis are genetically closer to Iranians than to their neighbours (Qamar et al. 2002, p. 1119). However, a 2004 study in which Parsi mitochondrial DNA (matrilineal) was compared with that of the Iranians and Gujaratis determined that Parsis are genetically closer to Gujaratis than to Iranians. Taking the 2002 study into account, the authors of the 2004 study suggested "a male-mediated migration of the ancestors of the present-day Parsi population, where they admixed with local females [...] leading ultimately to the loss of mtDNA of Iranian origin" (Quintana-Murci et al. 2004, p. 840)
The definition of who is, and is not, a Parsi is a matter of great contention within the Zoroastrian community in India. It is generally accepted that a Parsi is a person who is:
- a) directly descended from the original Persian refugees, and
- b) has been formally admitted into the Zoroastrian religion.
In this sense, Parsi is an ethno-religious designator, whose definition is of contention among its members; similar to the contention over who is a Jew in the West.
Some members of the community additionally contend that a child must have a Parsi father to be eligible for introduction into the faith, but this assertion is considered by most to be a violation of the Zoroastrian tenets of gender equality and may be a remnant of an old legal definition of the term Parsi.
An often-quoted legal definition of Parsi is based on a 1909 ruling (since nullified) that not only stipulated that a person could not become a Parsi by converting to the Zoroastrian faith but also noted:
the Parsi community consists of: a) Parsis who are descended from the original Persian emigrants and who are born of both Zoroastrian parents and who profess the Zoroastrian religion; b) Iranis [here meaning Iranians, not the other group of Indian Zoroastrians] professing the Zoroastrian religion; c) the children of Parsi fathers by alien mothers who have been duly and properly admitted into the religion."(Sir Dinsha Manekji Petit v. Sir Jamsetji Jijibhai 1909)
This definition was overturned several times. The equality principles of the Indian Constitution void the patrilineal restrictions expressed in the third clause. The second clause was contested and overturned in 1948.(Sarwar Merwan Yezdiar v. Merwan Rashid Yezdiar 1948) On appeal in 1950, the 1948 ruling was upheld and the entire 1909 definition was deemed an obiter dictum - a collateral opinion and not legally binding (re-affirmed in 1966).(Merwan Rashid Yezdiar v. Sarwar Merwan Yezdiar 1950;Jamshed Irani v. Banu Irani 1966).
Nonetheless, the opinion that the 1909 ruling is legally binding continues to persist, even among the better-read and moderate Parsis. In the February 21, 2006, editorial of the Parsiana, the fortnightly of the Parsi Zoroastrian community, the editor noted that several adult children born of a Parsi mother and non-Parsi father had been inducted into the faith and that their choice "to embrace their mother's faith speaks volumes for their commitment to the religion." In recalling the ruling, the editor noted that although "they are legally and religiously full-fledged Zoroastrians, they are not considered Parsi Zoroastrians in the eyes of the law" and hence "legally they may not avail of fire temples specified for Parsi Zoroastrians." (Parsiana 2006, p. 2).
Demographic statistics 
According to the National Commission for Minorities, there are a "variety of causes that are responsible for this steady decline in the population of the community", the most significant of which were childlessness and migration (Roy & Unisa 2004, pp. 8, 21). Demographic trends project that by the year 2020 the Parsis will number only 23,000 (less than 0.002% of the 2001 population of India). The Parsis will then cease to be called a community and will be labeled a 'tribe'. (Taraporevala 2000, p. 9).
One-fifth of the decrease in population is attributed to migration (Roy & Unisa 2004, p. 21). A slower birthrate than deathrate accounts for the rest: as of 2001, Parsis over the age of 60 make up for 31% of the community. Only 4.7% of the Parsi community are under 6 years of age, which translates to 7 births per year per 1000 individuals (Roy & Unisa 2004, p. 14).
Other demographic statistics
The gender ratio among Parsis is unusual: as of 2001, the ratio of males to females was 1000 males to 1050 females (up from 1024 in 1991), due primarily to the high median age of the population (elderly women are more common than elderly men). As of 2001 the national average in India was 1000 males to 933 females.
Parsis have a high literacy rate: as of 2001, the literacy rate is 97.9%, the highest of any Indian community (the national average is 64.8%). 96.1% of Parsis reside in urbanised areas (the national average is 27.8%).
In the Greater Mumbai area, where the density of Parsis is highest, about 10% of Parsi females and about 20% of Parsi males do not marry (Roy & Unisa 2004, pp. 18, 19).
Arrival in Sindh/Gujarat
According to the Qeṣṣa-ye Sanjān (The Story of Sanjān), the only existing account of the early years of Zoroastrian refugees in India but composed at least six centuries after their tentative date of arrival, one group of immigrants (today presumed to have been the first) originated from (greater) Khorasan (Hodivala 1920, p. 88). This region in Central Asia is in part in North-Eastern Iran (where it constitutes the Khorasan province), in part in Eastern Afghanistan and Western Pakistan, and in part in three Central-Asian republics of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. According to the Qissa, the immigrants were granted permission to stay by the local ruler Jadi Rana on the condition that they adopt the local language (Gujarati), that their women adopt local dress (the sari), and that they henceforth cease to bear arms (Hodivala 1920). The refugees accepted the conditions and founded the settlement of Sanjan, which is said to have been named after the city of their origin (Sanjan, near Merv, in present-day Turkmenistan).(Hodivala 1920, p. 88) This first group was followed by a second group, also from Greater Khorasan, within five years of the first, and this time having religious implements with them (the alat). In addition to these Khorasanis or Kohistanis – mountain folk, as the two initial groups are said to have been initially called (Vimadalal 1979, p. 2) – at least one other group is said to have come overland from Sari (in present-day Mazandaran, Iran). (Paymaster 1954)
Although the Sanjan group are believed to have been the first permanent settlers, the precise date of their arrival is a matter of conjecture. All estimates are based on the Qissa, which is vague or contradictory with respect to some elapsed periods. Consequently, three possible dates – 936 AD, 765 AD and 716 AD – have been proposed as the year of landing, and the disagreement has been the cause of "many an intense battle ... amongst Parsis" (Taraporevala 2000). Since dates are not specifically mentioned in Parsi texts prior to the 18th century, any date of arrival is perforce a matter of speculation. The importance of the Qissa lies in any case not so much in its reconstruction of events than in its depiction of the Parsis – in the way they have come to view themselves – and in their relationship to the dominant culture. As such, the text plays a crucial role in shaping Parsi identity. But, "even if one comes to the conclusion that the chronicle based on verbal transmission is not more than a legend, it still remains without doubt an extremely informative document for Parsee historiography." (Kulke 1978, p. 25)
The Sanjan Zoroastrians were certainly not the first Zoroastrians on the subcontinent. Sindh touching Balochistan, the easternmost periphery of the Iranian world, too had once been under coastal administration of the Sassanid (226-651 AD) empire, which consequently maintained outposts there. Even following the loss of Sindh, the Iranians continued to play a major role in the trade links between the east and west, and in the light of Brahmanical discouragement of trans-oceanic voyages, which Hindus then regarded as polluting, it is likely that Iranians maintained trading posts in Gujarat as well. The 9th-century Arab historiographer al-Masudi briefly notes Zoroastrians with fire temples in al-Hind and in al-Sindh. (Stausberg 2002, p. I.374) Moreover, for the Iranians, the harbors of Gujarat lay on the maritime routes that complemented the overland Silk road and there were extensive trade relations between the two regions. The contact between Iranians and Indians was already well established even prior to the Common Era, and both the Puranas and the Mahabharata use the term Parasikas to refer to the peoples west of the Indus river. (Maneck 1997, p. 15)
"Parsi legends regarding their ancestors' migration to India depict a beleaguered band of religious refugees escaping the harsh rule of fanatical Muslim invaders in order to preserve their ancient faith." (Maneck 1997, p. 15; cf. Paymaster 1954, pp. 2–3, Boyce 2001, p. 148, Lambton 1981, p. 205, Nigosian 1993, p. 42) However, while Parsi settlements definitely arose along the western coast of the Indian subcontinent following the Arab conquest of Iran, it is not possible to state with certainty that these migrations occurred as a result of religious persecution against Zoroastrians. If the "traditional" 8th century date (as deduced from the Qissa) is considered valid, it must be assumed "that the migration began while Zoroastrianism was still the predominant religion in Iran [and] economic factors predominated the initial decision to migrate." (Maneck 1997, p. 15) This would have been particularly the case if – as the Qissa suggests – the first Parsis originally came from the north-east (i.e. Central Asia) and had previously been dependent on Silk Road trade (Stausberg 2002, p. I.373). Even so, in the 17th century, Henry Lord, a chaplain with the British East India Company, noted that the Parsis came to India seeking "liberty of conscience" but simultaneously arrived as "merchantmen bound for the shores of India, in course of trade and merchandise." That the Arabs charged non-Muslims higher duties when trading from Muslim-held ports may be interpreted to be a form of religious persecution, but that this was the only reason to migrate appears unlikely. That persecution was the sole motivating factor to emigrate has also been questioned by Parsis themselves (Nariman 1933, p. 277), and "both factors – the need to open new avenues of trade, and the desire to establish a Zoroastrian community in an area that was free from Muslim harassment – entered into the decision to emigrate to Gujarat." (Maneck 1997, p. 16).
The early years
The Qissa has little to say about the events that followed the establishment of Sanjan, and restricts itself to a brief note on the establishment of the "Fire of Victory" (Middle Persian: Atash Bahram) at Sanjan and its subsequent move to Navsari. According to Dhalla, the next several centuries were "full of hardships" (sic) before Zoroastrianism "gained a real foothold in India and secured for its adherents some means of livelihood in this new country of their adoption" (Dhalla 1938, p. 447).
Two centuries after their landing, the Parsis began to settle in other parts of Gujarat, which led to "difficulties in defining the limits of priestly jurisdiction." (Kulke 1978, p. 29) These problems were resolved by 1290 through the division of Gujarat into five panthaks (districts), each under the jurisdiction of one priestly family and their descendants. (Continuing disputes regarding jurisdiction over the Atash Bahram led to the fire being moved to Udvada in 1742, where today jurisdiction is shared in rotation between the five panthak families.)
Inscriptions at the Kanheri Caves near Mumbai suggest that at least until the early 11th century Middle Persian was still the literary language of the hereditary Zoroastrian priesthood. Nonetheless, aside from the Qissa and the Kanheri inscriptions, there is little evidence of the Parsis until the 12th and 13th century, when "masterly" (Dhalla 1938, p. 448) Sanskrit translations and transcriptions of the Avesta and its commentaries began to be prepared. From these translations Dhalla infers that "religious studies were prosecuted with great zeal at this period" and that the command of Middle Persian and Sanskrit among the clerics "was of a superior order".(Dhalla 1938, p. 448).
From the 13th century to the late 16th century, the Zoroastrian priests of Gujarat sent (in all) twenty-two requests for religious guidance to their co-religionists in Iran, presumably because they considered the Iranian Zoroastrians "better informed on religious matters than themselves, and must have preserved the old-time tradition more faithfully than they themselves did" (Dhalla 1938, p. 457). These transmissions and their replies – assiduously preserved by the community as the rivayats (epistles) – span the years 1478–1766 and deal with both religious and social subjects. From a superficial 21st century point of view, some of these ithoter ("questions") are remarkably trivial – for instance, Rivayat 376: whether ink prepared by a non-Zoroastrian is suitable for copying Avestan language texts – but they provide a discerning insight into the fears and anxieties of the early modern Zoroastrians. Thus, the question of the ink is symptomatic of the fear of assimilation and the loss of identity, a theme that dominates the questions posed and continues to be an issue into the 21st century. So also the question of conversion of Juddins (non-Zoroastrians) to Zoroastrianism, to which the reply (R237, R238) was: acceptable, even meritorious.(Dhalla 1938, pp. 474–475)
Nonetheless, "the precarious condition in which they lived for a considerable period made it impracticable for them to keep up their former proselytizing zeal. The instinctive fear of disintegration and absorption in the vast multitudes among whom they lived created in them a spirit of exclusiveness and a strong desire to preserve the racial characteristics and distinctive features of their community. Living in an atmosphere surcharged with the Hindu caste system, they felt that their own safety lay in encircling their fold by rigid caste barriers" (Dhalla 1938, p. 474). Even so, at some point (possibly shortly after their arrival in India), the Zoroastrians – perhaps determining that the social stratification that they had brought with them was unsustainable in the small community – did away with all but the hereditary priesthood (called the asronih in Sassanid Iran). The remaining estates – the (r)atheshtarih (nobility, soldiers, and civil servants), vastaryoshih (farmers and herdsmen), hutokshih (artisans and labourers) – were folded into an all-comprehensive class today known as the behdini ("followers of daena", for which "good religion" is one translation). This change would have far reaching consequences. For one, it opened the gene pool to some extent since until that time inter-class marriages were exceedingly rare (this would continue to be a problem for the priesthood until the 20th century). For another, it did away with the boundaries along occupational lines, a factor that would endear the Parsis to the 18th- and 19th-century British colonial authorities who had little patience for the unpredictable complications of the Hindu caste system (such as when a clerk from one caste would not deal with a clerk from another).
The age of opportunity
Following the commercial treaty in the early 17th century between Mughal emperor Jahangir and James I of England, the British East India Company obtained the exclusive rights to reside and build factories in Surat and other areas. Many Parsis, who until then had been living in farming communities throughout Gujarat, moved to the British-run settlements to take the new jobs offered. In 1668 the British East India Company leased the seven islands of Bombay from Charles II of England. The company found the deep harbour on the east coast of the islands to be ideal for setting up their first port in the sub-continent, and in 1687 they transferred their headquarters from Surat to the fledgling settlement. The Parsis followed and soon began to occupy posts of trust in connection with government and public works (Palsetia 2001, pp. 47–57).
Where literacy had previously been the exclusive domain of the priesthood, the British schools in India provided the new Parsi youth with the means not only to learn to read and write but also to be educated in the greater sense of the term and become familiar with the quirks of the British establishment. These capabilities were enormously useful to Parsis since they allowed them to "represent themselves as being like the British," which they did "more diligently and effectively than perhaps any other South Asian community" (Luhrmann 2002, p. 861). While the British saw the other Indians "as passive, ignorant, irrational, outwardly submissive but inwardly guileful" (Luhrmann 1994, p. 333), the Parsis were seen to have the traits that the colonial authorities tended to ascribe to themselves. Mandelslo (1638) saw them as "diligent", "conscientious", and "skillful" in their mercantile pursuits. Similar observations would be made by James Mackintosh, Recorder of Bombay from 1804 to 1811, who noted that "the Parsees are a small remnant of one of the mightiest nations of the ancient world, who, flying from persecution into India, were for many ages lost in obscurity and poverty, till at length they met a just government under which they speedily rose to be one of the most popular mercantile bodies in Asia" (qtd. in Darukhanawala & Jeejeebhoy 1938, p. 33).
One of these was an enterprising agent named Rustom Maneck. In 1702 Maneck, who had probably already amassed a fortune under the Dutch and Portuguese, was appointed the first broker to the East India Company (acquiring the name "Seth" in the process), and in the following years "he and his Parsi associates widened the occupational and financial horizons of the larger Parsi community" (White 1991, p. 304). Thus, by the mid-18th century, the brokerage houses of the Bombay Presidency were almost all in Parsi hands. As James Forbes, the Collector of Broach (now Bharuch), would note in his Oriental Memoirs (1770): "many of the principal merchants and owners of ships at Bombay and Surat are Parsees." "Active, robust, prudent and persevering, they now form a very valuable part of the Company's subjects on the western shores of Hindustan where they are highly esteemed" (qtd. in Darukhanawala & Jeejeebhoy 1938, p. 33). Gradually certain families "acquired wealth and prominence (Sorabji, Modi, Cama, Wadia, Jeejeebhoy, Readymoney, Dadyseth, Petit, Patel, Mehta, Allbless, Tata, etc.), many of which would be noted for their participation in the public life of the city, and for their various educational, industrial, and charitable enterprises." (Hull 1913; cf. Palsetia 2001, pp. 37–45, 62-64, 128-140, 334-135).
Through his largesse, Maneck helped establish the infrastructure that was necessary for the Parsis to set themselves up in Bombay and in doing so "established Bombay as the primary centre of Parsi habitation and work in the 1720s" (White 1991, p. 304). Following the political and economic isolation of Surat in the 1720s and 1730s that resulted from troubles between the (remnant) Mughal authorities and the increasingly dominant Marathas, a number of Parsi families from Surat migrated to the new city. While in 1700 "fewer than a handful of individuals appear as merchants in any records; by mid-century, Parsis engaged in commerce constituted one of important commercial groups in Bombay" (White 1991, p. 312). Maneck's generosity is incidentally also the first documented instance of Parsi philanthropy. In 1689, Anglican chaplain John Ovington reported that in Surat the family "assist the poor and are ready to provide for the sustenance and comfort of such as want it. Their universal kindness, either employing such as are ready and able to work, or bestowing a seasonable bounteous charity to such as are infirm and miserable, leave no man destitute of relief, nor suffer a beggar in all their tribe" (Ovington 1929, p. 216).
In 1728 Rustom's eldest son Naoroz (later Naorojee) founded the Bombay Parsi Panchayat (in the sense of an instrument for self-governance and not in the sense of the trust it is today) to assist newly arriving Parsis in religious, social, legal and financial matters. Using their vast resources, the Maneck Seth family gave their time, energy and not inconsiderable financial resources to the Parsi community, with the result that by the mid-18th century, the Panchayat was the accepted means for Parsis to cope with the exigencies of urban life and the recognized instrument for regulating the affairs of the community (Karaka 1884, pp. 215–217). Nonetheless, by 1838 the Panchayat was under attack for impropriety and nepotism. In 1855 the Bombay Times noted that the Panchayat was utterly without the moral or legal authority to enforce its statutes (the Bundobusts or codes of conduct) and the council soon ceased to be considered representative of the community (Dobbin 1970, pp. 150–151). In the wake of a July 1856 ruling by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council that it had no jurisdiction over the Parsis in matters of marriage and divorce, the Panchayat was reduced to little more than a Government-recognized "Parsi Matrimonial Court". Although the Panchayat would eventually be reestablished as the administrator of community property, it ultimately ceased to be an instrument for self-governance (Palsetia 2001, pp. 223–225).
At about the same time as the role of the Panchayat was declining, a number of other institutions arose that would replace the Panchayat's role in contributing to the sense of social cohesiveness that the community desperately sought. By the mid-19th century, the Parsis were keenly aware that their numbers were declining and saw education as a possible solution to the problem. In 1842 Jamsetji Jeejeebhoy established the Parsi Benevolent Fund with the aim of improving, through education, the condition of the impoverished Parsis still living in Surat and its environs. In 1849 the Parsis established their first school (co-educational, which was a novelty at the time, but would soon be split into separate schools for boys and girls) and the education movement quickened. The number of Parsi schools multiplied, but other schools and colleges were also freely attended (Palsetia 2001, pp. 135–139). Accompanied by better education and social cohesiveness, the community's sense of distinctiveness grew, and in 1854 Dinshaw Maneckji Petit founded the Persian Zoroastrian Amelioration Fund with the aim of improving conditions for his less fortunate co-religionists in Iran. The fund succeeded in convincing a number of Iranian Zoroastrians to emigrate to India (where they are known today as Iranis) and may have been instrumental in obtaining a remission of the jizya poll tax for their co-religionists in 1882. In the 18th and 19th centuries the Parsis had emerged as "the foremost people in India in matters educational, industrial, and social. They came in the vanguard of progress, amassed vast fortunes, and munificently gave away large sums in charity" (Dhalla 1948, p. 483). By the close of the 19th century, the total number of Parsis in colonial India was 85,397, of which 48,507 lived in Bombay, constituting 6% of the total population of the city (Census, 1881). This would be the last time that the Parsis would be considered a numerically significant minority in the city.
Nonetheless, the legacy of the 19th century was a sense of self-awareness as a community. The typically Parsi cultural symbols of the 17th and 18th centuries such as language (a Parsi variant of Gujarati), arts, crafts, and sartorial habits developed into Parsi theatre, literature, newspapers, magazines, and schools. The Parsis now ran community medical centres, ambulance corps, boy scout troops, clubs, and masonic lodges. They had their own charitable foundations, housing estates, legal institutions, courts, and governance. They were no longer weavers and petty merchants, but now were established and ran banks, mills, heavy industry, shipyards, and shipping companies. Moreover, even while maintaining their own cultural identity they did not fail to recognize themselves as nationally Indian, as Dadabhai Naoroji, the first Asian to occupy a seat in the British Parliament would note: "Whether I am a Hindu, a Mohammedan, a Parsi, a Christian, or of any other creed, I am above all an Indian. Our country is India; our nationality is Indian". (Ralhan 2002, p. 1101)
Parsi religious practice
Parsis are generally not very concerned with the theological study aspect of their religion. Most Parsis know their religion because it is tied into their identity and know very little about the formal teachings. The main components of Zoroastrianism and the Parsi community is the concept of purity and pollution, initiation, daily prayers, temple worship, marriage, funerals, and general worship.
Purity and pollution
The balance between good and evil is correlated to the idea of purity and pollution. Purity is held to be of the very essence of godliness. Pollution's very point is to destroy purity through the death of a human. In order to adhere to purity it is the duty of Parsis to continue to preserve purity within their body as God created them. A Zoroastrian priest spends his entire life dedicated to following a holy life.
In Zoroastrianism a person is not initiated as an infant like christening. Normally, a child is initiated into the faith when he or she is old enough to choose to enter into the faith. The initiation begins with a ritual bath, then a spiritual cleansing prayer; the child changes into white pajama pants, a shawl, and a small cap. Following introductory prayers, the child is given the sacred items that are associated with Zoroastrianism: a sacred shirt and cord, sudre, and kusti. The child then faces the main priest and fire is brought in to represent God. Once the priest finishes with the prayers, the child’s initiation is finished and he or she is now a part of the community and religion.
Marriage is very important to the members of the Parsi community, believing that, in order to continue the expansion of God’s kingdom, they must procreate. Up until the mid-19th century child marriages were common even though the idea of child marriage was not part of the religious doctrine. Consequently, when social reform started happening in India, the Parsi community discontinued the practice. There are, however, rising problems over the availability of brides. More and more women in the Parsi community are becoming well educated and are therefore either delaying marriage or not partaking at all. Women within the Parsi community in India are ninety-seven percent literate; forty-two percent have completed high school or college and twenty-nine percent have an occupation in which they earn a substantial amount of money. The wedding ceremony begins much like the initiation with a cleansing bath. The bride and groom then travel to the wedding in florally decorated cars. The priests from both families facilitate the wedding. The couple begins by facing one another with a sheet to block their view of one another. Wool is passed over the two seven times to bind them together. The two are then supposed to throw rice to their partner symbolizing dominance. The religious element comes in next when the two sit side by side to face the priest.
The pollution that is associated with death has to be handled carefully. A separate part of the home is designated to house the corpse for funeral proceedings before being taken away. The priest comes to say prayers that are for the cleansing of sins and to affirm the faith of the deceased. Fire is brought to the room and prayers are begun. The body is washed and placed in clean in a sudre and kusti. The ceremony then begins, and a circle is drawn around the body into which only the bearers may enter. As they proceed to the cemetery they walk in pairs and are connected by white fabric. A dog is essential in the funeral process because it is able to see death. The body is taken to the tower of death where the vultures take care of it. Once the bones are bleached by the sun the bones are pushed into the circular opening in the center. The mourning process is four days long, and rather than creating graves for the dead, charities are established in honor of the person.
Zoroastrianism festivals were originally held outside in the open air; temples were not common until later. Most of the temples were built by wealthy Parsis who needed centers that housed purity. As stated before, fire is considered to represent the presence of God, and there are two distinct differences for the types of fire for the different temples. The first type of temple is the Atash Behram, which is the highest level of fire. The fire is prepared for an entire year before it can be installed, and once it is, it is cared for to the highest possible degree. There are only eight such temples located within India. The second type of fire temple is called a Dar-i Mihr, and the preparation process is not as intense. There are about 160 of these located throughout India.
Factions within the community
This section contains information specific to the Parsi calendar. For information on the calendar used by the Zoroastrians for religious purposes, including details on its history and its variations, see Zoroastrian calendar.
Until about the 12th century, all Zoroastrians followed the same 365-day religious calendar, which had remained largely unmodified since the calendar reforms of Ardashir I (r. 226-241 AD). Since that calendar did not compensate for the fractional days that go to make up a full solar year, with time it was no longer accordant with the seasons.
At some point between 1125 and 1250 (cf. Boyce 1970, p. 537), the Parsis inserted an embolismic month to level out the accumulating fractional days. However, the Parsis would be the only Zoroastrians to do so (and would do it only once), with the result that – from then on – the calendar in use by the Parsis and the calendar in use by Zoroastrians elsewhere diverged by a matter of thirty days. The calendars still had the same name, Shahenshahi (imperial), presumably because none were aware that the calendars were no longer the same.
In 1745 the Parsis in and around Surat switched to the Kadmi or Kadimi calendar on the recommendation of their priests who were convinced that the calendar in use in the ancient 'homeland' must be correct. Moreover, they denigrated the Shahenshahi calendar as being "royalist".
In 1906 attempts to bring the two factions together resulted in the introduction of a third calendar based on an 11th-century Seljuk model: the Fasili, or Fasli, calendar had leap days intercalated every four years and it had a New Year's day that fell on the day of the vernal equinox. Although it was the only calendar always in harmony with the seasons, most members of the Parsi community rejected it on the grounds that it was not in accord with the injunctions expressed in Zoroastrian tradition (Dēnkard 3.419).
Today the majority of Parsis are adherents of the Parsi version of the Shahenshahi calendar although the Kadmi calendar does have its adherents among the Parsi communities of Surat and Bharuch. The Fasli calendar does not have a significant following among Parsis, but, by virtue of being compatible with the Bastani calendar (an Iranian development with the same salient features as the Fasli calendar), it is predominant among the Zoroastrians of Iran.
The effect of the calendar disputes
Since some of the Avesta prayers contain references to the names of the months, and some other prayers are used only at specific times of the year, the issue of which calendar is "correct" also has theological ramifications.
To further complicate matters, in the late 18th century (or early 19th century) a highly influential head-priest and staunch proponent of the Kadmi calendar – Phiroze Kaus Dastur of the Dadyseth Atash-Behram in Bombay – became convinced that the pronunciation of prayers as recited by visitors from Iran was correct, while the pronunciation as used by the Parsis was not. He accordingly went on to alter some (but not all) of the prayers, which in due course came to be accepted by all adherents of the Kadmi calendar as the more ancient (and thus presumably correct). However, scholars of Avestan language and linguistics attribute the difference in pronunciation to a vowel-shift that occurred only in Iran and that the Iranian pronunciation as adopted by the Kadmis is actually more recent than the pronunciation used by the non-Kadmi Parsis.
The calendar disputes were not always purely academic, either. In the 1780s, emotions over the controversy ran so high that violence would occasionally erupt. In 1783 a Shahenshahi resident of Bharuch named Homaji Jamshedji was sentenced to death for kicking a young Kadmi woman and so causing her to miscarry.
Of the eight Atash-Behrams (the highest grade of fire temple) in India, three follow the Kadmi pronunciation and calendar, the other five are Shahenshahi. The Fassalis do not have their own Atash-Behram.
The Ilm-e-Kshnoom ('science of ecstasy', or 'science of bliss') is a school of Parsi-Zoroastrian philosophy based on a mystic and esoteric, rather than literal, interpretation of religious texts. According to adherents of the sect, they are followers of the Zoroastrian faith as preserved by a clan of 2000 individuals called the Saheb-e-Dilan ('Masters of the Heart') who are said to live in complete isolation in the mountainous recesses of the Caucasus (alternatively, in the Alborz range, around Mount Damavand).
There are few obvious indications that a Parsi might be a follower of the Kshnoom. Although their Kusti prayers are very similar to those used by the Fassalis, like the rest of the Parsi community the followers of Kshnoom are divided with respect to which calendar they observe. There are also other minor differences in their recitation of the liturgy, such as repetition of some sections of the longer prayers. Nonetheless, the Kshnoom are extremely conservative in their ideology and prefer isolation even with respect to other Parsis.
The largest community of followers of the Kshnoom lives in Jogeshwari, a suburb of Bombay, where they have their own fire temple (Behramshah Nowroji Shroff Daremeher), their own housing colony (Behram Baug) and their own newspaper (Parsi Pukar). There is a smaller concentration of adherents in Surat, where the sect was founded in the last decades of the 19th century.
Exclusion versus inclusion
At its core, the conflict is a manifestation of centuries-old anxieties and fears of assimilation and the loss of identity.
However, in questions of practice, the conflict is (almost) academic. In cities with larger Parsi communities, there is almost certainly at least one fire temple run by priests that are not exclusionist. In any event, the Zoroastrian faith does not prescribe worship in a fire temple, so – in principle – a Zoroastrian who has been banned from entry to a particular temple could worship from his or her own home.
Whatever the outcome of the conflict, it probably will not influence the primary issue that contributes to the decreasing number of Parsis: the low birth rate.
Issues relating to the deceased
It has been traditional, in Mumbai and Karachi at least, for dead Parsis to be taken to the Towers of Silence where the corpses are quickly eaten by the city's vultures. The reason given for this practice is that earth, fire, and water are considered sacred elements which should not be defiled by the dead. Therefore, burial and cremation have always been prohibited in Parsi culture. The problem today, though, is that in Mumbai and Karachi the population of vultures has been drastically reduced due to extensive urbanization, the unintended consequence of treating humans and livestock with antibiotics, and the anti-inflammatory medicine diclofenac. As a result, the bodies of the deceased are taking much longer to decompose, and this has upset certain sectors of the community[who?]. Solar panels have been installed in the Towers of Silence to speed up the decomposition process, but this has been only partially successful. In Peshawar a Parsi graveyard was established in late 19th century, which still exists and this cemetery is unique as there is no Tower of Silence and the community preferred to bury their dead. There is a debate raging in the Parsi community as to whether or not the prohibition on burials and cremations should be lifted.
The Tower of Silence in Mumbai is located at Malabar Hill. The residents of Malabar Hill and surrounding areas have also complained against this practice. Parsis are now given an option of burial versus the Tower of Silence death ritual. In Karachi, the Tower of Silence is located in Parsi Colony, near the Chanesar Goth and Mehmoodabad localities.
The Parsis have made considerable contributions to the history and development of India, all the more remarkable considering their small numbers. As the maxim "Parsi, thy name is charity" reveals, their greatest contribution, literally and figuratively, is their philanthropy. The name Parsi references the Persian name. The term "Parsi" in Sanskrit means "one who gives alms"). Mahatma Gandhi would note in a much misquoted statement "I am proud of my country, India, for having produced the splendid Zoroastrian stock, in numbers beneath contempt, but in charity and philanthropy perhaps unequalled and certainly unsurpassed" (Rivetna 2002). Several landmarks in Mumbai are named after Parsis, including Nariman Point. Parsis prominent in the Indian independence movement include Pherozeshah Mehta, Dadabhai Naoroji, and Bhikaiji Cama.
Particularly notable Parsis in the fields of science and industry include physicist Homi J. Bhabha, Homi N. Sethna, Jamsetji Tata, regarded as the "Father of Indian Industry", and members of the Tata, Godrej, and Wadia industrial families, including Neville Wadia, son-in law of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and Rattanbai Petit and his descendents.
The Parsi community have given India several distinguished military officers. Field Marshal Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw, Military Cross, the architect of India's victory in the 1971 war, was the first officer of the Indian Army to be appointed a Field Marshal. Admiral Jal Cursetji was the first Parsi to be appointed Chief of the Naval Staff of the Indian Navy. Air Marshal Aspy Engineer served as the 2nd Chief of Air Staff (India), post independence, and Air Chief Marshal. Air Marshal Minoo Jehangir Dotiwalla was another notable Parsi who contributed to the Indian Air Force; he was awarded the Param Vishisht Seva Medal. Fali Homi Major served as the 18th Chief of Air Staff (India). Vice Admiral RF Contractor served as the 17th Chief of the Indian Coast Guard. Lieutenant General FN Bilimoria was a senior officer of the Indian Army and the father of Lord Karan Bilimoria, founder of the Cobra Beer company.
Particularly notable Parsis in other areas of achievement include rock star Freddie Mercury, composer Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji and conductor Zubin Mehta; cultural studies theorist Homi K. Bhabha; screenwriter and photographer Sooni Taraporevala; authors Rohinton Mistry, Firdaus Kanga, Bapsi Sidhwa, Ardashir Vakil and Pakistani investigative journalist Ardeshir Cowasjee; actors John Farhan Abraham and Boman Irani; radio jockey Fali R Singara; educator Jamshed Bharucha and India's first woman photo-journalist Homai Vyarawalla. Actress Persis Khambatta was a Parsi who appeared in Bollywood. Dorab Patel was Pakistan's first Parsi Supreme Court Justice.
The husband of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and son-in-law of Nehru, Feroze Gandhi, was a Parsi with ancestral roots in Bharuch, while Muhammad Ali Jinnah's wife, Rattanbai Petit, came from the prosperous Petit family of Parsis. For a list of Parsis with Wikipedia articles, see Category:Parsi people.
Representations in popular culture
- The 2005 book The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar deals with the lives of a Parsi woman and her non-Parsi servant. Depictions of parties, funerals and conversations about values provide a window on contemporary Parsi life in Mumbai.
- The leader of Captain Ahab's secret whaleboat, Fedallah, in the novel Moby-Dick by Herman Melville is referred to as "the Parsee". There is an emphasis on certain Zoroastrian traditions, especially a respect for fire.
- The only human in Rudyard Kipling's "How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin" (Just So Stories) is a Parsee who lives on an island in the Gulf of Aden, and from whose hat the rays of the sun were reflected in more than oriental splendour.
- The 2006 film Being Cyrus is a story about a dysfunctional Parsi family of Panchgani that became the highest grossing English language Indian movie. Although highly acclaimed in the press and at foreign film festivals, the film was sharply criticized by many members of the Parsi community.
- The film Pestonjee about a Parsi couple was made in 1988 by Marathi stage director Vijaya Mehta, based on a story by journalist, B. K. Karanjia, and included the well-known Bollywood actors Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah and Anupam Kher.
- Bapsi Sidhwa's 1991 novel Cracking India (originally published in 1988 as Ice Candy Man) describes the communal violence which engulfed the city of Lahore in the aftermath of the Partition of India through the eyes of a Parsi girl Lenny. Like other Parsi stereotypes, Lenny and her parents are portrayed as devout Anglophiles.
- The main character of the 1998 Deepa Mehta film Earth (in India released as 1947) is a girl who belongs to a Parsi family during the partition of India (which occurred due to religious differences). The film was based on the semi-historical novel Cracking India (originally Ice Candy Man) by Bapsi Sidhwa.
- Salman Rushdie's novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet deals with the rise of a world famous Indian rock star named Ormus Cama, who is of Parsi background. Also, two minor but significant characters in Rushdie's book Midnight's Children, Cyrus Dubash and Homi Catrack, are Parsis.
- Man Booker Prize-nominated Parsi author Rohinton Mistry's books deal mainly with Parsi characters and society in relation to the greater Indian society around them, particularly in works like Tales from Firozsha Baag (1987), Such a Long Journey (1991), A Fine Balance (1995), and Family Matters (2002).
- In Jules Verne's novel Around the World in Eighty Days, Phileas Fogg and Passepartout rescue an Indian woman named Aouda from committing sati on the funeral pyre of her dead husband (a Maharaja). She is later revealed to be a Parsi whose merchant father married her to the Maharaja.
- In John Irving's 1994 novel A Son of the Circus, the principal character is Doctor Farrokh Darruwalla, a Parsi married to an Austrian.
- The 2007 film Parzania is based on the true story of a Parsi family caught in the crossfire of the 2002 Ahmedabad riots. The film is named after the utopian world of one of the characters of the story, a world in which everything revolves around cricket and ice cream.
- In the 2003 Hindi film Munnabhai MBBS Kurush Deboo as Dr Rustom Pavri helps Sanjay Dutt pass his medical exams. The film depicts Rustom and his old father in a Parsi setting.
- The 2009 Hindi & Gujarati film, Little Zizou by Sooni Taraporevala is set in a Parsi family. It also won the National Film Award for Best Film on Family Welfare
- The 1978 film Khatta Meetha by Basu Chatterji, starring Ashok Kumar and Pearl Padamsee, has a Parsi setting.]
- The Roy Apps written 'Conan Doyle and The Edalji Case', a BBC Radio full cast dramatisation, was based on the story of George Edalji, a Parsee solicitor falsely accused of 'cattle-ripping', as was the 2005 Julian Barnes's novel Arthur & George.
- In the Hindi movie Ferrari Ki Sawaari, the main character and his father and son are Parsis.
- The Bollywood movie Shirin Farhad Ki Toh Nikal Padi (2012), featuring Boman Irani and Farah Khan, has a plot that takes place in a Parsi community.
- Most recent record of 2001
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Media related to Parsi at Wikimedia Commons
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