09 July, 2016

Parsis In India : The Community of Titans

A maroon velvet skull cap, characteristic white tunic, goofy looking middle-aged man who in all probability is a bachelor and a dominating matriarch shouting orders from the background…… .….this is perhaps the movie and media created caricature of a community that has contributed positively and peacefully to this Nation for more than 10 centuries. A Nation that was not their Janmboomi but one that they made their Karmabhoomi more than 1000 years ago, in such a seamless fashion that folktales and analogies have been created to describe this role-model refugee community and their assimilation with the host country. Yes, I am talking about the Zoroastrians, better known as Parsees, also spelt Parsis (PARSI in singular). 

 At a time when the world is grappling with refugee problem, we are fortunate to be the home of a small and enterprising community that has embraced and enriched their host land in such a manner that they have earned the title of ‘citizen’, nay ‘worthy sons of Bharat Maa’ purely on the basis of merit. They have been pioneers, torch-bearers, change-agents in fields ranging from industry to armed forces, finance to fine arts; in times spanning from freedom struggle to the present day. Members of this community are living examples of ‘power of one’, ‘walk the talk’, ‘we can’. What leaders of other communities’ state in their fiery speeches, people of this community do on a daily basis, minus the hype and the hoopla. 

Isn’t it awe-inspiring to note that you won’t find a single Parsi begging on the streets? Infact Parsi colonies, not long ago, were considered pockets of affluence amidst an ocean of squalor. What is it that makes this community so endearing and empowered at the same time? What is the secret behind their success as individuals and community as a whole? How are they able to make a gargantuan impact despite their humble numerical strength? A peek into their history, philosophy and work ethics can probably help us understand this distinctive and distinguished community. There can be no better time than when the community is celebrating its 1,000-year journey from their homeland, Persia, to this host land, Hindustan.

Checkered history and flight to safety
The history of Parsi Zoroastrians is like a roller coaster ride with peak periods followed by grotesque pitfalls. The land of origin of Zoroastrianism is Persia (present day Iran). Hence the followers were called ‘Parsi’ in everyday parlance. Zoroastrians are largely fire-worshippers. Their place of worship, Fire Temple, is dedicated to their deity Ahura Mazda, meaning the ‘Lord of Wisdom’. Though there is a lot of confusion with regard to the dates, it is estimated that this religion was established around 3000 BC by their Prophet Asho Zarathustra. The Achaemenian dynasty, hallmarked by the reign of benevolent kings like Cyrus the Great and Darius, is said to be the peak period of this religion. Infact Cyrus is said to be the “the most outstanding person of the ancient world and architect of the first world empire”. Despite his military exploits, he was a tolerant king. He believed in the freedom of religion and expression and is said to have given humanity the first bill of “Human Rights”, declaring, among others, man’s right to practice the religion of his choice. What he however denied, was the right to profess and propagate religion, thereby restricting religion to the personal realm and preventing its public appearance. This proved to be a highly pragmatic approach, one that is religiously (pun unintended) followed by the Parsis even to this day. Unlike other religions, especially Abrahamic religions, that spend a lot of time, energy and resources in spreading their religion, Parsi Zoroastrians keep religion strictly ‘private’. They treat all religions as ‘branches of a big tree’, bearing the same fruit (attaining God). Conversion is like cutting the branches and destroying the tree. Their unflinching faith in the plurality of religions, makes them a peaceful and content community that works on self-improvement and self-realisation.

Coming back to the history of Zoroastrians, they faced their first barbaric blow at the hands of King Alexander (that history refers to as ‘Alexander, the Great’), who destroyed most of the Zoroastrian scriptures and places of worship, while giving a death blow to the Achaemenian dynasty. Resilient as they are, the Zoroastians slowly limped back to normalcy under the Sasanian dynasty. However as fate would have it, the Sasanian empire fell to the barbaric Arab invaders sometime around the seventh century A.D. The Arabs began persecuting the Zoroastrians who refused to convert to Islam. When religious intolerance reached unbearable levels, a few pious Zoroastrians left their homeland, along with their Holy Fire and set sail from the Port of Hormuz to take refuge in a place that could preserve their identity, religion and culture. Call it destiny or divine design; they reached the shores of Hindustan (present Bharat). Folklore has it that they approached the chieftain of a place in present-day Gujarat called Sanjan, for a piece of land where they could reside and rebuild their life. When asked how they would merge with the existing local population, the Parsi geriatric who led the exodus, stated the famed analogy of ‘Sugar in Milk’. He promised that Parsis would sweeten the environment without disturbing any of the existing structures and practices. They lived upto their promise. Within no time, Parsis took to Gujarat and Gujarati like a fish takes to water. It became their home.  The Atash Behram (highest form of fire temple) built in Sanjan, is a testimony of it.

Parsis - the Zoroastrians of India
According to Parsi lore they spent nineteen years on the island of Diu, after which they set sail again and landed in Sanjan also on the west coast of India, either in the year 936AD or in 716AD (many an intense battle has been fought amongst Parsis over which date is more accurate).
Permission to settle was granted by Jadhav Rana. Hindu India was kind to the refugees from Pars. They suffered no persecution, no fear. They were allowed to prosper and grow. They built the first fire temple in AD 721, installed with due ceremony the holy fire which they called the Iranshah, the King of Iran; lived largely peaceful, obscure existences in various villages and towns of Gujarat as farmers, weavers and carpenters.  For about three hundred years after landing at Sanjan, Parsis are said to have lived in peace and without molestation.
However, Islam did follow them even to India. In 1465 Sanjan was sacked and destroyed by the Muslim Sultanate. Parsis fought valiantly, side by side with their Hindu benefactors. Many lost their lives, but the priests managed to rescue the sacred fire and carried it safely to a cave on a hill, where, protected by jungle and sea, they guarded it for the next twelve years. Though they didn't completely lose touch with the Persian language, Gujarati (their version of it), started to become their mother tongue. They adopted many Hindu customs. Parsi women dressed like their Indian counterparts. They even wore nose rings.
Many settled down in the port town of Surat, in Gujarat, where in the fifteenth century, Europeans (the Portuguese, the British and the Dutch) had been given permission by the Mughals to establish trading factories. Unhampered by caste prejudices, Surat provided an ideal opportunity for Parsis to engage in occupations that they had never attempted before. Farmers became traders and chief native agents, carpenters became shipbuilders. An adventurous few left Surat and moved south to Bombay, then only a set of islands, in the wilderness. Here, they acted as brokers between the Indians and the Portuguese. They were in Bombay when it was ceded by Portugal to England in 1665 and three years later when the Crown handed over the island to the East India Company, Parsis were already a presence.
The East India Company had grand plans for Bombay. They had visions of making this settlement a vibrant trading and commercial centre. In order to do so they needed to attract Indian traders, merchants and craftsmen to settle in and develop this frontier land. The terms they offered to native communities were generous and to an immigrant community like the Parsis must have seemed almost heaven-sent. All persons born in Bombay would become natural subjects of England. All communities migrating to Bombay were guaranteed religious freedom and were permitted to build their houses within the fort walls, alongside the British, where they would be protected from any hostile attacks. Though the Parsis were quicker to recognise and seize this unique historical opportunity and came to Bombay earlier than most and in larger numbers, they weren't the only ones. There were Muslim weavers from Ahmedabad, Bohras, Beni-Israeli Jews, Jains, Armenians. And though the residential area was divided into the white and native parts, in the real life of the city, in the counting houses, markets, docks, everybody jostled together in a cooperative

Sugar in Milk’ Status
With the passage of time, Parsis blended immaculately with the local population, its customs and traditions that it was hard to single out a Parsi from the general public. Parsi women started wearing the local attire, sari, and even adorned nose rings. The bonding grew stronger over natural affinities like language and belief system. For instance, the liturgical language of Parsis Avestan and Sanskrit belong to the same group of languages. Zoroastrianism and Rig Vedic Hinduism are ‘sister cultures’ that share many commonalities like reverence to the Eternal Flame – “Agni”(as per Hindu culture) or “Atash”(as per Zoroastrian culture),  that illuminates every heart and symbolises the battle between good and evil forces in the heart and mind of every human being. Another common concern, is the respect for ecology that both - Hindu and Parsi cultures accord to Mother Nature. Zoroastrians uphold the four fundamental elements of Nature - Fire, Water, Earth and Air. Polluting them is considered a cardinal sin.
Even the rituals of these two religions have stark commonalities like the ‘thread ceremony’ of a male child. Navjot or the thread ceremony of Zoroastrian kids at the age of 7, is perhaps the most defining ritual as it gives the rights of passage. Prior to this ceremony, one is born Parsi but after this ceremony, one enters the Zoroastrian fold. Both religions accord a predominant place for Truth, Righteousness and Purity, as a way of life. Hindus call it Satya while Parsis give it the name Asha.  Both religions sing hymns to calm the mind and connect with the Higher Power. Parsi Prophet Zarathushtra’s teachings are mainly enshrined in his divine hymns called the Gathas, which is similar to the Bhajans that Hindus sing in praise of their chosen deity.
Morality or Religiosity?
Parsis have an extremely practical approach to life. Their God Ahura Mazda, Prophet Zarathustra and Patron King Cyrus, have all stated things aimed at bettering their lives, the lives of their fellow brethren and humanity at large.  All the tenets of this religion uphold practicality without losing sight of morality. For example, money or pursuit of wealth is not considered bad in Zoroastrianism unlike many other religions which see wealth as the root cause of many evils and vices. Infact Zoroastrianism understands and acknowledges the material basis of life and encourages one to earn as per their ability, talent and hardwork. The 2 prerequisites it places in this regard are:- i) stay away from foul means and ii) share excess with your less privileged brothers and sisters.  The result is for all to see. Parsis are a hard-working and enterprising community with a natural talent for wealth creation. Their far-sight, business acumen and penchant for numbers, coupled with their honesty and integrity make them preferred employees and business partners. They are fast-learners, quick adapters and calculated risk takers. All these qualities stood them in good stead with the arrival of the British in India.  They were the first to avail the opportunities that came from Western-style education and the growth of industry, commerce, and government under the British. Thus, the first Indians to become bureaucrats, barristers, surgeons and members of Parliament were all Parsis. Even today, some of the biggest business houses are of Parsis. The ‘Super Rich’ list will have a disproportionate number (compared to their overall population) of Parsis. Prime properties in places where they choose to settle, is owned by them.
Despite their number-crunching prowess, they are the most giving community. The most generous philanthropists are Parsis. The biggest charitable organisations/ activities are of Parsis. This is what makes them truly special. They give back much more than they take. Their religion teaches them this basic law of nature. The Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, too has acknowledged this when he said, “I am proud of my country, for having produced the splendid Zoroastrian stock, in numbers beneath contempt, but in charity and philanthropy, perhaps unequalled, certainly unsurpassed.” This is one community that has a humanitarian side to wealth creation. ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ is a buzzword today. For Parsis, it is an integral part of their DNA.
The “Everlasting Flame” in Zoroastrianism
The “Eternal Flame” or “Everlasting Flame” is a flame or lamp or torch that burns continuously for an indefinite period.
Most Eternal Flames are ignited and tended intentionally, but some are natural phenomena caused by natural gas leaks, peat fires and coal seam fires, all of which can be initially ignited by lightning, piezoelectricity or human activity and all of which can burn for an indefinite period of time – for decades or centuries. In ancient times, human-tended eternal flames were fuelled by wood or olive oil, but nowadays a piped gas supply of propane or natural gas is used.
Eternal Flames generally commemorate a person or event of national or religious significance or serve as a reminder of commitment to a common goal, such as International Peace or the tenets of the religious faith.
The “Eternal Flame” or “Everlasting Flame” is a long-standing tradition in Zoroastrianism. In Ancient Iran, the “atar” was tended by a dedicated priest and represented the concept of “Divine Sparks” or “Amesha Spenta” as understood in Zoroastrianism. “Amesha Spenta” is an Avestan language term for a class of divine entities in Zoroastrianism and literally means “immortal” or “holy”. Later Persian variations of this term include “Ameshaspand”, “Mahraspand” and “Amahraspand”.
In Zoroastrian tradition, “Amesha Spenta” refers to theGreat Six “Divine Sparks” of the “Ahura Mazda” (the Avestan name for the Creator and sole God of Zoroastrianism – Ahura standing for “Mighty” or “Lord” and Mazda standing for “wisdom”).
Contribute Maximum, Demand Nothing
Zarathustra preached that thought is great but action is greater. Zoroastrianism is primarily an action-oriented religion. Action is based on 3 central tenets - “Humata, Hukata, Huvarashta” (Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds). It is no wonder that Parsis are the best examples of the famous John F Kennedy lines, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country”. Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, for example, gave India its first Institute of Science in Bangaluru, the first Cancer Hospital, the first Institute of Social Sciences, the first Institute of Fundamental Research and a National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai. They are ‘social entrepreneurs’ by birth.
Parsis create a beautiful mosaic assimilating the best of different cultures, religions, places, and practices and give it their unique signature touch. They are living examples of continuity with change. They enrich lives and living standards around them. Be it promotion of female education and career or venturing into critical technology of the times, they are game for it. Homai Vyarawalla, the first lady photojournalist and Jamshedji Tata deciding to set up a Steel plant, are examples of their 
path-breaking temperament.
Saluting the Stalwarts
There is hardly any discipline or human endeavour in which the Parsis have not participated and excelled. The armed forces, industry, science, medicine, fine arts, philanthrophy, you name it, and a Parsi contribution will be conspicuous. The list of achievers is long and exhaustive.
Contributions of Dadabhoy Naoroji, Pherozeshah Mehta, Madam Bhikhaiji Cama during the freedom struggle is well documented. Contribution of Tatas, pre and post independence, is well-known. The Wadias, Petits, Poonawallas and Godrejs are no less. Father of India’s Nuclear program was the genius Parsi Scientist, Dr. Homi Bhabha. In the field of jurisprudence, Parsi luminaries like Nani Palkiwala and Fali Nariman have set new standards of excellence. In the field of Arts and Culture, names like Keki Daruwalla, Composer Zubin Mehta, ghazal maestro Penaz Mesani have enthralled generations with their abundant talent. Sam Manecksaw and his legendry win in Indo-Pak War of 1971, is the stuff inspirational stories are made of. In the field of Glamour and Entertainment this community has given beauty queens, models and artists that have raised the benchmark. Versatile actors like Bomman Irani, Raj Zutshi have given a new meaning to the word ‘versitality’. Beautiful faces like Perizaad Zorabian have launched a thousand products. We look forward to Bejan Daruwala forecasting our day. The list is endless. It is an ‘Achiever’ community.
Existential Strains: Strength or Survival Threat?
Not all is rosy and perfect. Parsis are facing a serious survival crisis. While India’s population has tripled since independence, Parsis have reduced by more than 30%. This is largely because of their strict monogamous and endogamous practices. Excessive weightage to ‘ethnic purity’ restricts the choice of potential mates to close consanguineal and affinal relatives, mutilating the gene pool beyond repair.  Low fertility, congenital diseases, mental retardedness are some of the small-outs. There is no attempt to refresh the gene pool by accepting inter-marriages (of Parsi girls) that is on the rise. A 1908 judgement of the Bombay High Court states that the child of a mixed marriage could be accepted as a Parsi only when the father is a Parsi.
Disease of inbreeding has caused a decline of more than 10% per decade, resulting in an alarmingly dwindling number of Parsis. The replacement levels (Birth rate – Death rate) are negative. ‘Jiyo Parsi’, a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) scheme sponsored by the Ministry of Minority Affairs, Govt.of India and Private entities like Bombay Parsi Punchayat and Tata Institute of Social Sciences, is an attempt to change the scenario. The aim of this scheme is to reverse the decline in the population of the Parsi Zoroastrian community in India. The scheme has two components – the Advocacy component and the Medical component. While the advocacy component tries to inspire young Parsis, of marriageable age, to marry & start a family the medical component looks at the genetic make-up of prospective spouses for harmful mutations and medical complications. All in all, the attempt is to raise numbers at war footing.  The first-ever Udvada Utsav (festival) held over the Christmas weekend in Gujarat this year drew 4,000 believers where existential crisis was the burning issue for deliberation.
Eminent lawyer Darius Khambata said Zoroastrianism, being a universal religion, should be opened to anyone seeking to join which was red flagged by most of the Parsis present.
Biological numbers Vs Distinct cultural Identity
Parsis in India have been small in numbers. Even in 1941, they were just 1,15,000; now the number has come down to less than 70,000. Most of them live on the Western coast in small communities as they have a strong feeling about their distinct identity. Like any other smaller communities in which the gene pool is on decline, Parsis are also facing the dilemma. On the one hand their biological number is decreasing but they would not like to lose their unique cultural identity. As small communities are biologically not sustainable, someday the community leaders will have to take a call on this issue. The Parsis being an enterprising community took the early benefits of British education and business policies. They also inherited rich tradition of retaining the tradition of scholarship from the Persian civilisation. These factors made them affluent community concentrated on the Western coast of India. They also immensely contributed to different walks of national life, which is proportionately much higher to their actual numbers. They never claimed any minority status and carved out their own position in the society. Instead of nurturing the persecution or victimhood syndrome, Parsis used the forced migration as opportunity to enrich their entrepreneurial skills. This made Parsis an inimitable minority, who preferred to be part of majority, without diluting their unique cultural identity.
The Road Ahead
With about 60,000 Parsis in India and another 40,000 scattered across the world, India faces another challenge, rather opportunity. Parsis in India outnumber Parsis in the country of origin,  Iran, or the rest of the world put together. This is a matter of grave concern and responsibility for India. Celebrating this great human heritage, saluting their contribution and providing safe haven for their growth, should be India’s immediate goal & focus. Project ‘Hamari Dharohar’ aims to do just that. Under its aegis a tri-series exhibition on Parsi Zoroastrian Culture and Contribution was held, in Delhi. It was a nice attempt to showcase their 1,000-year old journey in Bharat. In its next leg, the Project aims to re-establish contact with Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asian countries like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Azerbaijan where the Zoroastrian links are being seen as a part of culture and history of the Region. To conclude, one prays that this magnanimous minority, who dislike being called a ‘Minority’ or using the benefits that accrue from it, grow in size and strength and live till eternity. Amen. 


Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata (1839 –1904) was an Indian pioneer industrialist, known as “One-Man Planning Commission” who founded Tata Group, India’s biggest conglomerate company

Ardeshir Burjorji Sorabji Godrej (1868–1936)
was an Indian businessman. With his brother Pirojsha Burjorji, he co-founded the Godrej Brothers Company

Lovji Nusserwanjee Wadia (1702–1774) was a member of the Wadia family of shipwrights and naval architects, who founded Wadia Group in 1736

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