Parsi people

A Parsi (પારસી Pārsī, ˈpɑ̈(ɾ).si), sometimes spelled Parsee, is a member of a Zoroastrian community based primarily in the Indian subcontinent. All Parsis outside of India identify either India or Pakistan as their home country or country of ancestral origin. Parsis are descended from Persian Zoroastrians who emigrated to the Indian subcontinent over 1,000 years ago. More recent Zoroastrian immigrants are known as Iranis.

Definition and identity

The term 'Parsi' is not attested in Indian Zoroastrian texts until the 17th century. Until that time, such texts consistently use either Zarthoshti, "Zoroastrian" or Behdin, "[of] good nature" or "[of] the good religion." The 12th century Sixteen Shlokas, a Sanskrit text in praise of the Parsis and apparently written by a Hindu (Parsi legend; cf. incorrectly attributes the text to a Zoroastrian priest), is the earliest attested use of the term as an identifier for the 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 Thana and Broach. Subsequently, the term appears in the journals of many European travelers, first French and Portuguese, later English, all of whom use a Europeanized version of an apparently local language term, for instance, Portuguese physician Garcia d'Orta, who in 1563 observed that "there are merchants [...] in the kingdom of Cambai [...] 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, above) Justices Davar and Beaman asserted (1909:540) that 'Parsi' was also a term used in Iran to refer to Zoroastrians. notes that in much the same way as the word "Hindu" was used by the Iranians to refer to anyone from the Indian subcontinent, the term 'Parsi' was used by the Indians to refer to anyone from Greater Iran, irrespective of whether they were actually ethnic Persians or not. In any case, the term 'Parsi' is itself "not necessarily an indication of their Iranian or 'Persian' origin, but rather as indicator - manifest as several properties - of ethnic identity" . Moreover, (if heredity were the only factor in a determination of ethnicity) the Parsis - per Qissa - would count as Parthians. The term 'Parseeism' (or 'Parsiism') is attributed to 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.

As an ethnic community

Although the Parsis originally emigrated from Persia, most Indian Parsis have lost social or familial ties to Persians. Many do not share language or recent history with them. Over the centuries since the first Zoroastrians arrived in India, the Parsis have integrated themselves into Indian society while simultaneously maintaining 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 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 . 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"


The definition of who is (and who is not) a Parsi is a matter of great contention within the Zoroastrian community in India. Generally accepted to be 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.

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 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 (which was the case in question), but also noted that "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 from Persia professing the Zoroastrian religion; c) the children of Parsi fathers by alien mothers who have been duly and properly admitted into the religion."

This definition has since been 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. On appeal in 1950, the 1948 ruling was upheld and the entire 1909 definition was deemed an obiter dictum, that is, a collateral opinion and not legally binding (re-affirmed in 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" .

Demographic statistics

Indian census data (2001) records 69,601 Parsis in India, with a concentration in and around the city of Mumbai (previously known as Bombay). There are approximately 5,000 Parsis elsewhere on the subcontinent, with an estimated 2500 Parsis in the city of Karachi and approximately 50 Parsi families in Sri Lanka. The number of Parsis worldwide is estimated to be fewer than 100,000 .

In the UK, where a notable amount of Parsis live, the only official Zoroastrian temple is located in Rayners Lane, Harrow, London. The temple is run by the Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe organisation.

Indian census data also established that the number of Parsis has been steadily declining for several decades. The highest census count was of 114,890 individuals in 1940–41, which includes the crown colony populations of present-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Post-independence census data is only available for India (1951: 111,791) and reveal a decline in population of approximately 9% per decade. They do not however take emigration into account. As of 2001 Parsis constitute 0.0069% of the total population of India.

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, a reluctance to accept converts, and migration . Demographic trends project that by the year 2020 the Parsis will number only 23,000 (less than 0.0002% of the present total population of India). The Parsis will then cease to be called a community and will be labeled a 'tribe'. .

In the 21st century, birth rates among Parsis declined even more rapidly, with only 99 children born in 2007. A Parsi-only fertility clinic has been set up in Mumbai to encourage the community to reproduce itself, but in addition to declining birth rates, educated Parsis are immigrating and marrying outside of the faith to further the decline.

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). The national average was 1000 males to 933 females. The age composition reveals an inverted pyramid, as of 2001, Parsis over the age of 60 make up for 31% of the community. The national average for this age group is 7%. Only 4.7% of the Parsi community are under 6 years of age, which translates to 7 births per year per 1000 individuals.

Parsis have a high literacy rate: as of 2001, the literacy rate is 97.9%, the highest for any Indian community (the national average is 64.8%). 96.1% of Parsis reside in urban areas (the national average is 27.8%).


Arrival in Gujarat

According to the Qissa-i Sanjan "Story of Sanjan", the only existing account of the early years of Zoroastrian refugees in India but composed at least six centuries after the tentative date of arrival, one group of immigrants (today presumed to have been the first) originated from (greater) Khorasan . This region in Central Asia is in part in North-Eastern Iran (where it constitutes the Khorasan province), in part in Northern Afghanistan, and in part in three Central-Asian republics of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

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 . 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). 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 - at least one other group is said to have come overland from Sari (in present-day Mazandaran, Iran).

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 CE, 765 CE and 716 CE - have been proposed as the year of landing, and the disagreement has been the cause of "many an intense battle [...] amongst Parsis" . 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."

The Sanjan Zoroastrians were certainly not the first Zoroastrians on the subcontinent. Western Gujarat, Sindh and Balochistan had once been the eastern-most territories of the Sassanid (226-651 CE) empire, and consequently maintained military outposts there. Even following the loss of these territories, 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. 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 (both are 6th-5th c. BCE texts) use the term Parasikas to refer to the peoples west of the Indus river.

"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." (cf.;) 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." 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 . 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 , 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."

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" .

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." 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 over the jurisdiction over the Atash Bahram led to the fire being moved to Udvada in 1742, where jurisdiction is today 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" Sanskrit translations of the Zend commentaries of the Avesta 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" .

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" . 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.

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 feeling for the preservation of 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" . Even so, at some point (perhaps not long 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 laborers) - 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 enamour 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 a clerk from one caste who would not deal with a clerk from another).

The age of opportunity

Following the commercial treaty in the early 1600s 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 .

Where literacy had previously been an exclusive domain of the priesthood, the British schools provided the new Parsi youth with the means to not only 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 latter qualities were enormously useful to Parsis since it allowed them to "represent themselves as being like the British," which they did "more diligently and effectively than perhaps any other South Asian community" . In turn, it allowed the British, who were otherwise quite convinced of their racial and intellectual superiority, to deal with the other native communities through the offices of the Parsis. While the British saw the other Indians, "as passive, ignorant, irrational, outwardly submissive but inwardly guileful" , 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" (Loc. cit. ).

One of these was an enterprising agent named Rustom Maneck who had probably already amassed a fortune under the Dutch and Portuguese. In 1702 Maneck was appointed the first broker (so also acquiring the name "Seth") to the Company, and in the following years "he and his Parsi associates widened the occupational and financial horizons of the larger Parsi community" . 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" (Loc. cit. ). 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." .

Through his largesse, Maneck helped establish the infrastructure that was necessary for the Parsis to set themselves up in the city and in doing so "established Bombay as the primary center of Parsi habitation and work in the 1720s" . Following the political and economic isolation of Surat in 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" . Maneck's generosity is incidentally also the first documented instance of Parsi philanthropy. In 1689, the 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" .

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 exegencies of urban life and the recognized instrument for regulating the affairs of the community . 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 . In the wake of a July 1856 Judicial Committee of the Privy Council ruling 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 be eventually be reestablished as the administrator of community property, it ultimately ceased to be an instrument for self-governance.

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 mid-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 the conditions, through education, 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 frequented . 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 the conditions for the less fortunate co-religionists in Iran. The fund succeeded in convincing a number of Iranian Zoroastrians to emigrate to India (where they are today known 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" . 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), art & crafts and sartorial habits developed into Parsi theater, literature, newspapers and magazines and schools. The Parsis now ran community medical centers, ambulance corps, boy scout troops, clubs and masonic lodges. They had their own charitable foundations and housing estates, legal institutions, courts and governance. They were no longer weavers and petty merchants, but now 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 Mohamedan, a Parsi, a Christian, or of any other creed, I am above all an Indian. Our country is India; our nationality is Indian (1893).

Factions within the community

Calendrical differences

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 CE). 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. ), 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 only do it 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 (based on an 11th century Seljuk model) of a third calendar: 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 the Parsis are adherents of the Parsi version of the Shahenshahi calendar. The Kadmi calendar has 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) - 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 month and some other prayers are used only at specific times of the year, the issue of which calendar is "correct" has theological ramifications as well.

To further complicate matters, in the late 1700s (or early 1800s) 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

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 the 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/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 would quickly be eaten by the city's vultures. The reason given for this practice is that earth, fire and water are all considered as 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, as well as due to poisoning by the anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac which is often given to humans and cattle. As a result without vultures the bodies of the deceased are taking too long to decompose and this has upset certain sectors of the community. Solar panels have been installed in the Towers of Silence to speed up the decomposition process but this has only been partially successful. There is a debate raging among the community as to whether the prohibition on burials and cremations should not be lifted. A committee comprising both liberal and conservative Parsis is to be set up (November 2006) to try and find a solution to the problem.

The tower of silence in Mumbai is located at Malabar Hill. It has been said that 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.

Prominent Parsis

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 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" .

The efforts of Parsis significantly altered the face of the city of Bombay and several landmarks, such as Nariman Point, are named after one. 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, and various members of the Tata, Godrej and Wadia industrial families. Particularly famous Parsi musicians include rock icon Freddie Mercury, composer Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji and conductor Zubin Mehta.

Particularly notable Parsis in the arts include cultural studies theorist Homi K. Bhabha; screenwriter and photographer Sooni Taraporevala; authors Rohinton Mistry, Firdaus Kanga, Bapsi Sidhwa, Ardashir Vakil and investigative journalist Ardeshir Cowasjee. The silent Indian master, Meher Baba, and Field Marshal of the Indian Army, Sam Manekshaw, were also Parsis.Prominent physicians like Dr K A Dinshaw and Dr Ram R Puniyani are also from this community.

For a list of Parsis with Wikipedia articles, see Parsis.

Representations in popular culture

  • 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.
  • 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 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 Passpartout 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.
  • The Three Magi in the Bible may safely be assumed to be Zoroastrians

See also


Further reading

External links

See also

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