India is indubitably known as a melting pot of cultures. The largest democracy in the world is home to one of the most decorated communities - the Parsis. To many, the term ‘Parsi’ is synonymous with 'rich and elite.' However, there remains some truth to this stereotype. Granted that they are small in numbers, their contributions towards India's development are unparalleled despite their tragic ancestral past.
THE SOMBRE HISTORY OF PARSIS
Parsis originate from Persia, modern-day Iran. Continuous political turmoil and draconian acts of religious persecution forced this community to flee their war-ridden country. Huddled in ships, the travellers set out east, with no certainty on their destination, and miraculously landed in the Indian state of Gujarat.
Qissa-i Sanjan, an account of early Parsi settlers' history, recorded that the then-leader of Gujarat welcomed these refugees with open arms, provided that they abide by three simple conditions: they speak the local tongue, their women don saris, and that they refrain from harbouring any weapons. These persecuted Parsis agreed to the conditions and, not long after, founded a small settlement known as Sanjan along the western coast of the Indian subcontinent.
Parsi girls posing in India by simpleinsomnia (Source: Creative Commons)
Even though Parsis were immigrants to India, they gained a competitive edge over the native people of India. Their secret weapon? The majority of them were English-educated. This caught the attention of the British, and they looked to the Parsis to handle trade with the Chinese merchants. Apart from English, Parsis were also fluent in their native language, Avestan, and their adopted language, Gujarati.
Stemming from Gujarat, the Parsi community can be found in several distinct places across the country. Mumbai, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Pune, and Bangalore are some cities to name where a considerable size of the Parsi population resides, with the largest cluster found in the southern tip of Mumbai. Besides India, a substantial number of Parsis are also located in Pakistan.
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ZOROASTRIANISM: THE RELIGION OF THE PARSIS
The Parsi community finds their calling in an ancient religion known as Zoroastrianism. Followers of Zoroastrianism celebrate auspicious festivals such as Nowruz, the Persian New Year, and Pateti, the day preceding the Nowruz, where devotees seek repentance. On many such special occasions, the Fire Temple - their place of worship - witnesses large crowds of devoted Parsis.
To be initiated into Zoroastrianism, children have to be at least 7 years of age or prepubescent. This emphasis on age is indeed unusual but as the religion dictates, the child needs to recite religious scriptures and prayers to be inducted. Hence, the appropriate age of 7. This practice in its entirety is known as Navjote.
Parsi Navjote ceremony (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Weddings are always looked upon as a joyous occasion, and they are no different when it comes to the Parsis! There are striking similarities between a Parsi wedding and a Hindu wedding. For instance, Supra Na Murat is much like the Parsi version of a Hindu Haldi ceremony. The Nahan is another practice where the couple takes a holy bath to purify their souls. Essentially, these are two of the many fascinating ceremonies leading up to a grand Parsi wedding.
With celebration comes grief. A traditional Zoroastrian funeral is the act of laying the dead in an open-air structure called the Tower of Silence, or the dakhma. The bodies consigned to the dakhma are slowly eaten away by birds of prey, mainly vultures. At funerals, dogs are prompted to go up to the body and take a bite of three loaves of bread, as an act of initiation. A dog's role is pivotal as they are believed to drive away a corpse-eating demon called Nasu. It is also believed that in the afterlife, a four-eyed hound leads these departed souls to the gates of heaven.
However, it was unsettling to many Parsis that the population of vultures are plummeting. A close look into this catastrophe revealed that vultures were drugged as they fed on the carcass of poisoned cattle. The Parsis’ unmatched adaptive skills were put to the test when they chose not to stick to the Zoroastrian playbook. Many have been seen to gravitate towards electric cremation as a feasible alternative.
THE 1832 DOG RIOTS
As mentioned earlier, dogs hold a valuable and respectable position in Zoroastrianism. It would come as no surprise that the Parsi community was outraged after the passing of a law in 1832 - a law that ordered for the execution of all stray dogs. The days following were filled with violence as Parsis took to the streets to protest this inhumane law, which eventually broke out into a riot.
To restore peace and order, the Bombay government eventually withdrew the ruthless law. This riot was recorded as the first riot under British India and was consequently coined ‘The 1832 Dog Riots’.
A FORCE TO BE RECKONED WITH
The Parsi community has always been an integral part of Indian society and the advancements that have been made, with monumental architectural feats and successful entertainment careers.
Household names such as Godrej and Tata are some of the most important Parsi families to have paved the way for industrial growth in India. Iconic landmarks across Mumbai, such as the Jehangir Art Gallery, Taj Mahal Hotel, and Crawford market, were designed and built by Cowasji Jehangir, an acclaimed Parsi individual. The name Freddie Mercury should definitely ring a bell. Known as the late frontman of the rock band Queen, this legendary artist was a distinguished member of the Parsi community.
Freddie Mercury (Image Source: Pixabay)