Parsis, a religious and ethnic minority in India, practice Zoroastrianism, a revealed, monotheistic religion based on the ancient teachings of Zarathustra (Nigosian 3).
Immigration and Settlement in India
Parsis immigrated to the Indian state, Gujarat from Persia (present day Iran) through a series of migrations in the eighth and ninth centuries (Roy 184 & Nigosian 42). The reasons for Parsis emigration is not fully understood, though scholars suggest that the rise of Muslim Iranian dynasties in Persia led to religious tensions resulting in the diaspora to India (Boyce 157). Archeological records indicate that the Parsi immigrants settled on the island Div for two decades before sailing to the mainland and permanently settling in the Indian state, Gujarat (157).
The early history of Parsis in India is uncertain because information of the exodus from Persia derives from a Persian epic, the Quissa-i Sanjan, which was composed in the sixteenth century from oral traditions (Nigosian 43 & Kreyenbroek 44). According to the Quissa-i Sanjan, the Indian prince, Jadi Rana, allowed the Parsis to create a settlement, Sanjan (named after their hometown in Khorasan) (Nigosian 43). The Quissa indicates that Jadi Rana required the immigrants to: explain Zoroastrianism, abandon the Persian language and speak Gujarati, perform marriage ceremonies after sunset, surrender weapons and wear the Indian sari (43-44). Jadi Rana’s conditions for settlement appear to be well integrated in Parsi culture because Gujarati continues to be spoken among Parsis in India today, although some Arabic and Persian vocabulary for ritual items and religious terms were retained (Boyce 157) and Parsi women continue to proudly wear the sari (Nigosian 44).
Zoroastrianism was the central organizing feature of the Parsis as evident by the division of the growing number of settlements into five distinct panthak (regions) which were governed by priests and a council (Boyce 167). Sanjan, the original settlement, was the central panthak because it housed the atash bahram (Fire of Victory) (167). Parsis often performed a pilgrimage to the atash bahram for worship after rites of passage or to acquire sacred ash to perform a sacred rite (167). The atash bahram also functioned as a sacred link to the mother country because it contained ash that had been brought from an atash bahram in Persia (166-167).
Parsis maintained a strong connection to Zoroastrian communities in Persia by sending messengers to Khorasan (a remote, mountainous region that the Parsis first fled to before sailing to India) and Persia (Nigosian 43). Messengers retrieved items used in rituals and sacrifices in addition to Zoroastrian prayer and worship texts (Boyce 166, 168). Furthermore, Rivayats, a series of instructive letters regarding practical and religious matters, were exchanged between the Persian and Indian Zoroastrian communities (Nigosian 42) until a dispute in the eighteenth century over differences in the Zoroastrian calendar ended Iran’s role as a religious authority over Parsi Zoroastrian (Boyce 189-190).
Practice of Zoroastrianism
The Rivayats reveal that the Zoroastrians in India remained fully orthodox by continuing to follow Iranian practices of rituals, purity laws and priesthood with a few minor exceptions (173). For example, due to the sacredness of the cow in Hinduism, bulls and cows were no longer sacrificed, although the sacrifice of goats and sheep continued (173). Boyce suggests that this sacredness also influenced the use of bull’s tail hairs to sieve the hom juice (174). Additionally, the traditional hom juice (similar to the Hindu soma), made from a plant found in the Persian mountains, was no longer available, therefore, an Indian alternative was found (173). The Parsi belief in the hereditary nature of Zoroastrianism and the subsequent rejection of converts or intermarriage was possibly influenced by the rigidity of the Hindu caste system (174).
Orthodox Zoroastrian Parsis worship the creator god Ahura Mazda primarily through prayer, purity, and fire sacrifices at fire temples. Zoroastrian’s worship and lifelong pursuit of ‘Good Thoughts’, ‘Good Words’ and ‘Good Deeds’ aids the dualistic, cosmic battle between Ahura Mazda and the evil force, Angra Mainyu (also known as Ahriman) (Kreyenbroek 4-5). Ahura Mazda’s seven helpers, amesha spenta (‘Beneficent Immortals’), also represent characteristics such as wholeness, righteousness, and good thought, which Zoroastrians are to develop throughout their lives (5). Parsis traditionally observe five prayer watches throughout the day (5) which involve praying toward an atash dadgah (household hearth fire) (9) or light (17), tying and untying the kusti (sacred cord around the waist) (8), reciting prayers from the Avesta (6-7), and perhaps lighting incense (17). Parsis believe when prayers from the sacred Zoroastrian text, Avesta, are properly recited, the words of the Avesta have divine powers to aid good beings in the cosmic battle (6-7).
Fire and fire temples are essential to Parsis religious practice because “fire represents the purity of the divine” (9). The most sacred fires, atash bahrams, are very costly and maintained by dasturs (high priests). To maintain purity, only Zoroastrians are permitted in fire temples (17). Before entering the individual should have a purification bath, cover his/her head, wash every exposed part of the body, as well as, tie and untie the kusti (17). Upon entering the fire temple, the individual is expected to acknowledge the picture of Zarathustra and priests or esteemed members of the community before approaching the fire to pray, worship, or provide an offering of sandalwood (18).
Traditional ceremonies and festive occasions in a Parsi’s life includes: navajote, weddings, pregnancy announcements, births [for more detail see Kreyenbroek 34-36], moving into a new house, going on a journey and death rites (18-21) [for a contemporary understanding of Parsis’ lives and practices see Luhrmann]. These events usually involve purification through bathing in milk and flowers (18-21) and the presence of a tray with an oil lamp, betel nuts and almonds, dates, rice, salt, flowers, a silver cone and rose-water sprinkler (18) [For information on religious holidays throughout the year see Kreyenbroek 22-27].
The most important rite of passage for a male Parsi, navjote, is an initiation ceremony similar to a Jewish Bar Mitzvah or a Hindu Upanayana ‘Sacred Thread ceremony’. Typically this ceremony occurs after the child has memorized important kusti prayers between the ages of seven and nine (Kreyenbroek 27). Navjote involves the child bathing in milk and flowers, receiving a kusti (sacred cord belt) and a sudreh (sacred shirt worn under regular clothes), and performing a ceremony with food, rituals, priests, prayers and additional bathing (28). Throughout a Parsi’s life he/she will ritually tie and untie the kusti after waking up, defecating or urinating, and before praying, eating and bathing (Nigosian 99).
Engagement and wedding ceremonies have traditionally been the most important rite of passage of a Parsi girl. Weddings can be quite elaborate, with the exchange of many gifts between families, and a four day celebration (Kreyenbroek 29). The first day of the marriage ceremony, madav-saro, is marked with the couple planting a mango tree in a pot and visiting both parents’ homes (30). On the second day, divo-adrani rit, the families exchange gifts and the new couple’s gifts to the groom’s house (31). The bride receives a new sari with rice knotted in the corner, a necklace with a silver coin pendant and green beads from her in-laws as a sign of welcome into the family (31-32).
The final ritual in a Parsi’s life occurs at death, when the deceased is bathed and laid in a stone amphitheater, a dakhma (‘Tower of Silence’). The deceased is consumed by birds or animals because Parsis’ beliefs in the purity of the natural elements, such as fire and earth forbid contaminating it through the burial or cremation of bodies (8).
Parsis under the Mughal Reign
The Mughal reign in northern India and present day Pakistan during the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries affected Parsis’ fire temples and worship. Religious persecution during a Muslim campaign resulted in moving the atash bahram from Sanjan to Navsari (Boyce 171-172). As a result of this transition the traditional pillar alters were permanently replaced by large metal containers serving as an altar for the atash bahram in the Navsari fire temple (172). The atash bahram remained in Navsari until 1741 when disputes between the two regional groups of priests, the Sajanas and the Bhagarias, resulted in the Sajanas moving the atash bahram to Udwada, a village south of Sanjan where it remains today (188-189). The Bhagarias responded by creating the second atash bahram in India at the fire temple in Navsari (188-189). There are currently nine atash bahrams in India (one in Udwada, one in Navsari, one in Yazd, four in Mumbai, two in Surat) [see the Heritage Institute link below for pictures of each atash bahram]. Due to continuing persecution during the Mughal reign, less sacred fires, atash adaran (Fire of Fire’s), were established in fire temples which were indistinguishable from homes to make worship safer (188). For a brief period of time, under the patronage of Emperor Akbar, a sacred fire burned in the royal Mughal court, and priests were commissioned to document religious laws, ordinances, correspondence and terminology resulting in a rich literary record which informs scholars of Parsi history and practice (183).
Trade and British Relations
The rapid growth of trade in India due to the East India Company and imperialist interests in the seventeenth century significantly influenced Parsi society. Agriculturalists and craftsmen in rural Gujarat migrated to the emerging commercial center, Bombay (present day Mumbai) to become tradesmen, shipbuilders, and merchants (Hinnells 2007:101). After Bombay was ceded from the Portuguese to the British in 1661 the city grew in popularity and became the cultural center of Zoroastrianism (Kreyenbroek 45). To encourage migration to Bombay, the British gifted the Parsi community a prominent piece of land in Bombay known as Malabar Hill (Roy 187). Parsis’ willingness to be Anglicized and travel in addition to acquire western education contributed to Parsis acquisition of prominent positions in society and trade (188). Parsis were prosperous and favoured by the British because they were not encumbered by a trade, caste or purity laws which restricted interactions among foreigners and various castes (185-187). Parsis were well liked by Europeans as evidenced by traveler’s accounts from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which describe Parsis as a “gentle, quiet, industrious race” (Boyce 186) [see Karaka for nineteenth century perspectives on Parsis and their customs].
As the Parsis’ wealth accumulated through business enterprises (187), a religious organization of community leaders, the punchayet, was established to oversee religious and social matters such as, charity, trusts, weddings, funerals and gahambar (communal feasts) (Hinnells 2007:101). The punchayet also ensured that the community upheld Zoroastrian values regarding marriage, intermarriage, divorce and bigamy (Hinnells 2007:101). Non-conformists were punished and individuals who rejected the authority of the punchayet were excommunicated (Wadia 129). The anjuman, a communal assembly, was also an important political and social body in the Parsis community because it could act as a legislative body, and appoint, suspend or dismiss a dastur (high priest of the atash bahram) or priest (Hinnells 2007:102).
Parsis after Indian Independence in 1947
The punchayet, the anjuman and the dastur declined in religious and social authority by the mid-nineteenth century (Boyce 186). Kreyenbroek states that “the nineteenth century thus marked the transition from a stable self-image based on centuries of traditional life, to a state of affairs where many aspects of Parsi religious and social life were constantly called into question.… After more than a century and a half, however, these problems still show no sign of being resolved” (Kreyenbroek 46). Specifically, Zoroastrianism fell under attack during the nineteenth century from Christian Europeans such as Reverend John Wilson who raised theological questions based on early and inaccurate translations of the Avesta. The Parsi community reacted with embarrassment when Zoroastrian priests failed to satisfactorily respond to Wilson’s theological challenges (46). The priests were in an impossible situation because Parsi priests functioned as spiritual and moral guides for the panthaks, in addition to, performing rituals and sacrifices in the fire temples, rather than acting as religious scholars and developing rigorous theological systems. Regardless of the unfairness and inaccuracy of the accusations, the priestly authority and prestige significantly declined in the nineteenth century. These changes also resulted in a decline priests, especially gifted or qualified priests because educated, intelligent or wealthy boys from the priestly class were discouraged from entering priesthood (53).
Recently, wealthy Parsi patrons have contributed to creating and funding a three year priesthood program to train new priests in theology, rituals, psychology, sociology and history (54). However, the stigma regarding the priesthood still remains (54). In 1977, the program ‘Zoroastrian Studies’ was founded. It is based on the lectures of the internationally acclaimed speaker, Khojeste Mistree, which has increased interest and pride in orthodox Zoroastrian practices, scripture, and theology (Hinnells 2007:262).
Avenues of religious reform have also occurred through the development of Zoroastrian movements. For example, Neo-traditionalist Parsis are orthodox in practice but emphasize a personal search for truth in contrast to Modernist Parsis who pursue a western lifestyle and combine new, non-traditional views with nostalgic traditions (47-48). The Reformist school of thought emphasizes secularism by suggesting that ‘Parsi’ is strictly an ethnicity, not a religious identity (48). In opposition, Traditionalists are decidedly orthodox in theology and practice as evidenced by their emphasis on restricting intermarriage and converts (47). Additionally, an esoteric Zoroastrian sect, Ilm-I Khshnoom (Path of Knowledge), arose based on liberating the soul through asceticism and vegetarianism (263).
Recent questions that Parsis from all schools of thought are facing include: When an individual marries a non-Zoroastrian, can he/she still be a part of the religious community and receive the traditional death rites? How are the children resulting from the intermarriage to be integrated into the community? Will Zoroastrians accept converts? (Hinnells 2007: 265 & 269) Considering that the national and international populations of Zoroastrians are declining should intermarriage be permitted? [regarding causes of population decline see Paul Axel’s article] Will the diaspora of Parsis to North America and Britain continue? What does it mean to be a Parsi? Is it an ethnic identity to be preserved? Is it a cultural heritage? Is it a religious belief?
Though the discussions of Parsi identity in India and the future of Parsis globally have been and continue to be a painful process, it has been necessary to usher Parsi beliefs and practices into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. These issues have revitalized the study and celebration of Zoroastrianism and Parsi history as Parsis attempt to negotiate these questions in a modern context. Parsi life today is certainly not as orthodox and homogenous as it has been in previous centuries however, these changes represent the rich diversity of its cultural, historical and contemporary heritage.
References and Further Recommended Reading
Axel, Paul (1990) “Cultural and Historical Factors in the Population Decline of the Parsis of India.” Population Studies 44 #3 (Nov 1990): 401-419.
Boyce, Mary (1979) Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. London: Routledge.
Hinnells, John R. (2005) The Zoroastrian Diaspora: Religion and Diaspora. New York: Oxford University Press.
______ (2007) “Changing perceptions of authority among Parsis in British India.” In Parsis in India and the Diaspora. John R. Hinnells and Alan Williams (eds). New York: Routledge. 100-118.
______ (2007) “Parsis in India and the diaspora in the twentieth century and beyond.” In Parsis in India and the Diaspora. John R. Hinnells and Alan Williams (eds). New York: Routledge. 255-276.
Haug, Martin (1907) Essays on the Sacred Language, Writings and Religion of the Parsis. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.
Kapadia, S. A. (1913) The Teachings of Zoroaster and the Philosophy of the Parsi Religion. London: John Murray.
Karaka, Dosabhai Framji (1884) History of the Parsi: Including their Manners, Customs, Religion and Present Condition. Vol 2. London: Macmillan and Co.
Kreyenbroek, Phillip G. (2001) Living Zoroastrianism: Urban Parsis Speak about their Religion. London: Routledge.
Luhrmann, Tanya M. (1996) The Good Parsi: The Fate of a Colonial Elite in a Postcolonial Society. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Metha, Deepa (dir) (1998) Earth. Aamir Khan, Nandita Das, Maia Sethna, Shabana Azmi (per). Film.
Nigosian, Solomon A. (1993) Zoroastrian Faith: Tradition and Modern Research. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Roy, Achinto Lahiri (2011) “World’s Smallest Business Community: The Parsis of India.” Reshmi International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences 6 #2 (Jun 01, 2011): 183-192.
Shahani, Roshan G. (2003) “Parsis: Exploring Identities.” Economic and Political Weekly 38 #33 (Aug. 16-22, 2003): 3463-3466.
Wadia, Rusheed R. (2007) “Bombay Parsi merchants in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.” In Parsis in India and the Diaspora. John R. Hinnells and Alan Williams (eds). New York: Routledge. 119-135.
Wilson, John (1843) The Parsi Religion: As Contained in the Zand-Avasta, and Propounded and Defended by the Zoroastrians of India and Persia, Unfolded, Refuted and Contrasted with Christianity. Bombay: American Mission Press.
Related Topics for Further Investigation
atash bahram (alternative spelling Atash Behram)/Victorious Fire
dakhma/Towers of Silence
Ilm-I Khshnoom sect
Quisse-ye Sanjan (alternative spelling Qissa-i Sanjan)
sudreh & kusti
Noteworthy Websites Related to Topic
Article written by: Meagan Kinisky (April 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.