The Parsi in History, Imagination, Life and Culture

BY SHAILAJA PARAMATHMA ON 12/05/2016 IN VIEWS ON NEWS

A series of events in the capital seeks to demystify the fast-dwindling community who migrated to India more than a millennium ago.


 

In the Zoroastrian faith, a spiritual force called “Fravashi”, is a guardian angel watching over every man, woman, child, plant, animal, and even the sun and the moon.

This force was certainly looking after those followers in the 8th Century who crossed over from Iran to India fleeing religious persecution at the hands of Arab invaders.

 

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The community that later came to be known as Parsi, made India its home, thriving in its milieu of religious tolerance and made spectacular economic and intellectual progress.

 

From nuclear physicist Homi J Bhabha to former Attorney General of India Soli Sorabjee, from the Tatas to presence in Bollywood, Parsis in India have, through thrift and education, prospered all along and assumed responsible roles in science, industry, law and entertainment. The community, while being modern in its outlook, has conserved its traditions zealously.

 

This spirit of modernity and tradition of Parsis has now become a subject matter of interest in the cultural circuits of India. New Delhi is hosting a series of cultural programs, including exhibitions on Zoroastrianism, celebrating the contributions of the tiny but well-off community.

 

The exhibition at National Museum is named “The Everlasting Flame, Zoroastrianism in History and imagination,” and the one at the NGMA is called “No Parsi is an Island.” All three are open till May 29.

 

The exhibits provide a window to the world of Parsis—their religious beliefs, their customs, and their process of assimilation into India and their contributions to modern India. Thus, for example, there is the rare photograph of Dadabhai Naoroji exercising influence in the British parliament and painting of Bhikaji Cama unfurling the tricolor in Stuttgart, Germany in 1907.

 

Keeping Faith Alive

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A 3000-year-old religion, Zoroastrianism predates both Christianity and Islam. It revolves around three basic tenets—Good Thoughts, Good Words and Good Deeds.

 

God is known as Ahura Mazda and the place of worship is called dar-e mehr, which is a Fire Temple. One of the important exhibits is the replica installation of the Fire Temple accompanied by detailed video footage of the rituals followed inside the temple. These are curiously similar to Hindu rituals.

 

Also impressive are the displays on the rituals followed at the time of death. Zoroastrian tradition considers a dead body unclean and to prevent the pollution of earth, the dead are placed atop a tower and exposed to the sun to be scavenged by vultures. These towers are called Towers of Silence.

 
A model of the Tower of Silence in Mumbai is on display too and it is heartening to know about the development of an aviary near the Tower of Silence in Mumabi to augment the vulture population, which otherwise has been pushed to near extinction due to the administration of painkiller diclofenac to cattle.

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Modern Challenges

 

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At present, there are only around 61,000 followers in India—the highest among all nations.

The biggest threat that the community faces is from within. Their dwindling numbers are due to few marriages and fewer births. Focus on careers and pursuit of intellectual achievements has put family life on the back burner for an entire generation of Parsis.

 

To preserve this miniscule minority, UNESCO, New Delhi, has initiated the “ParZor Project”, titled “Preservation of Parsi Zoroastrian Heritage–Campaigns and International Conventions”.

 

The Jiyo Parsi initiative of the Parzor Foundation, launched in 2014, is being supported by the Government of India. Audio-visual setups at the exhibitions show documentaries on the subject and the witty advertisement campaign, which, when launched, had gone viral. The tag line said: “Be responsible, don’t use a condom tonight.”