Living Heritage

A Traditional Parsi house, Parsivad, Bharuch.

What or who are the Parsis? The Zoroastrian heritage of a “Life enhancing not a world denying faith” creates a Religion of Action which provides the foundation of daily life among the Parsi Zoroastrians.
Zoroastrianism gives importance to both the Menok and Getig, the spiritual and material aspects of existence and, therefore, provides a holistic approach to life.
Unrecognised by most adherents of the religion, the faith sub-consciously provides a deep inner core from which to draw strength for honesty, helpfulness, sincerity, happiness and success.
From its inception the most pressing need of the Parzor Project was to immediately start recording the intangible aspects of Parsi Zoroastrian heritage, as the most valuable resource people, both priests and laity, are of advanced age. The scope is wide and it is often a race against time. The Project needs to record intangible heritage before knowledgeable people are lost- priests, musicians, artists and traditional medical practitioners.
The living heritage of the Parsi Zoroastrians is being recorded by Parzor across India on Beta format and is stored in the Parzor archives for use by researchers and scholars from India and abroad. So far there has been a deliberate attempt to first record the smaller pockets of Parsi settlements since these especially in the interior regions are in grave danger of disappearing.

 

Begumvadi, Bharuch

The methodology followed was to start recording varied geographic regions, starting with Bharuch, Navsari, Surat, Bardoli and the villages of Adajan, Bhatta, Suhali and Hajira in South Gujarat. The Hyderabad-Secunderabad regions in the Deccan and Ahmedabad, Vadodara and Dahod in central Gujarat have been covered during oral tradition recordings. There has been considerable success in these endeavours. The digital Archives of the Project now have over 35 hours of Beta-Cam recording and many thousand photographs. The lifestyles as followed in different locations are preserved and archived for study and analysis.

Wherever the project has traveled it has been recording diverse lifestyles found in the community: the grand life style of the Parsis Vadis, the huge estates of South Gujarat, in contrast to the life styles of the small Vads. While many of the beautiful homes of the Vadis lie deserted and forlorn, in Dahod and Bardoli rural Parsis have used the community’s environmental consciousness for profit and development. Hybrid varieties and scientific cultivation have enabled the tiny Parsi populations there to flourish and be leaders in farm technology.

 

Tushna Models only a ‘Topi’: Two year old Tushna Baria of Secunderabad enjoyed wearing a Zardozi Topi. She, however, flatly refused to put on a Jhabla, which would have completed her traditional costume.

In the Deccan, the lifestyle of the Parsis provides interesting historical documentation. Some of the Parsis who traded with China traveled across India in search of new markets for their goods. The men from China or ‘Chenai’ (later anglicized to Chinoy) settled in the Deccan where their enterprises led them deep in the cotton heartland for they realized the business potential of exporting Deccan cotton to the newly set up mills at Bombay. They also established cotton ginning and processing factories. Gulbarga, Jalna, Berar, Adilabad and other small towns became home to these Parsis. Their acumen and hard work enabled them to create vast fortunes and enjoy prominent positions at court.

They adapted to the local lifestyle and were closely associated with the Nizam’s court at Hyderabad. Parsi women kept “partial purdah” -their cars were curtained; they adopted customs such as the use of Zardozi in their clothes and collected typical Hydrabadi jewellery. Children of aristocratic families were taken to court to present nazarna of a gold ashrafi to the Nizam. Their languages were Persian, Urdu and Telegu as well as Gujarati. They patronized and enjoyed the Quwali and mujra. Stories about these Parsi pioneers and their world would make an extremely interesting story and be made available in book/CD format and the project hopes to gather funds for this research and publication.

The Deccan provides the only occasion when an Indian coin was named after a Parsi. The brothers Vicajee and Pestonjee Meherjee were powerful bankers and jagirdars and in 1840 their silver coin the “Pestonshahi Sikka” was minted and was in circulation in the kingdom of Nasar-ud-Daulat of Hyderabad.

Even today these influences continue in their lifestyle. “Khudayaad” and “Khuda nija Baan” are still customary greetings in households. They take great pride in their Deccani heritage and continue to contribute to the economic and cultural life of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. The huge Cherma Departmental store chain and manufacturing concerns owned by Kermin Petsonjee continue the tradition of the Parsi pioneers of his family. While the Parsis of the Deccan, retaining their Parsi identity, adapted in many aspects to the Muslim culture of the Deccan, in Gujarat, Parsis adopted many of the cultural mores of their Hindu brethren. Intermingling and sharing with other communities in their celebrations was common, two examples are the love of Quwali music amongst older Parsis of the Deccan and the enthusiasm with which the Parsis in Gujarat dance Garbas.

 

The Swami Narayan Pheta in Surat: Swami Sahjanand Maharaj, founder of the Swami Narayan Sect, presented his own ‘pheta’ (turban) to Ardeshir Kotwal. This holy relic is believed to possess miraculous powers. It is preserved in the home of one of the descendants of the Kotwal where all communities worship it.

Historically, in Surat, a very interesting fact of this intermingling and cross-cultural respect came to light during a field trip. Surat, at the start of the nineteenth century was ravaged by dacoits, and there was no security of life and property. A Parsi officer of this city Ardeshir Dhanjisha Bahadur, the Kotwal, took upon himself the dangerous task of ridding the city of this menace. He succeeded so well that the British rulers of the time conferred a special medal on him in 1830. The people of Surat too were grateful to him for saving the city from the menace of robbers and from the ravages of fire. But the honour Ardeshir Kotwal valued most was the gratitude and friendship of the first leader of the Swaminarayan Sect.Sahjanand Maharaj was very grateful for the help provided by Ardeshir. Appreciating his courage and devotion to duty the revered Swamiji took off his Pheta and put it at the feet of Ardeshir Kotwal. To this day the Pheta (turban) is kept in the home of Kotwal’s descendants, where a regular arti is performed. People of every community flock to see it as it is believed to have miraculous powers. This holy relic is taken out in an annual procession on Bhai Beej. The Project was to shown this relic and was able to film people of different communities paying tribute in the Parsi household.So as the project travels to different locations it not only interviews, gathers information and takes photographs but also collates details of social history and examples of the diversity of interests in the community.

Dara Hakim of Vadodara shared the written account of his father’s exciting journey around the globe on a cycle. With its Foreword written by the adventure loving Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, meetings with Kings, Presidents and leaders of various countries and exciting escapades it makes an outstanding adventure story.
Bejan Bodhanwala, also of Vadodara, provided useful proof about how Parsi women learnt to use Chinese stitches in their embroidery patterns.

 

Families singing monajats

Homai Vyarawalla, Indian first woman photojournalist, shared her fascinating life history. Through the joint efforts of the Parzor project and the Delhi Parsi Anjuman she exhibited her invaluable collection of truly historic photographs of the Indian Independence period at Delhi in December 2001. Realising the wealth of history contained in her photographs and life, Dr. Cama persuaded Homai to share her memories and photographs with the world in the form of a book. Parzor chose Sabeena Gadhioke of Jamia Millia University as the researcher and writer. Click Here for more details.