The Parsi Community
As the Mohammedans pushed down through Persia, most of the original Zoroastrians converted to Islam either willingly or forced by the governing Mohammedans. Finally only a few Zoroastrians were left in Southern Persia. In 715 AD a group decided to flee by sea down the Persian gulf seeking a new place to settle. They eventually reached the Gulf of Cambay in India and were permitted to stay at Sanjan, 25 miles south of Daman by the Rana Jade, ruler of the area.
The Rana insisted that Parsi women wear the local costume and so instead of silwar/kameez, they wore the sari. However Parsi saris have developed slightly differently from the Gujarati sari. They are usually embroidered and are called “Gara”. Many parsis wear Western dress, particularly men.
Zoroastrianism is an ancient Persian religion formed by Zoroaster (Zarathushtra) who was probably born around 700 BC. He was probably a priest or Magian. He tried to win over his countrymen from being nomadic to a settled life of agriculture and at the same time, purge the old Aryan religion of its belief in many gods.
He preached a victory of the Good Spirit, Ahura Mazda (or Ormazd) God of goodness and light, over his rival the spirit of Evil, Ahriman, (Pahlavi for the Avestan Angra Mainyu “enemy spirit) god of evil and darkness. Mazda was attended by 7 angels who personified divine attributes.
Zoroaster wrote verse prophesies similar to those of Hebrew prophets. He taught active charity especially to the poor, kindness to animals, truthfulness and purity. He preached that after death the soul passed over a bridge of judgement, from which the wicked fell to punishment. He used parables in his preaching, showing the good as cattle.
The central feature was fire-worship, fire being regarded as pure, representing divine essence and the source of life.
Other deities were worshipped with Mazda, including Anahita and Mithras associated with the sun to whom the finest hymn in the Avesta is addressed. Worship of Mithras was afterwards taken up by the Romans.
Zoroaster was killed by hostile Magi who attacked him as he stood by his altar. Zoroastrianism became the national religion of Persia and remained so until 700 AD when the Islamic invaders took over Persia. It survives in Bombay as the religion of the Parsees. Parsis worship God in the name of Ahura Mazda, as in the old persian days. The prophet Zoroastra gave them the rules of their religion, which are written in a holy book called the Vendidad. They brought with them their sacred fire, which had not been allowed to go out, and this was eventually installed in a fire temple at Udwada where it is a place of pilgrimage even today.
Parsi religion does not permit a non-Parsi to enter their Fire temple. They expose their dead on “Towers of Silence” for predators to eat, as they do not want to defile the earth or fire by burying or cremating the dead. All parsi children have a Navjhot ceremony when a sacred thread called a “Kusti” is tied, which must never be removed for the life of the person. Priests called Mobeds tie this thread.
The Parsis have kept their individuality and are a very enterprising community. Many parsis like the Tata family, Wadia family and others have built great industries. They now number about one lakh and live mostly in Bombay. Because of inter-marriage within their community, they are not considered to be very healthy and some say they are dying out. There are a few Zoroastrians in Iran and yearly pilgrimages go from Bombay to meet them.
Contact with Persian Zoroastrians
There was one special hour in the history of the Parsis. In the 19th Century a rich Indian parsi of Navsari, Changa Asa, sent a man back to Persia to find out the fate of the Zoroastrians there. He found a few. The meeting was a joyful one on both sides. For hundreds of years the Guebres (fire worshippers) of Persia had yearned to know if any of their people existed on the other side of the world. Since then contacts have continued and there are still a few Zoroastrians in modern day Iran.
Relations with British
Parsis in India extended to the English loyal and steadfast cooperation which led to their becoming very wealthy and powerful. As early as 1660, they worked for the United East India Company against the Moguls.
Parsis broke away from Hindus with whom they had been so close, and asserted a superiority which enabled them to take precedence over other communities on social and political reform, until they qualified for the highest appointments even seats in Parliament. They became very Western in their mannerisms, costume and behaviour.
Parsis have a high rate of literacy and their charitable trusts and institutions ensure that no Parsi need go without food, clothes or shelter if he is unable to provide these for himself. Purity is the basic principle of their religion, and they keep themselves and their homes scrupulously clean. Parsis now number about one lakh, and mostly live in Bombay. They have kept intact their individuality and independence of habit and customs. They are an enterprising race, foremost in trade, commerce and industry. They were the first to open cotton mills in Bombay. From them came the naval architects who around 100 years ago built ships-of-the-line for the Royal Navy.
The Parsi New Year is their main festival. It occurs in August. For 10-12 days beforehand Parsis pray for the dead, and 5 days before New Year the cleaning and decorating starts. New Year’s Eve is called PATETI and New Years Day is called NAVROZ. Sandalwood is offered to the Holy Fire and everyone visits the fire temple and eats special sweets and food. They visit each other and spend time enjoying themselves. 6 days later Parsis celebrate KHORDAD SAL which is the birthday of the Prophet Zoroaster. On 21st March, JAMSHEDI NAVROJ is celebrated, which is the Spring festival.
Poetry and Literature
Firdausi (941-1020 AD) was the famous Zoroastrian poet, who after quarrelling with the Arab rulers, led a life wandering around various cities of Persia. The Persian languages in which Parsi literature is written are known as Pazend and Pahlavi.
Important Parsis in India.
Jamshetji Nasarwanji Tata (1839-1904)
He was a merchant and philanthropist, born in Navsari, Gujarat. He introduced the silk industry to India, using Japanese methods, which he set up at Mysore. He endowed a research institute at Bangalore.
His son, Sir Dorabji Jamsetji Tata (1859-1932) Discovered iron ore in Orissa, established an iron and steel works at Jamshedpur and developed hydro electric power in the Western Ghats. He made great charitable donations.
Other notable parsis are:
Ratan Tata and his son J.R.D. Tata
The Kusti is the thread tied around the body during the Navjot ceremony. It is not removed for the lifetime of the wearer. The Padan is a cloth with strings tied over the mouth, worn particularly by priests or persons during religious ceremonies to avoid polluting the fire. The Sudrah is an undershirt, worn beneath all clothing by Parsi men and women.
When in Yezd, Zoroastrian men wore the traditional Persian caftan or tunic with a shawl or coat over it. When they arrived in Gujarat, men continued to wear their long caftan, tied at the waist and with a turban around the3 head.
Women wore wide silwars, long-sleeved kameez and a shawl which was tied around the head like a cap. Some women are shown wearing a half burqua over their clothes with a fringed hood. When they arrived in Gujerat women started wearing the Gujarati sari, but with a few slight style changes. Parsi women have always brought the palla down over the right shoulder not the left.
The traditional Parsi sari made of embroidered fabric is called a Ghara. Many aged Parsi ladies have one of these in their trunks, although the true Ghara has not been available since around 1950. These embroidered fabrics were made in China throughout the 19th and early 20th century. They were brought to Bombay by peddlers who sold them to wealthy Parsi women in their houses. A peddler got to know these women personally because one man would go to the same houses year after year, and his son or grandson would sell to the ladies of the same houses. The full roll of fabric would often be purchased and Parsi ladies would have women stitch a sari length of crepe, silk or chiffon underneath. Many ladies would stitch a border of embroidered fabric on an Indian sari.
The Parsi hat is called a Pheta. There are several popular styles, short and long, with a rolled brim or without. A roll of fabric is also worn over a pointed cap. A small black cap is worn by boys when studying or at religious ceremonies. The priests were a turban just made of white fabric wound around their heads.
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