- Prabhat Kumar Rai -
After centuries of facelessness and subsisting on agriculture, the Parsis prospered phenomenally under British Rule. They came under British influence around seventeenth century and developed forte for trade, industry and commerce. They were also involved in opium trade with China. They amassed vast fortunes. According to authoritative Britannica Encyclopaedia; ‘The expansion of the city in eighteenth century owed largely to their industry and ability as merchants. By the nineteenth century, they were manifestly a wealthy community and from about 1850 they had considerable success in heavy industries, particularly those connected with railways and shipbuilding.’ Although residing in secluded clusters and maintaining their distinct customs and traditions, they have integrated nicely into Indian society. The maxim, ‘Parsi - Thy name is charity!’ aptly describes, literally and figuratively, their munificent donations for charitable purposes, philanthropy and altruism. They enjoy a very high literacy rate (97.9%) which is the highest for any community in India, the national average hovering around 64.8%. Despite being minority having lowest number, they always fight shy of deriving any benefit bestowed by the Government exclusively for the minorities.
Their relationship with less favoured coreligionists in Iran has been far from cordial. The Iranian Zoroastrians contacted their wealthy counterpart in India in 15th century and exchanged epistles concerning religious lore. In 18th century, they split into two sects on issues of rituals and calendar. In 19th century, the Parsis organized a society which raised fund to help their disadvantaged brethren particularly in educational field. With the patronage of British ambassador, their representatives remonstrated with Persian Government over discrimination of minuscule Zoroastrian there.
The New Year festival, Navroz, is the most important festival celebrated by the Parsis on the day of vernal equinox, when the length of day equals that of night. As a happy fortuitous coincidence, Jamshedji Navroj, king of Persia ascended the throne on this eventful day regarded as auspicious. On this sacred occasion, a mirror is positioned in such an orientation so that one can see reflection of pomegranate, a diya and the photograph of Zoroaster in a straight line. Looking at the rectilinear alignment and one’s own image in the mirror heralds good fortune. At the instant of equinox, the earth turns a wee bit; this particular moment is captured by the mirror in the reflection and proves harbinger of good luck for the devout Parsis. A child is inducted into Parsi moral code through the ceremony of Navjot.
Iranian Fire Worship is traced to cult of Gup Atar and is central to the Zoroastrianism. The most revered fire temple is known as Atash Behran. The sacred fire is ritually maintained using sandalwood by the priest. Household fires are not allowed to go out and venerated early morning by the inmates with generous offer of the sandalwood. Parsis observe Gahabar festival which is marked by various stages. The sacred fire must be kept burning and is fed at least five times a day. The initiation of new fire involves an elaborate ritual. There are strict procedures for purification and regeneration of fire.
The fire at Udavada, the holiest shrine of Zoroastrian pilgrimage in Gujarat, is believed to have burnt unquenched ever since it was consecrated on Gujarat’s Sanjan beachhead where they descended to preserve more than 3000 years old religion. It is said that the leader-priest, Dhawal, had lit it from sixteen embers including those from household earth, a funeral pyre, smithy coals and cosmic spark from the lightning strike. It was reverentially declared as ‘throne’ of Iranshah. When Sanjan came under the rulership of Sultan Mohhamad in 1279, the Parsis hid it in a cave of remote hill in Barot for twelve long years and assiduously kept it alive.
With perpetual depletion, Parsi community is on the brink: the birth rate has plummeted below replacement level. Deaths have consistently outstripped births resulting in an ageing population. There population which is hardly 50000 is likely to be whittled down to around 23000 by 2020, reducing the sophisticated, distinctive and urbane ‘community’ to a mere ‘tribe’. Things have come to such a pass that Ministry of Minorities Affairs has launched a ‘Jiyo (keep living ) Parsi’ campaign to promote childbirth to save the vanishing tribe.
The Parsis are strictly monogamous and endogamous. Earlier, the marriage between priestly and non-priestly families was also tabooed. Marriages between close consanguineal and affinal relatives are quite common. Their religious texts viz. Avasthan, Vendidas & Dihkand forbid mixed marriages. They consider mixed marriages as impious and sinful. The Zoroastrian religion recognizes only the union as ‘marriage’, in which both the spouses are born Parsi Zoroastrian and profess the religion. Marriage is treated as sacrament and not a contract. Such a sacrament can only be conferred by competent Parsi priests, when both the partners are strict Zoroastrians.
The sociologists are of the view that their aversion to mixed marriage stems from the acute sense of self-preservation rather than asserting racial supremacy. It is not for nothing that the Parsis believe that intermarriage would lead to dilution of faith and emaciate the cultural bond which they are proud of. There coreligionist who migrated to China, Central Asia and parts of Europe by force of circumstances lost their distinct religion and ethnic exclusivity altogether by adopting hybridization. Their fervent desire to perpetuate family privileges and ethnic identity are some of the potent social factors responsible for the consanguineous marriage, an acute form of endogamy. Martin Luther King once said:’ I want the white man to be my brother, not my brother-in-law’. In the same vein, Parsis treat all Indians as their brothers, but would have preferred not to have them as their brothers-in-law. The non-predatory Parsis never reneged on the promise made regarding not marrying outside their community to the monarch when they landed on the Sanjan beachhead.
The insular tradition of marrying within the minuscule community led to large number of Parsis remaining unmarried. About 16% of Parsi females and 20% males do not marry. According to historian, Dina Patel:’ There is little family pressure to marry. There is strong body of data to show that the Parsi population is declining owing to low fertility. Not because of any biological or medical problem, rather they choose not to marry or marry late or have few or no children. The fertility rate is 0.88 against the requirement of 2.1 for replacement.” Social scientists argue that infusion of fresh blood is essential for this fast depleting tribe to survive. Diseases of inbreeding because of cousin marriages are cited as one of the main reasons culminating into dangerously low fertility rate. The priests and community leaders obdurately resist any intrusion lest their ethnic legacy would be appropriated by the half-castes. Their excessive obsession with creature comforts because of opulence also distracts them from raising the children.
The Parsi fair sex who dare to marry non-Parsi are excommunicated and their off springs also suffer similar fate. Their divorce rate is the highest among the Indian communities. High education and greater degree of economic emancipation of the ladies are instrumental in giving rise to divorces. Noted journalist, Bachi Karkaria, has rightly observed in her incisive article, ‘Intermarry and be damned’: “They are totally unequal in the emotive matter of intermarriage, which account for 37% of all marriages in a community already burdened by ‘never marrieds’. They choose partners from outside the fast depleting pool. But a woman daring to do so is accused of sedition and heresy, because her ‘selfish’ act jeopardizes community and religion. Her children are lost to both. Not so those of the intermarried Parsi males.” All sacred rites are totally denied to the children of Parsi women marred to a non-Parsi. They cannot be initiated into Zoroastrian faith through Navjot ceremony. Intermarried Parsi women are forbidden from praying at Fire temples and performing last rites at the Tower of Silence. The grim gender bias is in contradistinction to their progressive outlook and high education. Their bigotry can be gauged from the incidence of huge expenses towards fighting protracted legal battle to debar the priests who presided over certain rituals involving intermarried couples. Contumacious priests and community leaders have started advocating need for reforms consistent with broader perspective of the tenets of the religion.
Parsis do not practice cremation or burial. They believe that earth, fire and water are the most sacred elements which under no circumstances should get defiled by the dead. By exposing dead bodies to scavenging birds and sun, the contamination of sacred elements by the decaying flesh is saved. After death, a dog, preferably having spots over the eyes, is brought to lead the funeral procession. The fire is brought into a room and kept burning for three days after removal of corpse to Tower of Silence (Dakhma). The removal must be done during daytime. The interior of Dakhma comprises three concentric circles, one each for men, women & children. The vultures swarm and attack the exposed corpse and strip the flesh off the bones. Once the bones are bleached by the sun, they are swept in the circular opening at the centre. The ritual extends to four days. The morning of fourth day is marked by solemn obeisance in death ritual for it is then the departed soul reaches the next world and appear before the deities who are to pass judgement over it. Rather than creating grave for the dead, Parsis prefer to establish charities in honour of the person. Of late, the cities have witnessed drastic reduction of scavenging vultures owing to extreme urbanization, unintended consequence of treating sick humans and live stocks with pernicious antibiotics and anti-inflammatory diclofenac, both of which are immensely harmful for vultures. They have become victim of poison by bovine painkillers which the scavenging vultures ingest from festering or cattle carcasses. Consequently the bodies placed in Dakhmas are left rotting in the open for months. Solar panels have been installed in some Towers of silence to quicken the decomposition process. Few unorthodox Parsis are also going in for electric crematorium even at the cost of facing opprobrium from their community.
The Parsis are caught between their pristine concern to preserve their racial purity and nagging worry caused by ever dwindling population with looming extinction. Their robust fatalism refuses to be crushed by the grim realism pointing towards serious existential threat. With diehard optimism, the orthodox Parsis ardently believe that their community would be eternalized as their ethnic identity has been perpetuated by their ancestors despite grave threats and demographic concerns about shrinking population since inception of the religion. Heretic priests and leaders of the community continue to be ostracized and anathematized and even dragged to the Courts for patronizing unorthodox ways aimed at increasing the population and correcting distortions like gender inequalities etc. The Parsis need to have a hard look at the staring existential problem dispassionately in consonance with Zoroaster’s famous preaching: ’With an open mind, seek and listen to all the highest ideals. Consider the most enlightened thoughts. Then choose your path, person by person, each for yourself.’
About the AuthorPrabhat Kumar RaiEnergy Adviser to Chief Minister, Bihar
Former Chairman of Bihar State Electricity Board & Former Chairman-cum-Managing Director Bihar State Power (Holding) Co. Ltd. . Former IRSEE ( Indian Railway Service of Electrical Engineers ) . Presently Energy Adviser to Hon’ble C.M. Govt. of Bihar . Distinguished Alumni of Bihar College of Engineering ( Now NIT , Patna ) Patna University. First Class First with Distinction in B.Sc.(Electrical Engineering). Alumni Association GOLD MEDALIST from IIT, Kharagpur , adjudged as the BEST M.TECH. STUDENT.
Administrator and Technocrat of International repute and a prolific writer . His writings depicts vivid pictures of socio-economic scenario of developing & changing India , projects inherent values of the society and re-narrates the concept of modernization . Writing has always been one of his forte, alongside his ability for sharp, critical analysis and conceptual thinking. It was this foresight and his sharp and apt analysis of developmental processes gives him an edge over others.
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