10th September 2000
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Survivors through history 

There is an acute awareness among the world's 120,000-strong Parsi-Zoroastrian community about the serious threats to its religion and race. 

It is almost a contradic- tion in terms to say that the world's Parsi-Zoroastrian population, numbering about 120,000, is relaxed to events that could eventually lead to its extinction. After all, the community has a literacy rate of over 75 per cent. It is flush with funds from innumerable trusts and properties, prides itself on sexual equality, and has survived persecutions with remarkable equanimity and resilience. Nevertheless, there is an acute awareness that what is accepted as one of the oldest religions in the world will soon be non-existent and the race that practises it will soon be extinct if something is not done. 

Scholars believe that Zoroastrianism is the oldest surviving religion that was revealed by a prophet. The largest number of its followers today live in India, followed closely by Canada and the United States. Followers of the religion constitute one of the world's smallest communities. 

At the top of the list of concerns of the community in India is its declining population. According to the 1991 Census, there were 53,794 Parsis in Mumbai, a traditional stronghold of the community. In a survey conducted in 1999 by the Tata Institute for Social Sciences (TISS) for the Bombay Parsi Punchayat (BPT), the Parsi population in Mumbai was estimated to be between 50,000 and 55,000. According to the TISS report, "the numerical strength of the Parsi community has been declining since India's Independence. The forces affecting their numerical strength are numerous. Few births, a very large number of deaths, late marriage and non-marriage, marriage outside the community, migration out of India, strict religious practices, apathy to adoption are among the main factors for their decline." 

In a first-of-its-kind project, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has provided assistance to a project for the preservation of the culture and heritage of an ethno-religious community. 

The project was started with the aim of recording and reviving interest in the community. Although constituting less than 0.0001 of the Indian population, Parsis have contributed to the making of modern India, and though they have integrated into the mainstream they retain a distinct ethnic and cultural identity. 

According to demographic studies, in another 50 years, there will be only 20,000 Parsis in the world. "We shall cease to be a community. We shall become a tribe. The solution to this life-and-death problem of the community cannot be left to obscurantists and fanatics," said Jehan Daruwalla, former editor of Mumbai Samacher, a newspaper that holds profressive views on religion. 

There is some confusion about the words that are used interchangeably to identify people who follow this religion. They are called Parsis, Zarathushtis or Mazdayasnis. In essence all these terms are accurate but to be specific, Mazdayasni was the religion that existed prior to the preachings of Zarathushtra, the prophet (the Greek spelling is Zoroaster) who enunciated the principles of the Mazdayasni religion. Parsis are a race from the Persian region of Pars and they are followers of Zarathustra. 

The Parsis came to India about 1,200 years ago, seeking refuge from religious persecution in their native Persia which had been conquered by the Arabs. Upon landing on the shores of Gujarat, they pleaded with the king for refuge. There is an oft repeated story of how the head priest of the Parsis persuaded Jadhav Rana, King of Gujarat in the ninth century A.D., to allow Parsis, who had fled religious persecution in Persia, to settle in India. To satisfy the king's doubts about the intentions of the refugees, the priest took a bowl of milk filled to the brim and added sugar to it. While doing so he assured the king that just as the sugar blended into the milk without displacing any of it so too would he and his people blend into and sweeten the land. The king, apparently persuaded by this, gave the Parsis permission to settle in Gujarat. 

The other caveats to Jadhav Rana's munificence are unfortunately not as well-recorded as this incident, with the result that there are doubts about matters pertaining to conversion and intermarriage with other faiths. Some scholars say the current ban on conversion goes further back and is integral to the religion while others say it was one of the conditions for granting refuge in India. Explaining the precepts of the religion, Dr. R. Karanjia, principal of the Dadar Athornan Madressa, a school that imparts religious education says that conversion is a non-issue. "Zoroastrianism is an ethnic religion. We believe that religion is decided by birth." 

Reformists want to change the diktat that one has to be born a Parsi. This rule of the faith is released for children born of Parsi fathers and non-Parsi mothers. But the rule is rigidly adhered to if the opposite is the case. Reformists advocate the following: a Parsi woman either married to or divorced from a non-Parsi man be allowed to practise her faith; a child born of a marriage between a non-Parsi man and a Parsi woman be accepted into the faith; the community accept conversion to Zoroastrianism. 

The subtle practice of social excommunication against people who married outside the community lessened greatly with the introduction of the Special Marriages Act, 1954, which permits persons marrying outside the community to continue practising the religion. 

The issue of conversions evokes strong opinions. The late Dastur Peshotan Peer, a hard-liner, said that Parsis who married outside the community were "living in adultery". The choice, he said, was clear if Parsis marry non-Parsis, they should no longer consider themselves part of the community. Peer was firm in his conviction that conversion is forbidden by the religious texts. He said "Zoroastrians left Iran to preserve their religion and to preserve the purity of their blood and race. To marry into other faiths is to betray our ancestors." 

The Association of Inter-Married Zoroastrians (AMZ) was formed to "protect and safeguard the rights, privileges and benefits of Parsi Zoroastrians married outside their group". With regard to the rights of children born to Parsi mothers and non-Parsi fathers, the AMZ asks that children of such a marriage be allowed to have their naojotes openly in baugs (traditional areas for ceremonies, often in the compound of a fire temple) and that they be accepted as Zoroastrians. The AMZ contends that if the spouse has no objection to this arrangement, there is no reason why anyone should object. 

While the reformists argue that they are not bent on changing the precepts of the religion but are merely trying to ensure its continuance, the orthodoxy sees these changes as sacrilege. Dastur Dr. Firoze Kotwal, one of the seven high priests, said "We have to preserve the identity and purity of our race. I say this entirely from a religious perspective and not from any contempt towards other races or peoples." 

There is one argument in favour of preserving the racial stock. Another opinion is that racial purity should be secondary to the continuance of the religion. Noshir Dadrawalla, who edits a pamphlet called Deen Parast (The Faithful), disputes the argument that the religion is dying. He says "We have survived Alexander, we have survived the Arabs. We have lost empires. We have lost the status of being a state religion but we have always risen from the ashes. There is absolutely no reason why we cannot survive."

Dadrawalla believes that the parameter for this survival is religion. "It is religion that gives a well-defied code of living and regulates the community's social life. We must strengthen our sense of community and set aside individualism." Dadrawalla has no hesitation in identifying intermarriage as "the greatest threat to the community". His comment is also a reference to the late age at which most Parsis marry and to the prevalence of single-child families. 

Statistics available with Parsiana, a community magazine with a balanced perspective, show that of every 100 women between the ages of 19 and 45, roughly 30 per cent do not marry at all, 20 per cent marry outside the religion, and of the remaining 50 per cent (who do marry and do so within the community), the total number of children born do not exceed their own numbers. 

But the debate on whether or not to convert is something of a smokescreen as far as the future of the community in India is concerned. At the heart of the matter is the sad truth that the Parsi community lacks leadership and has no single body responsible to guide its secular and religious affairs. In fact, Karanjia believes that numbers have never really been a matter of concern to the community. "I have cuttings from decades-old newspapers that raise these issues of conversion and intermarriage as being a threat to the community. Ever since we left Persia we have never exceeded 130,000 or so in numbers. So to say that intermarriage and conversion are solutions to a declining population is not only misleading but also dangerous. I say dangerous because of the loss of identity this could bring to the community. We know some Parsis fled to Europe, China and North India 1,200 years ago. You never hear of them now. They are totally integrated with the local population whereas we have maintained our identity." 

The final word on the community's affairs should go to the New York-based physicist Dr. K.D. Irani, who supports voluntary conversion. He says "The religion is at a critical juncture. It must restructure and reorient itself. The community should not be negatively bigoted on this issue. If you just look at numbers, then I guess it is a dying religion. We are facing a conflict between scientific views of social judgments. We're not a genuine society, we've gone back to tribalism by believing we have to be born Zoroastrian and thereby eliminating the whole enlightened point of view of choice". 

- Frontline

Sri Lankan Parsis facing extinction?

By Nilika de Silva
In the mid-twentieth century there were more than 300 of them. Today the local Parsi comunity has dwindled to about 45. The sad reality is that nothing can really be done to ensure that Lanka's small but eminent Parsi community will continue to enrich Sri Lanka's development in the future as they have done in the past four centuries. 

Conversion is not allowed by the Parsi community in Sri Lanka. And a woman if she marries out of the community cannot expect her children to be accepted into the Parsi community. These are the main reasons for the diminishing numbers of Parsis in Sri Lanka. 

A unique community, the Parsis of Sri Lanka have retained a pure strain of those very first people who migrated from Pars (ancient Persia) when threatened by the religious empire building Arab world. Having first settled down in Gujarat, they went on to set sail and venture forth for the sake of commercial enterprise. 

Pestonjee, Choksy, Captain, Jilla, Billimoria, Rustomjee, Jevunjee, Dadabhoy, Barucha..... these Parsi names ring many bells. The Pestonjees and Captains in the field of commerce, the Choksys in the legal world, Jilla, in the field of Guiding, Billimoria in Scouting, each in his or her chosen field has carved out a niche, making those rare Parsi names household ones in this country.

It was Soli Captain, for instance, who met the costs for Sri Lanka's first Cancer Hospice, Dr. Jamshed Dadabhoy who was renowned as the Chief Eye Surgeon of the Colombo Eye Hospital, his niece Roshan, (later Peiris) now of The Sunday Times who was the first woman Editor of the Observer, well known architect Jamshed Nilagriya and Jimmy Barucha, renowned broadcaster. These are but a handful of the Parsis who made it to the top. 

Parsi traditions and culture in Sri Lanka are not widely known. The naming of a Parsi baby, for instance, is according to the date and time of birth. A letter is chosen and depending on this letter a Parsi name is selected. 

A Parsi child's initiation into Zoroastrianism (the Parsi religion) or confirmation takes place between the ages of seven and fifteen years. It is at this point that the children will receive the sacred white garment 'Sudreh' and the sacred girdle 'Kusti'.

Holy water or bull urine which has been blessed through prayer, is a very important aspect of ceremony among the Parsi people. At confirmation, at marriage and even in the funeral rituals the holy water is used in a purification rite. Although today marriage ceremonies take place even in five star hotels, orthodox Zoroastrians prefer marriage ceremonies to take place in the temple, explained Reverend Sohrab Panthaky.

Reverend Panthaky also explained that today more than 50 percent of the marriages take place out of the community, another reason for the dwindling numbers in the Parsi population of Sri Lanka. 

Although the Parsis of Sri Lanka live in accordance with the Indian Parsi lifestyle they have been forced to make certain changes. Unlike in India, the Tower of Silence where a Parsi is placed after death does not exist in Sri Lanka and an alternative arrangement of burial has replaced this custom. 

The funeral ceremony is usually conducted within 24 hours of death and burial takes place at the Parsi cemetery at Jawatte in Colombo. Fire, a symbol of purity to the Parsis, is lit immediately when a person dies and the lamp is placed near the body of the departed soul. 

A unique feature in a Parsi funeral is the employing of a 'four-eyed dog' ( a dog with two markings above its eyes) which is lead up to the corpse. If the dog turns away from the deceased this serves as a final test to ensure that the person is dead, Mr. P. N. Pestonjee explained. 

However, it is believed that for four days the soul will remain in this world, and on the fourth day after burial, the family meet for lunch.

The Parsi Club which seeks to keep the Parsi community together engages in annual activities centred around fellowship. The President of the organisation is Mrs. Aban Pestonjee, the Managing Director of Abans Ltd.

"The Parsi Club has gatherings three times an year," its secretary Ms. Perin Captain said. "These are on the Prophet's Birthday, the Club birthday and on March 21, each year. These take the form of a dinner and also some games," Ms. Captain added. 

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