Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Keeping the Faith

An old photo of the
Parsee Tower of Silence in Bombay
Heidi’s column from Monday discussed the beautiful fire and water symbols of Zoroastrianism, Iran’s dominant religion until about the seventh century. That’s when Islam came to Iran and many Zoroastrians, fleeing persecution, migrated to India, where they blended their unique culture within the mainstream one.

Parsees (also spelled Parsis), as they are known on the subcontinent, are well educated, urban (most live in Mumbai), and relatively affluent. They’re a tiny group—estimates put their overall number at about 70,000—but even if you haven’t heard the name of this community, you’ve heard of some of its most prominent members: award-winning author Rohinton Mistry; the late Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of Queen (his real name was Farrokh Bulsara); and conductor Zubin Mehta. Then there’s the billionaire Tata family, who own, among their numerous global ventures, Jaguar and Land Rover (through Tata Motors), Tetley tea (Tata Global Beverages), and the world’s tenth largest steel company (Tata Steel).

As a group, Parsees have maintained a relatively pure lineage (at one time, they were listed in the Guiness Book of World Records for having the most birth defects, because of their once-high incidence of intermarriage), but they are also uniquely Indian. They’ve adopted the Indian language of Gujarati, the women wear saris, and the religion has even borrowed a few Hindu customs, such as men wearing the holy thread around the shoulder and waist, the use of coconuts and rice during religious ceremonies, and the application of red powder to their foreheads (tilaks) during baptism and marriage.

They also meld some ancient Persian customs with Hindu ones. For example, one method for removing the evil eye in a number of Muslim countries, including Iran, is the burning of the espand seed (also known as esfand). In India, Parsees have modified this practice in a ritual called achu michu. The person performing the ritual says a traditional Zoroastrian prayer, known as the tandorosti, to wish the recipient a long and healthy life. Then they circle a tray, carrying a coconut, betel leaves, betel nuts, sugar, and yogurt (items commonly used in Hindu rituals), around the receiver’s head seven times. Sometimes a boiled egg is one of these items (definitely not a Hindu custom). Then water from a little flower vase known as a kutli is poured into the tray, and the tray is then circled again around the recipient’s head seven times. It’s interesting how similar this practice is to the Hindu custom of performing aarti to bless someone. In fact, in achu pichu, as in aarti, a tilak is placed on the recipient’s forehead and a sweet placed in his or her mouth, then the recipient touches the feet of the person giving the blessing. Still, it’s believed the practice evolved from the tradition of burning of esfand/espand seeds.

There’s at least one age-old Parsee custom that always seemed ultra exotic to me, even for India. It’s the method by which Parsees dispose of their dead. Zoroastrianism forbids burial, cremation, or disposal at sea because it would contaminate the sacred elements of earth, fire, and water. So instead, mourners in Mumbai carry the deceased up the steep Malabar Hill, an upscale part of town, to place the body atop the Parsee Bawdi, or the Tower of Silence. The idea is that vultures, other scavengers, and the scorching sun eventually decompose the remains, allowing the soul to join the spiritual world. India is one of the few places that hasn’t banned this ancient tradition, which makes it one of the few places, perhaps the only place, where Zoroastrians can continue it.

That may not be the only reason the community continues on in India. It’s believed that India and Iran share the same Aryan roots from Central Asia, which was once the stronghold of Zoroastrianism, before the two split off and the Indic people migrated south. One tantalizing remnant of this link is that the name for the Zoroastrian god, Ahura Mazda, sounds much like asura, the Sanksrit word for demon. Had there been a war separating the Indo-Iranian cultures?

Either way, worldwide, Zoroastrians only number about 200,000 today. Estimates in Iran range wildly, from 20,000 to 90,000, depending on the source (many have emigrated since the 1979 revolution), with another 20,000 in the States and Canada, plus the 70,000 in India. It’s no wonder theirs is a small community. Zoroastrians have a low birth rate, they don’t proselytize, and their numbers keep dwindling as they marry outside their culture.

But in an interesting twist, the religion is staying alive in other ways. In recent years, a Mazdean-Christian Universalism philosophy emerged, which says that the ideas of a benevolent god and the existence of evil in the world were originally Zoroastrian ones that Judaism adopted and which eventually made their way into Christianity. Swedish music producer Alexander Bard is a well-known convert. There’s even a Mazdean-Christian Alliance in Brooklyn, New York. While it’s not exactly a revolution, this beautiful, ancient faith carries on.

1 comment:

  1. What a fabulous post, Supriya! I had no idea about Freddie Mercury's heritage. So interesting!