The Parsis, followers of the ancient Zoroastrian religion, are few in number, making up a minute fraction of India’s population.
In 2014, there were less than 70,000 Parsis in India, and this number is decreasing rapidly. Though insignificant in numerical strength, the Parsis have made a disproportionately enormous positive impact in many fields of activity in India and the rest of the world. To appreciate their achievements, one need only consider that the following well-known personalities are all of Parsi origin: the politicians Dadabhai Naoroji, Bhikaiji Cama, and Pherozeshah Mehta; the industrialist families Wadia, Petit, Tata, and Godrej; scientists Homi J Bhabha and Homi Sethna; musicians Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, Zubin Mehta, and Freddy Mercury; military men including Sam Manekshaw; authors Rohinton Mistry, Firdaus Kanga, and Bapsi Sidhwa; actors John Farhan Abraham and Boman Irani; and a host of other famous people.
The Parsis originated in Iran (Persia). Following the invasion of Persia by Islamic forces, the Zoroastrians were persecuted by the invaders. Some of them chose to flee to India from Iran. It is not known exactly when this exodus began, but it is likely to have been sometime during the 8th century AD. In India, the Zoroastrians were free to observe their religious practices and were known as ‘Parsis’.
Although details are subject to discussion, it is widely thought that the Parsis first settled in Diu on the Saurashtrian coast of Gujarat for 19 years. They left this place when an astrologer-priest announced: “’Our destiny lies elsewhere, we must leave Diu and seek another place of refuge” (see: http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/parsi-communities-i-early-history). They sailed across the waters from Diu to the coast of southern Gujarat, where it is believed they landed at Sanjan. They settled in Sanjan and places nearby including Udvada, Bharuch, Navsari, and Ankleshwar. Cutting a long story short, Parsi communities developed all over Gujarat and Maharashtra (notably in Bombay and Pune).
As with other religions, Zoroastrianism has several unalterable core features. One of these is worship at Fire Temples. The Fire Temple, to which access is denied to all but Zoroastrians, contains a fire that must be kept alight by the priests. An English traveller John Jourdain (ca. 1572-1619) wrote of the Parsis in Navsari: “Their religion is farre different from the Moores or Banians for they do adore the fire, and doe contynuallie keepe their fire burninge for devotion thinkinge that if the fire should goe out, that the world weare at an end.”
During my recent trip to Gujarat, I visited Udvada, which is home to an extremely important Fire Temple. In my new book (see below), I wrote: “Udvada is home to a historically important, highest-level Parsi temple known as an Atash Behram (i.e. ‘Fire of Victory’). Established in 1742, this is the oldest of the eight Atash Behrams in the India. The sacred flame that it houses has been burning continuously for longer than any other Parsi sacred flames in India. Its sacred flame was lit on a bed of sacred ashes brought to India by the first Parsis to arrive there.” Being a functioning fire temple, my wife and I who are not Parsis, were unable to enter this esteemed place of worship.
Another characteristic of Parsi religious observances is the mode of disposing of the deceased. Although some Parsis are buried – I have visited a Parsi cemetery in Bangalore, the majority of Parsi corpses are dealt with quite differently. They are placed in the so-called Towers of Silence.
I wrote that the Towers of Silence are: “… where the corpses of Parsis were traditionally left exposed to the sky so that their flesh could be consumed by vultures (a practice that may have begun in Persia by 900 AD).” In Bombay, there is now a problem: no vultures. I wrote: “The depletion of the vulture population has been attributed to the toxic medications, such as the painkiller diclophenac, that become concentrated in the corpses’ during life, and remain there after death.”
Like the Fire Temples, functioning Towers of Silence are out of bounds except for Parsis, alive or dead. There was a thriving Parsi community on the island of Diu, a Portuguese colony until 1961. Several decades ago, the last of the Parsis living in Diu left the island to settle elsewhere. The community that had lived there for many centuries had its own Fire Temples and Towers of Silence. These have long since become abandoned or re-used for other purposes. However, they retain enough of their original features to show visitors, who, like my wife and I, are not Parsis, what cannot be seen in functioning Fire Temples and Towers of Silence. What we found and much more is described in detail in my new publication.
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