There is deep sense of loss setting in about the Parsis, a vanishing Indian community, who originally migrated from Persia to protect Zoroastrianism. Their settlement in India is one of the greatest examples of fusion of two cultures and exemplary peaceful coexistence of two starkly different religions in the history of mankind.
Here was a small tribe that migrated to one corner of the Indian subcontinent and for more than 1300 years faced not one conflict or discrimination in their adopted land. However, the long journey of this happiest amalgamation of two different societies may have tragically entered its final lap.
According to 2011 census only 57,264 Parsis lived in India. Their population has since dwindled further. There could be only 23,000 Parsis in the India by the next census. If this trend continues, this brilliant, rich and philanthropic community — which is conservative when it comes to their identity — may become history in the next century.
The followers of Zarathustra arrived in India in the 8th century. Its believed that after a sea-storm, their ship landed in Sanjan port, Gujarat. Legend has it that when the local Hindu king, Jadi Rana, was somewhat reluctant to welcome the Persians, the Parsi priest requested for a glass of milk. The clever Zoroastrian added sugar into it and returned the glass. Rana was touched and gave conditional asylum to the community. The rest is history.
Parsis adopted Gujarat as their own land, spoke Parsi Gujarati (they are called Bawas in Gujarati). They adopted the dressing culture of Hindus and had fusion food while retaining lots of central-Asian influence. Many centuries later when the British arrived in India, the Parsis adopted English etiquette, dresses, education and established enviable business links.
The Tatas, Freddie Mercury & Other Bawas
The recent best-seller in India The Tatas, Freddie Mercury & Other Bawas: An Intimate History of the Parsis by senior journalist-author Coomi Kapoor has traced her community’s history. The book raises many questions about the shrinking of the community that played a huge role in India’s nation building.
The Parsis, who arrived in Mumbai from Gujarat, laid foundation of the modern city of Mumbai. Dadabhai Naoroji was one of the founders of Congress party, Homi Bhabha was the father of India’s nuclear programme, Indian army chief Sam Manekshaw was the first general to be awarded rank of field marshal, late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s husband Feroze Gandhi was a Parsi and India’s most famous industrial group of Tatas was founded by the legendary Parsi Jamsetji Tata.
Madame Bhikhaiji Cama was a revolutionary and fought British rule with courage, funded Hindutva thinker Veer Savarkar, too.
Pakistan’s founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s descendants are Parsis too. Nusli Wadia, one of India’s biggest industrialists, is Jinnah’s only grandson.
From the iconic singer late Freddy Mercury to the latest sensation Adar Poonawala, world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, Parsis have dominated India’s socioeconomic scene but their population is declining by 10 to 12% each decade.
Coomi says, “As I became older, I became very nostalgic of the Parsi way of life. I felt very sad that its slowly going away because there are not that many people to keep up all the Persian traditions.”
The author thinks that a small but very vocal section of the community is speeding the decline of the community because they are preventing the entry of the people who should logically be recognised as Parsis. “The most obvious example is not allowing the children of Parsi women, who marry outside the community, to be part of the community. Then, obviously the community is going to decline even faster than its birth rate.”
According to the community magazine Parsiana, about 30% of the Parsi girls marry outside the community. Coomi adds, "Which other religion in the world says that no you can’t be one of us?” Parsis stoutly discourage conversion into their faith but this wasn’t the case earlier.
A unique, bright community
The author cites history. Back in the 15th century, Changa Asa, Gujarati Parsi leader, converted a few Hindus to increase the size of the community. He took advice ‘back home' from Iranian Zoroastrians.
Nariman Hosang, resident of Bharooch city, had travelled to Yazd and Kerman to meet dastoors for religious advice. The historical evidences suggest exchanges of information known as 'Riyayat', which continued for three centuries.
However, after 1850 Parsi growth in India has been phenomenal. Prosperous Gujarati Parsis influenced a section of Iranian Zoroastrians who migrated to India and started bakeries and Irani (Iranian) restaurants. Some started chikoo (sapodilla) farming in South Gujarat. Late migrants and early migrants from Persia have intermingled well over the decades.
Are all Parsis from Middle-East originally?
Coomi says, “Somewhere along the line, they must have married native Indian women. There was National Geographic DNA test. My sister Roxana Swamy and my brother both did it. So if you do it from your girl’s side, then you get your maternal DNA. If you do it from the boy’s side, you get your paternal DNA. My sister’s DNA test showed that her ancestors came from somewhere in Central Asia. We joked that my mother’s side family were priests so we had not married outside the community since centuries. When my brother did the test we thought that my father’s side DNA test will come on the Asian side, but his DNA belonged to Central Asia, too. After so many centuries we had not 'mixed' much.”
Coomi says DNA test of the Parsis traced our religion in Central Asian countries. Dakhmas (Parsi Towers of Silence) have been excavated in Tazikstan and Uzbekistan, as well.
Quoting experts, Coomi claims that the Kurds living in mountainous regions of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey have clear links with Zoroastrianism in terms of language, customs and culture.
The author notes that Parsis never faced discrimination of any kind in India. They have been confident people who took pride in their community. Parsis even refused the offer of reservation of two seats in Parliament soon after India's independence.
Coomi isn’t all pessimistic. She thinks the religion that survived for thousands of years, even after its decline, would survive with few reforms and continue its voyage.