Parsis: a larger than life image

Benevolent, hardworking and wealthy, very few can imagine that the Parsi community reached the Western shores of India a few centuries ago.  Be it movies, business, science, construction, railways, defence forces, the community has made magnificent contribution to Indian society in every field. Kota Saumya speaks to Parsis in the city to get an insight into their culture and persistent battle between orthodox mindsets and liberals and the threat of extinction.

By Author  |  Published: 4th Mar 2018  12:15 amUpdated: 11th Mar 2018  9:52 am
Parsis
Navroz Celebrations

The Parsis are Zoroastrians by faith. Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest religions of the world. Humata, Hukhta, Huvarshta which translates to Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds are amongst some of the guiding principles of the Zoroastrian religion. “According to reliable historical, astronomical and scientific evidences, it began around 6500 BC,” states head priest Ervad Mehernosh Bharucha who lives in the Bai Maneckbai Nusserwanji Chenoy Dar-e-Meher (Fire Temple) compound on Tilak Road.

“All fires in the Temples are consecrated fires and they are ceremonially tended five times a day according to ‘gahs’ which are related to the movement of the sun. This is necessary as the consecrated fire has to be kept burning eternally,” adds Bharucha. Their God is Ahura Mazda whose principles were propagated by the prophet Zarathushtra who founded the monotheistic faith. Amongst all natural creations (fire, water, earth, plants etc), fire claims a prominent position and is elevated to the status of ‘The Son of God’.

For millennia, the Parsis flourished in Persia (now Iran) until the Arab invasion forced them to flee. When they arrived in India 12 centuries ago in Sanjan, Gujarat, the story goes that, the local ruler Jadi Rana asked the high priest of the refugees how they planned to stay in an already populated place.

“The priest then called for a bowl of milk filled to the brim and blended a spoonful of sugar in it to signify that Parsis would integrate with the population like the sugar,” explains Omim Debara, one of the trustees of the Parsi Zoroastrian Anjuman of Secunderabad & Hyderabad (PZASH). The ruler also laid down five conditions they had to follow. “The priest explains the religion to the king, they adopt Gujarati as their language, the women adopt the local dress which was the sari, the men give up arms and the wedding celebrations were to be conducted after sunset. Very few actually know or speak Persian in the community today,” states Mehernosh.


Nizami legacy


Parsis came to Hyderabad during the early 18th century at the invitation of Sir Salarjung I and occupied high ranking positions in the government. “What worked in their favour was they knew English which helped in their dealings with locals and foreigners, and had knowledge of Persian and Urdu,” says Jehangir Hormusjee, whose ancestors came to the city during 1900s.

Dinaz Noria, who runs the popular events management company, ‘3D Décor by Dinaz’ recalls, every district had one Parsi family during the Nizam’s time. “They exhibited an entrepreneurial spirit and set up factories, dal and rice mills, and oil extraction units. My family owned ice factories, theatres and power houses before they were nationalised,” says Dinaz whose family lived in Parbhani, Maharashtra which was under the Nizam’s dominion then.

The Viccaji and Pestonji Meherji family also played a major role in development of Hyderabad and were entrusted with the Mint at Aurangabad. It was the Meherji brothers who established the oldest Dar-E-Meher (Fire Temple) in the city on MG Road, Secunderabad, on September 12, 1847.


Fire Temples or Agiaries


Parsis
Head Priest Evrad Mehernosh Bharucha with his wife Nilufer and daughter Sanaya. He is the head priest at the Fire Temple on Tilak Road. — Photo: Hrudayanand

Later, as more Parsis came to the city, baugs or residential blocks were constructed around the temple. Similar colonies also came up around the other two Fire Temples — Bai Maneckbai Nusserwanji Chenoy Dar-E-Meher established in 1904 on Tilak Road, Hyderabad and Khan Bahadur Edulji Sohrabji Chenai Anjuman Dar-E-Meher constructed in 1920 on MG Road, Secunderabad.

“All three Fire Temples are owned by separate trusts. The Parsi Anjuman, a governing body has 12 members, comprising five trustees and seven committee members, who are elected democratically by the community. The election happens once every three years. An official managing committee meeting is held every third Saturday of the month,” explains Jehangir Bisney, a Chartered Accountant by profession and a trustee of the Anjuman.

“The rents in all three colonies are subsidised according to the financial background of the families. Many have a stable income today as the community ensures everybody has something to do. Twenty years ago, there was no car in the Anjuman colony,” adds Bisney.

Parsis
The oldest Fire Temple established by the Viccaji and Pestonji Meherji family on MG Road was awarded the INTACH heritage award in 1999. — Photo: Surya Sridhar

Into the fold


While there is a wonderful mélange of Hyderabadi, British and Gujarati influence in their cuisine, their traditions and rituals, however, remain the same.

For instance, every child born in a Parsi family gets initiated into the Zoroastrian faith before they hit puberty in the Navjote ceremony.  The children begin to wear the sadra, (sacred vest) which acts as a spiritual armour against vices and evil forces, while the kasti (sacred girdle) is a thin cord-like wool waistband that represents boundaries of religious duty. During weddings which are almost always performed next to a Fire Temple, the Navjote plays a significant role.

“Previously, arranged marriages were more prevalent, but now many love marriages are taking place too,” shares Hoofrish Bisney, who is married to Jehangir Bisney. The couple has two children Arnaz and Shayan.


Elaborate affair


ParsisWhile there is no specific matrimonial site used by Parsis, there are some women in the community who bring like-minded families together. For instance, Jehangir Bisney’s wife, Hoofrish has a family friend in Mumbai who has helped arrange some 250 marriages where both the bride and the groom were Parsis.

Parsi weddings, known as Lagan, are quite different from Hindu weddings and have many fun-filled moments. At the wedding of Peenaz Asudaria and Jamshed Karai held at the Parsi Dharmshala on Prenderghast Road, pre-wedding rituals such as rupia peravanu, madhavsaro etc were done at home.

On the day of the wedding, the bride’s mother visits the groom with a thali called ‘Ses’ which contains a coconut, betel leaves and nuts, a raw egg, a small bowl of rice, a glass of water and some nuts for the achoo michoo ritual to ward off the evil eye.  There are quite a few rituals involved in between, each with its own significance like the ara antar, chero bhandvanu etc.

“The bride and groom sit facing each other with a cloth held between them, the priest ties seven knots on a string placed around the couple, after a few more rituals, they exchange rings and a grand Parsi feast follows,” explains Gaver Asudaria, Peenaz’s mother between the rituals being performed by the family members.


New year, new promises


Unlike other communities, the Parsis only have three major festivals — the Jamshedi Navroz (advent of spring) celebrated on March 21, Navroz which presently falls in August based on their 360-day calendar and Khordad Saal which is the birthday of their Prophet  Zarathustra.

Parsis
Navroz Celebrations

“During Navroz, we decorate our homes with floral torans and rangoli, we also get together with family and friends and greet them with ‘Navroz Mubarak’. We go to the fire temple to pray and then have a big feast at home,” shares Omim.  Ten days before New Year, the entire family also offers ‘Muktad’ prayers for the spirits of the departed known as Fravashis. The prayers are held in a special room at all three Fire Temples.

“An individual Parsi family generally performs all their functions at one Fire Temple throughout their lifetime; whether it’s a wedding, Navjote or prayers for jashns(celebrations) like house-warming, birthdays,” states Jehangir Bisney.


Foodie heaven


Despite a strong influence of Gujarati food, the community has its own unique ingredients like malt vinegar to tame the sweetness in dishes which are mildly spiced.

Patrani machi (fish in banana leaves), Salli ma murgi, Laganu acchar, Kid gosht, Masala dal, sev with sweet curd, mori dal, a vinegar-based fish or prawn dish called Patio typically make up a Parsi feast,” says Abad Wadia, the go-to Parsi caterer in the city who has been in the business for the last 25 years. His mother Gul, known for her lip-smacking Parsi recipes and grandmother took over the catering business after the sudden demise of his father.

ParsisMarchu lasan, a red-coloured chilli-garlic paste, rose water, dhansak masala are staples of a Parsi household,” says food blogger Beyniaz Edulji.  Nutmeg, dhanajeeru, almonds, cashew nuts and golden raisins are also used generously in savoury dishes.

“You will also find an abundance of egg in tamato (tomatoes), bhinda (okra),” says Abad who has nine full-time employees, all of whom are Hyderabadi Muslims who have the Parsi recipes down pat.

Dhansak is a popular Parsi dish — a thick spicy dal with chunky bits of meat (which is usually consumed on Sundays). But, for Parsis, the dish is associated with mourning as it is consumed on the fourth day of the mourning period. “It’s the only dish which can’t be eaten on a happy occasion like a wedding or Navjote,” says Parvez Baria who owns the famous Baria Pickles and a chemical construction company. Started by his parents, Keki J and Mehroo Baria some 50 years ago, the spicy chicken, mutton, prawn and fish pickles continue to tickle the taste buds of patrons. “My father’s fish pickle was a hit among family and friends. When I returned from the USA, I decided to start a business around it,” says Parvez who is set to open a Parsi restaurant called ‘Parsi Bawa’ near the Anjuman Fire Temple compound on MG Road. “The construction has already finished and we will be launching the restaurant soon. People will get to sample authentic Parsi food which is usually made during weddings, Navjote, like Patra ni machi, Marghi na farcha (fried chicken) etc. Another unique thing we are planning is Dhansak kebab roll which is perfect for a takeaway,” adds Parvez.

 

Parsis
Lawyer Shireen Baria with her husband, Parvez Baria and their daughter, Tushna at their home in Secunderabad. — Photo: Hrudayanand

Great divide


Once, a sizeable community in the city, there are about 1000 Parsis residing in the twin cities. According to Indian 2011 census figures, the community witnessed a sharp decline in its numbers with a substantial fall over the previous decade. The deaths far outnumber the births. The dwindling numbers is also self-imposed in a way.

The orthodox members of the community outnumber the liberal Parsis and shun inter-faith marriages. Children born of a Parsi mother & non-Parsi father are neither counted nor allowed entry to the Fire Temples. The only exception is the Prayer Hall in Pune which allows entry to inter-faith couples and their children.

Parsis
Gusti Noria, MD, Normak Fashions. — Photo: Surya Sridhar

“But that is a rarity; there are some priests who perform the marriage ceremony for such couples and Navjotes for their children. Education leads to better job opportunities so inadvertently there is limited interaction between the younger community members leading to more inter-faith marriages. Nowhere in our scriptures does it say that others can’t practise the faith. I feel the younger generation or millennials would like to see a change which is crucial to our survival,” observes Gusti Noria, MD, Normak Fashions, owner of the popular jewellery brand Estelle, and a member of the State Minority Commission.

He is married to Dinaz Noria, the couple’s son; Youhan got married to a Hindu girl last year.  Citing a study done by Bengaluru-based Company, Avesthagen, he tells us, “When they studied the gene pool of Parsis, it revealed that 50 per cent genes are from our Persian ancestors while 50 per cent is Indian suggesting that the mixing with Indians has already happened. If the number comes down to 30,000 in India, we will be classified as a tribe. It’s a catch-22 situation for a community which has always punched above its weight.”

So far, only one child was born under the Jiyo Parsi scheme in the city a couple of years ago. And with youngsters wanting to marry outside the community, they are in a dilemma caught between traditions and changing times.


Buzzing Adda


  • The Zoroastrian Club in Secunderabad was established in 1915 and recently completed its centenary in 2016. “Initially, it was a gents club, and ladies were allowed only on four days. Later it allowed membership to everyone. It is the cheapest club in the world, the fee is Rs 10 only,” recalls Jehangir Hormusjee and says that in those days, the club was a hub of activity as Parsis came there to play games such as billiards, table tennis, cards and badminton. The billiard table dates back to 1918 and was made to order by Dawson & Company. World champions like Kingsley Kennerley, Bob Marshall and Horace Lindrum played at the club.

  • In 2012, the silver jubilee edition of Jiji Irani Challenge Cup was held in Hyderabad which was graced by former Indian test cricketers Nari Contractor and Farokh Engineer.Parsis

Funeral rites


ParsisFor Parsis, burial the dead is considered as desecration of the soil, they bid farewell to the dead in a specially designed placed called the ‘Dokhmas’ or  Tower of Silence or constructed on a hill, away from civilisation. The dead bodies are placed on a raised, open-to-sky platform where they disintegrate under the sun and scavenging birds feeding on the remains. But with development of the area surrounding these towers and depletion of the vulture population, the community had to instal large solar panels to concentrate the sun rays. While some Parsis now prefer to bury their dead or opt for cremation, others are still choosing the traditional way of bidding farewell.  There are two dokhmas in the city, one at Zamistanpur under the PZASH, while the other is at Bhoiguda managed by the Seth Viccaji and Meherji Trust.


Lesser known aspects about Parsis


— The fire consecrated in Udvada, a small hamlet in South Gujarat has remained unquenched to this day since nearly 1300 years!

— The predominant colours of the Parsi are red and white, signifying purity and honesty.

— Gathas written in the Avesthan script are contemporaries of Rig Vedas.

— The winged symbol one tends to see on top of Fire Temples is the Faravahar which Ashur, the god of war while the disc with wings represents the sun with wings and human torso signifies humanity. The feathered robe can also be interpreted as him being a guardian angel, watching over all, and aiding in the fight for good.

— The name Jamshedi Navroz comes from Shah Jamshed of the Peshadian dynasty who ascended the throne in Persia some 3000 years ago.

— The word Navjote is made up of the words, ‘Nao’ meaning new and ‘jot’ which means worshipper.

— Only boys born in a priest’s family are eligible to become priests. The priestly class is called Dastur. A priest is called panthaki, mobed depending on the position in hierarchy.

— Babool wood is used to keep the fire burning in the Agiary which burns for a long time and produces less smoke. Previously, sandalwood was used. Worshippers can also offer the wood if they wish.

— The priest covers his mouth when tending to the fire to avoid polluting it with his breath.

— The Parsi Dharamshala is where most of the weddings, navjotes, public meetings take place. It also offers accommodation at nominal rates to community members.

— The Bai Ratanbai J Chenoy Parsi High school started in 1919 barely has 10 Parsi students today.

— Sohrabji Chenoy held the position of Commisioner of Customs and was titled Nawab Sohrab Nawaz Jung.

— The current area of Parklane was completely owned by the Chenoy family and was later sold for development over a period of time. The well-known Chenoy Trade Centre, crammed with computer and gadgets shops still retains named after them.

— Dinshawji Dadabhoy Italia was the first Parsi MP from Hyderabad.


Prominent Parsi personalities from city


Parsis
1. MP Roda Mistry

2. Cherma’s owner Kayarmin Pestonji

3. Olympian shooter Kynan Chenai

4. Fitness trainer Dinaz Vervatwala

5. Ranji cricketer Noshir Mehta

6. Fashion Designer Zubin Vakil