'A community on the decline'

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'A community on the decline'

Postby Sher-e-Punjab » Sun Feb 27, 2005 8:49 am

A community on the decline
By Qurratulain Poonawala



Zoroastrians came to the subcontinent in 716 AD from Iran. They adopted the Indian culture and lived unobtrusively for hundreds of years. However, their fortunes changed with the advent of the British, writes Qurratulain Poonawala.

Karachi, since antiquity, has fostered many diverse faiths and communities. The Parsis (Zoroastrians) constitute one such community, which has flourished hand in hand with the city by the sea and has left an indelible mark on the city's urban fabric.

Belonging to one of the ancient Persian religions, the Zoroastrians built one of the largest empires spread over Asia, Africa and Europe. The history of ancient Iran melts in the mists of legend and Hakim Abul Qasim Firdousi's Shahnama, written about a thousand years ago, narrates their saga in detail.

The Zoroastrians, followers of Zarathustra (Zoroaster), migrated to Iran between 2,000 and 1,500 BC from Central Asia. They settled in the province of Persis (Fars) and prospered under three successive empires - Achaemenian, Parthian and Sassanian. After the decisive victory of the Muslims over the Sassanids in 636 AD they fled from Iran and set foot in the subcontinent in 716 AD to avoid persecution from the Muslim invaders.

They adopted the Indian culture, and lived unobtrusively for hundreds of years. However, their fortunes changed with the advent of the British. They educated themselves, learnt English, adopted the British customs and progressed rapidly. Their worth was duly recognized by the British who bestowed them with titles.

Karachi during the Raj saw Parsis living in localities spread from Frere Hall to Clifton. The Katrak Parsi Colony, off M.A Jinnah Road, was the first attempt in 1925 to procure land for the middle class members of the community to build their own houses. Later, the Cyrus Minwalla Colony sprang up in Mahmoodabad in the grounds of the two Towers of Silence which also contains the Dinshaw Avari Colony. Besides, there are some old Parsi localities known aschawls, in the downtown for those who depend on charities and subsidized housing.

The Parsi community is divided into three sects - Shehenshahi, Kadimi and Fasli and religion plays a pivotal role in their lives. Zarathustra Spitama propagated the faith in 1,700 BC and it is based on two gods; Ahura Mazda, a good spirit, and Angra Mainyu, an evil spirit.

Ahura Mazda (The Lord of Light) appeared to Zarathustra and gave him the Avesta (book of knowledge and wisdom) and exhorted him to spread the message. The Avestan scripture consists of five parts: Yasna, Visparad, Venidad, Yashts and Khorde Avesta. According to the book, the Ahura created the universe in 365 days and the first man and woman were called Meshia and Meshiana.

Fire, as a metaphor of light, is the emblem of Ahura Mazda, and is worshipped by the Parsis, who established Atash Behram (the highest grade of fire). There are two fire temples in Karachi; the main being the Heerjibhoy J. Behrana Parsi Dar-e-Mehar in Saddar while the other one is in Pakistan Chowk. The entrance of non-Parsis is strictly forbidden.

Many religious rituals and customs add richness to the Zoroastrian heritage. Navjote is one such ritual which marks the initiation of a Zoroastrian mazdayasnian child into the Zoroastrian religion. The ritual celebrates the threshold from childhood into adolescence. The child is given a sudrah (vest) with a pocket and a kushti (thread-girdle) with four mystic knots which is tied around the waist, which they are required to wear all their lives. Initiation takes place between the ages of seven and ten, henceforth the young Zoroastrian is directed to wear a cap and pray five times a day.

There are three types of festivals in the Zoroastrian calendar; those connected with seasons and seasonal festivals, those of historical importance, and those performed in honour of the dead. Basically, Zoroastrians were an agricultural community, hence five out of the six seasonal festivals - Ghambars - are thanksgivings to nature. Some of the other festivals are Sadeh, All Souls Day, Zarthost No Diso, Jashan-e-Mehergan and Jashan-e-Tirgan.

The Zoroastrian new year falls on vernal equinox day (March 21), and is known as Nauroze, which was started by King Jamshed of Iran.

The Parsis have a very strong cultural and religious identity of their own so the process of assimilation into the Islamic state has been very slow. The costume and language have been affected to some extent. Before 1947, the majority of them were literate in Gujarati and learnt English in schools. Today, they learn Gujarati as a compulsory subject in community-run schools

Thirty years ago, Pakistani dishes were hardly eaten in an average Parsi household. Now food preferences have also changed but dhan-sakh still remains the favourite.

However, they are still steadfast on certain religious laws and customs like the ban on interfaith marriages, and final death rituals. "At one time, when marriages were arranged, Parsi boys used to be so docile that they put salt in drinking water to let their parents know that they wanted to get married. But boys and girls are not segregated and are encouraged to socialize. The number of people marrying outside the community is negligible and those who do so are excommunicated," says Mitra Minwala, an old Parsi housewife.

Talking about the marriage rites, Minwala said: "The engagement ceremony takes place four days before the marriage at the boy's house which is only attended by women. Following this is an informal ceremony called madav-saro which is held individually at the boy's and girl's homes in the morning during which a mango sapling is planted. In the evening, during Ardani, the girl is brought to the boy's house and gifts are exchanged."

On the wedding day the bride dons a traditional white sari while the groom wears dugli, a pair of white trousers and a cap (fetta). Two priests, one for each family, conduct the marriage rites. In the presence of two witnesses, the priests ask both the partners three times if they accept each other as husband and wife. The witnesses also do the same after which the marriage is finalized. "Divorce and separation are strongly disapproved," says Minwala.

As for the final rituals for the dead, a dog is brought into the room where the body of the deceased lies. Then a ceremony called Sagdid is performed to frighten away the evil spirit, Nasu, which it is believed would otherwise possess the corpse. The body is then carried to the Tower of Silence by four casket-bearers called Nassasalars after elaborate religious rites. There it is put on a stone slab (pavi) where the the flesh is stripped of by vultures and natural processes. Later, the dried bones are thrown into the central well.

There are two towers in Karachi, the smaller one, Ghadialy Dokhma, which was sanctified in 1847 and the larger one, Anjuman Dokhma, in 1875. Nobody can enter the towers except the Nassasalars.

The rule of endogamy and the corollary rule forbidding conversions into the community are leading the group into a demographic impasse. A much argued subject is that 100 years down the road will there be any Parsis around. But the fact that even after nearly 40 generations the race has not disintegrated shows that there is something inherent in the people. Today, 155,000 Zoroastrians are scattered across the globe with 90,000 in India and less than 5,200 in Pakistan, with most of them living in Karachi.

The Zoroastrians are known for their integrity and honesty and philanthropy is second in nature to them. They have always been strictly loyal to the ruling authority, be it the Hindu and Muslim rulers, British or the governments of India and Pakistan. As the age-old adage goes "home is where the heart is," for the Zoroastrians who have set up home in far flung areas "the heart is where the home is."
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