Most of India is not very sure what or who Parsis (or Parsees) are and what the words “Parsi New Year” or “Navorz/Nowruz”, seen printed on a calendar date may represent. Yet most Indians will recognise names such Tata or Godrej, Dadabhai Navrojji or Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw.
Most Indians would also probably be able to identify the frequently caricatured people in Hindi films dressed in traditional Parsi clothing and speaking a peculiar brand of Hindi (according to Bollywood, all Parsis call everyone including their own spouse ‘dikra’ meaning son or daughter).
18th August 2013 is the Parsi New Year, a date that is meaningless to most, save about 1 lac Zoroastrians in India – generally referred to as Parsis. The word Parsi (from the word ‘Farsi’) came to be used to refer to the Indian Zoroastrian community, which is what this tiny minority of us is now known by.
We Parsis are a miniscule minority of India, in numbers of absolutely no consequence and yet I like to think that contributions made by the community are very significant indeed.
The Legend of Zoroastrians Arriving in India
Zoroastrians originated from Persia (present day Iran) and arrived on the shores of India over a 1000 years ago to escape Islamic invasions of the time and also perhaps for trade and commerce.
The story goes that when ships full of Zoroastrian refugees arrived at the tiny South Gujarat village of Sanjaan the head priest sent the message to the Rana of Sanjaan seeking shelter. Since neither side understood the other, there commenced an interesting wordless dialogue:
The Rana of Sanjaan sent a bowl of milk to the refugees. The bowl was filled up to the brim to indicate that there was no place there for outsiders. Supposedly the head priest took a handful of sugar and mixed it in with the milk, sweetening it without letting a drop spill. This was to send the message that the refugees would mix with the local populace without causing any disturbance, while at the same time sweetening and enhancing the fabric of society.
The refugees were given permission to settle in Gujarat. The holy fire brought from Iran still burns uninterrupted in the Atash Behraam (the holiest of Parsi Fire Temples) in a small village of South Gujarat called Udwada.
We came to adopt many Indian customs and traditions as our own – the red tilak and coconut are auspicious for us as well. We also adopted the Gujarati language as our own. Our marriage ceremony includes some Sanskrit shlokas as well.
Indian Zoroastrians – An Ineluctable Part of Indian History
Mahatma Gandhi once said of Parsis, “I am proud of my country, India, for having produced the splendid Zoroastrian stock, in numbers beneath contempt, but in charity and philanthropy perhaps unequalled and certainly unsurpassed”.
Many Mumbai Parsis tend to have a slightly proprietorial air about the city that is India’s commercial capital – so many of Mumbai’s roads and landmarks are named after Parsis that this may perhaps forgiven. Nariman Point, Dadabhai Navrojji Road (DN Road was named for the Grand Old Man of India’s freedom struggle), Pherozeshah Mehta Road, Khodadad Circle and many others are named after Parsis.
Jamshedji Tata (1839-1904) is still regarded as the Father of Indian Industry. The Tata Group of companies originally founded by him is still one of the most successful and highly regarded business houses in India. Homi Jehangir Bhabha, (1909–1966) is known as the Father of the Indian Nuclear Programme, whereas Homi Sethna was the Chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Commission during the first nuclear test in 1974. Indira Gandhi’s husband, Feroze Gandhi was a Parsi too.
The Indian Military has also been served well by the Parsi community: Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw was India’s first ever Field Marshal and the principal architect of India’s victory over Pakistan in the 1971 war. Admiral Jal Cursetji served as Chief of Naval Staff, whereas the Indian Air Force has had two Parsi chiefs: Air Marshal Aspy Engineer and Air Marshal Fali Major.
I always think that because of our intrinsically argumentative nature, we Parsis are predisposed to the law (I am a case in point having practiced law for 5 years and with a brother who is Senior Advocate in the Gujarat High Court). It is therefore no coincidence that the most respected legal luminaries in India – the late Nani Palkhivala was Parsi, as are Fali Nariman and Soli Sorabji. Sarosh H Kapadia was the 38th Chief Justice of India, having held office from May 2010 to September 2012.
Parsis in Popular Culture
If Zubin Mehta is one of the most well recognised names in Western Classical Music, Freddie Mercury (born Farrokh Balsara) was one of the greatest rock musicians ever; both Parsi. One of the most recognisable names in Indian films today is Boman Irani who belongs to the Indian Zoroastrian community as well. Cyrus Broacha is perhaps India’s best known funny man.
Parsi authors include names such as Firdaus Kanga, Farrukh Dhondy, Rohinton Mistry and Bapsi Sidhwa. Shiamak Davar is one of India’s best known choreographers. Daisy Irani, Kaizad Gustad, Mehr Jessia, Homi Adajania, Nauheed Cyrusi, Perizaad Zorabian, Persis Khambatta are other Zoroastrian names connected with Bollywood. Bejan Daruwalla (no relation of mine) is one of India’s best known astrologers.
“I am proud to be an Indian. India is the only country where a member of the minority Parsi community with a population of 1,67,000, like myself, can aspire to attain the post of the Chief Justice of India. These things do not happen in our neighbouring countries.” Last year, then Chief Justice of India, S H Kapadia said these words at the Independence Day celebrations at the Supreme Court. They epitomise what Parsis mean to India; and also what India means to Parsis.
By – Reena Daruwalla
Image Source: Sanjan Memorial Column