The Parsis could seem like an inscrutable lot to an outlander who is fascinated by the daunting Towers of Silence and the mysterious Fire Temples. However, the oft-repeated story of the Zoroastrians landing at the coast of Gujarat seems to be just the tip of the iceberg.
Soulveda decided to take a trip down the lane to know more. So, let’s start at the very beginning.
Coast to coast
In the 8th century AD, the Zoroastrians fled from Iran to escape religious persecution by Muslim invaders and landed on the shores of Gujarat. The story goes that Jadi Rana, the then king of Gujarat, sent them a cup of milk filled to the brim, hinting that the kingdom didn’t have place for more citizens. The Zoroastrian head priest added a pinch of sugar to the milk, signifying that their arrival would not add to the population but make their lives sweeter. The king agreed to give them sanctuary in exchange for a few promises. The Zoroastrians consented to it. Thus began their journey to becoming Parsis as we know them today.
While you could argue, spending 13 centuries in a country would eventually lead to assimilation; in reality, their integration with Hindu culture has as much to do with the promises made to the king as much as their time in India.
The king’s first bid was that the Zoroastrians adopt Gujarati as their language. Keeping that in mind, the Parsis, including the priests of Agyari, have been speaking Gujarati as opposed to their native language Farsi.
Some consider their Gujarati a ‘little corrupted’ as it has a different dialect and so, their distinct accent has earned its own nick name–’Parsi Gujarati’.
“As of today, only a few priests in India know the Persian language. Everybody either speaks Gujarati or Hindi. When Iranian Zoroastrians come to India, they are often surprised that we don’t know Farsi,” says Fardoon Karkaria, the head priest of Bangalore’s fire temple.
The king’s second bid was to respect the local customs. With weddings being one of the main attention-drawing occasions, the Parsis began conducting their ceremonies after dark to blend in. “We recite our prayers after sunrise and before sunset. But, the king asked us to conduct our wedding ceremonies after the sunset–the Hindu way. He said it was auspicious,” explains Mr Karkaria. They also began keeping swastikas as their auspicious symbol and drawing rangolis on their doorsteps.
“We recite our prayers after sunrise and before sunset. But, the king asked us to conduct our wedding ceremonies after the sunset–the Hindu way.”
The king’s third bid was to make sure that the Zoroastrians adopt the local attire as well. And so, the traditional wear of hijab and burqa worn by the Persian Zoroastrian women transformed into a saree.
Even though today it is worn Gujarati style (front pallu), a big contribution has been made in the form of Gara–a Parsi saree made with hand-woven silk and intricate embroidery. The work often depicts scenes of Chinese life, courtesy the business between Chinese and Parsi traders during the 19th century. The history of Gara is as colourful and rare as the Gara itself. A collector’s item, anyone obsessed with the drape claims it to be an item worth possessing.
As for Parsi men, the Kushti–a holy thread worn around the waist resembles the Hindu Janeu worn around the shoulder and the waist.
In perfect harmony
Interestingly, many similarities in cuisine and customs pop up once you take the route into their heritage. For instance, the use of coconuts and grains of rice during their ceremonies and applying red ochre powder on the forehead during Navjyot (the Parsi baptism ceremony) are akin to Hindu customs. In fact, the blending in has been so seamless that only a true connoisseur can distinguish between Parsi and other Indian dishes.
Over time, the non-natives have become one with the locals. Their presence has been a dash of garnish to the existing diversity, adding flavour while keeping the balance intact–just like they promised.