views updated May 17 2018


PARSIS (Pārsis, also rendered as Parsees), "Persians," or Zoroastrians, from Iran who settled in the Indian subcontinent during the tenth century ce, and their descendents.


Zoroastrians in Iran had contact with people in the Indian subcontinent from at least the fifth century bce through overland and maritime trade. After the Arab Muslim conquest of Iran in the seventh century ce, there were many small, poorly documented migrations by Zoroastrians away from that country over both land and sea. The one relocation that gained a historiography probably occurred in the tenth century and produced the Parsi community in India. That particular migration is recorded as the Parsi community's founding legend, known as the Qessa-e Sanjān (Story of Sanjan), a New Persian narrative poem based upon an older oral tradition, composed in 1600 ce. It forms the basisidealized and augmentedfor much of the Parsis' early history. According to the text, during the reign of the Samanid kings (8921005) many Zoroastrians from the northeastern Iranian province of Khorasan relocated overland via the mountains of Kuhestan to the Persian Gulf port of Hormuz, then by ship via the Persian Gulf and the Indian island of Diu to Gujarat in western India. Their date of arrival at Gujarat is assigned by tradition to 992 Vikram Samvat (an Indian calendar begun in 58 bce equivalent to 936 ce). Owing to uncertainty resulting from parallels between the local script and Devanagari numbers, the date came to be read as 772 Vikram Samvat or 716 cean inaccuracy still accepted by some Parsis and scholars. Yet the maritime migration to Gujarat and relocation there along the coastal region does not explain adequately accounts by Muslim travelers during the tenth century ce of groups that they referred to as gabr (hollow or empty, hence "one lacking faith, infidel"), a derogatory designation by Muslims for Zoroastrians, living in the hinterland of north India. The number and size of such inland communities suggest strongly that other Zoroastrians must have entered India via land routes from the northwest and, in time, fallen under the rubric of Parsis.

The Qessa-e Sanjān goes on to claim that a local raja or ruler named Jādi Rānā (Vajjardevrai or Vajjadadeva) of the Silhara dynasty agreed to grant the Zoroastrians safe haven in Gujarat on the condition that the newcomers explain their beliefs to the Hindus, adopt the Gujarati language, refrain from bearing weapons, perform weddings only at night, and ensure that their women blend with Hindu counterparts by wearing the local garb, the sari. Gujarat, as a result, became the region in India where most Zoroastrians settled. A complementary folk tale claims that the raja had shown the newcomers a pitcher full of milk to signify that India was already heavily populated, with little room for new settlers, but that a magus who was present deposited something worthwhile into the milksugar, a coin, or a ring, depending on the versionto indicate that Zoroastrians would coexist harmoniously with Indians, become Indianized, and enhance Indian society. Interestingly, neither the Qessa-e Sanjān nor the early folk tales mention any agreement or understanding between the Zoroastrians and the Hindu barring the former from proselytizing their faith.

Settlement Patterns

The Parsis founded the town of Sanjan. About five years after their arrival, the Parsis consecrated an ātash bahrām a "victory fire," the highest level of ritual firenamed Irān Shāh (king of Iran), which remained their main flame for more than eight hundred years. Most religious rituals were performed using dādgāh (hearth) fires. During the first three hundred years after the arrival in Gujarat, as the community prospered and its population increased, some Parsis moved to Navsari on the banks of the Varoli River in 1142. They also spread to the towns of Surat, Anklesar, Cambay, and Broach. In each of those towns they worked as farmers, toddy brewers, carpenters, weavers, and merchants. Magi continued to dress in white robes and turbans as they had in Iran. Parsi laymen adopted Indian dress but wore white on ritual occasions. Parsi women wore the Indian sari, with minor variations in the manner of wrapping it around the body that became distinctive to Zoroastrians.

Clusters of families had their spiritual needs tended to by an individual magus, and those devotional clusters came to be known as the priest's panthak. In time, this association of particular lay or behdin families with a specific magian or athōrnān priest and his descendants as panthaki became hereditary. Around 1290 the Parsi magi divided Gujarat into five panths (ecclesiastic groups) based on location: the Sanjānas at Sanjan, the Bhagarias serving Navsari, the Godavras based at Anklesar, the Bharuchas controlling rites in Broach, and the Khambattas of Cambay. Each panth regulated its own clergy, laity, and religious matters through an anjoman (association). At many locales over the centuries, under the direction of priests and lay patrons, an ateshgah (fire precinct) was established for rituals by the living, as was a dakhma (funerary tower) for exposure of the dead.

Doctrines and Rites in Medieval Times

The jizya (poll tax) was imposed on non-Muslims in 1297 when the Delhi Muslim sultanate conquered Gujarat. Economic hardship created by payment of the jizya, plus the stigma of designation as a dhimmī (protected religious minority) resulted in conversion of portions of the Parsi population to Islam. Yet the community persisted in its beliefs and praxes, so that early European travelers in the region began to encounter them; in 1350, for example, the Dominican friar Jordanus commented on the exposure of Parsi corpses. In 1741, after a few previous relocations, the Irān Shāh ātash bahrām was brought to the city of Udwada, where it continued to burn at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The Bhagarias consecrated their own ātash bahrām at Navsari in 1765. Thereafter, six other fires of the ātash bahrām ritual level were establishedtwo at Surat in 1823 and four at Bombay (later Mumbai) in 1783, 1830, 1845, and 1897.

As they assimilated into Indian society, pressure from Hindus compelled the Parsis to accept certain socioreligious transformations. For example, the ritual slaughter of cattle had to be discontinued gradually in accordance with Hindu veneration for that animal, although goats and sheep continued to be offered, with a portion of their bodies or fat being deposited in holy fires. As Parsis settled in parts of the Indian subcontinent where their numbers were insufficient to maintain funerary towers, they began adopting the custom of burial in an āramgāh (place of repose, cemetery, graveyard). Perhaps most important in terms of socioreligious change was that, over time, Parsis came to be regarded as a caste within Hindu society. So, despite accepting some converts from among Hindus who had close contact through friendship or work, the religion slowly became hereditary in an Indian context, with no converts being accepted. Parsis also had to mingle with members of other faiths in India and to explain their doctrines and praxes. For instance, in 1578 the emperor Akbar summoned a Bhagaria priest named Meherji Rāna to the Mogul court for a symposium. That contact proved beneficial to the Parsis, as the jizya on them was lifted a few years later.

In 1746 a disagreement relating to the calendar caused division of the community into Kadmīs, who accept the qadīmī (ancient) Iranian calendar, and the Shenshaīs, or Rasimīs (traditionalists), who maintain the original Parsi calendar. Since 1906 another group, the Fasalīs, or Faslīs, have formed, and its members utilize a fasl (seasonal) calendar for rituals. The majority of Parsis remain Shenshaī, but calendrical preferences have maintained those communal divisions and have produced minor variations in liturgies and rites.

Contact between Zoroastrians in India and Iranthe Parsis and the Iranisgained momentum in the thirteenth century. Several religious texts were sent from Iran to India for safekeeping, and as a result, most of the oldest extant copies of Zoroastrian scripture and exegesis remained in India until the eighteenth century onward, when some of those documents were obtained by Western museums and universities. Just as important, Parsis began seeking religious advice from magi in Iran. A collection of treatises on religious observances, sent from Iran to India between 1478 and 1773 and known collectively as the Persian Revāyats, attests to the close ties that were developing as Parsi emissaries were welcomed, lived among, and educated by their Iranian coreligionists before returning to India.

Transformation in Premodern and Modern Times

Contact between the Parsis and Europeans grew with the establishment of trading posts in the seventeenth century. European eyewitness accounts note that at first the Parsis enforced their own customs, with violators being excommunicated or even, occasionally, executed. But as trade increased, so did the Parsi community's economic and social diversity. The port of Surat grew into a settlement of over 100,000 Parsi Zoroastrians between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Then, in 1661, the port of Bombay came under the British East India Company's administration and Parsis moved there to trade. Parsis flourished in Bombay, led by the commercial successes of individuals such as Lowji Nassarwanji Wadia (17021744) and Sir Jamsetji Jijibhai (17831859) in shipbuilding and the opium and cotton trades between India, England, and China. Parsis also established themselves quickly in textile manufacture and the bankingindustry. Steadily, Parsis became the mercantile arm of the British in India, serving in that capacity for over two hundred years. Members of the community then went on to play central roles in establishing the industrial base of modern India. Pioneers included Jamshedji N. Tata (18391904), who founded the iron and steel industries, early hydroelectric power plants in India, and the Indian Institute of Science, and Homi J. Bhabha (19091966), who pioneered research in atomic energy. Others, such as Lieutenant General Sam H. F. J. Manekshaw (1914), led India's post-independence military during the late twentieth century.

Socioeconomic success would transform the community in many different ways. The Parsi Panchāyat, initially a council of elders, was established in 1728 to regulate community affairs. It did so not through law but through edicts and codes of conduct that were enforced by communal pressure. Since the question of religious freedom in Iran occupied the thoughts of Parsis, in 1854 they sent an emissary named Manekji Limji Hataria (18131890) to Iran. Hataria lived in Iran for four decades, married an Irani Zoroastrian woman, and even visited the Qajar court to intercede on behalf of Zoroastrians. Hataria's mission, coupled with pressure on the Qajar dynasty from the British Raj on behalf of prominent Parsis like Dadabhai Naoroji (18251917), succeeded in having the jizya abolished in Iran in 1882. Wealthy Parsis also began to look after the secular needs of their coreligionists in Iran by building schools, hospitals, orphanages, and retirement homes, in addition to renovating several ātashkada (fire temples) and dakhma and āramgāh funerary sites there.

Secular education, in particular, fundamentally reoriented the Parsis. In the nineteenth century, Parsis founded English-style schools, libraries, and educational trusts for their sons and daughters. Following mores that were emerging in Europe at the time, the Parsis began encouraging educated men and women to take up careers in public, multicommunal, workplaces. This development played a major role in fueling a demographic shift among Parsisaway from the coastal villages and orchards of Gujarat to large cities like Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, Karachi, and Colombo. Rapid urbanization began in the 1900s, reaching 94 percent by 1961 among Parsis (compared to 27 percent for Muslims, 23 percent for Christians, and 16 percent for Hindus) on the Indian subcontinent. Parsi Zoroastrians, consequently, became a highly urbanized middle and upper class. As part of westernization and urbanization, the ritual slaughter of animals was slowly phased out by the late 1930s, as was the ātash-zōhr (offering to fire) of animal flesh, fat, and butter. Likewise, marriages arranged by relatives declined in frequency after the 1920s as women exercised their greater freedom to select their own spouses. At the same time, educated women in the community began to choose careers over marriage, family, and domesticityclose to 25 percent of Parsi women remained unmarried after the 1970s, and the community's birthrate declined drastically. Moreover, by the end of the twentieth century, women's expectations had begun to exceed the reality represented by potential male partners within the communityagain reinforcing the trend in declining marital and reproductive rates.

Parsis began entering politics, with Naoroji, an architect of Indian independence, becoming the first president of the Indian National Congress in 1885. Other Parsis closely associated with the Indian nationalist movement were Sir Pherozeshah Mehta (18451915), Sir Dinshaw Wacha (18441936), and Madam Bhikaji Cama (18611936). In England, several Parsis have held elected office at various levels of government, starting with three members of the British ParliamentNaoroji of the Liberal Party mentioned previously, Sir Muncherji Bhownagree (18511933) of the Conservative Party, and Shapurji Saklatvala (18741936), who was a Communist. This trend in political involvement continues among Parsis globally. In Sri Lanka, Kairshasp Choksy (1932) became minister of constitutional and state affairs and subsequently minister of finance. Jamsheed Marker (1922) became a prominent diplomat, first for Pakistan and then for the United Nations. Loyalty and service to the countries and cultures in which they reside have emerged as important attitudes among Parsis.

International Dispersal and Its Consequences

During the time of the British Empire, Parsis began traveling to England for commerce and education, especially after the mid-nineteenth century. By 1861 a Zoroastrian Association had been founded there. However, a major international dispersion of Parsis from India occurred for a variety of socioeconomic reasons only after the early 1950s. A few left India to join the descendants of relatives who had immigrated earlier to England. Some departed India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka to avoid rising nationalism and religious fundamentalism in those countries. Others went to Australia, Hong Kong, and countries in sub-Saharan Africa seeking economic opportunities. From the 1960s, migration has been for education and employment in the United States and Canada. Nonetheless, Parsis still dwell in most major cities of India, particularly Bombay (subsequently Mumbai), Delhi, and Calcutta.

Largely English-speaking, with many older Parsis still bilingual in English and Gujarati, Parsis number approximately 69,200 in India (in 2001), 10,000 in the United States (in 2000), 6,000 in Canada (in 2000), 4,000 in England and Scotland (in 2000), 3,000 in the European Union (in 2002), 2,200 in Pakistan (in 2003), 2,000 in Australia (in 2000), and 1,000 in the United Arab Emirates (in 2000). (Zoroastrian communities in each country consist of two broad groups: the Iranis, or Iranian Zoroastrians, and members of that group who have settled in many countries, and the Parsis, or Indian Zoroastrians, who are discussed in this entry. The demographic numbers refer to the Parsis only, not to overall Zoroastrian communities in each country.) Smaller communities live in New Zealand (200 in 2000), Hong Kong (190 in 2000), Singapore (150 in 2000), Bahrain (130 in 1996), Democratic Republic of the Congo (100 in 2000), South Africa (70 in 2000), and Sri Lanka (63 in 2001). The communities in Pakistan, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), Singapore, and Hong Kong date from British colonial times as a legacy of trade. Even smaller groups are found in countries as diverse as Japan, China, Malaysia, Myanmar, Yemen, Seychelles, Bermuda, and Venezuela. In most of those countries, there are other Zoroastrians as well.

In most countries where Parsi diasporas exist, each community has at least one fire temple of the dādgāh ritual level, a community hall associated with the temple, and a graveyard to bury the dead (although cremation by electricity is becoming popular as a means of avoiding long-term ritual pollution of earth and fire), expect in India and in the Pakistani city of Karachi, where the funerary towersnow commonly called "towers of silence"are still utilized amidst ongoing debate about how to ensure swift desiccation and decomposition of corpses placed therein. The communities have religious classes for children, and ceremonies of navjote (initiation) are conducted regularly for them. However, a low birthrate as individuals defer marriage in favor of professional careers, a widespread prohibition of the acceptance of converts, and a discouraging level of intermarriage with members of other sectarian groups have contributed to a gradual overall decline in numbers.

On the other hand, following a pattern common to many minorities, the international diasporas have been economically and socially successful in professions such as law, medicine, and academia, and in entrepreneurial endeavors from computer programming to watch manufacture. The arts, too, have caught the attention of a number of Parsis, including the American conductor Zubin Mehta (1936), born in Bombay; the English rock musician Freddy Mercury (19461991), born in Zanzibar as Farrokh Bulsara; and the Canadian writer Rohinton Mistry (1952), born in Bombay. As a direct result of westernization and secularization, educated women have come to wield leadership positions within Parsi diasporas, including editorial positions at widely read Zoroastrian newsletters, such as the FEZANA Journal in North America and Parsiana in South Asia, wherein issues of societal change are hotly debated.

Other Major Contemporary Issues

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, European scholars concluded that the founder of the Parsis' religion, Zarathushtra, or Zoroaster, had preached a monotheistic faith that was debased by his followers. This viewpoint gained the acceptance of many Parsis, who sought to structure their religion into its allegedly pristine form based on the Gāthās (Devotional poems) ascribed to Zarathushtra. Zoroastrians who follow the teachings of Minocher Pundol (19081975) combine such trends with mysticism. The introduction of theosophy further attenuated doctrinal unity among the Parsis. Lack of doctrinal concord and a concomitant decline in theological education continue in the twenty-first century.

Poor wages, substandard living conditions, and the lure of secular professional careers have steadily sapped enrollment in the two madrasahs (seminaries)the Athornan Boarding Madrasa at Dadar and the M. F. Cama Athornan Institute at Andheriwhere Zoroastrian priests are trained in India. Thus, the number of priests available to perform rituals continues to decline. Therefore, rites in many instances have been abbreviated and in certain locales are restricted to the basic ones of passageinitiation, marriage, and deathand to jashan (thanksgiving) services. Likewise, the number of women who weave the kustī (holy cord) has also diminished as their priestly families take up secular occupations.

Other, interrelated topics of much debate worldwide within Parsi communities include the issues of who the Parsis are, whether intermarriage with non-Zoroastrians should be recognized, and whether converts can be accepted. As the Parsis became a de facto caste within Indian society, they diverged from their Iranian coreligionists by abjuring conversion to the faith. By the nineteenth century, magi who initiated as Zoroastrians the children of non-Parsi fathers or the adopted children (from non-Zoroastrian parents) of Parsis were subjected to censure by their clerical anjomans. Eventually, guidelines were set in India by that country's civil judiciary in 1909 and 1925 as the result of court cases seeking to exclude non-Parsi wives from fire temples and community institutions. Through those legal decisions, the civil courts upheld the community's restriction of its properties to the children of Parsi and Irani Zoroastrians plus duly initiated children of Parsi fathers by non-Zoroastrian wives. So in India and, as a result of colonial rule, in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, a Parsi Zoroastrianmale or femaleis defined as a person whose father was or is a Parsi Zoroastrian. Converts are not accepted. The children of a Parsi woman who is married to a non-Zoroastrian are regarded as neither Parsis or Zoroastrians. They cannot enter fire temples, benefit from communal funds, or even have Zoroastrian last rites. Not all priests and laity accept that position, however, either in South Asia or elsewhere. For example, during the late twentieth in the United States (as previously in India), there were occasional instances when individuals who wished to join Zoroastrianism were initiated by Parsi priests. Moreover, enhanced contact between Zoroastrians and members of other faiths, especially in Europe, North America, and Australia, has led to an increase in the frequency of marriage across confessional boundaries. On this issue, the diaspora communities in the West have increasingly diverged from the Parsis on the Indian subcontinent by permitting non-Zoroastrian spouses to attend rituals at fire temples and cemeteries and to participate fully in community activities and governance. In so doing, Parsis living in the West have come closer to the long-standing position of Iranian Zoroastrians and Irani Zoroastrian immigrants to the West on those issues.

See Also

Ateshgah; Gender and Religion, article on Gender and Zoroastrianism; Zoroastrianism.


Axelrod, Paul. "A Social and Demographic Comparison of Parsis, Saraswat Brahmins, and Jains in Bombay." Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina, 1974.

Axelrod, Paul. "Myth and Identity in the Indian Zoroastrian Community." Journal of Mithraic Studies 3, nos. 12 (1980): 150165.

Choksy, Jamsheed K. Purity and Pollution in Zoroastrianism: Triumph over Evil. Austin, Tex., 1989.

Choksy, Jamsheed K. Evil, Good, and Gender: Facets of the Feminine in Zoroastrian Religious History. New York, 2002.

Daryaee, Touraj. "The Persian Gulf Trade in Late Antiquity." Journal of World History 14, no. 1 (2003): 116.

Desai, Sapur F. History of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet, 18601960. Bombay, 1977.

Hinnells, John R. "Parsis and the British." Journal of the K. R. Cama Oriental Institute 46 (1978): 192.

Hinnells, John R. Zoroastrians in Britain. Oxford, 1996.

Hinnells, John R. Zoroastrian and Parsi Studies: Selected Works of John R. Hinnells. Aldershot, U.K., 2000.

Hodivala, Shahpurshah H. Studies in Parsi History. Bombay, 1920.

Kennedy, Robert E., Jr. "The Protestant Ethic and the Parsis." American Journal of Sociology 68, no. 1 (1962): 1120.

Kreyenbroek, Philip G., and Shehnaz N. Munshi. Living Zoroastrianism: Urban Parsis Speak about Their Religion. Richmond, U.K., 2001.

Kulke, Eckehard. The Parsees in India: A Minority as Agent of Social Change. Delhi, 1974.

Langstaff, Hilary A. Indian Parsis in the Twentieth Century. Karachi, Pakistan, 1987.

Luhrmann, Tanya M. The Good Parsi: The Fate of a Colonial Elite in a Postcolonial Society. Cambridge, Mass., 1996.

Maneck, Susan S. The Death of Ahriman: Culture, Identity, and Theological Change among the Parsis of India. Bombay, 1997.

Menant, Delphine. The Parsis. Edited and translated by M. M. Murzban and A. D. Mango. 3 vols. Bombay, 19941996.

Mistree, Khojeste P. "The Breakdown of the Zoroastrian Tradition as Viewed from a Contemporary Perspective." In Irano-Judaica, vol. 2, edited by S. Shaked and A. Netzer, pp. 227254. Jerusalem, 1990.

Palsetia, Jesse S. The Parsis of India: Preservation of Identity in Bombay City. Leiden, 2001.

Rose, Jennifer. "The Traditional Role of Women in the Iranian and Indian (Parsi) Zoroastrian Communities from the Nineteenth to the Twentieth Century." Journal of the K. R. Cama Oriental Institute 56 (1989): 1103.

Seervai, Khurshedji N., and Bomanji B. Patel. "Gujarat Parsis from Their Earliest Settlement to the Present Time (a.d. 1898)." Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency 9, no. 2 (1899): 183254.

Taraporevala, Sooni. Parsis, the Zoroastrians of India: A Photographic Journey. Mumbai, India, 2000.

Whitehouse, David, and Andrew Williamson. "Sasanian Maritime Trade." Iran 11 (1973): 2949.

Whitehurst, James E. "The Zoroastrian Response to Westernization: A Case Study of the Parsis of Bombay." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 37, no. 3 (1969): 224236.

Writer, Rashna. Contemporary Zoroastrians: An Unstructured Nation. Lanham, Md., 1994.

"The Zarathushti Odyssey." FEZANA Journal (Winter 2000).

Jamsheed K. Choksy (2005)


views updated Jun 27 2018


ALTERNATE NAMES: Parsees; Farsis
LOCATION: India (mainly Bombay); Pakistan
LANGUAGE: Gujarati; English
RELIGION: Zoroastrianism
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: People of India


Parsi (Parsee) is the name by which Zoroastrians in South Asia are known. Zoroastrians are followers of an ancient Persian religion founded in the 7th century bc by Zarathusthra (Zoroaster). The word "Parsi" means "a man from Pars," or Persia, and refers to the fact that the Parsis emigrated to the Indian subcontinent from Persia (Iran), where Zoroastrianism was the established religion. The Parsi community in India is also known as "Farsi," Fars being another name for the area from which they originated.

In the 7th century ad, the homeland of the Parsis was overrun by Arabs, who compelled the defeated Persians to accept the Islamic religion or face extinction. Tradition has it that a small band of Zoroastrians, faithful to their religion, fled into the mountains of Khorasan for safety. After a century or more, still facing persecution, they eventually made their way south to the island of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. From there, they pressed on eastwards to India. After stopping for two decades at Diu, a port on the Kathiawar Peninsula, they continued to the coast of Gujarat in western India. Parsi tradition gives the date of their arrival as ad 936 (this is subject to debate, some claiming ad 716 as the year the Parsis arrived in India).

The Parsis petitioned the local Hindu ruler for permission to stay, and this was granted subject to certain conditions. These included the Parsis adopting the customs and language (Gujarati) of the country, renouncing the carrying of arms, conforming to Hindu marriage practices, and respecting Hindu sentiments concerning the slaughter of cows. The Parsis agreed to these terms and founded a settlement near the coast where they had landed, about 160 km (100 mi) north of Bombay. They named their new home Sanjan, after their hometown in Persia. The story of the Parsis' migration to India is found in the Kisseh-e-Sanjan, a narrative poem dated to around AD 1600.


Parsis in South Asia are a small community, numbering 69,601 people according to the 2001 Census of India. The original settlers at Sanjan were farmers, and though they soon migrated to nearby Navsari and Surat, they remained essentially in rural occupations. With the arrival of the Europeans, however, the Parsis began to assume the role of intermediary agents and brokers, laying the groundwork for their later rise to prominence in the business world. Today, the community is almost exclusively urban, concentrated mainly in the city of Bombay. Lesser numbers are found in the cities of Gujarat State, while some 5,000 Parsis live in Pakistan (mostly in Karachi). Tata and Godrej, two of India's biggest business families, are Parsis.


The original Zoroastrians who settled in India spoke Farsi (Persian)—from which the name Parsi is derived. But most Parsis speak Gujarati, the language of their adopted homeland, although most are bilingual and also speak fluent English. Many Bombayites switch between languages, often employing a mish-mash of Hindi/Urdu, Marathi, Gujarati and English called "Bambaiya," but Gujarati and English remain the dominant languages used by the Parsis. In Pakistan, Gujarati has been replaced by Urdu as the language in which Parsis carry out their daily business. Religious ceremonies are performed in Avestan, the language of the Zoroastrian scriptures. Some secondary literature is written in Pahlavi or Middle Persian, the official state language of the Persians during the 4th century AD.


The religion of the Parsis has its roots in the beliefs of the Indo-European peoples. As a result, many similarities are found in the mythologies of Zoroastrianism and the Vedic religion of northern India. Both traditions, for example, make a distinction between the "heavenly" gods (daevas or devas) and those that possess special occult powers (ahuras or asuras). In India, the devas later entered the pantheon of Hindu gods while the asuras were reduced to the rank of demons. In Iran, however, it was the ahuras (literally "Lords") who were revered as gods and the daevas who were viewed as evil. One particular ahura, Mazda or the "Lord of Wisdom," was eventually elevated to the position of the supreme deity in Zoroastrianism.

The similarities between the ancient Iranians and Indians extend also to their heroes and legends. For instance, the Yama Raja of the Vedas becomes Yima Khshaeta (Jamshed) of the Avesta, the Zoroastrian sacred texts. In the Iranian tradition, Yima was a king of the golden age and happy ruler of the Iranian tribes. Many of the myths and legends of the Zoroastrians are to be found in the Shahnamah of the poet Firdausi.


In many aspects, the ancient religion of Iran resembled that of the early Vedas of northern India. This in itself is not surprising, since the peoples who inhabited the two regions were closely related. They were probably descended from a common ancestral race, they both spoke Aryan tongues, and their sacred books showed many parallels in religious beliefs and practices. These included polytheism, worship of the same gods (the Iranian god Mithra, for instance, is the Indian Mitra), the cult of fire, and the hoama sacrifice (soma in India). The subsequent development of religion in each area, however, was different. The Vedic religion ultimately evolved into Hinduism, the complex religious, social, and economic system that numbers close to 800 million people among its followers. In Iran, religious beliefs and practices were reformed by Zoroaster. Zoroastrianism rose to become the state religion of three great Persian Empires, but today there are less than 200,000 members of the religion spread throughout the world.

Zoroaster was born in northeastern Persia. His dates are given as 628-551 bc, although some scholars argue he may have lived as many as eight centuries earlier. He is known to us from the Gathas, 17 hymns composed by Zoroaster and faithfully handed down through the generations by his followers. These were not works of instruction but rather inspired poetic utterances, many addressed directly to God, attempting to express a personal understanding of the divine. The Gathas and a few other ancient texts in the same language are collectively known as the Avesta, the Zoroastrian scriptures.

The Gathas themselves reveal that Zoroaster was trained as a priest, well versed in the rituals, doctrines, and religious practices of the time. Tradition holds that he spent years in a quest for truth. During his wanderings he witnessed much of the violent conflict typical of northeastern Persia in that era, with fierce nomadic bands from the steppes pillaging and slaughtering peaceful farming communities. As a result of this, he developed a deep longing for justice, for the moral law of the ahuras (gods) to bring peace to weak and strong alike. Eventually, at the age of 30, he was at a gathering to celebrate a spring festival. He had a vision on the banks of a river, a shining Being who led him into the presence of the god Ahura Mazda and five other radiant figures. It was from these seven Beings (the heptad) that Zoroaster received his revelation, namely that he was chosen to serve Ahura Mazda. He wholeheartedly obeyed this call and set out on the path that was to give the world a new religion.

Though rooted in the ancient Persian religion, Zoroaster's teachings were fundamentally new. He proclaimed, for example, that Ahura Mazda (one of many ahuras worshipped by the Persians) was the one uncreated God, who was the Creator of all things good, even other divinities. Coexisting with Ahura Mazda (later known as Ohrmazd) was another primal Being, Angra Mainyu (Ahriman), the source of all evil. The world is thus a battleground between Good and Evil. Ahura Mazda evoked six lesser divinities to aid him in this struggle, and together they form the heptad of Zoroaster's revelation. Each of the heptad is responsible for one of the seven creations, including humans. Although humans are the chief creation, they are linked to all other creations, and even to the gods, through their ultimate purpose—the defeat of Evil.

Zoroaster's teachings concerning death also represented a departure from the old religion. According to Zoroaster, at the time of death the individual soul is judged on its ethical achievements. Mithra and a tribunal of gods wait at the Chin-vat Bridge that separates this world from the next. Depending on the balance of good and evil deeds performed in life, the soul enters Paradise, Purgatory, or Hell. There it awaits the coming of a Savior who will undertake the resurrection of the dead and a Last Judgment. At this time, all the metal in the mountains will be melted into a glowing river through which all humankind must pass. The good will survive and live forever, but the evil will perish. The demons and their legions of darkness will already have been defeated in a last great battle with the forces of Good. The molten river will flow into Hell and destroy Angra Mainyu, thus removing the last vestige of Evil in the universe.

Zoroaster was the first to teach that the individual would be judged on the basis of his or her deeds, that there is a Heaven and Hell, that a future Savior will resurrect the dead for a final Judgment Day, and that the pure at heart will have life everlasting. These doctrines, monotheism, and the dualism (i.e., the coexistence of Good and Evil) found in Zoroastrianism are now fundamental to the beliefs of many peoples in the world. They spread from Persia to influence Judaism and were inherited from Judaism by Christianity and Islam.

If Zoroaster's teachings were new, many of the devotional forms and practices of his faith were adapted from the old religion. The Zoroastrian reverence for fire, for instance, seems to have its origins in a much older cult of fire prevalent among the Indo-European ancestors of the Persians. It was also, apparently, the custom among these groups for men to wear a cord on their initiation into the religious community. Even today, the upper castes of India wear the "sacred thread" as a sign of their status. Zoroaster appears to have modified this practice: all Zoroastrians, both men and women, wear a sacred cord wrapped around the waist three times as a symbol of their faith. Similarly, whereas the local custom was to pray three times a day, Zoroaster required his followers to pray five times a day. The method of prayer seems to have changed little over the centuries. Believers prepare themselves by ritually washing their hands, face, and feet; they untie the cord from their waist and stand, holding it in both hands, staring into the sacred fire. They pray to Ahura Mazda, they denounce Angra Mainyu while at the same time contemptuously flicking the ends of the cord, and then retie the cord around the waist. Regular prayer is an integral part of humanity's fight against Evil in the world. Zoroaster also made it binding that his followers celebrate the seven feasts of obligation that are the major events of the community's religious calendar.

In its early years, it seems Zoroastrianism had no temples or places of worship. By the 4th century bc, however, the fire temple had emerged as a center of Zoroastrian ritual. All Zoroastrians maintained a sacred hearth fire at home, but now the fire temple became a symbol of the community. The oldest fire temple in South Asia was established at Sanjan, the first Parsi settlement in India. Soon after their arrival, the inhabitants sent back to Persia for ashes from their original fire temple and the necessary ritual objects to consecrate a new one. Th is remained the sole Parsi fire temple in South Asia for around 800 years. It contained the most sacred (Atash Behram) of three categories of fires in Parsi temples. Today, there are some 35 fire temples (called agiyari ) around Bombay, but only 4 have the Atash Behram. Parsi temples are tended by hereditary clergy, divided into high priests (dasturs) and those of lesser rank (mobeds) . Non-Parsis are not allowed to enter the fire temples.


The principal Parsi festivals are the six seasonal festivals known as Gahambars. Tradition ascribes their origin to Zoroaster, but they appear to be earlier agricultural celebrations he redefined as part of the new faith. They occur irregularly through the year and are: Midspring; Midsummer; Feast of Bringing in the Corn; Feast of the Homecoming, i.e., of the herds from pasture; Midwinter; and a feast honoring Ahura Mazda celebrated the night before the spring equinox.

Each festival lasts for five days and is an occasion for congregational worship dedicated to Ahura Mazda. Religious services are held early in the day and are followed by assemblies devoted to feasting, fellowship, and general goodwill. Rich and poor gather together, quarrels are resolved, and friendships are renewed and strengthened. This is a time for strengthening the ties that bind the Parsi community.

The six Gahambar festivals celebrate one of the creations of the gods (the heavens, water, the earth, plants, animals, and humans), but the seventh creation, fire, stands apart. As the life-force of all creation, fire is honored at the most joyous of the Zoroastrian festivals, Noruz . Literally "New Day," Noruz falls on the spring equinox and marks the beginning of the Zoroastrian New Year. At noon on this day, Rapithwina, the spirit of noon who retreated into the earth during the dark days of winter, emerges to usher warmth and light into the world.

Together, the Gahambars and Noruz make up the seven high feasts of obligation whose observance was enjoined on his followers by Zoroaster. Mehragan, the festival dedicated to Mithra, is also an important occasion. Among the Parsis, jashans are celebrations of important events (both happy and tragic) observed by prayers and a sacramental meal.


The birth of a child is a joyous event in a Parsi household. No particular rites are observed during pregnancy, but at birth a lamp is lit in the room where mother and baby are confined, to ward off demons. The newborn child is given a first drink of consecrated haoma juice (nowadays pomegranate juice), a symbol of immortality. When named, a Parsi child is given three names. The first is the personal name; the second, the father's name, and the third, the family name. Male names end in "ji" (from the Avestan "to live") and female names end in "Bai."

At the age of about 6, a Parsi child begins to prepare for the important Naojot ceremony. This is of special significance because it marks initiation into the religious community. In Iran it is performed around 15 years of age, but Parsis hold the ceremony when the boy or girl is around 7. Like all Parsi rituals, the ceremony is performed in the presence of the sacred fire, upon which sandalwood and incense are burned. At this time, the child receives the sacred symbols of Zoroastrianism, the sedrah and the kasti, which must be worn at all times. The sedrah is a shirt made of white muslin that represents the garment made of light worn by Ahura Mazda. Sewn into the neckline is a small pocket, a reminder to the wearer that he or she should be continually filling it with good thoughts and deeds. The kasti is the sacred cord, a hollow tube made of natural wool that is wrapped around the waist over the shirt. It has 72 threads and ends in several tassels, the numbers of each having specific religious significance. The kasti is untied and retied as part of the daily prayer ritual, before meals, and after performing bodily functions.

Parsi death rituals are quite unlike those of any other group in South Asia. After death, a dog is brought to view the corpse. It is preferable that the dog be "four-eyed," i.e., having spots over each eye. In ancient times, it was believed that the glance of a dog would scare away any demons or evil spirits that might be hovering near the body, and the extra "eyes" increase the effectiveness of its look. Later tradition has it that the presence of a dog will ease the passing of the soul to heaven. By contrast, Hindus and Muslims in South Asia regard the dog as unclean. The rite is repeated five times a day, and after the first time, fire is brought into the room and kept burning until three days after the corpse is removed.

The dead are placed in Towers of Silence (dakhma) . These are usually built on a hill, and the interior consists of three concentric circles, one each for men, women, and children. Corpses are exposed naked in the Towers where they are rapidly consumed by vultures. Within an hour or so, the flesh has been stripped from the body, leaving only the bones. After several days, the bones are swept into a central well filled with sand and charcoal. It is believed that the charcoal protects the earth from the pollution of death. Various ceremonies are performed during the next three days. The morning of the fourth day is of particular significance because this is the time of the soul's final departure to the other world.


The Parsi code of conduct may be summarized by the phrase, "Good thought, good words, good deeds." Living proof of this is seen in the strong tradition of philanthropy found in the community. This includes not only the support and endowment of schools, hospital and charitable institutions, but also a concern for the welfare of the less fortunate members of the Parsi community.


Parsis have a reputation for prosperity, and indeed they count some of the wealthiest Indians among their numbers. They are a highly-educated, urbanized, Westernized group, who enjoy the high standards of living and consumerism that go along with their social and economic status. They live almost exclusively in Parsi housing estates. There are, however, many Parsis who are not so successful and are supported by charitable contributions from their community. In Bombay, for instance, there are numerous tenements and apartments operated by Parsi-established trusts for low-income and indigent Parsis.


Parsis are an endogamous group, and in such a small community it is not surprising that marriages with close relatives (e.g., cross-cousin and parallel-cousin marriages) are permitted. Some marriage rites, such as the tying together of the bride's and groom's hands and the recitation of Sanskrit prayers, are clearly borrowings from Hinduism. The ceremony concludes with a visit to the fire temple to pay homage to the sacred fire. Divorce is permitted.

Today, Parsi households are generally based on the nuclear family, although in the past the extended family was the norm. The problem of a low birthrate and declining population means that many elderly Parsis live alone. However, wealthy Parsis have endowed several secular charities and given their community free housing, education, health care, and religious infrastructure worth more than $500 million as of 2008.


During much of their residence in South Asia, Parsis wore the dress of their Gujarati neighbors, though with small differences that distinguished them from Hindus. For instance, women who wore the sārī also covered their hair with a small cloth underneath the sārī. Today, the Parsi community is one of the most Westernized in all of South Asia, and Western dress is the norm. Priests wear white robes, white turbans, and a mask while performing rituals, and men generally wear white for religious purposes.


There are few food restrictions in Parsi culture, though some Hindu customs, such as the prohibition on beef, have been adopted voluntarily. Parsi food blends Persian, Gujarati, and Western influences to create a distinctive cuisine. From Persia comes the tradition of combining meat with dried fruits and a fondness for eggs. Two typical Parsi dishes are Bharuchi akuri and dhansakh. The former is a dish in which eggs are baked on a layer of herbs, with added ingredients, such as potatoes, tomatoes, almonds, raisins, cream, and butter. Dhansakh is a kind of stew made with at least three kinds of lentils, meat, and vegetables.

The Parsi wedding banquet is a veritable feast. It starts with drinks (men like whiskey, while women tend to stay with wine and soft drinks) and continues with course after course of delicious Parsi-style food. A fish dish, usually made from pomfret, is always served at weddings—fish is considered a symbol of good fortune. Potato sticks and sweets are particular favorites.


Parsis are highly educated, with literacy rates reaching 90% in the community. Literacy among females marginally exceeds that among males, a situation unique among the peoples of South Asia. Both girls and boys are encouraged to pursue higher education in preparation for their careers. Parsis recognized the value of Western education at an early date, and many have earned degrees and advanced degrees in professions such as medicine, law, and engineering. Parsis also supported their own schools, until sectarian education was abolished by the Indian government in the 1950s.


There are no artistic or cultural traditions associated specifically with the Parsi community. Individual Parsis have made contributions to Gujarati literature and theater and have also written in the English language. In keeping with their Westernized outlook, many have become involved in modern art and classical music. The world renowned conductor, Zubin Mehta, for example, was born in 1936 into a Parsi family in Bombay. He is the son of Mehli and Tehmina Mehta, Mehli being a violinist and founding conductor of the Bombay Symphony Orchestra. Following a stellar career as an international conductor, Mehta was named "Honorary Conductor" by several of the world's major symphony orchestras, including the Vienna Philharmonic, Munich Philharmonic, and Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestras.

Rohinton Mistry, who as of 2008 lived in Canada and is considered one of the foremost authors of Indian heritage writing in English, was born into the Parsi community in Bombay. Several of Mistry's novels, which tend to deal with the Parsi community in India, have been short-listed for the prestigious Man Booker Prize.


Unlike Hindus, Parsis are under no religious constraints in terms of their economic activities. This, combined with their openness to Western education, permitted them to enter the modern professions that emerged during the 19th century. Parsis achieved great success in business, engineering, trade, finance, and similar occupations. The Tata family built perhaps the most important private industrial empire in India during the late 19th and 20th centuries. Tata Iron and Steel has formed the backbone of Indian heavy industry for nearly a century, while almost every gaily-decorated, overloaded truck that plies India's roads today carries the Tata name. The Wadias and the Petits were other important industrial families. Dadabhoy Naoroji (1825-1917) was a leading Indian politician of his day. Sir Jamsetji Jejheebhoy, a noted 19th-century philanthropist, made his fortune in the China trade. Other Parsis who have achieved a degree of fame include Dr. Homi Sethna, the nuclear physicist; Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, chief of staff of the Indian Army from 1969 to 1972; and the internationally renowned classical musician and conductor, Zubin Mehta.


There are no sports linked specifically to the Parsi community, although Parsis readily took to all forms of sports introduced to South Asia by the British. For a community of its size, the Parsis produced a large number of outstanding Indian Test (international) cricketers, including Polly Umrigar and Nari Contractor. In recent years, Parsis in Karachi have made a name for themselves in international yachting competitions.


As a highly Westernized, urbanized group, Parsis have full access to the modern entertainment and recreational facilities of Bombay and the other cities where they reside.


There are no particular folk arts or crafts associated with the Parsi community in South Asia.


The Parsis, a small band of Zoroastrians fleeing Muslim persecution, brought their religion to South Asia over a millennium ago. For over 1,000 years, they have managed to preserve their identity, resisting the all-embracing reach of Hinduism and the coming of Islam to South Asia. Yet today, the Parsis are facing a very real threat to their existence—declining numbers. It is estimated that only 99 Parsis were born in the year ending August 2007, and the Zoroastrian population in India is expected to fall to 25,000 by 2020.

'"We must become more broad-minded," said a reformist priest in Bombay, "we must welcome children of mixed parents and maybe even some new converts into our community." With the faith losing thousands of would-be members, some priests have started performing the navjote, an initiation ceremony for children born of Zoroastrian mothers and non-Zoroastrian fathers. Conservatives reacted fiercely. A coterie of powerful priests called for the excommunication of all Zoroastrians married to non-Zoroastrians. Although the priests backed off their stand after its legality and practicality were questioned, the episode emphasized the chasm within the community and some conservatives still cut their ties with family members who marry outside the faith. "Purity is more important than numbers," said a Zoroastrian scholar in Bombay. "Our religion is interwoven with our ethnicity [and] can only be passed on through a Zoroastrian father."

Thus, declining numbers are caused by several factors. At some stage in their stay in India (possibly at the very beginning), Parsis stopped actively seeking converts to their religion. In a sense, this brought the Parsis closer to Hindu traditions, and in some ways Parsis function very much like a caste in Indian society. Parsi women, however, have an equality with men rarely seen in South Asian society, but this is a double-edged sword. Their involvement in higher education and careers leads to later marriage and lower fertility rates. Furthermore, if a Parsi woman marries outside the religion she and her offspring are excluded from the Parsi community. Since the mid-20th century, the Parsi population in South Asia has been decreasing at about 1% per year. With declining economic opportunities, especially after the departure of the British from South Asia, there has been emigration to the United States, Canada, and Britain, further reducing numbers.

There are also other problems facing the Parsi community in South Asia. The sons of priests no longer follow in the footsteps of their fathers, seeking better-paying jobs elsewhere. The advent of electricity means that the sacred fire no longer burns in the hearths of many Parsi households. With the "golden age" of Parsi prosperity in the past, increasing poverty is found in the Parsi community. Young Parsis are asking, "Who is the Parsi?" as well as questioning the traditions of the past. Finally, above all, there is the matter of declining numbers. Should current trends continue, the Parsi community in South Asia may eventually disappear entirely.

The situation is best summarized in the words of one writer discussing the Parsis who have emigrated to the West: "Parsis have found themselves increasingly called upon to articulate their religious faith and practice intellectually in order to explain it to others. A sense of the need for the maintenance of tradition through adaptive change, including the admission of non-Zoroastrian spouses to membership and certainly a sophisticated presentation of Zoroastrian faith and practice, is one of the recent contributions of the overseas Parsis. With them may lie the chapters of Parsi history still to be written." (Oxtoby 1987: 201).


Many Parsi women claim that, despite the activities of reformist priests, the one change that could stem the decline in population will never come. When men marry outside the community, their children are considered to be Parsi. But the children of women who enter mixed marriages cannot be considered Parsi. Other than this, Parsi women are highly educated, have a high literacy rate, and are generally treated as equal to men (as far as this is possible in South Asia). Many have emigrated to the West, where they have been highly successful in their chosen careers.


Boyce, Mary. Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. London and New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 2001.

Luhrmann, Tanya M. The Good Parsi: The Fate of a Colonial Elite in a Postcolonial Society. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press: 1996.

Modi, Jivanji Jamshedji. The Religious Ceremonies and Customs of the Parsees. Bombay: Jehangir B. Karani's Sons, 1937.

Oxtoby, Willard G. "Parsis." In Encyclopedia of Religion, editor-in-chief Mircea Eliade, Vol. 11, pp. 199-201. New York: Macmillan, 1987.

Palsetia, Jesse S. The Parsis of India: Preservation of Identity in Bombay City. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2001.

Schermerhorn, R. A. "Parsis: Asian Puritans in Transition." In Ethnic Plurality in India. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1978.

Taraporevala, Sooni. Zoroastrians of India. Parsis: A Photographic Journey. New York: Overlook Press, 2004.

—by D. O. Lodrick


views updated May 17 2018


PARSIS The Parsis are among India's smallest minorities. They comprise less than 0.01 percent of India's population but have nevertheless made significant contributions to Indian society, economy, and politics. For example, India's largest industrial empire, the Tata group, is headed by a Parsi, as is Godrej, India's largest privately owned conglomerate, and Bombay Dyeing, one of the largest textile groups in India. The number of Parsis is, however, declining. The Indian census counted the Parsi population to be 85,000 in 1881, 115,000 in 1941, 76,000 in 1991, and 69,600 in 2001.

Parsis came to India from Iran (Persia), hence the name "Parsi." Fleeing religious persecution, they first arrived in Gujarat in the seventh century. Many settled in the port of Surat, where, in the fifteenth century, Portuguese, British, and Dutch merchants had been given permission by the Mughals to establish trading factories. In Surat, Parsis soon became prosperous traders and chief native agents, as well as shipbuilders. A few Parsis left Surat, moving south to Bombay, where they acted as brokers between Indians and Portuguese. When Bombay was ceded by Portugal to England's crown in 1665, and, three years later, handed over to the East India Company, Parsis were already a presence in the region.

The East India Company sought to make Bombay its leading commercial center and it needed Indian traders, merchants, and craftsmen to settle there. Parsis were quick to seize the opportunity. Parsi entrepreneurs became prominent in small and large business enterprises in Bombay. They also laid the foundation for India's textile and cotton mill industry from the 1850s onward. Parsi industrialist Naoroji Wadia and his sons controlled the textile mills Bombay Dyeing and Century Mills. The Lowjee Wadia family dominated ship construction.


Parsi entrepreneurs not only developed business empires but were also philanthropists who contributed to national development. The Tata Group was founded by Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata, who initially established textile mills and later concentrated on the iron and steel industry, electrical power generation, and technical education. Tata believed that India's political independence would be meaningless without economic self-sufficiency. His vision for creating national educational and industrial instititutions, such as the Institute of Science in Bangalore, a steel plant in Jamshedpur (Bihar), and a hydroelectric company, was brought to fruition by his successor, Jamsetji R. D. Tata, who guided the Tata Group for over half a century. He headed Tata Sons in 1938, Tata Chemicals in 1939, and the Tata Engineering and Locomotive Company in 1945. He also promoted civil aviation in the Indian subcontinent and founded Tata Airlines (which was later nationalized as Air India). Further, he funded the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, which was the cradle of India's atomic energy program; started the Family Planning Foundation in 1970; established Asia's first cancer hospital (the Tata Memorial Hospital in Bombay); and in 1992 was awarded India's highest civilian honor, the Bharat Ratna, as well as the United Nations Population Award.

In politics, Parsis contributed to the Indian independence movement, and have been prominent in areas such as law, military affairs, and public service. Dadabhai Naoroji was a leading early Parsi nationalist who fought for the Indianization of the Indian Civil Service. In 1892 he narrowly won election to the British House of Commons as a Liberal from London's Central Finsbury. He was elected president of the Indian National Congress three times: in 1886, 1893, and 1906. The Congress's demand for swaraj (independence) was first expressed publicly in Naoroji's 1906 presidential address. Another Parsi, Madame Bhikaji Cama (1861–1936), who was exiled from India and Britain and lived in France, was a tireless propagandist for Indian independence. Pherozeshah Mehta (1845–1915) was known as the "father of municipal government in Bombay." He drafted the Bombay Municipal Act of 1872, served as municipal commissioner in 1873, and was elected president of the Indian National Congress in 1890.

A full list of Parsis in public service would run many pages long. Parsi scientists were instrumental in developing India's nuclear program. Homi Bhabha established the nuclear program and also served as the president of the United Nations conference on peaceful uses of atomic energy in 1955 and as president of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics from 1960 to 1963. Homi Sethna was chairman of India's atomic energy commission in the 1970s and 1980s. General Sam Maneckshaw was the Indian army's first field marshal, leading the Indian army to victory over Pakistan in the Bangladesh War in 1971. In the 2000s, two Parsis were on India's Supreme Court (Chief Justice Sam Bharucha and Justice Sam Variava), and one was India's attorney general (Soli Sorabjee). An earlier legal luminary, Nani Palkhivala, served briefly as India's ambassador to the United States. Feroze Gandhi, a Parsi, was the husband of prime minister Indira Gandhi and the father of Rajiv Gandhi.

Parsis have established and headed dozens of hospitals, educational institutions, and research centers, including the Tata Cancer Hospitals, Sir J. J. School of Arts, the Institute of Social Sciences, and the Institute of Fundamental Research. Parsis also established the first Indian newspaper and the first Indian-owned bank. In the arts, prominent Parsis include singer Freddie Mercury, of the British rock group Queen, and Zubin Mehta, conductor of the Israel Philharmonic since 1981, the New York Philharmonic (1978–1991), the Los Angeles Philharmonic (1962–1978), and the Montreal Symphony (1961–1967). Many Parsis have excelled in sports and in various professions at the national and international level.

Religious and Cultural Practices

Parsis are Zoroastrians. Zoroastrianism was founded on the teachings of the prophet Zoroaster, who lived around 1500 b.c. in Iran (then Persia). Parsis are the Zoroastrians of India, descendants of the Zoroastrians who fled Iran and came to India in the seventh century a.d. Another group of Zoroastrians continued to live in Iran. The World Zoroastrian population in 2004 was estimated at 124,000–190,000: 69,600 in India, 24,000–90,000 in Iran, 10,000 in the United States, 6,000 in Canada, 5,000 in the U.K., and some 2,000 each in Australia, the Gulf, and Pakistan.

In terms of customs, Parsis have been incorrectly called "fire worshipers." They do not worship fire, but fire has special significance to Zoroastrians. It is regarded as giving light, warmth, and energy, and therefore as vital to life. Zoroastrian temples have altars with fire within, and are thus called fire-temples. Eight large fire-temples in India include four in Mumbai and four in the state of Gujarat (two in Surat, one in Udwada, one in Navsari). There are no caste divisions among Parsis, and no religious restrictions concerning food.

One major controversy within the Parsi community is intermarriage, and this has implications for the dwindling Parsi population. The Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act of 1936 and its amendments state that children born to a Parsi man and non-Parsi woman can be admitted into the religion. But children of a Parsi woman and a non-Parsi man would not be admitted. However, over the past decades, a section of the community has been accepting such children, provided that the mother had continued to be a practicing Zoroastrian after her marriage. A new edict discarded these progressive changes. In this situation, especially because perhaps one in three Parsis marries a non-Parsi, the number of Parsis in each successive generation will drastically decline. Partly to stem the decline in numbers, reformists argue that children of mixed marriages should be accepted as Zoroastrians.

Even if the intermarriage issue is resolved, declining numbers will still be a concern. A large proportion of Parsis do not marry, or marry late and have few children, aspiring to complete their education and establish themselves in a profession before considering marriage. The average age of marriage for Parsis is the early thirties for men and the mid- to late twenties for women. In India's 1991 census, over 70 percent of Parsi males and over 40 percent of females in the high-fertility age group of 25 to 29 were "never married"; in the age group of 45 to 49, about 20 percent of males and 10 percent of females fell in the "never married" group. In this situation, some reformists suggest allowing children of non-Zoroastrian parents (both male and female) to be initiated into the Zoroastrian religion, but this remedy has not been seriously considered.

Parsis have been and will continue to be prominent in Indian business and society. Yet their numbers are declining. India's 2001 census counted 69,600 Parsis, including 46,600 in Mumbai and 8,000 elsewhere in the state of Maharashtra. Their numbers in India could decline to perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 by the year 2020. This decline will stem from natural reasons—larger death rates than birth rates (India's 2001 census noted a Parsi death rate of 16–18 per 1,000 persons and a birth rate of 6–7 per 1,000 persons; other statistics for Mumbai's Parsis indicate some 367 births and 936 deaths in 1995, and 300 births and 858 deaths in 2002)—and from migration. Like other Indians, a large number of younger Parsis migrate to the West. Thus, while their numbers in India may fall, their numbers in the West could increase in the twenty-first century.

Dinshaw Mistry

See alsoNaoroji, Dadabhai ; Tata, Jamsetji N. ; Zoroastrianism


Boyce, Mary. Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. London: Routledge, 1979.

Boyce, Mary, and Frantz Grenet. A Persian Stronghold of Zoroastrianism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

——. A History of Zoroastrianism. Leiden and New York: E. J. Brill, 1996.

Hinnells, John. Zoroastrianism and the Parsis. London: Ward Lock Educational, 1981.

Irani, Kaizad. "A Brief History of an Ancient Faith." India Abroad, 16 April 1993: 30–35.

Mehr, Farhang. The Zoroastrian Tradition: An Introduction to the Ancient Wisdom of Zarathushtra. Rockport, Mass.: Element Press, 1991.

Mistree, K. P. Zoroastrianism: An Ethnic Perspective. Mumbai: Zoroastrian Studies, 1982.

Nigosian, S. A. The Zoroastrian Faith: Tradition and Modern Research. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1993.

Rivetna, Roshan. "The Zarathushti World Demographic Picture." Fezana Journal 17 (Winter 2004): 22–25.

Writer, Rashna. Contemporary Zoroastrians: An Unconstructed Nation. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1993.

Zoroastrian Association of Greater New York. The Good Life: An Introduction to the Religion of Zarathushtra. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Zoroastrian Association of Greater New York, 1994.


views updated May 29 2018

Parsis. Zoroastrians who (in the 8th cent. CE), in unknown numbers, decided to leave their Iranian homeland in the face of ever greater Muslim oppression and seek a new land of religious freedom. The story of that migration is contained in the text the Qissa (or Tale) of Sanjan (see S. H. Hodivala, Studies in Parsi History, 1920). The Qissa was written in 1600 by a Parsi priest on the basis of oral tradition.

The generally accepted date of the Parsi settlement on the western coast of India is 937 CE. Little is known of their history for the next 700 years. With the arrival of the European trading powers in the 17th cent., especially the British, they prospered as middle men in trade. As a result they grew also in political importance; e.g. they were at the heart of the Indian National Congress from its inception in 1885 until the radical takeover in 1907.

The transformation of the community from a tiny obscure group into a major force in Indian life has inevitably had its effect on their religion. Although daily prayers are still said at home, many of the important moments of worship are now located in a place set apart for that purpose. Large baugs, public places, were set up for splendid functions for initiations, weddings, and public religious feasts (gahambars). There was, in short, a considerable degree of institutionalization of community religion.

There were also significant developments in faith. At the end of the 19th cent., many Parsis, like a number of Westernized Hindus, sought to legitimate traditional practices in terms of Theosophy and the occult interpretations that the Western-originated movement propounded. When Theosophy became more closely associated with Hinduism and the Independence movement, then a Zoroastrian occult movement grew, Ilm-i Kshnoom (Path of Knowledge). Instead of turning to the Tibetan Masters invoked by Theosophists, Khshnoomists follow the teaching of Behramshah Shroff who claimed to have been given his esoteric message by a secret race of Zoroastrian masters in Iran. This movement shares the Theosophical ideals of vegetarianism and teetotalism, the doctrine of rebirth, the belief in the occult power of prayers recited in the sacred language, and in a personal aura. Thus in the 19th cent. Parsi doctrine became polarized between the Liberal Protestants and the Orthodox who have inclined more towards the occult. There are now c.60,000 Parsis in India. Numbers in Karachi have dropped from c.5,000 in the 1950s to 2,000 in the 1990s.

An unknown number, but a substantial proportion, of the Parsi population has migrated, first to Britain (initially in the 19th cent., but more particularly from the 1960s, c.3,000), then America and Canada, also from the 1960s (c.7,000), and from the 1980s to Australia (c.1,000).

About this article


All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About content Print Topic