views updated May 23 2018


ETHNONYMS: Parsee, Zoroastrian


Identification. The Parsis are an immigrant community, possibly coming from Fars, Persia, and now located in Bombay, western India. They are distinguished by their adherence to the Zoroastrian faith.

Location. Parsis are found in the greatest numbers in the old Bombay Presidency, between 14° and 28° N and 67° and 77° E. They have also settled in recent times in all major cities and towns throughout India. Large immigrant communities are now found in the United States, Canada, Britain, and Pakistan. A similarly sized Zoroastrian community remains in Iran, but its members are not considered Parsis.

Demography. In 1901 there were 93,952 Parsis throughout India. There was a very slight population increase up to the midcentury; since then the population has decreased dramatically by almost 10 percent each decade. The birthrate is lower than the death rate, and emigration has long taken place, so that in 1976 the population was estimated at 82,000 in the Indian republic, plus 5,000 in Pakistan. Additional factors that have been cited for this decline are low fertility, late age at first marriage, and marrying outside the Parsi community.

Linguistic Affiliation. Virtually all Parsis today speak a Gujarati patois and English. The liturgical language is Avestan, and some of the religious literature is in Pahlavi.

History and Cultural Relations

Zoroastrianism had been in existence in Persia for well over a thousand years, usually as a state cult. When Muslim Arabs intent on spreading their new faith invaded and overthrew the last Zoroastrian king, Yazdagird III, in a.d. 651, numerous refugees fled, some following the Great Silk Route into China where they established trading communities and built fire temples in various cities. All traces of these Chinese Parsis had disappeared by the tenth century a.d. Others who had sought refuge in the mountainous region of Kohistan were Finally driven to the port of Ormuz (Hormuz), from whence they sailed to India. The exact date of arrival is controversial, but it is traditionally put at a.d. 716. Recent research puts it as late as a.d. 936. The story of their flight and their landing on the west coast of India at Diu has since been romanticized. In reality, they eked out a subsistence on marginal land provided by their Hindu hosts. With the coming of the Europeans, Parsis moved into an intermediary niche between the foreigners and the natives in the cities. Today the Parsis are the most urbanized and Westernized community in India, having been the first to avail themselves of the opportunities that came from Western-style education and the growth of industry, commerce, and government under the British. Thus, the first Indians to become surgeons, barristers, pilots, and members of the British Parliament were all Parsis. Despite their long residence in the country Parsis have not been absorbed into the Indian caste system. Like the Europeans, they have been viewed as foreigners. The native Hindu and Muslim states accorded them positions of high authority and privilege, including prime ministerships and guardianship of the treasuries, on account of their education, relative incorruptibility, and impartiality toward caste allegiances.


The Parsi population is concentrated in Bombay, where they arrived about 1750 from the small towns and cities of Gujarat. Today some 95 percent live in urban areas. They are usually found in exclusively Parsi housing estates endowed by Parsi charitable funds.


Unlike the caste Hindus, Parsis have not been bound to Certain occupations or excluded from others by religious norms or taboos. This allowed them in the nineteenth century to adopt the modern professions that were emerging. The Parsis traditionally worked as entrepreneurs (ranging from the ownership of liquor shops to steel mills), in trade (especially with China), in finance (as bankers), or in government service. The modernization of Indian manufacturing and transportation owes much to individual Parsi wealth and genius. Families such as the Tatas, the Wadias, and the Petits were the owners of the largest private enterprises in the industrial economy of India. A decline in community wealth and Therefore entrepreneurial capital has siphoned off highly educated younger Parsis to seek their fortunes overseas in every profession.


Kin Groups and Descent. Most people today prefer to live in nuclear families. There are no larger kin-based groups such as lineages or clans. Descent is patrilineal.

Kinship Terminology. Kin terms follow the pattern found among other Gujarati speakers in the region.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The Parsis are a strictly monogamous and endogamous group. At one time there was an avoidance of Marriage between priestly and nonpriestly families. Given these restrictions and the small size of the community, it is not surprising that close consanguineal and affinal relatives are potential mates. Cross- and parallel-cousin marriages are permitted, as well as intergenerational marriages (e.g., between uncle and niece), though the occurrence of the latter is rareless than 1 percent of all marriages in 1961. The greatest problem faced by the community today is a decrease in the number of marriages and a decreasing fertility rate. Since the 1950s deaths have consistently outnumbered births every year among Parsis, producing an aging population. This Decline has two causes. Since independence in 1947 many younger Parsis have emigrated from India, thus strengthening the sense of crisis; and Parsi women who marry non-Parsis are strictly excluded along with their offspring from the Community. The question of accepting children of such marriages, as well as converts to Zoroastrianism, is being vehemently debated among Parsis both in India and abroad. There appears to be a progressive attitude among the overseas Parsis that may in the future lead to a broadening of the definition of a Parsi. Parsi divorce rates are higher than those for other Indian communities because, when compared to Hindu law, Parsi law has always made divorce easier. The education and economic emancipation of females also contributes to the high divorce rate. Remarriage after the death of a spouse is permitted for both sexes. Adoption is permitted and is common.

Domestic Unit, Parsis traditionally lived together as extended families. Owing to space constraints in the cities, however, nuclear families are common; and because of declining population, many elderly Parsis today live alone.

Inheritance. Both sons and daughters may inherit from both parents. There are no rules of primogeniture. Despite the above formal rules of inheritance, it is not uncommon for wealthy Parsis to leave their entire estates for charitable purposes: endowing schools, hospitals, fire temples, or the like. The stress on generosity and a sense of communal responsibility for the weak and needy fostered during childhood finds its expression in wills and trusts. Hence there has occurred a continuous redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor.

Socialization. A great deal of conscious effort goes into the making of a Parsi child. Parsis were quick to grasp the value of Western education and were leaders in female education. It is no surprise then that the literacy rates among Parsis are extremely high (being 90 percent in 1961, when the average rate for Bombay was 57 percent). Both boys and girls are encouraged to prepare for careers. Child labor is not encouraged, and in 1961 only 0.06 percent of Parsis under age 15 were gainfully employed (as against 8.72 percent of all Maharashtrians). An essential part of a Parsi child's socialization is the nurturing of an awareness of his or her difference from other Indians. To this end there was a preference for Parsi schools endowed by Parsi charities and staffed entirely by Parsis, until the Indian government abolished sectarian education in the 1950s. The number of college graduates is extremely high. During the first half of the century the numbers of Parsis receiving professional degrees in law, medicine, and engineering were greatly out of proportion to their tiny numbers in the general population. Among overseas Parsis, Zoroastrian associations have been established with the explicit objective of instilling Parsi identity in the young. The Parsi child is constantly obliged to conform to a moral code derived from the Zoroastrian motto, "Good thoughts, good words, good deeds." Transgression of this code of conduct embodying the virtues of honesty, charity, and cleanliness is seen as not only a personal but also a communal failure. A child is inducted into the Parsi moral code through the Ceremony of naojot. Such constant reminders of a child's Parsi identity are essential if the community is to enforce its rules of endogamy in a secular and nonsectarian world.

Sociopolitical Organization

The relationship of Parsis to the state of India has always been one of loyalty, since as a minority their survival depended on accommodation to the political authority. The Zoroastrian ideal state is one that is just and tolerant toward the practice of religion. The British enhanced this loyalty by elevating a number of Parsi families to noble rank: out of four hereditary barons in British India, three were Parsi. For a long time Parsis played a dominant role in local government, particularly in the Bombay municipality. They were also instrumental in forming the Bombay Presidency Association, which hoped to influence British policies in India. Later, with the movement for Indian independence, Parsis were a moving force in the Indian National Congress. In independent India Parsi political influence has waned somewhat, although eminent Parsis are still to be found in all branches of government, especially the judiciary. The internal affairs of the community relating to questions of membership, religious practice, and use of community funds are governed by Parsi panchayats. These are local bodies (of which Bombay's is the most Important) made up of priests and wealthy laypeople. The juridical powers of the panchayats have slowly been yielded to Indian civil authorities, and the panchayats today are primarily involved in welfare activities and management of community trusts.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Parsis follow the religion of Zoroaster, a prophet of the seventh century b.c. from the region between the Hindu Kush and Seistan. Their belief system includes ideas about a creator god, good and evil forces, individual choice, Heaven and Hell, the Last Judgment, and eternal life. These ideas are found in sacred texts that are fragmentary, Including the Avesta dating from the fourth or sixth century a.d. and attributed to the Prophet himself. This is supplemented by later Pahlavi texts written in Middle Persian, from around the ninth century a.d., which consist mostly of commentaries, interpretations, and selections. More modern sources are from India, written in Gujarati and English, beginning around the middle of the nineteenth century. Zoroastrianism may be viewed as one of the earliest monotheisms, since it postulates as First Cause Ahura Mazda, the Creator. It then introduces a radical dualism in the form of two opposing spirits who are both the offspring of Ahura Mazda. The presence of Spenta Mainyu, the beneficent spirit, and Angra Mainyu, the hostile spirit, explains the origins of good and evil; they are the prototypes of the choices between truth and lies that each individual must face in his or her own life. Human History then becomes a working out of these two antithetical principles in creation. Humans aid the victory of good over evil by the pursuit of good thoughts, good words, and good deeds. At the end of temporal existence evil will be completely vanquished, and only truth and happiness will prevail. To this basic tenet were added elements from the past, and we find other spiritual beings as well as ritual and magical practices incorporated into the original basic monotheistic belief.

Besides the above-mentioned Creator and his two off-spring, there are seven beneficent immortals, which are entities as well as representations of Ahura Mazda's virtues, such as "best truth" and "immortality." Furthermore, Zoroastrianism absorbed some of the earlier Indo-Iranian gods who became Yazatas. The more important of these are seen to preside over aspects of the material world. Also considered worthy of reverence are the Fravashis or spirits of the soul, Together with deceased mortals who led exemplary lives. Fire is the main symbol of Zoroastrianism: it receives the offerings of the priests and the prayers of individuals. Every ritual and ceremony involves the presence of the sacred fire. The fire in the place of worship called the fire temple is ritually consecrated and installed. Non-Zoroastrians are not permitted to set eyes on such a fire. Offerings of sandalwood and frankincense are made to it at least five times a day by ordained priests. It represents God's splendor and divine grace. A smaller ritual fire is also found in every Zoroastrian's home.

Religious Practitioners. The hereditary clergy is divided into Dasturs (high priests) and Mobeds. There are no monastic orders, nor are there women functionaries. Priests can marry. Becoming a priest is a long and arduous process involving several purification rituals and the memorization of texts. Sons of priests today prefer to enter the modern Economy, and the community is facing a critical shortage of qualified functionaries.

Ceremonies. The major events of the life cycle that are Ritually celebrated are birth, initiation, and marriage. Of these, the initiation or naojot is of special importance. It is performed for both boys and girls at about the age of 7, and consists of the investiture of the child with the sacred and symbolic shirt, sadre, and thread, kasti, which is tied around the waist. A Zoroastrian must always wear these two things, and the thread is to be untied and retied many times during the day as a prelude to prayers and meals and after bodily functions. The sadre is a shirt made of white muslin; its two halves, back and front, symbolize past and future, respectively. It is the earthly version of the garment made of light worn by the first creation of Ahura Mazda. The sadre has a small fold at the front neckline that forms a pocket. A Parsi child is exhorted to fill this purse with righteousness and good deeds. The kasti, made of undyed wool, is a hollow tube made up of seventy-two threads, ending in several tassels, their numbers either symbolizing religious precepts or referring to the liturgical texts. Wearing it is a sign of consent and obedience to Ahura Mazda. Once a child has had the naojot performed, he or she is spiritually responsible for his or her own salvation through an observance of the morality and rituals of the religion. The marriage ceremony is important in a Religious sense because it leads to procreation, which will increase the number of soldiers in the cause of good. The Ceremony shows a number of borrowings from Sanskritic Hinduism, as in the tying of the hands of the bride and groom and the recital of Sanskrit shlokas (blessings) at the end of the ceremony. Certain purification rituals and the segregation of impure persons and things echo the strict Hindu dichotomy of pure and impure. Bodily substances like saliva, urine, and menstrual blood are considered to be defiling, while death and corpses are considered impure as well as spiritually Dangerous. The practice of segregating menstruating and parturient females is falling into disuse in the urban setting, where space is at a premium. Daily worship involves recital of the basic credo while untying and retying the kasti. There are seasonal festivals known as gahambars celebrated by the Community as a whole, which were originally tied to the agricultural cycle. Commemorative ceremonies called jashans may be held for family events or such historic occurrences as the death of a leader or the end of a war.

Arts. Parsi literature is to be found in languages that have been adopted, namely Gujarati and English. There are no indigenous visual or performing arts, although some modern artists follow Western models. Parsis have in recent years made serious contributions to Western classical music. In addition to numerous pianists and violinists of professional caliber, the community has produced Zubin Mehta, the internationally acclaimed conductor of the Israel Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, and other orchestras. The composer Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892-1991) may also be mentioned, if only because his 500-page piano composition, Symphonie Variations, which takes six hours to perform, holds the distinction of being the longest classical composition known.

Medicine. There is no distinct Parsi medical system.

Death and Afterlife. Parsis expose their dead to vultures on Towers of Silence (dokhma ), although if a person dies where no such tower exists, then burial or cremation is practiced. Usually built on a hilltop, the dokhma is a round stone or brick structure about 15 meters high and perhaps 100 meters across, with an internal platform on which sit three ranks of stone slabs, for the bodies of men, women, and children, sloping down toward a central dry well. The bearers place a body there and within an hour or so vultures reduce it to bones. Some days later the corpse bearers return and throw the bones down the central well. It has sand and charcoal in it, the purpose of the charcoal being to protect the earth from the pollution of death. Zoroastrians believe in the immortality of the soul. It remains around the dead body for three days, during which time ceremonies are performed for the dead. At the beginning of the third night the soul will be judged by the Spiritual judge Mitra at the Chinvat Bridge between this world and the next. If one's good actions outweigh one's evil actions one will proceed to Heaven; if they are equally weighted one will proceed to a place like Purgatory; and if one has been an evil person one will be cast down into Hell. At the end of time Zoroastrians believe that there will be a Last Judgment mediated by a future Savior, leading to the Transfiguration of the Dead, who will be resurrected in bodies clad in glory. The eschatological faith of this doctrine is one component of Zoroastrianism that has exercised a widespread and deep influence on other world religions.

See also Gujurati


Gnoli, Gherardo (1986). "Zoroastrianism." In The Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Mircea Eliade. Vol. 15, 579-591. New York: Macmillan.

Kulke, Eckehard (1974). The Farsees in India: A Minority as Agent of Social Change. Munich: Weltforum Verlag.

Modi, Jivanji Jamshedji (1922a). "Parsis." In The Tribes and Castes of Bombay, edited by R. E. Enthoven. Vol. 3, 177221. Bombay: Government Central Press. Reprint. 1975. Delhi: Cosmo Publications.

Modi, Jivanji Jamshedji (1922b). The Religious Ceremonies and Customs of the Farsees. Bombay: British India Press. 2nd ed. 1937. Bombay: J. B. Karani's Sons. Reprint. 1986. Bombay: Society for the Promotion of Zoroastrian Religious Knowledge and Education.



views updated Jun 08 2018

Parsi (Parsee) Modern descendant of a small number of ancient Persian Zoroastrians who emigrated to Gujarat in India from the 10th century onwards. Modern Parsis, concentrated in Bombay, follow a mixture of Zoroastrianism and some Indian beliefs and practices.