Very few in Muslim world know much about Zoroastrianism Religion and its followers called Zoroastrians and Parsis in India. Its kinda strange that the religion once dominated the Middle East and the ideology that is often considered the Root of Monotheism is today a dying Religion and the followers of Islam, Christianity and Jews don’t know much about it.
Sooni Taraporevala is one of the most famous photographers of India, she herself comes from the Indian Parsi community and besides being known for some wonderful movies such as The Namesake and Salam Bombay, one of the reasons people know her is because of a Photo Exhibition she is currently holding Mumbai. This exhibition looks through the day-to-day life of Ordinary Parsis in India, mainly in Mumbai. The exhibition has around 108 pictures and most of the pictures were taken during mid 80s.
There are roughly 100,000 Parsis in India, most of them live in Inner city suburbs of Mumbai and some of them still live in Ahmedabad and Surat, the cities in Gujrat province. The place which gave a new life to Zoroastrians when they Fled from Iran, their holy land and the country where they once ruled for several centuries. Parsi Community in India is just a tiny minority but quite well-known mainly because of their contribution to the Indian Economy, Arts and Culture. Some of the richest people of India are actually Parsis, such as Ratan Tata (founder of Tata Corporation) and Wadias (the family behind Bombay Deying, also known because of their blood relation to MA Jinnah). Parsis are considered a very peaceful community and quite tolerant of other religions and cultures.
There are around 3000 Parsis left now in Pakistan too (we had more once but continuous migration has seen a significant drop in their number). Who wouldn’t know Ardeshir Cowasjee, one of the most iconic columnist Pakistan has ever seen, he died in November 2012 and his readers feel that he could never be replaced by anyone else. Then we also have Beram D’Avari, the owner of famous Avari Hotel chain and also known for his passion with Sailing. Some of the best Schools in Karachi has Parsi roots such as Mama Parsi (one of the best girls school) and BVS Parsi High School.
Parsis, whether in India or Pakistan are also known for the love and affection with Education. The community is perhaps one of the most literate community in sub-continent and the reason behind this is rather historical, Zoroastrian Iran is always considered one of the most Enlightened, educated, and culturally rich Kingdom the world has ever seen.
But who exactly are these Parsis ? where did they come from and how did they end up living in those Victorian style iconic buildings of central Mumbai ? whats their connection with India of they are of Irani Origin and what Islam has to do with it ?
Parsis’ migration to India:
When Islam got hold of Iran (642 AD) and the Zoroastrianism went into decline, the Muslims were still debating about whether or not Zoroastrians should be considered Ahle-Kitab (People of the Book). Besides Jews and Christians, the only other Religious Community known as People of the Book are Sabeans (another Religious Community that very few people know about, we’ll discuss them in a separate article on this blog) but to make it more confusing Quran in a verse also mentions Zoroastrians with the name of Majoos. Most of the Muslim Scholars of 7th Century agreed on the interpretation that Zoroastrians are also People of the Book and they follow a Monotheistic Religion.
Hence, they were told to follow the same rules in Muslim Iran which are applied on the People of the Book instead of Non-Muslims. They were to pay Jizya Tax and also told to wear a kind of special cloth on their Arms so that they can be easily identified and not to be confused with Muslims. However, things weren’t rosy for Zoroastrians as a lot of Muslims also believed that Zoroastrians worship the Fire (though it’s not correct, Zoroastrians consider Fire as the most sacred and purifying element by God and not something that they worship). These people were systematically discriminated in the newly formed Muslim state, they were often refused to be part of the Government positions, important jobs, their Temples were being forcefully converted into Mosques, a lot of Zoroastrian Women ended up getting married to Muslim men and a huge number of people found themselves helpless and gave up with Faith to become Muslim for avoiding hardships.
Their number was on a sharp decline but as usually happens in case of Faith, a devoted number of Faithful Believers decided that its time for a Migration in order to save themselves from getting completely wiped out from the world. Qissa-i Sanjan (Story of Sanjan) is perhaps the only documented story that tells us what kind of difficulties this community had to go through and how they organized their movement for this particular Migration to an unknown place. They managed to gather a large number of potential immigrants at the Port City of Bushehr in Iran and they sailed towards East. Whether they knew about India at that time or if they actually had plans for going there is unknown and can not be confirmed. After a long struggle in deep waters and losing several companions they finally arrived at the shores of India near Surat in Gujrat. They had absolutely no idea where they were going and what was in store for them. In Gujrat, they managed to meet the Raja Jadi Rana, who agreed to give them assylum but on the condition that they will not try to preach their religion to the local people and they will also try adopt the local culture and language of Gujrat. First condition was easy for Zoroastrians because their Religion does not accept new Converts and one has to be a born Zoroastrian, they agreed to both conditions and that’s who they became to be known as Parsi which literally means someone who comes from Persia or someone who speaks Persian Language.
Parsis have now lived in India for more than 1000 years and they are an integral part of Modern India today and as we discussed earlier they are one of the most important pillars of Indian Economy and Politics. Although their number is on decline and its considered a dying community not only in India but worldwide, their contributions to the world for the start of Monotheism is hard to ignore.