Friday, March 21, 2008


It's not just Good Friday and a full moon day and Holi (the Indian festival of colours).

It's also Nowruz - the Persian new year - which is celebrated by Sufis, Bahá'í's and Parsis.

Parsis are descended from Zoroastrians who fled to the Indian subcontinent over 1,000 years ago, after the Arabs invaded Persia in the late 8th Century. (Parsi simply means "person from Persia").

According to legend, when the Parsis first came to India, the emperor poured a glass of milk to the brim, showing that the land could not possibly support more people. The head Parsi priest poured some sugar in the milk, showing that they would enrich the community but not unsettle it. Other versions say he put rosewater or coins into the milk.

Whatever it was, the emperor allowed the exiles to settle - as long as they promised to learn Gujarati, lay down their arms, adopt the local dress, respect local customs, and conduct their rituals at night.

In some ways it was like coming home; founded by the prophet Zoroaster (Zarathushtra) in the 9th/10th century BC, Zoroastrianism "can be traced back to the culture and beliefs of the proto-Indo-Iranian period....[and] consequently shares some elements with the historical Vedic religion that also has its origins in that era."

They believe in one universal and transcendental God, Ahura Mazda, "the one Uncreated Creator to whom all worship is ultimately directed. Ahura Mazda's creation — evident as asha, truth and order — is the antithesis of chaos, evident as druj, falsehood and disorder. The resulting conflict involves the entire universe, including humanity, which has an active role to play in the conflict."

The focus is on doing good deeds to keep chaos at bay. "This active participation is a central element in Zoroaster's concept of free will, and Zoroastrianism rejects all forms of monasticism."

The energy of the creator (not God Himself) is represented by fire and the sun, "which are both enduring, radiant, pure and life sustaining," so worship is usually done in front of some form of fire. (They don't worship the fire itself, but use it as a point of focus.)

I've been wanting to visit Iran since learning about fire temples while writing this article for The Reader.

Nowadays there are fewer than 100,000 Parsis worldwide, with the highest concentration (70,000) in India, mostly in Bombay. (Parsis were the first Indians to embrace BKS Iyengar's yoga teaching, by the way). But their population is rapidly declining. UNESCO projects that by 2020, only 25,000 Parsis will be left, and there's a movement afoot to preserve their culture.

Many special foods are eaten on the Persian new year - including falooda, a milkshake-like drink made with ice cream, pink rosewater, basil seeds and tapioca or vermicelli noodles. For more on the food, check out this Kitchen Sisters story about Parsi cooking.

Famous Parsis include Queen's Freddie Mercury (Farokh Bulsara) and Rohinton Mistry, author of A Fine Balance.

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